Unfortunately, when believers sin or aren’t mindful of God, they relate to the parable of The Prodigal Son. But this parable is not written about a believer. Here is the truth…
The True Meaning Of The Parable
The parable of The Prodigal Son, along with the parable of The Lost Coin and The Lost Sheep, are all salvation parables. I will prove that to you in a moment. Those three parables are all used together to make the same point (Luke 15). They are referring to an unsaved person getting saved for the first time. This salvation event that Jesus is describing in those parables happens once in a person’s life and is never again repeated.
The elder son, working in the field, is referring to the Jews who thought they could keep the commandments of God. The younger son is referring to those who receive the gift of God freely, instead of trying to offer their work in return.
The Elder Son
You’ll notice that when the elder son saw the prodigal come home, it is said that he was “in the field.” Well, this represents the work of the flesh because the word “field “is the symbolic word for “flesh “in the Bible (see our glossary for more). So being “in the field” is like saying he was “in the flesh” (Luke 15:25).
This is much like Cain in Genesis 4:2-5. Cain offered his works to God and was rejected because of it. To symbolize this, God mentions that he was a “worker of the ground.” In other words, he was a worker of the flesh. Much like the elder son who was “in the field” working.
Then, to further symbolize that the elder son is trying to work for God, the elder son claims that he has “served the Father for years” and most importantly has “kept all of his Father’s commandments.“ This represents the Jews under the law (because they were the ones given the Ten Commandments). They believed that they could actually keep God’s commandments that were given to them. This is obviously not true. No one can keep the law and therefore no one can receive from God by it.
Luke 15:25-29 (NKJV) “Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house… But he was angry and would not go in… So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.
And despite the fact that the elder son was “in the field,” serving the father, and claims that he had never transgressed the father’s Commandments, he never goes into the house to join the party — even though it was always available to him. He never receives from the father. He works and works and never receives.
This is the inevitable fate of all those who try to receive from God by their works. They will try hard to keep all His commandments, working in the field tirelessly, yet never receiving from God. This is why Cain, “the worker of the ground,” also never received from God. He was rejected from the blessing (Genesis 4:5). This is why Ishmael, who is a servant (who represents the Jews), is also rejected regarding God’s covenant (Galatians 4:30). And this is why the first generation under Moses (who represents the law) never enters the promised land. Because the only way to receive an inheritance is through the work of Jesus (who Joshua represents. In fact “Joshua” is the Hebrew name for “Jesus”).
All of these people, (the elder son, Cain, Ishmael, and those that received the law under Moses) all represent people trying to keep God’s commandments, and all of them are shown to have never received from God.
The Younger Son
The younger son symbolizes those who have sinned and realize that they can never do enough to be worthy to be called a “son of God.” The younger son either symbolizes the Gentiles, whom the Bible calls, “those who were far away“ or simply symbolizes people in general who recognize their inability to work for God (unlike the Jews of the time).
The prodigal confesses that he has sinned against his father. And instead of falsely claiming, as the elder son did, that he has “kept all his commandments,” the fatted calf is killed at the return of this son. Which I’m sure is symbolic of those who choose to receive through the sacrifice of Jesus, instead of their own work. This again, bears similarity to Cain and Abel. Cain was a worker of the ground while Abel offered the firstborn of his flock (representing Jesus). The same way that the elder son was a worker in the field, while the prodigal came home through the fatted calf being killed.
And notice that when the prodigal son comes back to his father, the father says that his son “was lost and is now found, was dead and now lives.“ This is a huge piece of evidence that this is a salvation parable. These terms are never — I repeat, never — used for a believer. A believer is never referred to as dead or lost.
1 Peter 2:25 (NKJV) For you were [past tense] like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Ephesians 2:5 (NKJV) even when we were [past tense] dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
Once you were lost without a shepherd, but now you have returned. You always have a shepherd now. Therefore, you are never lost, even if you feel confused. Once, you were dead and corrupting because of sin, but have now been made alive with Christ! This life is always with you and available for your mortal body at any time (Romans 8:11). You are never referred to as “lost” or “dead“ in the Bible.
For any person that realizes they need what the father has to offer, and receives his gift freely through the fatted calf, and not by their own works: they go from lost to found, dead to alive — they are received by the father once for all time, and none of these things ever have to be repeated ever again. That person will never be a prodigal again.
The Father does represent God. The point that may throw you though, is the fact that this man is referred to as the father of the two sons BEFORE the prodigal ever strays. This leads many people to think that this is referring to a believer straying. After all, he strayed from “his father” so how could it not be talking about a believer?
On one hand, this may refer to creation, because when man was first created, he was called a son of God (Luke 3:38 – “son” of God means “like God.” See our glossary.) Adam was a son of God and God gave man life in the beginning. You’ll notice, that in the beginning of the parable, the father “divides his living“ between the sons. The funny thing is, the word “living“ is really just the word “life.“ So it should say, “the father divided his life to his sons.”
Luke 15:12 (LSV) …and he divided to them the living [or rather, life].
Now, when men sinned, they lost that sonship (that God likeness), but man was still created as a son of God. Some of His sons chose to try to keep His commandments, not realizing their own incapability. And some of His sons realized they have squandered the “life“ that the Lord had portioned to them. They realize their sin and need for the Lord.
On the other hand, if both of these sons do represent the Jews, then the parable would also make sense that way. As the Jews were called the children of God, because God had offered them an inheritance, for the sake of their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Hosea 11:1, Deuteronomy 10:15). God offered them his life. And some Jews tried to keep the commandments of God, while other Jews realized they’re incapability.
But regardless of the specifics regarding the “sonship” mentioned here, the sonship of these two sons, in the beginning of the parable, is not referring to that of a born-again believer. It either represents creation or the life that God gave the Jews through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That life which some squandered in and some used to work for God.
This is not a parable about a backslidden believer or a believer straying off. Once you go from lost to found, from death to life, that event is never repeated. If you’ve accepted Jesus, you are not a wayward, prodigal son that needs to return to the father. But perhaps, you are simply an accepted, beloved, wealthy son, in the company of the Father, who has simply forgotten who they already are.
You have already returned to the Father, and thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice, you’ve never left. The party for your homecoming never stopped!
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