The Father's Party
In the parable of the prodigal son recorded in Luke 15, Jesus told the story of an amazing family drama involving two sons. One was legalistically loyal and faithful to his father. The other was wayward and rebellious, immediately demanding his right to spend his share of the family inheritance. After a long season of wasting and hardship, the wayward son returned home repentant, broken and desperate, asking to be a hired servant. The story ended with a party to celebrate the father’s emotional and exuberant welcome for his boy, once given up as dead, who was now returning home to a royal welcome.
That party was the father’s idea, springing up out of his joy and relief. But the older son was very upset and angry exclaiming, “I’ve served you all these years! You never threw a party for me! And now this disrespectful rebel comes home, and you spend the bundle on him in celebration!”
This story gives such a vivid picture of the wonderful heart of our heavenly Father toward those who come back to Him in repentance. There are times in life that clearly call for celebration. In considering this important teaching of Jesus, we need to note once again that it was the Father’s idea to celebrate.
In the preceding verses in this same chapter Jesus said that there is great rejoicing in heaven over every ‘sinner’ who repents, finds forgiveness and is restored to the Father’s love. According to God, repentance and reconciliation are two of the main reasons for joy and excitement. It is natural, in His economy, to celebrate the nearness and dearness of God to His people.
Celebrating God's Way
Additionally, the celebration of the wedding feast had a great impact on the Jewish family. Weddings are profound Biblical symbols of the joyous intimacy between God and His people. The Bible begins with a wedding and ends with a wedding. Adam and Eve being created and united together by God in Genesis 2, and Jesus the Second Adam, is united with His bride the Church, in Revelation 21. No wonder Jesus’ first miracle was to create a fresh supply of the best wine at a wedding. Surely this is no coincidence, but an allegorical statement of the importance of the wedding in heaven one day and the accompanying joy that will abound.
The Heart of the Celebrant
Throughout this present outpouring of the Holy Spirit, it has been my privilege to see this fruit of the Spirit manifested everywhere. The resulting effect on most people is one of encouragement, freedom and a renewed love for Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Hundreds have laughed their way to freedom as God has sovereignly removed deep pain and problems through the joy of the Lord. It is truly one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. (Gal 5:22) Again and again we have seen spontaneous exuberant worship erupting as the joy of the Lord is poured out by the Holy Spirit. Believers responding to ministry and the Holy Spirit’s presence are often filled with glorious and inexpressible joy. (1 Peter 1:8)
Several years ago while I was with Che Ahn in Pasadena, CA, I heard the words “fire tunnel” going over and over in my spirit. In my mind I had a picture of people passing in between two rows of prayer team folks who had one hand held high and joined with their opposite partner while with the other they prayed for the participants, like running the gauntlet. So far as I know, that was the very first “fire tunnel,” and they are now frequent events in “River” churches. The ministry time became explosive with joy as those passing through experienced the laying on of hands by the entire prayer team. Since then we have had many fire tunnels, and have seen multitudes blessed, yet each time we notice that the atmosphere lightens, everyone becomes childlike and those participating are deeply blessed.
This may seem childish, but children understand the importance of fun, lightness and play. According to Jesus, it is very important for you and me to understand the importance of becoming childlike and also of play. Belgian theologian Jean Jacques Surmound points out that some forms of relational bonding can only develop through playful interaction. Consider a father playing and wrestling with his son. A deep level of trust is built as the little son learns that his big strong daddy can also be gentle, safe and fun to be around. The message of the father’s love is sent into the little boy’s heart. “My daddy likes me and wants to be with me.” A deep bonding of their hearts results. God knows this, too.
The Pharisees accused Jesus of being a party person who was eating too much, drinking wine, and befriending sinners. We can almost see them frowning and venting their super-spiritual disapproval. (Luke 7:31-35) In response, Jesus compared the ministry of John the Baptist to that of children playing funeral games. After all they expected Him to be strict and serious, yet they rejected John’s message and practice for themselves. Jesus compared His own ministry to children playing wedding games with music, joy and celebration. His point was that God had offered them strictness and discipline through John and joy and freedom through Himself, yet the Pharisees, bound to their own legalistic traditions, wanted neither one.
I’m really glad that Jesus is joyful, aren’t you? (John 15:11)
Laughter and delight are common expressions and manifestations of the joy that accompanies the presence of the Lord. (Ps.16:11) Proverbs 17:22 reminds us that “A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.” How many medical studies have been done recently that show that endorphins are released when a person laughs, resulting in a direct and positive effect on the physical body? It really is good medicine to laugh and be joyful.
Isn’t it strange that some would frown on laughing in church when we have the best news to be joyous about? Joy is mentioned 158 times in scripture and 61 times in the New Testament. Unlike the Pharisees who were serious and critical, the common people heard Jesus gladly.(Mark 12:37) They were like the wayward prodigal son who loved to party in all the wrong ways and places and now discovered that the very best party of all was right there in the Father’s
The Cost of the Party
Thankfully, the repentant son was first met by his father, rather than intercepted by his older brother. The older brother in Luke’s account never really understood anything but working for his father. He could have had a party anytime he chose, but considered it a waste of time and resources. He stubbornly refused to participate in the festivities.
I think there is a bit of the older brother in all of us who take the things of God’s Kingdom seriously. It is easy to backslide into a performance mode and fall into a salvation by works. We become self righteous and critical. Thank God for seasons of fun, joy and refreshing that remind us of the great freedom that is ours through grace.
So let’s lighten up, enter into the joy of the Lord and join the party! You just might find yourself enjoying Jesus for a change.
John Arnott is the senior pastor of Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship. He and his wife Carol are the hosts of the daily “Catch The Fire” television program. They travel extensively around the world spreading the fires of revival.