"God is love" (1 John 4:8). He is also Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three persons, yet one God. We must never lose sight of the oneness of God, yet we relate to each of the persons in a different way. We relate to the Son as the One who became the man Jesus Christ and purchased salvation for us, to the Holy Spirit as the One who is ever present with us and applies to us the benefits of the work of Christ, and to the Father as the One who loved the world of sinners to the extent that He "gave His only begotten Son" (John 3:16, NKJV). This love that God the Father has for sinners is graphically portrayed for us in the father in the parable that we call the "parable of the prodigal son."
What happened in that home on the day when the younger son left for the far country? We are not told, but it does not seem as if the father made much effort to prevent what was happening. Perhaps he knew his younger son too well to try. This does not mean that he did not love him, but he did give him his inheritance and let him go. Nevertheless, the unfolding of the parable indicates that he loved him greatly. This letting go illustrates one of the ways God the Father interacts with some of those He loves. He deals with each individual differently and always according to His perfect wisdom. The point here is that He sometimes lets those whom He loves go on what seem to be disastrous detours into the world, during which time He watches over them, preserves their lives, and even keeps them from certain sins. The earthly father cannot do this. He can only pray that God will keep his son and one day bring him back safely. As long as the son is in the far country, he is outside his father's control. The only other thing that the earthly father can do is to look to the horizon day by day for any sign of his much-loved son returning home. In passing, we might say that this highlights an important point regarding the interpretation of this parable. The earthly father is in some ways an illustration of God the Father, but in other ways he is not and cannot be. God is God and man is man.
We now move into the far country and find the son coming up against hard times after having indulged himself until all his money was spent. In order to live, he takes the only work he can get, feeding pigs, but he is now hungry, lonely, and generally miserable. However, he still represents the sinner whom God the Father continues to watch over and love, despite the fact that he has seriously sinned against God.
Of the many wayward children who leave home, many end up in misery, but few ever return home. Their pride stands in the way. They may become so miserable that they see their folly, and they may even say, "I am such a fool," but very few have that humility and wisdom to say, "I will arise and go to my father (Luke 15:18)," and actually head for home. So, what we have here represents something special. It represents the sinner, far away from God, steeped in sin, but loved by God the Father, who has sent His Holy Spirit to bring the sinner back to true wisdom. This is beautifully couched in the words "he came to himself" (v. 17). It illustrates what happens when God brings a sinner to his senses. This is God the Father's distinguishing love and mercy. He makes a difference between one and another according to His sovereign will. His call is to all without exception to come to Him and find life and forgiveness in Jesus Christ, but only those for whom the obstacle of their own pride is removed by the Great Facilitator, God the Holy Spirit, will come, no matter how great their misery in the world. The Holy Spirit enables a true and resolute turning, which we call "repentance"— that is, turning from sin and the world to embrace God and His great salvation.
The next scene surpasses all others in illustrating God the Father's love in receiving the repenting sinner. The earthly father is still looking to the horizon, so he spots his son when he is "still a long way off" (v. 20). His heart obviously leaps for joy. He cannot wait until his son arrives. He takes off and runs to meet him, falls on his neck, and kisses him. There are no recriminations. He hears the confession and is glad to hear it, but his love for his son overwhelms all such things. There is no, "Get cleaned up so that I can shake your hand and give you a hug." The father envelops him in his love while the stench of the far country still clings to him. The father is the happiest man on earth, and his mind moves quickly to what he wants to do to mark the occasion, which is to rejoice with all who are around.
He begins to organize a celebration. He orders three things to be brought: the best robe, a ring, and shoes. Without falling into allegory, perhaps we may suggest that these things represent justification, adoption, and sanctification. The robe speaks of the righteousness of Christ bestowed upon the sinner, the ring speaks of belonging to the family of God, and the shoes of walking with God. All these things speak of the love and mercy of God the Father, poured out on the sinner who has come to Christ. The earthly father also orders the fattened calf to be killed so that all around can join in the celebration. This speaks of the rejoicing that takes place in heaven over the sinner who repents.
There is one more thing that we must note. When the elder brother objects to what he sees as an unseemly celebration and refuses to come in, the father goes out and entreats him, but he remains outside. This is important. It points to God the Father, entreating the sinner, even the one who is too proud to come. However, this refusal does not dampen the celebrations on earth, and it certainly does not dampen the rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. The earthly father beautifully describes his reason for making merry: "This your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found" (v. 32). That was what the experience was like for the earthly father. How much more will God the heavenly Father rejoice over a sinner who was spiritually dead and finds eternal life, who was lost and is found.