Publication: One-to-One, Winter 2006
“Where is the church going?” “What do you see happening?” Sometimes I get asked these questions, perhaps because I travel and visit many churches. I always answer, “Lots of different things are happening.” There is no one model. However, my longer view of where the Church will go is another issue.
To discuss what I see ahead, let me first share about something from the past. It was 1966, a year when there were many thousands of small home prayer and Bible study groups emerging across America.
People of all social and religious segments were seeking God. I had just concluded such a meeting where the Holy Spirit had visited powerfully; I was waiting there with a brother who had just been baptized in the Holy Spirit. It was then that the Lord spoke something to me that changed my entire worldview, and my view of the church: “I will restore the Church.” What was lost first, will be restored last; what was lost last, will be restored first. You will see this in the story of the Prodigal Son.”
I cannot fully describe my response, but wonder, amazement and joy, all at the same time, would be a start. I was not a “restorationist,” doctrinally-speaking. In fact, I was a pre-millennial-dispensational-fundamental-evangelical Southern Baptist (and I’m not making fun of that label). The Rapture and subsequent events were my focus—not restoration. Needless to say, after
that experience, I began to see abundant scripture to support the restoration of the Church.
I wondered what the Lord meant by things lost first and last, and how the Church would return in reverse order. And I wondered
what the Prodigal Son would tell me about the Church.
Parables are short stories that conceal great truths. The meaning is for those who follow the Lord and search out His ways (see Matthew 13:10-16). The parable that I was to search out was the story of the Prodigal. While I would not build theology on a single parable, this one would open a door to a truth and cause me to see many scriptures in a new light.
There are three parables given in Luke 15: The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Each story is about something valuable that is lost, is found, and is celebrated. The lesson: God rejoices over a loss restored.
As I read the story of the Prodigal, something became evident. Jesus was not simply talking about the story of a lost son, but He was revealing the nature of our Father in heaven. He is revealing the Father’s heart for the lost sons and daughters. The Father is wealthy, generous, and forgiving. He allowed for free will to err, but waited for repentance. The two sons therefore represented his two chosen people. Israel, the older son, and the Church, the younger one. The older son was law-oriented, dutiful, and unforgiving. The younger son was adventurous and learned mercy through serious error.
One day the younger son asked for his inheritance; the father then gave to both sons their inheritance. There is no evidence that this was an inappropriate request. The younger son received wealth, and likely a fine robe, a ring and shoes. The robe speaks of righteousness, the ring of sonship, and the shoes of proclaiming the Gospel. Shortly after being endowed with these gifts, he took a long trip to a far country. He might have had a horse or other animals for his journey. There is no indication that the father objected, though he knew his son’s immaturity.
How does this relate to the Church? Jesus made numerous promises to the disciples regarding the wealth and power that the Father would give to them. He especially commanded them to ask for the “promise of the Father” (see Luke 24:49; John chapters 14, 15, and 16). On the day of Pentecost, they did ask and receive great power from heaven. They were united in one mind and spirit and thousands received their message of Christ’s Kingdom. Then new believers gave lands, houses, and money to their stewardship.
The younger son left his father’s house to go to a “far country” with an alien culture. Again there is no evidence or resistance by the father. However, the son was not mature enough to manage his wealth, and he wasted it in unrighteous living. Finally, one day, with his money gone, he asked a merchant, “What will you give me for this fine robe?” Later he asked, “How much is this ring worth?” And finally, “Would you like to buy a good pair of shoes?” Finally, in desperation and poverty, he hired himself out to a citizen of that country to feed hogs—a detestable occupation for a Jew.
As I studied this story, I asked myself, “Could this be the Church? Then I remembered history. The Church left its Jewish home, laden with gifts from God. Indeed, it was sent out to far countries. But time proved that it was not ready for Rome, the Imperial power. For awhile it remained righteous, contributing many martyrs to the mission, but eventually it traded its righteousness for rags, its sonship for earthly citizenship, and its mission for status and maintenance. Consecrating pagan statues and temples; it took on a new identity. Over time, it was “Romanized.”
It is important to say that not all were unrighteous. Many Christians in Rome were faithful and preserved theological truth. But in general the Church traded its spiritual wealth for earthly treasure. It ate what that culture ate.
We do not know how long the younger son fed hogs or how long he served citizens of that country, but for the Church, it was many, many years. In spite of it all, though he was impoverished, he was still a son. Parables are short versions of a terribly long experience.
Genetics are a mystery to me. But they are tiny, ticking clocks that one day sound an alarm. In the course of tragic events, the young man “came to himself.” He finally got to who he was. He was a son of a wealthy and gracious father. “How many of my father’s hired servants have food enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger. I will arise and go to my Father and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’”
In essence, he made 3 declarations:
• I will arise
• I will repent
• I will serve
He left home wealthy, proud, an aspiring master; he returned poor, humble and a servant.
I pondered the issue, “How does this relate to the Church?” And then again, I thought of history. The Church had made a deal with the Roman culture. “My wealth for your acceptance.” The power of the age to come for the power of this age.” (In many cases, it is still making such arrangements). How low did the Church sink? In order to build the great church of St. Peter, the largest and most magnificent edifice, it sold the forgiveness of sin and the release of souls from purgatory—for cash. The moral climate in the clergy was corrupt.
One day 500 years ago, a monk named Martin Luther “came to him- self.” He carried two great concerns: His own salvation and the corruption that he saw in Rome. In the process he made 3 vital discoveries: Salvation is by faith, we are all priests, and the scripture is our sole authority. To his voice, others were added. It began more than mere reform; it began restoration. Last thing lost, first thing returned: Repentance and righteousness. I should add that there was also a counter-reform in the Roman Church. Inside and outside the Church of Rome, repentance was beginning.
THE FATHER’S HEART
The young man was coming home with sorrow and hope. He had wasted so much wealth and time, but he had one resource left—his father’s mercy. In the distance, his father saw him coming. Many times the father had looked down that road; today his patience would be rewarded.
As the son drew near, he rehearsed his confession, “Father, I have sinned,” but he never got it all out. The father, with compassion, ran to meet him and began to hug and kiss his son. “My son was lost but now is found!” Grace had allowed the journey and grace awaited the return. There were no “I told you so’s.”
With joy, the father began giving orders to the servants, “Bring the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet.” The robe, ring, and shoes were restored. This is more than a natural father greeting a wayward son; this is the heavenly Father greeting a wayward Church and restoring it in righteousness, sonship, and kingdom proclamation.
“Bring the fatted calf and kill it! Let us eat and be merry, my son who was lost is now home.” The father threw a party! There was a great celebration, a feast with music and dancing. The son had come home, and was restored. The Church will come home, too.
History ends with a feast: The Great Marriage Supper. The Hebrew calendar year also ends with a feast. When the final harvest is in and the original grain has multiplied itself, there will be a great feast (see Mark 4:26-29).
I am reminded of Psalm 23. The Church has gone through the valley, but goodness and mercy has followed it, and He has prepared a table that it will eat in the presence of its enemies. He will anoint its head with oil and its cup will run over.
There is another character in the story of the Prodigal Son, of course: the older brother. He did not understand mercy. I don’t know if he ever got into the party. But I do know he failed to really know his own father’s heart. He had his own inheritance, but he missed the joy of restoration. I wonder if he ever hoped that his brother would return. He referred to his brother when speaking to his father as, “that son of yours.” He failed to love his brother. He was a Pharisee.
The issue for us is the Father’s love for the lost and the “Lost Church.” If we find his heart, we will long for and believe in restoration. In addition, we must see what needs to be restored: repentance, return, the robe, the ring, the shoes, and serving Father’s house.
Another question is what will be the last thing restored? Righteousness by faith is accepted truth in many quarters. Our sonship through Christ is generally understood. In the last two hundred years, we have gotten our shoes back with world evangelization. But the message to the world is the kingdom of God. There is more: spiritual power, a divesting of a world system for church government. It was apostolic unity that was lost first. Will it be restored? I pray and believe so. When that occurs, look out Hell! The Church will have a celebration and a feast.
The journey has been long and difficult, and will be, but the prodigal Church is coming home to Father’s house, humble, mature and full of grace. This is what I believe.
Scripture Reference: Matthew 13:10-16; Luke 15; Luke 24:49; John 14,15,16; Mark 4:26-29; Psalm 23
Charles Simpson is an internationally-known author, Bible teacher, and pastor, serving in ministry since 1955. He is also Editor-in-Chief of One-to-One Magazine and ministers extensively throughout the United States and the nations.