What is God really like? It’s easy to think that God is like a divine drill sergeant, just waiting for people to mess up so that he can make them pay. However, that is not the picture of God that the Bible presents. Jesus cleared up any misconceptions of God’s heart in his famous parable of the prodigal son. It’s the classic story about the son who rebelliously walked away from his father and the father who gladly welcomed him back. Jesus used the father in the parable to reveal God’s heart of compassion for the lost and his celebration for the found.
Compassion for the lost
The story begins with the younger of two sons wishing his father was dead. So, the son demands his inheritance early, moves away and wastes all that the father had saved up for him on prostitutes and parties until he’s broke, lonely and feeding pigs for a living. The boy was so hungry that he desired to eat the slop that the pigs ate. He finally comes to his senses, remembers the kindness of his father, acknowledges his sin, and decides to return home. You would expect his father to be just a little bit upset when he saw his son again. After all, the father could not have been more dishonored. Surely, the father would be waiting with his arms crossed ready to give his son a scolding. He might reluctantly take him back but make sure that his son pays for his sins. That’s the response that the Pharisees listening to Jesus tell this story were expecting to hear. It was the complete opposite.
The father was eagerly keeping his eye on the road, waiting and hoping for the day when his son would return. And when the father saw his son a far way off, he was full of compassion and ran to him (something that a respectable adult in Jesus’ day would never do). He embraced his son and smothered him in kisses. The smell of pig must have still been on him; it didn’t matter. His son had come home. Just think of all that the son had lost: he had lost his home, his money, his food, his friends and his dignity. But there was something he had never lost; he never lost his father’s love. This is how much love and compassion God has for the lost. This is the heart of God.
Now, there are some people who think that this is God’s heart now, but in the Old Testament God was cruel and judgmental. Yet, consider just some of the Old Testament prophets: Ezekiel announced that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but in sinners turning back to him (see Ezekiel 18:32). Jonah didn’t want to go Nineveh because he knew God was gracious towards sinners and full of compassion (see Jonah 4:2). Micah declared that God delights in showing mercy and compassion to sinners who come home (see Micah 7:18-19). God has always been full of compassion towards the lost, and this is why there is so much celebration when they’re found.
Celebration for the found
The father doesn’t just show great compassion towards his son, he also throws a great celebration for his son. He puts a ring on his finger, places the best robe on his back, slaughters the fattened calf and throws a party with music and dancing. It’s a great picture of how heaven responds when sinners return to God. Now, if someone thinks that the father went a bit overboard, then it’s only because that person doesn’t yet share the same degree of care and compassion for the lost. The degree to which you celebrate something reflects how much you care about it.
The picture is not of a couple angels casually mentioning, “Oh, by the way, did you hear that Billy finally got saved? That’s right. Good for him.” No! It’s more like a bunch of fans watching their favorite football team score the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. They’re all screaming and jumping around the room. They’re celebrating! That is the kind of reaction God has when sinners return to him.
The great compassion and celebration of God is contrasted with the contempt and grumbling of the Pharisees. They didn’t understand why Jesus would spend time and eat with notorious sinners. They didn’t understand the heart of God. They didn’t understand that they were lost too. This is why there are two sons in the story that Jesus told, not just one. The older son hears about the party and refuses to go in. All of this is very intentional.
As Tim Keller pointed out in The Prodigal God, “Jesus puts a flawed older brother in the story so that we would imagine a perfect one.” We’re meant to see Jesus as the true older brother who gladly left his father’s house to seek out the lost and bring them home at his own expense, granting free forgiveness and every spiritual blessing at the cost of his own life on the cross. What is God really like? He’s exactly like Jesus. He’s exactly like the father in the story. He’s not waiting for people to mess up with his arms crossed; he’s waiting for sinners to come home with his arms open.
Jeremy McKeen is the lead pastor of Truth Point Church. Jeremy received his B.A. in communications and philosophy from Florida Southern College and his MDiv from Knox Theological Seminary.