The Prodigal Son: A Modern-Day Telling

The Return of the Prodigal Son; Rembrandt, 1669

My favorite chapter in all of scripture is Luke 15.

In a trilogy of parables, Jesus concludes with the story of the lost sons.

Philip Yancey, in his award-winning book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, tells the story of the younger lost son in modern context.  Yancey’s writing skills are extraordinary, and his re-telling of this story is powerful.  Enjoy.  nw

A young girl grows up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan.  Her parents, a bit old-fashioned, tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts.  They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside.  “I hate you!”  She screams at her father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument, and that night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times.  She runs away.

She has visited Detroit only once before, on a bus trip with her church youth group to watch the Tigers play.  Because newspapers in Traverse City report in lurid details the gangs, the drugs, and the violence in downtown Detroit, she concludes that is probably the last place her parents will look for her.  California, maybe, or Florida, but not Detroit.

Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car she’s ever seen.  He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, and arranges a place for her to stay.  He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she’s ever felt before.  She was right all along, she decides:  her parents were keeping her from all the fun.

The good life continues for a month, two months, a year.  The man with the big car – she calls him “Boss” – teaches her a few things that men like.  Since she’s underage, men pay a premium for her.  She lives in a penthouse, and orders room service whenever she wants.  Occasionally she thinks about the folks back home, but their lives now seem so boring and provincial that she can hardly believe she grew up there.

She has a brief scare when she sees her picture printed on a flier with the headline, “Have you seen this child?”  But by now she has blond hair, and with all the makeup and body-piercing jewelry she wears, nobody would mistake her for a child.  Besides, most of her friends are runaways, and nobody squeals in Detroit.

After a year the first sallow signs of illness appear, and it amazes her how fast the boss turns mean.  And before she knows it she’s out on the street without a penny to her name.  She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but they don’t pay much, and all the money goes to support her habit.  When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores.  “Sleeping” is the wrong word – a teenage girl at night in downtown Detroit can never relax her guard.  Dark bands circle her eyes.  Her cough worsens.

One night as she lies awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden everything about her life looks different.  She no longer feels like a woman of the world.  She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city.  She begins to whimper.  Her pockets are empty and she’s hungry.  She needs a fix.  She pulls her legs tight underneath her and shivers under the newspapers she’s piled atop her coat.  Something jolts a synapse of memory and a single image fills her mind:  of May in Traverse City, when a million cherry trees bloom at once, with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of blossomy trees in chase of a tennis ball.

“God, why did I leave,” she says to herself, and pain stabs at her heart.  “My dog back home eats better than I do now.”  She’s sobbing, and she knows in a flash that more than anything else in the world she wants to go home.

Three straight phone calls – three straight connections to voicemail.  She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, “Dad, Mom, it’s me.  I was wondering about maybe coming home.  I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow.  If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.”

It takes about seven hours for a bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City, and during that time she realizes the flaws in her plan.  What if her parents are out of town and miss the message?  Shouldn’t she have waited another day or so until she could talk to them?  And even if they are home, they probably wrote her off as dead long ago.  She should have given them some time to overcome the shock.

Her thoughts bounce back and forth between those worries and the speech she is preparing for her father:  “Dad, I’m sorry.  I know I was wrong.  It’s not your fault; it’s all mine.  Dad, can you forgive me?”  She says the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them.  She hasn’t apologized to anyone in years.

The bus has been driving with lights on since Bay City.  Tiny snow flakes hit the pavement rubbed worn by thousands of tires, and the asphalt steams.  She’s forgotten how dark it gets at night out here.  A deer darts across the road and the bus swerves.  Every so often, a billboard.  A sign posting the mileage to Traverse City.  “Oh God.”

When the bus finally rolls into the station, its air brakes hissing in protest, the driver announces in a crackly voice over the microphone, “Fifteen minutes, folks.  That’s all we have here.”  Fifteen minutes to decide her life.  She checks herself in a compact mirror and smoothes her hair. She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingertips, and wonders if her parents will notice.  If they’re there.

She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect.  Not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepares her for what she sees.  There, in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stands a group of forty brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and even her grandmother.  And taped across the entire wall of the terminal is a banner that reads, “Welcome Home!”

Out of the crowd of cheers and well-wishers breaks her Dad.  She stares out through the tears quivering in her eyes like hot mercury and begins the memorized speech, “Dad, I’m sorry. I know….”

He interrupts her.  “Hush child.  We’ve got no time for that.  No time for apologies.  You’ll be late for the party.  A banquet’s waiting for you at home.”

After this story, Yancey adds the following comment:

We are accustomed to finding a catch in every promise, but Jesus’ stories of extravagant grace include no catch, no loophole disqualifying us from God’s love.  [When we “come home”], to God it feels like the discovery of a lifetime.  As Dutch author, Henri Nouwen, points out, “God rejoices not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end,…No, God rejoices because one of His children who was lost has been found.”

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

Stop Trying to be Good Enough

freedom

Good works are not required for salvation. Rather, they are evidence of our salvation.

Whether it’s being faithful to our spouse, honest in our business/academic dealings, keeping our thought-life pure, being patient behind a slow-as-Christmas driver, or even attending church…

These “good works,” albeit moral, don’t “get us into heaven.” Further, by God’s standards, there’s no one on planet earth who is “good.” (cf. Romans 3:10-12)

The “older brother” in Jesus’ story of the two sons in Luke 15:11-31 did everything “right” i.e. checked off all his “good works” boxes – and he still was just as lost as his prodigal bother had been.

The Bible is crystal clear: placing our faith in the death of Christ on the cross and in his resurrection “gets us into heaven.”  Paul wrote,

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9

If even the tiniest “good work” saved us, Christ died for nothing. But, not only did his death mean something, it meant everything. This is what Jesus meant when, from the cross, he cried, “It is finished.”

Paul wrote,

“It was for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)

Free from what? Free from tirelessly trying to “check off a list of ‘good works’”, thinking our human effort will make us good enough for God to love us.

Stop trying to be “good enough” for God to love you. This is known as legalism And it is a crippling form of spiritual bondage.

In the words of author, Philip Yancey,

“There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you any less.

God’s love for us is fixed, inexorably, because of Christ’s excruciating death and resurrection.

Again, “good works” are not required for salvation. But rather, they are evidence of our salvation.

This is precisely why Jesus said, “If you love me, you’ll do what I’ve told you to do.” (Jn. 14:15) It all begins with our love for, and devotion to, him.

Anyone can fake their love for someone by going through the motions of kindness and goodness using calculated pretense and deception.

We can fool some people some of the time.

But we can never fool God.

Place your faith in the risen Christ. Be free.

The “good works” will supernaturally follow. )

Love to you all, Nick

Good Friday – 20 Centuries Ago…

jesus-crucifixion

On Good Friday, while we go through our daily routines, use your imagination and travel back with me twenty centuries to the dusty roads of southern Palestine.

The son is appearing over the horizon. By this time, the rooster has crowed, alerting Simon Peter to the fact that, just as Jesus predicted, he would deny Jesus not once, but three times during the previous night. The other disciples have scattered in fear.

Jesus has spent the entire night facing an illegal, hostile, kangaroo court designed to railroad him into a verdict of execution.

The Jewish leaders have demanded an audience with Pontius Pilate, who, normally in Caesarea, is in Jerusalem because of the crowds associated with Passover. Pilate tolerates the Jewish leaders, hearing them out. But, seeing through their false accusations, Pilate agrees not (yet) to have Jesus executed, but to have him flogged. (death may be less cruel)

Jesus is about to have his back shredded and ripped from his body, producing voluminous blood-loss and hypovolemic shock. This was the type of torture from which prisoners often died. The Roman writer, Cicero, described it as “the cruelest and most hideous punishment possible.”

But, the crowds aren’t satisfied with the flogging.  They want death!  “Crucify him!”, they shout repeatedly.  So the verdict is handed down….the death penalty. For only Rome has the authority to execute a death sentence. And their favorite form of execution? Crucifixion.

Crucifixions are “events” intended to send a message of terror to the onlooking crowds: “Thinking about rebelling again Rome? Behold! This is your fate should you follow through.”

But, this is Good Friday, right? Given Jesus’ condition, how could anyone ever describe it as “good?”

Because, without the crucifixion, there can be no resurrection.

I saw a sign once sitting outside a coffee shop on the Friday prior to Easter.  It read:

“Come on in – where every Friday is Good – and no one has to die.”

That’s a nice sentiment, I guess.  But it completely contradicts what God says:

“For all have sinned…. [and] the wages of sin is death.”

Translation:  The verdict is in.  We’re all guilty of sin.  Every last one of us.  And God’s payment to us – the wages we have earned for our sin – is death.  An eternal death sentence.

Today, consider Him who died, so that we wouldn’t have to.

This is the Gospel.

To put it in the words of contemporary culture:

karma

From John MacArthur’s brilliant “God With Us”:

“Think for a moment about how Jesus died. It was not an easy, gentle passing from this world. It was excruciating agony and torture of the worst kind, for it was on a cross. He suffered in His death. He drank the bitter cup at Calvary in its fullness – He drained it to the last drop. He experienced all the pain, all the loneliness, all the torments that have ever been associated with death…..The death He tasted was the penalty of our sin.

The prophet Isaiah, seven centuries before Christ was born, put it this way:

“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain,… Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,… He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (53:3-5; emphasis mine)

MacArthur adds,

Jesus Christ received the full force of all that the devil could throw at Him. More than that (far more), He received the full expression of God’s wrath over sin.”

Contrary to the sign outside the coffee shop, according to God – someone did have to die.

So Christ did. For us. Willingly.

Why? Because of his relentless love for us all.

It’s Friday,…but Sunday’s Comin’, Nick

 

Minor Prophets with a Major Message: Joel

Following a devastating locust invasion – unprecedented in its scope of damage – God instructed Joel to use the locusts as a living illustration of the judgment to come on Judah if they did not repent of their luke-warm, indifferent approach to God.

In Joel 2:25, God says to Judah,

“I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten.”

This is an extraordinary statement because God doesn’t say he’ll restore “stuff”, but “years”.

Can God actually restore joy to our lives that pain and heartache have stolen from us over time?  What about the broken-hearted spouse who’s just ended a 20 year marriage?  Or, the guilt-ridden addict who, after spending most of their adult life in chemical bondage, has finally decided to get clean?  Or, the grieving family whose son took his own life after losing his battle with depression?

Can God “restore” the “life” we’ve lost.

God says, emphatically, “I not only can – I will.”

From the moment we put our trust and faith in Christ, the “restoration” is put into motion. 

Some of us see tangible evidence of “restoration” here on planet earth.  (Job’s livestock and wealth were restored to him twofold on earth.) Others of us won’t see restoration until we leave this planet. (Job’s children who were lost in 1:18-19 were restored to him in heaven.) But the promise of restoration remains – and is in effect.

Because of the Cross and the Empty Tomb, our redemption and restoration is now possible.  The risen Jesus Christ – restored to glory after being broken for us on the cross – was our preview of the restoration to come.

Hallelujah!  Nick

 

Minor Prophets with a Major Message: Hosea

Hosea beautifully – and frighteningly – describes God’s loyal/covenant love for a stubborn, rebellious people.

Like any parent who loves their child more than anything, God uses Hosea to warn Israel of punishment to come so as to protect them from horrible pain.

They refused to listen.

Below is a beautiful quote from the 5th century theologian, Theodoret of Cyrrhus.

Always keep in mind: even God’s judgment is driven by his love to get us to snap out of our prideful behavior and return to his love and protection.

In her powerful retelling of Hosea, Francine Rivers, in her book, Redeeming Love, beautifully illustrates the loyal, patient love of God for us.  Michael (who represents Hosea) tells Sarah (who represents rebellious Israel),

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

 

 

 

Why is there Something Instead of Nothing?

The Christian graduate student organization I was a part of at Texas Tech University invited Dr. Michael Strauss to speak in 2015. I was given the privilege of sitting down with him over lunch and visiting with him personally. It was dialogue that strained my intellect, to say the least.

I continue to correspond with him from time to time, as well as subscribe to his blog.

I’m passing along his latest blog because it concerns my favorite physicist who holds to an atheistic worldview, Sean Carroll, a physicist at CalTech. Carroll is brilliant. I admire him greatly as a physicist.

During my grad studies at HBU we were required to watch one of his debates with Christian apologist, William Lane Craig. While Carroll didn’t necessarily “win”, he was quite convincing to anyone with a purely naturalistic worldview.

In Strauss’ recent blog (linked below), Strauss slowly dismantles Carroll’s arguments for “Why there is something instead of nothing,” the proverbial “Achilles heel” for naturalists.

As I visited with a young atheist a few weeks ago about my essay regarding C.S. Lewis’ and David Humes’ opposing arguments for miracles, it all comes down to one’s presuppositions. What’s alluring about Carroll’s presuppositions to naturalists is his acute intellect. But, as we know, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.”

This is heady stuff. Enjoy Dr. Strauss’ blog here.

Nick

 

 

The Relationship Between the Old Testament Law & the New Testament

From time to time I am asked the following question:

What the heck is the “Old Testament Law” and how does it relate to the New Testament?

Here’s the “short” answer: (I realize the following response is not “short”, but it’s definitely shorter than it could be.  🙂 I’ll expound on this topic in a later post)

Very few believers can answer the question posited above.  And for good reason.

The Old Testament book of Leviticus is normally where folks get bogged down after attempting to read the Bible through, beginning with Genesis. Why? Because it’s packed with seemingly arbitrary rules given by God, through Moses, to Israel. (There are 613 levitical laws.)

Nonetheless, this was God’s Law. But what does that mean exactly?

The Law was never intended to be a means of salvation. Rather, as Paul states repeatedly in the New Testament, the Law served as a “guardian”, or teacher, to show Israel how sinful they were in relation to a holy God.

Or, put in a different way, the Law served as a “mirror”, of sorts, to reflect the sin of mankind i.e. our anger, bitterness, gossip, lust, pride, the list seems endless.

Simply put, if city and state governments didn’t post laws – speed limits, for instance – we would have no clue if we were breaking the law since no law existed. Through his servant Moses, God “posted the law.”

Now, to be clear – the Law is subdivided into civic laws, health laws, etc., to guide Israel in ancient times. This is why we no longer are bound by those portions of the Law.

However, the moral Law – the 10 Commandments – and other Old Testament laws referring to morality are forever in play.

Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the Law, but the fulfill it.” (More on what this means in a later post.)

Here’s the point I want to highlight in this “brief” post: keeping the Law (following the rules) not once saves us from sin – rather, it reflects our sin and exposes our complete and total failure to live up to God’s standard.

And this is precisely why we were so desperately in need of a Savior – someone who was human – yet able to satisfy the Law. This is why Jesus was able to say from the Cross, “It is finished.”

It was the religious leaders of Jesus’ day – and sadly, in modern times as well – who perpetuated the lie that only when we can “check off the boxes of keeping the rules” will we be acceptable in God’s sight.

This is nothing more than legalism, crippling mankind under the weight of a mindset that asks, “Will I ever be good enough for God?” The answer to that question is an emphatic “no.” But, that’s what makes the “good news” the “good news” – and why the angel told the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy…for to you this day is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

The New Testament unveils what the Old Testament was pointing to, and preparing us for, all along:  we humbly acknowledge our depravity and joyfully profess our faith in the One who lived a perfect life, making himself the perfect, holy sacrifice to God. God confirmed his acceptance of this sacrifice by raising Christ from the dead, forever providing salvation “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.” (cf. Ephesians 2:8-10)

Parenthetically, our discussion up to this point begs the question: If salvation is by faith since the cross, how were people saved before the cross, in Old Testament times?  The short answer is: salvation has always been by faith alone (cf. Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3 – I’ll address this more in a later post.)

For those who continue to listen to Satan’s lie that we can somehow earn salvation through human effort, Paul said, among other things,

“But those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law.’ …But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing…”

Paul continues, “So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” (Galatians 3:10-13)

Martin Luther, in his commentary on Galatians, wrote that those who continue to teach the lie that salvation is not by placing our faith in the work of Christ on the cross, and, instead, believe and/or teach salvation is received by continuing to somehow earn God’s favor through human effort are “possessed by devils and then those devils are possessed by more powerful devils.” And these devils are more than happy to imprison mankind under backbreaking legalism.

“So Christ has truly set us free,” Paul wrote. “Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law.” (Galatians 5:1)

Author, Philip Yancey, rightly wrote,

“There’s nothing we can do to make God love us any more; and nothing we can do to make God love us any less.”

God’s love for us is fixed, inexorably, due to the work of Christ Jesus on the Cross.

This, my friends, is true freedom.

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick