The Lost Elder Brother

12:47 PM 0 Comments A+ a-

MESSAGE #2: The Lost Elder Brother

There are two common mistakes we make with the story of The Prodigal Son

#1 - We underestimate its depth.

We take it as beautiful, emotional, and moving when I think it's far more. It essentially retells the story of the entire Bible and the story of the human race. If the teachings of Jesus can be likened to a lake – this parable is one of the clearest spots where we can see all the way to the bottom.

#2 - We limit its application

We look at it as a story for those who have rebelled in life.  A beautiful lesson that God can bring the prodigal home. Those who didn't want any part of God, Mom & Dad's rules, or what authority tells them and searches the depths of addiction, self pleasure, etc. God loves you. God can save you. God can bring you home. All of that is true, but we miss the fact that this story applies to a much broader audience.

Luke 15:1-3A Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. 2And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. 

Here are all the rebels, the prodigals. We find in the gospels that this group of people love Jesus. They wanted to be around Him and hear Him. They crowded in to be close to Him; to the point where they are eating with Him. When they ate in that culture, they laid down on one arm on a pillow with feet extended out behind them, and dipped into the various dishes. It was a very close, intimate setting when you ate with somebody. In fact, the pharisees believed you could catch someone's immorality like a disease and commonly gathered up their robes so it wouldn't touch that person.

Then religious people come along, and see Jesus laying down eating with prostitutes, addicts, drunks, frauds and they have a question for Jesus...

“There are good people and bad people. You say you are sent by God. Why would God associate Himself with the bad people?”


Luke 15:3-7 And he spake this parable unto them, saying, 4What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? 5And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. 7I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. 

Luke 5:27-32 And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me. 28And he left all, rose up, and followed him. 29And Levi made him a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them. 30But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners? 31And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. 32I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. 

What is Jesus saying?

There are two ways you can take this...

#1 - That good, righteous people should understand that Jesus needs to reach lost people and make them righteous.  However, if you reach that conclusion you have to ignore the rest of the bible.

#2 - Jesus is saying “The world is not divided into good people and bad people. The world is divided into bad people who know that they are bad and in need of a Savior…and bad people who don’t know that they are bad and are trying to be their own Savior.”

There are not simply two categories: the rebel and the religious.

There are three categories: the rebel, the religious, and the redeemed.  Unless you fall into that third category, you are still every bit as lost as the prodigal.


Jesus said empty religion is even more dangerous because it is so very subtle. If you are sick and know you are sick, you'll call the doctor. If you're sick and you think that you're well, you'll just die.

The scriptures are teaching me that there is a tremendous difference between religion and Christianity.  There is a profound difference between outwardly moral and inwardly righteous. Between trying to be good and knowing Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.  The differences can be so subtle, we can miss them to our own destruction.  In the story of the Prodigal Son, and the oft forgotten story of his older brother, we find out how to tell the difference between moralism (which will send you to hell) and a living faith in Jesus.

How do you tell the difference between moralism and genuine faith? 

Luke 15:11-24  11 And he said, A certain man had two sons: 12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me [his inheritance]. And he divided unto them his living. [Older brother gets 2/3 of the inheritance.  Younger brother gets 1/3] 13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance [his inheritance] with riotous [reckless, rebellious, self indulgent] living.  14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.  15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.  16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.  

[Now this is the picture of repentance...] 17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, 19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. [Make me an apprentice here or in the surrounding city so I can at least learn a trade.  At least then I can earn the money to pay you back so maybe you can call me your son again.]

20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. [The Greek indicates the father smothered him with kisses.  The kid is filthy and the father accepts him.]  21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.  22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe [the father's robe], and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: 23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. 

If the story ended there, we know there's a father with two sons. This seems to be the story of the older, good, steadfast, respectful son that is doing the things he ought to be doing and the younger, rebellious, demanding, bad son up until verse 25.  But then we read these last eight verses!

Luke 15:25-32  25 Now his elder son was in the field [the kid comes back from working and there's a party going on]: and as he came and drew nigh [near] to the house, he heard musick and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.  

Now, did the older brother say "thank God, Dad's been so worried.  Now Dad's heart is full and so happy and my brother made a wrong turn, but I've been praying for him and God went and got him and brought him back"?  No, not at all.  That was not his response, he was angry!

28 And he was angry, and would not go in [where?  The father's house to the party]: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. [The Father pleaded with the older son]. 29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, [if you translated that literally today it would be "Look you, these many years I have been slaving for you] neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: [I've done what you told me to do and played by your rules this whole time] and yet thou never gavest me a kid [you didn't even give me a goat], that I might make merry with my friends: 30 But as soon as this thy son [he didn't call him "my brother", he said "this son of yours"] was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots [wasted all your money on prostitutes], thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. 31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. 32 It was meet [it was right] that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. 

The older brother looked good.  He was respectful, compliant, hard working.  He is laboring with his dad and it looks like he loves his father.  These circumstances, this particular trial, pulled back the curtain and showed everyone (and us) the older son's heart.  When the father reinstates the younger son…the elder brother’s heart is laid bare. Why is the elder son so angry?

I read a commentary that said this:
“By bringing the younger brother back into the family he has made him an heir again, with a claim to 1/3 of their now, very diminished family wealth.” 

Little brother got his 1/3 and wasted it so now everything belongs to big brother.  So when little brother comes back home, tail between his legs, and Daddy puts the robe on him, that rob technically belongs to older brother.  That ring on his finger and shoes on his feet technically belong to the older brother.  When Daddy slays the fatted calf, it technically belonged to the older brother.  The whole thing about bringing him back as a son again means that the younger brother is entitled to 1/3 of the inheritance AGAIN!

Last time we talked about how the younger son didn't want the father; he wanted what the father could give him.  “The younger son was saying essentially that he wants his father’s things…but not his Father.”


We have two sons; one BAD by conventional standards and one GOOD. Yet both are alienated from the father.

There are three things we need to look at in this text, as signs that you may be an elder brother.  Lest we wake up on Judgement Day and found out we aren't what we think we are.

If these three things are true, it can mean:
#1 - you are very moralistic but you don't know Jesus as your Savior.
#2 - you do know Jesus, but here's the thing I'm finding personally, our default setting is not trusting Jesus. Our default setting is religiousness (moralism).

On your computer, you have to change some settings if it's not going to blink back to the default setting.  We have to preach to ourselves a thousand times a day to remember "I am not saved by being good, I am saved by the blood of Jesus.  I can't be good, I can't be righteous.  My best day and my worst day are the same to God; filthiness in His sight.

Three ways you might be an elder brother...

#1 - When life doesn’t go as you want you become deeply angry and bitter.

When things don't go according to your plan or your expectation of God and life is disappointed, it doesn't just make you sad it makes you mad, angry and bitter.

Someone said, “Religious people commonly live very moral lives, but their goal is to get leverage over God, to control Him, to put Him in a position where they think He owes them.”   I am terrified that we, in the local church, have sometimes fostered that; and how dare we ever sell that because God never promised that.  Yes, there are indications that God does bless.  However if you believe that you have a kind of barter system with God, you can have your faith chopped out from under you in a moment's time.

So let me ask, when it doesn't go your way, is your first response to be mad at the Lord?  To feel upset, depressed, and angry that He didn't give you what you deserve?  Because that's exactly where the elder brother was; "I've been serving you all these years, I have good things coming.  You owe me."

Friend, let me say this as straight as I can: THE LIVING GOD DOESN'T OWE YOU, OR I, A THING.  By His Grace, we get a taste of any good thing we've ever had.

#2 - When people don’t live up to your standards you become judgmental.

"Don't judge" has become the mantra of our entire society, right?  Do not, at any time, say certain things are right and others are wrong.  That's not judgement; the Bible says some things are right and some things are wrong.

Judgement is when you feel a personal sense of superiority, "I'm working hard, why aren't you?  I'm very religious... doing these moral things...  I'm not giving in to that moral temptation... I'm not yielding to that appetite... why can't you be stronger, more moral, diligent; like me."

If you are living a moralistic life you will constantly look down on the people around you who aren't working as hard.  The pharisees where guilty of this, the elder brother was full to the nose with this, and you will be too.  By the way, this is one reason you can have someone who has been in church for decades, they know the bible like the back of their hand, spout off every religious doctrine in the world, but they are mean, ugly, hateful people.  Because it's moralism, not a living, Grace-filled faith.

“The elder brother’s problem is his self-righteousness, the way he uses his moral record to put God and others in his debt to control them and get them to do what he wants. His spiritual problem is the radical insecurity that comes from basing his self-image on achievements and performance, so he must endlessly prop up his sense of righteousness by putting others down and finding fault.” -Tim Keller

When you get a good dose of Jesus, when you honestly believe you have no reason to go to Heaven and every reason to go to hell, that your righteousness is as nasty to God as someone else's sin, that Jesus bled and died on a cross for you, not because you deserved it, but because He chose to save you from your sins and make you righteous in His sight, it is virtually impossible to look down on your neighbor when you know He saved a wretch like you.  It is that moralism that will make you frown on the people around you instead praying "God, do a work of Grace in them like you did in me."

#3 - When you feel insecure you become desperate for the validation of others.

For the person living the moralistic life, it's not really about knowing God.  Just like for the son, it wasn't really about the father, it was about what the father could get him. He didn't believe happiness lay with the relationship with his father.  He believed happiness lay with the father giving him coats, rings, land, and stuff.  If you believe that happiness is to be found in God's blessing and not in God's arms; you can be very moral and God not be very real to you.  So your Bible reading isn't really to find God, it's because God told you if you read your chapter, you are being faithful.  Your point of prayer isn't really to break through to have a relationship with your Creator, but because you are supposed to say your prayers.   The point of coming to church isn't because this is the body of Christ and He wants to manifest Himself to you and others.

It's really about: I come so I can do so He can bless it.  It's no secret that for moralistic people, God is a million miles away.  He's not very real or relevant to you. The truth is He could vanish completely and it wouldn't change much of what you do because it's about the system.  When all you've got is a system, and not a living God, it is a burdensome, pressure filled, sloth-ish, chained life trying to be good all the time and keep up appearances.

That is why you find some men who have preached the word for decades and find out that guy for twenty years was having an affair.  That moralistic life is a misery and when God is not real and you don't feel His love then you are terribly insecure.  The appearance you've been keeping up doesn't go home and comfort you at night.  The truth is you will look to other people to make you feel like somebody.

Sandra McElreath one time shared something with me that I absolutely love and is burned into my memory: If you live on people's praise, you will die on their criticism.  If you're an elder brother, people criticizing you doesn't simply hurt you, it tears you to bits.  You have to have it because you don't have a Savior, a Lord, a God that's real to you.

"If, like the elder brother, you believe that God ought to bless you and help you because you have worked so hard to obey him and be a good person then Jesus may be your helper, your example, even your inspiration, but He is not your Savior.

What's the antidote to this?  

Those people said, "Jesus, there are good people and bad people.  Why would you hang out with the bad people?"  Jesus said, "you are absolutely diluted about life.  There are no good people, there are simply people trying to earn their happiness; find it in self indulgence or in empty moralism, but neither one of those paths will do anything but ruin you."

You know the tragedy of this text is in the story.  The younger brother comes back, is redeemed, but even though the father goes out and pleads with the older brother to come into the house and get passed his pride and moralism he does not.  Jesus intentionally left it without a resolution because the people all around him (the scribes and pharisees) hadn't reached a resolution.  They were headed for hell, not because they weren't good enough to go to Heaven (though that was true), but because they thought they were good enough to go to Heaven and refused the one remedy for our sins which is Jesus Christ.

I studied for this sermon and prayed "Oh Lord, help me!  How often I default back to that." I find myself going back to trying to being good so He'll bless me, bless my family, bless this church.  How do we stay away from this poisonous thing?  If you are moral, religious, think you might get to heaven because your good, I need to tell you that you don't have a hope in the universe.  You can't do it.  You can't make it.

Jesus lived the perfect life you haven't lived and purely by His mercy, He'll save you.  Lifeguards say one of the worst things you can do when you're drowning is try to help them save you.  Don't try to help Him save you, lay back and let Jesus do what only He can do.  His grace is sufficient.  His blood was enough.  His sacrifice can pay for your sins.

Today can be the day if you're willing to pray "Jesus forgive me for my sins and forgive me for trying to be saved by my own goodness. I've tried to be my own lord and savior, but no longer.  I want you Jesus."

Christians all over this place, our default setting is to revert back.  It takes a hundred times a day, preaching the gospel to yourself. Reminding your heart and mind it is not by works of righteousness that I have done, but by the grace and blood of the Lamb that I know Him.  I'm saved. I'm secure. He already accepts me.  Not a version of me, but He accepts the current me because of the blood of Jesus.

When He changes your heart and mind like that, it frees you to love other people that are living in abject sin.  It frees you to not think your someone superior to them.  It frees you so when God lets your life cave in, it will hurt you and make you sorrowful, but you won't ask why God isn't keeping His end of the bargain.  You'll admit you don't understand it but accept that this is the same God I can trust with my salvation, who sent His Son to die on a cross for me.  When you are criticized, you can say "I am far worse than you think I am.  I can take this in stride because I don't have to be perfect because I have a Savior who already is."


Brian Loveless has been serving as Lead Pastor for Calvary Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, TX since November 2003. Brian shepherds, leads, feeds, and guides Calvary’s congregation, staff, and guests to spiritual growth and service for Jesus Christ. His main goals remain for folks to see God, share life, serve others, and stay connected.