The Lord's Day Morning
December 12, 2010
“What Makes Angels Rejoice?”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke 15. We’re going to be looking at the first ten verses together this morning. In Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories. The first of those three stories you’ll see in verses 4 to 6, the second of those three stories you’ll see in verses 8 and 9, and the third of those three stories you’ll see in verses 11 to 32. There is a connection. We’re going to be looking at the first of the two stories today. We’ll look at the third story next Lord's Day, God willing, but there is a connection and I want you to notice it.
The first story is the story of a lost sheep. The second story is the story of a lost coin. And the third story is the story of a lost son. Jesus has a common lesson that He wants us to learn from each of these three stories and so it's important for us to note the connection between each of them. I want you to see how this passage outlines – the first two verses of Luke 15 provide the setup for the stories that Jesus is going to tell. Jesus is having a meal with those who are considered unholy — tax collectors and sinners — and the religious leaders of Israel — scribes and Pharisees — are grumbling about who Jesus is fellowshipping with. They consider it to be beneath the station of a prophet of Israel to associate with these kind of unclean and unholy people and they frankly think that it calls into question His own character and His own claims that He would associate with people like this. But they’re grumbling in verses 1 and 2 at His activity of fellowshipping with tax collectors and sinners sets up the story that explains why Jesus tells the stories that He tells in this passage.
And so the first parable comes in verses 3 to 6 — the story of the lost sheep. And then, very pointedly, Jesus gives an application of that story in verse 7. Then comes a second story in verses 8 and 9 — the story of the lost coin. And then again, very quickly and pointedly, in verse 10, comes an application. This by the way, lets us know that Jesus doesn't just tell us stories to entertain us. His stories are interesting but they’re drawn from common events in life that everyone can relate to and they’re told because He's wanting to bring to bear a particular spiritual truth and He's wanting to bring it home to us in such a way that we will not only understand it, but we will see its repercussions for us. And so as He tells the story there is a pointed application because He's not just telling it to us to entertain us. He's telling it to us because it's something of vital importance that we need to understand and respond to.
Now, if you look at this passage you’ll note several things that are clearly on Jesus’ mind. In this passage He is very, very concerned that we would understand the importance and the necessity of repentance. On multiple occasions in this passage He will highlight the importance of someone repenting of their sins and the response, the attitude of God, towards someone repenting of their sins. Another thing He wants to highlight in this passage is God's grace in searching for and finding lost sinners. This passage is designed to highlight the mercy of God and the love of God and the grace of God. And we see in this passage God's grace of receiving repentant sinners. Despite what they deserve, despite what they have done, God receives repentant sinners. And all these things Jesus emphasizes in this passage. But Jesus is of course also revealing to us the hearts of the Pharisees in this passage. Their refusal to join in with the heavenly and angelic joy that Jesus describes in verse 7 and in verse 10, proves that they do not have the heart of God and that they do not understand their own condition and their own need.
So in this season when we're rejoicing with the angels and we’ll rejoice with some shepherds tonight, it's a good thing for us to ask, “What does Jesus say in this passage that the angels rejoice over?” Let's pray before we read God's Word.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. It is inspired. The Holy Spirit has given it to us. He has guided along those who have written Your truth and You have given Your Word to us as a revelation of the way of salvation to show us our sin, to show us our Savior, to show us Your grace. We pray that by Your Spirit, the same Spirit who inspired this Word, You would open our eyes this day to behold wonderful things in Your Law. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Hear the Word of God beginning in Luke 15 verse 1:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’
So He told them this parable: ‘What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
I. Jesus receives sinners.
Have you ever lost something that was important to you and then found it again and then rejoiced with your friends that you had found this thing that was important to you that you had lost? I have. Actually, I have on a number of occasions, but I think the occasion that I remember the most was when I once lost a dog. When Anne and I were not here as minister and minster's wife of First Presbyterian Church but just here teaching Sunday School, in the spring of 1996, a kind family in this congregation gave us a seven week old Labrador Retriever that had a better blood line than I have. And that dog became my buddy. Abby was her name. And as many of you who are Labrador owners know, Labradors like to go on adventures. And Abby went on adventures from time to time. She would get out of the backyard, get out of the gate, and I would have to go find her. And there’d been a number of times when she was gone for several hours, but always back within twelve or fourteen hours or so where she was supposed to be.
Well, sometime in the early 2000's, Anne will remember exactly the day because she always does, I don't, but sometime in the early 2000's when Jennings was two or three years old I think, during Easter week she got out of the back and ran away. And a day passed and we hadn't found her. And I looked everywhere. I got in the car and I drove all over the neighborhood. And a day passed and she had not come back. And another day passed. And some friends of ours reported to us that they had seen her crossing I-55 and that put a lump in my throat as I thought of this dog getting across I-55 to the other side. And finally three days and she had not returned. And it was the Saturday before Easter and we had just had supper together and we were all down in the dumps missing Abby and Jennings said to us after the supper was over that night, he said, “Dad, we should pray that God would bring Abby back.” Well I must admit to you that I didn't have a whole lot of hope in my heart. And so Jennings led us in prayer that night that the Lord would bring Abby back home. And not fifteen minutes later, there was a scratching at the door and the door opened up and not a yellow lab, but a brown lab — she was soaking wet and covered with mud — came bounding back into the kitchen and into our lives. And we didn't care that she got mud everywhere! We were hugging her and rolling on the floor with her and so happy to have her back home.
Well, as many of you will know, there are lots of dog people in this congregation — Derek and Donna and Madeline and lots of others. And I called my dog friends in this congregation and we rejoiced about that dog coming home. Well my guess is, there've been many times in your lives where there is something that you lost that was important to you that the Lord brought back to you and you rejoiced with friends. It's a common experience in life and Jesus takes that common experience in this passage and He applies it to a very important spiritual use.
You see, Jesus was being criticized by the scribes and the Pharisees for associating with tax collectors and sinners. These were people that were looked down upon as immoral and unworthy and unclean people and it was considered to be beneath a prophet of the Lord to be associating with the likes of them. But Jesus wanted to teach a very important spiritual lesson to us and to the Pharisees and scribes. And He wanted to show the Pharisees and scribes the wrongness of their own hearts. And so in that context where Jesus is communing and fellowshipping with the unclean and where the scribes and Pharisees are grumbling against Him, He tells, in our passage, two stories — the story of the lost sheep and the story of the lost coin. And interestingly, in both stories, He makes the main character in the story somebody that the scribes and the Pharisees wouldn't have looked up to.
In the first story it's a shepherd. Now Jesus meant to bring to our minds all the wonderful things that the Old Testament teaches us about shepherds because in the Old Testament, the shepherd is so often an image of God, and in Psalm 23 God is described as our Shepherd. And Jesus meant to do that. But you understand that the Pharisees and scribes would not have thought very highly of shepherds. Shepherds in their day were typically viewed as notorious lairs and not very moral people. Their testimony wasn't allowed in court and so He picks as the main character in the first story someone that the scribes and the Pharisees wouldn't have thought very highly of, which highlights the very situation in which He found Himself.
In the second story He speaks of a woman who had a lost coin. Now apparently the coins that she had — she had ten silver coins — were her dowry. That would not have been a very large dowry so we can assume that this was a relatively poor woman who must have been married to a relatively poor man, because a man from a wealthier station wouldn't have married a woman with such a small dowry. And so for her to lose one of the coins of her dowry, which was the only thing that she brought into her marriage that was hers — it was a tremendously important thing with regard to her security — for her to lose that coin was a big deal and the Pharisees wouldn't have thought very highly of a poor woman. But Jesus makes these two characters the prime characters in His story in order, again, to hold up before the Pharisees’ and scribes’ eyes what it was that they were missing in His relationships with these tax collectors and sinners as they called them.
And Jesus teaches several very important messages in this passage. The first is simply this: that He receives sinners. Jesus receives sinners. The scribes and the Pharisees, if you look at verse 2, grumble against Jesus and say, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Now they mean that as an insult, but the passage makes it very clear that that is true of Jesus. He receives sinners.
You know, this church does not allow good people to join it. We only receive sinners. The very first question you have to answer to be a member of this church is, “Do you acknowledge yourself to be a sinner in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?” And yet the Pharisees looked upon the tax collectors and the sinners that Jesus was meeting with as unworthy, but they did not look upon themselves as sinners and unworthy. They thought of themselves as righteous and Jesus in this passage is stressing — He receives sinners. That is so vital for us to understand.
J.C. Ryle says of this passage —
“Do we have a sense of our own sin? Do we feel bad and wicked and guilty and deserving of God's anger? Is the remembrance of our past lives of sin bitter to us? Does the recollection of our past conduct make us ashamed? Then we are the very people who ought to apply to Christ just as we are, pleading nothing of our own, making no useless delay. Christ will receive us graciously and pardon us freely and give us eternal life because He is one that receives sinners.”
I've told you the story several times of John Duncan who was a professor of Hebrew and Old Testament — no relation — at the University of Edinburgh, NewCollege, in the late 19th century. He was a brilliant man, but as a college student he was an atheist. He had grown up in a Christian home, but he did not believe even in the existence of God, must less make a Christian profession. And one of his college professors convinced him of the truth of the existence of God. And John Duncan tells us that he “danced with joy” on the Bridge of Dee in Aberdeen when he realized that there was a God in this world, even though he knew that if that God were to call him to account and he were to stand before that God, that God would have to pronounce him guilty and judge him because he was so burdened by living in a world without God. Well eventually, the Gospel brought John Duncan to faith in Christ but he had many struggles because of his past life feeling the assurance of God's love for him.
And so he came up with a syllogism based on the truth in this passage. He says, “Here's my major premise: Jesus receives sinners. Here's my minor premise: John Duncan is a sinner. Here's my conclusion: Jesus receives John Duncan.” In other words, it's the truth that Jesus receives sinners, not those who have cleaned their lives up and have taken care of their own situation, but those who can't do anything about their own situation and yet are repentant of it. He receives sinners. John Duncan is a sinner, therefore Jesus receives John Duncan. The spiritual logic of his syllogism is absolutely true and irresistible, but the beauty of it depends upon our recognizing that we are sinners.
II. You cannot hear Jesus unless you know that you need Him.
And that's the second thing that we learn in this passage and you see it again in verse 1 in comparison to verse 7. The second truth we lean in this passage, not only does Jesus receive sinners, but you cannot hear Jesus unless you know that you need Him. You cannot hear Jesus unless you know that you need Him. Look at verse 1. What are the tax collectors and sinners who are with Jesus doing? “The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him.” But if you look at verse 2, the scribes and the Pharisees weren't hearing Him, they were “grumbling against Him.” And if you look down in verse 7, it's very clear that the scribes and the Pharisees thought of themselves are righteous, whereas the tax collectors were sinners.
In other words, the scribes and the Pharisees did not hear Jesus, they did not listen to Him, because they did not think that they needed Him. When Jesus says in this passage that “heaven rejoices more over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine of the righteous who don't need repentance,” do you think Jesus is saying that there are people in the world who are righteous and don't need to repent? No. Do you think He's saying there are people in the world who don't think they need to repent and who do think that they are righteous? Yes. There are people in this world who don't think they need Jesus. Why don't they repent? Because they don't think that they need to.
And Jesus is just illustrating for us a grave spiritual malady. You know, the good news is not good news until you understand the bad news first, and until you understand the bad news for yourself, until you understand your own need. And in this passage it's clear that these tax collectors and sinners who are coming to fellowship with Him, they want to hear Jesus because they understand their need and they long for what only He can give them through His life and through His death on the cross in their place. They are hanging on every word but not the Pharisees and scribes. They’re not listening because they don't understand their need. Do you understand your need?
III. God Himself rejoices over sinners who repent.
And then there's a third thing we learn in this passage and it's that God Himself rejoices over sinners who repent. Look at how Jesus puts this in verses 7 and 10. “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” and then look at verse 10, “I tell you there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Jesus is telling you about the attitude of our loving heavenly Father towards those who repent. Why? Because when you really understand your sin, when you really understand who you are, and when you really understand what you deserve, one of the things that you fear is “If I repent, I will be humiliated and the consequences will be unbearable.” And so Jesus in this passage displays the lavish love of God for repentant sinners.
On December 10, 2008, Bernie Madoff called his two sons to his office and he told to them that the massive fortune that he had made and that they had shared in was all based on a lie. It was not brought about through his brilliant financial planning, but through an elaborate Ponzi scheme. And they immediately went and spoke to their lawyers and their lawyers said, “You must turn your father in or you will be implicated in his crimes.” They did, and on December 11, 2008, Bernie Madoff was arrested. He had bilked thousands of people out of billions of dollars. He had ruined fortunes, he ruined his reputation, and eventually he himself was sentenced to a hundred and fifty years in prison for his crimes. He feared the humiliation and he feared the consequences. And the consequences kept coming, didn't they? Because yesterday, December 11, on the second year anniversary of his arrest, his son Mark took his own life. He sent a text message to his wife: “I love you. Please send someone over to take care of our two year-old son who's sleeping.” And he hung himself with a dog collar. Bernie Madoff didn't fess up to his sins until the end. Why? Certainly because he feared the humiliation, certainly because he feared the consequences, and that humiliation and those consequences were real. And sometimes when we realize who we are and what we've done, we fear the humiliation and we fear the consequences and that is why Jesus tells us what He's telling us here.
What He's saying is — “Your Heavenly Father is more willing to forgive you, a sinner who deserves to be judged, than you are to ask Him to forgive you. Your Heavenly Father is more willing to be gracious to you than you are to repent.” Jesus is telling us here that God rejoices over sinners who repent, precisely to encourage us to embrace and own who it is that we know we are, to confess that to God, and to come to Him for mercy.
Again, J.C. Ryle has these words:
“Let the person who is afraid to repent consider well these verses we are not looking at and be afraid no more. There is nothing on God's part to justify your fears. An open door is set before you. A free pardon awaits you. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Let the person who is ashamed to repent consider these verses and cast shame aside. What though the world mocks and jests at your repentance. While man is mocking, angels are rejoicing. The very change which sinners call foolishness, is a change which fills heaven with joy. Have you repented? That is, after all, the spiritual question which concerns us. What shall it profit us to know God's love if we do not use it? If you know these things, happy are you if you do them.”
And that's what this passage is pressing on us. It's pressing repentance on us. Have we repented? You know in this room there are those who have repented and who have been found and there are those who have not repented and so have not been found. Do not be numbered among the lost. Be numbered among the sinners who have repented and be found. That's Jesus’ word to you and to me. And as by God's grace we repent, we find that there is a Heavenly Father waiting to be more gracious to us than we might ever dare think.
Our Heavenly Father, the angels rejoice not just over a baby in a manger, but over the forgiveness that that baby in a manger has purchased by His death for countless sinners who have repented. We pray that every person, every man, every woman, every young person in this room, will, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, hear that message and repent of our sins and find a waiting Father with open arms, lavishing His forgiving love on us through the cross of Christ. Open our eyes to our need. Take away the blindness of heart that makes us think we don't need to be forgiven. And then show us the love of God reflected to us in the Gospel. We ask all these things in Jesus' name. Amen.
Well, let's join with the angels as they sing, as they sing about the Gospel itself, if you’d turn with me to number 227, “On Christmas Night All Christians Sing.”
And now receive this blessing from the God who seeks and finds and cares for and forgives repentant sinners. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.