The Elder Brother
When controversy erupted at the heart of the universe, it involved crucial questions about the family of heaven: Is God the Father unjust and arbitrary, or accessible and embracing? Is God the Son conceited and elevated, or humbly condescending? To this day human beings have still not quite clarified these questions; and thus most in the world still do not know for sure what God is really like.
Ruining the Picture
Adam and Eve, earth’s first family, were the first to experience the eternal love that radiates from God. Their daily interactions gave eternal insight into the character of God, and His intimate love and compassion for the people He created. But one who knew God best, Satan, engaged Eve in a conversation that fateful day and offered her forbidden fruit, and within a few moments she had traded her view of a loving God for a belief contrary to everything she’d personally experienced.
In a singular moment Satan changed the perception of God’s character: “The enemy of the good blinded the minds of men, so that they looked upon God with fear; they thought of Him as severe and unforgiving. Satan led men to conceive of God as a being whose chief attribute is stern justice—one who is a severe judge, a harsh, exacting creditor. He pictured the Creator as a being who is watching with jealous eye to discern the errors and mistakes of men, that He may visit judgments upon them.”1
One piece of fruit, a series of lies, and God’s character had been maligned.
Thereafter the Old Testament, through numerous stories, portrays a God who constantly seeks to reveal His true character to humans. In many cases He chooses men and women to reflect His character to the world; to humans who either do not know of His existence, or perceive Him as aloof, judgmental, and unloving. When calling a single person does not yield the desired results, God raises up the people of Israel, through Abraham, to show His power, glory, and love. He placed them at the crossroads of the then-known world, to showcase His love.
Had God’s chosen people lived their lives as God desired in humble obedience, the world would have seen His true character. But the view of God that became officially entrenched within the Jewish nation, even as they engaged in divinely prescribed customs and rituals, was anything but love. Personal beliefs more closely mirrored the misperception Satan had planted in Eve’s heart. And the closer the time for Christ’s first coming approached, the greater this misperception deepened. “It was to remove this dark shadow, by revealing to the world the infinite love of God, that Jesus came to live among men.”2
God Does It Himself
The old adage says, “If you can’t find someone to do the job right, do it yourself.” In this case God sent His Son not only to pay the price of our sins, but to reveal the character of God the Father. Men and women, as spiritual as they might be, could never fully understand or express the love of the Father. But Christ the Son, through His life given for all humankind, was God the Father giving everything; both to save humans and to show the depth of His love.
At the end of His ministry, as Christ shared closing words with His disciples, He said, “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well” (John 14:7).
Philip’s response was to ask Jesus to “show us the Father” (verse 8).
To which Christ responded, “Don’t you know Me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (verse 9).
In Christ’s answer to Philip He was saying simply, “Everything you have seen Me do is what the Father would do. Healing the blind, deaf, and lame—that was the Father. When I told the woman caught in adultery, ‘Neither do I condemn you’; when I said to her, ‘Go now and leave your life of sin’ (John 8:11)—that was the Father speaking; that was the Father loving, through Me.” For “whatever the Father does, the Son also does” (John 5:19).
Yet, just like Philip, many who experienced Christ’s ministry firsthand still did not comprehend the love and character of the Father.
In addition to Christ’s actions, the revelation of God’s character, and the principles of the kingdom were shared through His preaching and parables. In Luke 15, the trilogy of the lost, we find Christ’s telling of the heart of our Father. A lost sheep, coin, and son. The first two parables show how heaven relates to a lost soul being found. But the third parable reveals something even more intimate than the celebration in heaven for another soul being saved. The parable of the prodigal son was different, as Christ shared how God the Father feels about us.
Prodigal Son and Prodigal Father
For the Pharisees and Sadducees listening the day Christ shared the parable of the prodigal son, there was every reason to be against the son and the father.
The son had wished for his father to give him his portion of the inheritance now, rather than waiting for his father to be dead, effectively “killing” his father, finding more value in him dead than alive. He took the money and went to a far-off country, which meant to most listeners a Gentile country. Last, when broke, the good-for-nothing son found himself living in a pigsty, feeding the abominable swine, so unclean that to this day they are still largely proscribed in Israel, so despised that some Israelis have been known to wear face masks in their presence to avoid inhaling the same air as pigs. Three strikes for the son. To the listeners, he was out.
The father fared no better. The Pharisees show themselves to be preoccupied with concern for their dignity: Jesus “marked how they chose out the chief rooms” (Luke 14:7, KJV). He knew that they “trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” He knew that they “despised others” (Luke 18:9, KJV). The father in His parable would not appeal to their tastes, for he broke every mold the Jewish culture placed on a man with wealth and means. He must be lazy or idle or both as he sat on the front porch every day looking for his son. He lacked all sense of propriety, running down the road, robes flowing behind him, toward his son who deserved nothing. How swiftly he rewarded the vagabond, putting a new robe on him, sandals on his feet, and the family ring onto his finger, three acts that in themselves bring the son into a fully restored relationship within the family. Three strikes for the father as well.
The only one in the story with whom the listeners could rightfully identify was the older son. On principle he could not be happy about the party being thrown. The welcome for a rebel who had devoured his father’s substance with harlots (Luke 15:30) was inconceivable. “Your son” is how he identifies him to his father in this same verse (NKJV).3 He could not even savor the idea that this scoundrel had bothered to show up back at home.
His view of the father became clear in the bitter interaction outside of the house: angry that his brother had come home, angry that his father had never thrown a party for him, angry that everything he had done as the “good” son had never been recognized. For an audience of conscientious religionists working hard at earning their salvation, the older brother represented a superior viewpoint on God and matters of righteousness.
We need not despair at being able to find a few parallels to ourselves in the older brother. Sinners that have squandered the best years of their life in debauchery wander back home to God, receive abundant grace and a fervent welcome back into God’s family as if they had never left. We watch them get the grace we deserve, and never receive, for having been faithfully doing our work and giving our best efforts to remain within the church and on good terms with God. Why should they receive overwhelming love when it is we who have been obedient, gritting our teeth and doing everything right?
Rewriting the Story
But what if the older brother had been different? What if his understanding of the father’s love had been as clear as it was muddled? What if he understood the honor of his status as a son? What if there had humbly dawned on him the mind-boggling truth of his father’s declaration “Everything I have is yours” (verse 31)? What if he understood and shared the depth of the father’s love and longing for his younger brother? What if that love could have compelled him to go find his younger sibling? Think of the elder brother approaching the prodigal’s pigsty, in a rewrite of the end of the story: “And while he was sitting there he heard a voice, and saw his older brother. ‘What are you doing here?’
“ ‘I have looked all over the city for you, because we miss you at home.’
“ ‘Impossible,’ said the younger brother, ‘I have done too much wrong to be missed by our father.’
“ ‘But that is why I am here, for our father hasn’t missed one day on the front porch of our home waiting for you. Your robe is clean and pressed, hanging by the front door. Your signet ring is ready for you. Your sandals are polished at the front door. Everything is ready for you to come home, and Father is waiting for you.’
“So the two brothers headed for home. And when they were at a distance, the father saw the two brothers coming, and began to run toward them. As he approached them, the older brother held out his hand and grasped the father; with his other hand he grasped his brother and said, ‘Father, I found my brother, and brought him home. He was lost, but now is found. Can we throw a party now that he is home?’ And placing their two hands together, the older brother reunited father and brother.”
Compelled by Love
When asked which was the greatest commandment, Jesus said it was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39). Because God is love (1 John 4:8), love is the essence of heaven. And it is that heavenly love that works its compelling miracle in us, winning us first, then moving us to love others lost around us, longing to be found. “We love because he first loved us” (verse 19).
When His love conquers us, it becomes the identifying mark of our discipleship, for “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Heavenly love compels us to leave the ease of our own space, and the comfort of home, to find those who are hurting, addicted, hopeless, and helpless. We cannot help doing this, because we recognize that it is what God has done for us. The love that compelled Him to give His only Son for us is the same love that compels us as His children to live the message, and serve in love to bring others back to Him. “Being separated to God . . . means we take a consecrated life and live it before non-Christians, manifesting before their eyes the person of Christ and the hope of salvation.”4
We leave the confines of home because we have experienced firsthand the love of our Father. We do not look on with bitterness when the lost come home; we leave home to find and bring them home. We leave because leaving is heaven’s way.
Elder Brother Love
Ellen White wrote: “The greatest work, the noblest effort, in which [lawyers, scientists, nurses, students, politicians] can engage is to point sinners to the Lamb of God.”5
And when we leave home to go in search of our lost kin, we are but following the example of the true Elder Brother, who sought us out in the pigsty of our misery, found us there, and took us home to His Father and ours.
Now that He has found and reconciled us to Father and home, we know that grace bestowed is nothing to bitterly regret. It is something, in the spirit of our Elder Brother, to generously share. It’s about time for the world to know what God is really like.
- Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), pp. 10, 11.
- Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Glen C. Daman, Shepherding the Small Church (Grand Rapids: Kregel Press, 2002, 2008), p. 154.
- Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915), p. 18.