We open the week with an email from a listener named Daniel. “Hello, Pastor John! I recently watched your sermon about the prodigal son (“A Tender Word to Pharisees”). There you mentioned the one flaw of the older son was that he had a broken view of his father. The older brother saw the father as a master, and viewed him as a lawgiver. But there are some verses in the Scripture that point to Jesus as our Lord (Master). How can we see God as a loving, gracious Father, but also take him as our King and Lord, and all for our joy?”
That question goes right to the heart of what it means to be a Christian and how to live the Christian life. How do we relate to God and the Lord Jesus? As a slave master? As a friend? As a counselor? As a Shepherd? As an employer? As a doctor? As a Savior? As a Redeemer? A helper? A servant of us? This is such a huge question about who God and Jesus are for us and how hour by hour we do our Christian living in relation to them and how they relate to us.
The Prodigal Son
Now, the parable of the prodigal son was spoken by Jesus in response to the criticism of the Pharisees that he was eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 15:2). The younger brother squandering his life and possessions in debauchery represents the tax collectors and sinners.
“To be a slave of Christ implies he has absolute right to tell us how to live.”
The older brother in the parable dutifully stayed at home, complaining about mercy being shown to the younger brother, unwilling to join the party that celebrates the return from death to life. He represents the Pharisees.
So, when the father — this is amazing — when the father goes out on the porch to entreat the older brother to come in and celebrate mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation, that is an illustration of Jesus desiring for the Pharisees, even speaking to the Pharisees, desiring them to humble themselves and be glad that Messiah has come in mercy towards sinners.
And here is what the older brother says to the father after that entreaty: “Look, these many years I have served you” — douleuo in the Greek: acted like a servant, a slave — “I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command” — like the father is a drill sergeant or a master — “yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends” (Luke 15:29).
Now, my point that Daniel referred to in his question is that the older brother speaks of his relationship to his father as if he were a master or a boss or a lawgiver. He says, “these many years I have served you.” Then the father tries to reorient his thinking with these words: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31).
In other words, 1. you are a son, not a slave. 2. You are with me in the house. You are not in the slave quarters. Don’t act like you are. 3. You are an heir. You don’t need a goat. You have everything. So, enjoy your position as a son and receive freely my inheritance. You didn’t deserve it. It is free. And since it is free, won’t you consider it fitting — this is Luke 15:32 — “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” If you were living in the freedom of the undeserved bounty of my fatherhood, you would be glad that grace was being poured out on your brother, because it is being poured out on you.
Slaves or Sons?
So, Daniel asks, rightly: But doesn’t the New Testament present God and Jesus as a Master or a Lord or a ruler or a commander and us, appropriately, as obedient and submissive so that we can even be called, as Paul identifies himself, a slave? And the answer, of course, is yes. It does.
“The coming of Jesus shows how our relationship to God is shaped by his work for us, not our work for him.”
So, the question becomes: How do you put the two together? I think that is what Daniel is asking. And the crucial part of the answer is to realize that when we are called slaves of Christ, the analogy implies two things, but not a third thing. It implies 1. that he owns us. Absolutely true. 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.” You are mine. 2. To be a slave of Christ implies he has absolute right to tell us how to live. Yes, he does. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46).
But — here is the key — the analogy of master and slave does not include that we provide services without which the master would be impoverished. It does not include the implication that the master is decisively dependent on us for the meeting of his needs, like masters were dependent on slaves to meet their needs on earth.
Or, to put it positively, the coming of Jesus reveals most clearly that our relationship to God and to his Son is shaped most decisively by the fact that he works for us, not that we work for him. That is most decisive. We are not Christians if we don’t get that about this relationship. Only in realizing and trusting and enjoying that he serves us, works for us, are we enabled, fully, to serve him. This is what the older brother did not understand.
God Works in Us
Now, here are some texts that point in this direction: Mark 10:45, “The Son of Man came not to be served.” We pass over that negative half of the verse so often as we hasten to, “but to give his life as a ransom for many.” He did not come to be served. So, don’t serve him. Don’t serve him, meaning don’t relate to him as though he needed your help. He doesn’t need your help. He is here to help you. The gospel is not a help wanted sign.
Acts 17:25, God is “not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” So, our service to God — if we ever use the phrase, which we should because it is biblical — our service to God is fundamentally transformed from the usual slave-master relationship, because this Master supplies everything this slave needs and is not served by the slave as though he needed anything. God is the giver in this relationship. We are the receiver and the beneficiary.
“All of our giving to God is first a receiving from God.”
How do we then serve? And 1 Peter 4:11 is my favorite expression of the answer. It goes like this: “Whoever serves, [let him serve] by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever.” So, we are being served by God every millisecond of our lives as he supports our being and gives us all the strength we need so that all of our giving and serving is a receiving first — and that is what it means to live by faith.
So, maybe the way to say it is this: Until we rest and rejoice in God and Christ as our all-forgiving, all-providing Redeemer and Father, we will always serve him as a slave in the old way, not the new way. But when we see ourselves as first served by Jesus decisively, then our service becomes joyful, dependent on his service. So, Paul says, “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20), trusting his blood-bought, ever-arriving grace.