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Our Mission in a Prodigal World (Part 1 of 2)

Original Air Date 06/17/2015

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Bible teacher Ray Vander Laan offers Scriptural insights about God's love for the world and encourages followers of Jesus to serve others and share their faith. (Part 1 of 2)

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Episode Transcript


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John Fuller: All through the Scripture, God's great plan for redemption and restoration is clearly seen. And today on "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly, you'll hear about your part in His kingdom work. I'm John Fuller and Jim, we have a special guest in the studio.


Jim: We do and I'm going to get to that introduction quickly, but you know, John, so many people miss the meaning of life and even Christians don't always live the full life that God wants us to have as we carry out His will. A lot of people are perplexed. Jean and I were just talkin' about this last night, how we make decisions that aren't rooted in wisdom—God's wisdom—stupid things we do.

And you know, for me and I'm lookin' at myself, the more wisdom and knowledge we have about God and about His ways, I think the better off we will be. I know the better off we will be. And Ray Vander Laan has so much to say in that regard, to really take a look at the Scriptures, to give us a more robust view of what God was talking about.

In Western culture today, we're movin' so fast, we don't take time to really understand the metaphors, the meanings. How did the Lord express these thoughts and these deeds? We've been working with Ray for over 20 years.

Ray Vander Laan: Twenty-two years.

Jim: And you know, it's been wonderful, the That the World May Know series has been strong. And if you have never called Focus or written us about the That the World May Know series, you have got to do it. I think it's the best Bible teaching anybody can get anywhere.

John: And we've got details at . It's a great series for you to use in your ho me, with your kids or maybe in a Sunday school class. It's touched thousands, perhaps, millions worldwide, Jim.

Jim: It has and Ray's been a teacher for over 30 years at Holland Christian Schools in Michigan and he's an ordained minister and has been pursuing Jewish history and Jewish education for all those years. Ray, let me welcome you back to the program.

Ray: Thank you, Jim. Thanks, John. It's great to be here again.

Jim: Now, we've done 13 sets together over these last 22 years. Set 13 has just released, and that's why we're doing the broadcast today. Tell me more about the series in general for people that don't know about it. What was your motivation and why have you done this for 30 years, taking groups—about 10,000 people I think you've taken—why do you that? Don't we have enough in the written Word to know God the way we need to know Him?

Ray: Of course, God's Word is always sufficient. What happened in my life is due to a gift from my grandfather I had an opportunity to go to Israel and study when I was in seminary. And what struck me there was, our theology, our beliefs as Christians were right on. We had understood the Bible well.

But there was another window. I like to say to students, if you look into a room through a certain window often enough, you get to know that room pretty well. But if there's a second window and you look into the same room, nothing has changed in the room, but you might notice something different.

And when I got to the Middle East and looked at the Bible the way Easterners do, the way Hebrew people do, it struck me there were insights and additional nuances and meaning that are not easily seen from a Western point of view. It isn't that we have it wrong or can't understand it. It's that there's even more than we might recognize.

And so, I devoted myself at that time to say the small slice of God's kingdom He's entrusted to me is to be a teacher. I was thinking schoolteacher at that time, of course, and to share with students what happens if you read the Bible through the eyes of its context, the cultural and social context of the Middle East?

Jim: And I can appreciate that. I think as I've talked to non-believers particularly, when I ask them if they've ever read the New Testament, they'll say, "Well, I tried, but I didn't get it. There were too many metaphors, so I didn't understand it. That's what you're talkin' about.

Ray: Exactly, exactly.

Jim: I mean, you've gotta kind of think differently as you read the symbolism of the Scripture and that's helpful to talk to a non-believer in that way, to say, "Well, here's why they're speaking in those terms" and we can contract it to the Western thought pattern.

Ray: And Jesus was the master at this, so simply things like five of His disciples are mentioned as being fishermen. And okay, we believe that. But if you look at the Old Testament, there's a reference in Jeremiah, where in the day when the Lord comes, He will send for many fishermen, to catch them. And so, without quoting Scripture, Jesus is hinting to His audience, I'm that One, because I've got fishermen who I'm going to train how to catch them. And now they had to listen to determine whether He really was who He claimed to be.

Jim: And those subtleties are what we're talking about in the series That the World May Know, being able to illuminate these things—

Ray: Yes.

Jim: --for the Western thinker particularly—

Ray: Exactly.

Jim: --to connect these dots. Talk about the new set, set 13. What is your goal there? What are you trying to accomplish and communicate to us?

Ray: To me, the great story of the Bible, grand narrative some scholars call it, is God in creation, spoke to the chaos, the tohu it's called in Hebrew, tohu va vohu and created shalom, everything beautiful and wonderful.

Sin brought His magnificent creation back into chaos and that's exactly why we're here today. We live in a world that is chaotic, marriages that don't work, relationships that fail, disease, all of the chaos of life. Rather than wipe it all out and start over, God said I want to redeem it. I want to restore My people, my creation back to its wholeness.

And unexpectedly to me at least, He says in a way, I want to partner with the same humans who brought chaos and I want you to be My agents of redemption. Oh, it'll be My Spirit, My text. It'll be My community that will support you, but I want you to partner with Me to bring about redemption.

And so, this series looks at that mission—the mission of being God's instruments of salvation, of redemption. Once we're saved by grace through Jesus, now God wants us to be His agents.

And the first set is how Israel was given that mission. They were to be a light to the nations. They were to be a light to the Gentiles. They were to make God's name known. They were to be a kingdom of priests, so we've called it "A Kingdom of Priests in a Prodigal World," because a priest is someone who not only speaks for God, but a priest's job was to display God by how he acted.

So, God said, okay, Israel. I'm gonna plan you here on the crossroads of the world. Live in such a way that the nations will see you and know Me. And we are going to look at that mission of Israel as defined by how Abraham and Sarah lived, by how Israel was called to live, although they often failed.

And then we pick up with the parable of the Prodigal Son, because Jesus in that parable is chastising His Jewish audience, because they're unwilling to eat with sinners. They're unwilling to put Him on display in a broken world. They're saying, "We're God's people. We don't want anything to do with those wicked people." And Jesus is saying, "No, no, no, our mission is to eat with them, like the prodigal father, to seek out the lost. Help Me find My lost children."

Jim: Ray, let me ask you. Talk about, unpack for us the Prodigal story, because many of us know it and we think it's a very good parable--

Ray: Uh-hm.

Jim: --but give us the context—

Ray: Okay.

Jim: --of that and how it fits to culture, 'cause we're talking about one son coming back to his father.

Ray: Right.

Jim: He's not talking about culture, is he?

Ray: I think we've understood that parable very well, but when you plug it into the culture, there are some things that you might not notice at first glance. Let me give you a couple of examples. To a Jew, it was a very clever retelling of the Jacob and Esau story. In the Jacob and Esau story, Jacob deceives his brother and takes a share of his inheritance—his father's inheritance—that he really shouldn't have.

He runs away out of fear of his life and he leaves with nothing. Goes to a far country and becomes rich. His father-in-law in that far country says, "Everything you have, Jacob is really mine." Comes back at the end of that exile, if you will and his brother Esau runs to meet him and kisses him.

Now Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal. In his case, the son leaves rich, comes home poor. The father says to the older brother, "Everything I have is yours." He runs to meet the prodigal, kisses him and welcomes him back into the family.

So, in a way, Jesus is cleverly retelling the Jacob and Esau story to remind the audience that in the Jacob and Esau story, Esau really, the sinful of the two brothers, Esau is the one who welcomed his brother back and you aren't willing to do that.

A second thought, really at the beginning of that parable, there are two lost sons. Jesus tells an extended parable. In the first part, he tells a shepherd who lost a sheep and goes looking for it. In the second part He tells [of] a woman who lost a coin and she looks for it.

In the third He tells of a father who loses, I think two sons and looks for them and here's why. When the younger son came to his father and said, "Give me my share of the inheritance," that was unheard of. The family property belongs to the whole family. When the father dies, the older brother takes those resources and uses them to care for the family.

So, to say I want my share was to say, "Father, I renounce everything we believe in. I renounce our values. I renounce our worldview. I renounce our way of life."

Now in that culture, the mission of the older brother should've immediately been to try and talk his father and his younger brother back together, to reconcile them. But he doesn't. He takes his share, too. So, really he's lost both sons.

The younger son heads off and lives in a pagan culture and eventually loses everything he had. Now here's a place where the culture really informs what's happening. In the first century, Jesus' world, the Romans ruled the world. And they had a very aggressive taxation policy. In that taxation policy—some say it reached 40 percent—in that taxation policy, if you couldn't pay your taxes, you lost your land to the tax collector. And a lot of that traditional land that had been in Jewish families since Joshua's time, was lost to these absentee landlords of the Roman Empire.

And so, a practice developed that said, if you lose the family inheritance—nahala it's called in Hebrew—the piece that God gave you--to a Gentile, you are forever expelled from the community. So, when that son leaves to a far country, which is the Hebrew way of saying "a Gentile country," everybody who hears the story knows, if that kid loses the property, he's finished. And if that community gets to him first, he will never be accepted back into the community again.

So, that father's dilemma is not only how do I get him to come back, but if he comes back, how am I gonna get him back into the community before we have this ritual that expels him permanently?

So, the son says and here's another cultural element, the son realizes he's made an awful mistake. He's lost all his money. He's feeding pigs. Think of a Jewish person feeding pigs, an unclean animal in a Gentile country no less and they won't even let him eat what the pigs are eating.

And he thinks to himself, my father's got hired men. He pays well. I'm gonna go home and say, "Father, I've sinned against you and against God. I can't be your son. I'll be your hired man." Now there's a tendency I think, at least for me, in Christianity, the opinion I had, to think is, oh, he's repenting.

But the Jewish audience knew better, because those words are word for word what Pharaoh said to Moses after the eighth plague. "I've sinned against God and against you, Moses. Take the plague away." And the text tells us, he didn't repent. So, Jesus' Jewish audience knew this was not yet a repentance. This was a son who found a way, a scheme: "I'll come home. I don't want to be dad's slave. I'll be his hired man. I'll make that money back, and I can either fit back into the family or maybe I can go back here to this far country and give it another shot."

So, he heads home. As he approaches the village, the father is looking, because he knows he's gotta get to that young man before the village does.

Jim: Ah.

Ray: The father sees him coming and runs to meet him. Now that's something that has really struck me and others pointed it out to me, but I had not thought about it before. In that culture and I've spent a lot of time in the Middle Eastern culture, I have never in my life ever seen an old man in a robe run. That is dishonorable to the man, to the family, even to the village he's part of.

Jim: So, it just doesn't happen.

Ray: There are only three old men in the Bible who run, maybe four. One is Abraham when he runs to meet three strangers and that's what makes that story so striking. It's in this set 13, as well, where Abraham sees three strangers coming and he runs to meet [them]. [It's] unheard of and it shows you the level of concern and compassion Abraham has for three people he's never seen before and assumes he'll never see again. He will run to meet them. He has that sense of mission that God wants from His people.

So, the father runs, and when the son sees the father run, humiliating himself before the village in order to get the son back in, that's what breaks the son. And at that moment he now says, "I've sinned against you and against God," and the scheme is gone.

John: And that's reflected perhaps in his physical posture toward his dad? He knelt before his dad, right?

Ray: He knelt before his dad. His father embraces him and kisses him and that act of grace of welcoming the undeserving back, even at his own humiliation, is what leads the son to say, "Wow. I'll come back on your terms."

John: We're listening to Ray Vander Laan and my goodness, there's such good and in-depth content here. I hope you're getting just a taste of what the video series, That the World May Know can offer you in terms of understanding context and culture as you read the Bible. And That the World May Know, the latest edition, Israel's Mission: A Kingdom of Priests in a Prodigal World. We've got that available for you at

Jim: Ray, let me ask you that metaphor of the father running out that you beautifully illustrated. I could see that in my mind as you were talking. It says something else, too. It's an engagement.

Ray: Uh-hm.

Jim: It's the father running out for that son.

Ray: Amen.

Jim: It reminds us broadly speaking of what we need to do in the culture and that's in part, what you're talking about, isn't it?

Ray: Exactly, in fact, if you look at the story carefully, the story begins when Jesus is challenged because He eats with sinners. Now sinners in that context could mean people who were living very immoral lives. Or it could mean people who were ritually unclean, people who had touched dead bodies or were untouchable and Jesus was eating with them.

It's interesting, the Greek word there is a word that means, He was welcoming them into fellowship. And they looked at that and said, "Wait a minute. Our Bible says, don't touch unclean things. That's Isaiah. How can you eat with these people?" And Jesus tells the parable to say, "Listen guys; God … these are God's prodigal children. He wants them back. He is the Father who will send His Son to shame Himself on the cross before the whole world in order to find a way to bring them back. Come with Me. Eat with Me. Join us. We've gotta engage them because they're the ones we want back."

And so, the father in the prodigal [story] runs, even though it's embarrassing and shameful, because he wants to find a way to get the lost back in. Now it seems to me that biblically, that's been the mission God gave Israel. That's been the mission that Jesus came to live out. And for us most importantly, that's our mission. Our mission is to be willing to engage in culture with sinful people, not accepting their sinfulness. Jesus certainly didn't do that.

Jim: Right.

Ray: But being willing to meet with them, to mingle with them, to bring the grace of God to them. So, in that moment, it's almost as if we have to be willing to run so that people sense the love of God, not just in the words we say or the Bible passages we quote, but they discover the love of God in our willingness to care about them.

It struck me as I've looked around here now this time I've been at your wonderful place here in Colorado Springs here. You've just released The Drop Box. What an impression that makes on people, not simply of a pastor who will extend himself for the unwanted, but it gives people a picture of what God is like. God loves the undesirables, the unwanted. They are to Him, His prodigal children. We tend to think prodigals are only believers who've wandered from the faith. Well, those are prodigals. Prodigals to God are anybody that's walked away from Him.

Jim: Anybody outside of relationship.

Ray: Anybody outside of relationship with Him. He wants them back.

Jim: Ray, that practical today application, so much of what we experience in the Western culture particularly, in the U.S. even to put a finer point on it, it seems like we're pulling back, that we're not doing the very core mission that you're describing for us today, that somehow we think hunkering down, barricading ourselves off is a better way to go. Talk to that phobia, the error of that and what is the scriptural way to go? I know what the answer is just with your description, but challenge us a bit to rethink how we're doing culture today.

Ray: Well, and I agree 100 percent. I think for good reasons we want to isolate. There's a Jewish rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, one of my favorite people to read and to listen to and he suggests that the Jewish people who were called to be the presence of God in a broken world tend to one of three things. They isolate, because that's safe. Or they assimilate and become just like the world around them and have nothing to offer. Or like some of the biblical characters, he suggests they engage the culture.

And I think that's our call. I really have a concern that sometimes the Christian community finds it safer to withdraw within our safe little community, although the devil finds us there, too, but into the safety of our community and then stands on a platform shouting at the lost in the distance—

Jim: Right.

Ray: --these words of judgment or condemnation or criticism, or even the words of the Gospel. Whereas Jesus got down in the dirt, so to speak and ate with the very sinners, without accepting whatever sin they were responsible for, but to do it in a way that says, "God loves you and wants you back into fellowship."

Now I realize there are some risks in that. I say to my students, this is not something God calls you to do alone. This is what communities do. You go to the far country alone like the prodigal did, it'll eat you alive.

Jim: Right.

Ray: The prodigal should've had a whole group of fellow believers with him to set up a little community in a far country so they could discover what God is like. But if we withdraw because our culture is broken and it appears to be drifting farther and farther away from its moorings and the roots of a biblical worldview, instead of withdrawing, we oughta be engaging. We oughta be living within and among them to say, this is what it looks like when God is in charge.

Jim: And I think, you know, that's the practical application for us today, is how do we fight that idea to be pure?

Ray: Uh-hm.

Jim: Because I think the criticism is always, if you engage, then you're gonna lose your principles. I've been accused of that—

Ray: Uh-hm.

Jim: --that if you talk to homosexual activists or you talk to people in the abortion industry, I have had Christian leaders say, Jim Daly has lost his principles; he's lost his way. There's nothing further from the truth. I didn't give up anything.

Ray: Right.

Jim: I actually went and I felt like I was able to expose these people to the Gospel.

Ray: Amen.

Jim: And you don't have to give yourself up in that, or God.

Ray: Amen. And I encourage our listeners to be in prayer for Focus on the Family, because that is, in my opinion, a very biblical approach to the mission God has given us, but it's a scary one. And we need to be praying for Jim Daly. We need to be praying for Focus on the Family, because it's not gonna be easy to maintain our faithfulness. It was easier for Jesus, because in a sense, as Son of God and sinless. But you are so right on. If those are God's lost children. He wants them back .

John: When does that assimilation become dangerous? Because it seems that for many Christians, we're known for what we're against, all that unholy stuff out there, but we're not in the world actually engaging with people because we don't want to be dirty.

Ray: Right, I think there are three things. Again, this comes out of what I teach to students. One is, we need to be absolutely committed to the mission of being the presence of God in a broken world. Two, it has to be a community effort. I think far too often we send our kids out to secular university expecting somehow they're going to continue to be faithful to God standing all alone.

Well, that happens historically miraculously, but God sent His people out in community. And I think we need to find a way that when our kids go off into the world, they do so where they enter a godly community.

And third, to resist the unbelievable overpowering temptation to assimilate, to become like, because of our narcissism. Because of that, we need to rededicate ourselves to be men and women of the Book. We need to be people who are immersed in the Bible, so that we so shape our thinking and our living that it's natural to live a godly lifestyle in a broken world. Now it's still a dangerous task, but it's the task God gives us.

Jim: Well, let me ask you this hard-hitting question, which is, have we repeated the very things that Jesus went after with the Pharisees and the Sadducees? I know this is delicate, but to me as I look at it, when they accused Jesus of being a friend of sinners—

Ray: Uh-hm.

Jim: --when they accused Jesus of hanging out with the wrong crowd—

Ray: Uh-hm.

Jim: --when they accused Jesus of not being the Messiah they thought He should be, they missed Him.

Ray: Right.

Jim: And are we doing that today, even though we have it written down? We have the parables; we have the stories. We know what angered God's heart, because Jesus expressed it. Yet, it seems to me that we so often are doing the exact same thing that Caiaphas did.

Ray: And that's where my heart is, as well. I would say this and I think it's an important distinction to make. It's easy to think they did that because they felt superior and they felt those sinners were less than fully human in some way.

But if we grant them that the Bible does make clear, don't touch unclean things, so they were trying to isolate for biblical reasons. Jesus came to say, you got it wrong. You are supposed to be holy, but why are you holy? You're holy because as you mingle with an unholy people, they discover what a godly way of living is.

You're not holy to live on top of a mountain and people can look at you in the distance. You're called to be holy in order to put on display what a godly lifestyle looks like. So, holiness isn't an end in itself. It's a means to an end and I think that's what He's criticizing the Pharisees for. And that to me, is exactly the mistake that it's easy to make in the 21st century, when our culture does seem to drift off the deep end so often.


John: And once again, Ray Vander Laan has really enhanced our understanding of the Scriptures and we've been listening to a program that received an exceptionally high response from you, our listeners, earlier this year.

Jim: You know, John, Ray is such a good Bible teacher and so many lives have been touched through the That the World May Know Series. Just one of the many resource here at Focus on the Family. We've talked about the mission to a prodigal world. That's what we're called to as Christians. We're there every day at Focus on the Family, talking through the radio, our websites and magazines and other tools to equip people first, to find the Lord and then, to help through that process of getting to know Him better.

We're inviting you to be a part of an effort that in the past 12 months resulted in more than a million people growing stronger in their faith. I hope you'll join us, so that we can do this together. When you support the work of Focus on the Family, you're helping us to strengthen people spiritually, not just in the United States, but around the world in 130 countries.

So, please give the gift of family today and when you do, we want to send you a thank you and we want to send you the newest DVD set, Israel's Mission by Ran Vander Laan and Focus on the Family, along with the Discovery Guide. And John, one more thing. Some generous donors have offered to match everyone's gift, dollar for dollar, so if you give today, your gift will be doubled and we are so appreciative of those friends who have offered to do that.

John: And again, the DVD set that we've been talking about is Israel's Mission and it's by Ray Vander Laan and we'll note that we have trailer for you to see of that at . And you can learn more about that donate generously when you call 800-A-FAMILY; 800-232-6459.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly, I'm John Fuller, thanking you for listening and inviting you back tomorrow, as we hear more from Ray Vander Laan, to help you and your family thrive.

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Ray Vander Laan

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Ray Vander Laan is the founder of That the World May Know Ministries and is the creator and host of Focus on the Family's That the World May Know video series. He is also a religion instructor with Holland Christian Schools in Holland, Mich., and an ordained minister with the Christian Reformed Church. Ray and his wife, Esther, have four grown children and numerous grandchildren.