What we are presented with here is not a picture of something for eternity, but for time. A picture of something to be known and enjoyed now. God does so want to bring us to His own Son, and where He is there is the Father's house.
It is the action and the joy of the Father which are in view, nevertheless the Father employs His servants in fellowship with Himself in this blessed work of putting on the best robe.
Who are the servants? Are they not Peter and John and Paul, whose ministry the Father is still employing to make us to know His will? For instance, How should we know the truth as it is in Jesus (Eph. 4:20-24), if it had not been for the apostle Paul (though, of course, it is all of God)? What is this truth? It is that of new creation. Old things have passed away in Christ (the old self along with these old things), and new things have come to pass, for God has reconciled us to Himself for His own good pleasure.
If we turn to the ministry of the apostle John we do not find the truth put in the same doctrinal way as in the writings of the apostle Paul. He gives us the truth in the way of its characteristics. For instance, the Lord says, "If the Son shall make you free ye shall be free indeed." The truth as to the person of the Son apprehended in the soul makes us free by making us suitable to the Father. Thus it is that the Son gives us the freedom of the house.
In John 17 you see the Son about to leave this scene, but before He does so, He puts His own into the Father's hands to have the same place with Him which the Lord Himself had. They are so dear to Him that nothing short of this can satisfy Him. He prays "that the love wherewith thou hast loved Me may be in them and I in them." This unspeakable love cannot but render the objects of its love suitable for its own presence and delight. Love is inexorable in its demands, and though it must fulfil the claims of righteousness yet it will go to any cost to make good its own desire.
Many are continually asking, "Do tell me what eternal life is?" I can only say, Get hold of the truth of the Father's love, and the truth of the Father's house as known in the Son, and you will know what eternal life is. It must be enjoyed in order to be known.
The best robe is not what some of us thought it to be, viz, justification. True, God justifies the ungodly, but if that were all, it would only be a clean robe put on a dirty person. He is clean outside, but he is not clean within, but God could not justify the ungodly unless He meant to complete the work, and unless He were going to make him to be what He begins by counting him to be, a righteous one. Thank God that nothing short of our being with the Father according to His own desire will ever satisfy Him.
We begin by learning justification, that God counts us to be what we are not. This is our side, and it is a great blessing when we learn it. We learn that we are sinners, the judgment of God rests on us. We ask, How can a man be just with God? And it is great joy when we learn that God has justified us. Our sins are gone to rise no more against us in judgment.
But after this comes up the question of our state. We find a bad state within, and this troubles us dreadfully. We do not learn this all at once, but step by step. Then we see that it is not self-improvement which is the goal, but that self has to go in order that that which is new, the work of God, may come in its stead. That which was self is then no more self once we are really in Christ, i.e. subjectively. Of course, there is no other way of realizing practically the truth but this, only sometimes we accept the doctrine while knowing not the power thereof. Such acceptance is purely nominal. If we are in Christ, i.e. of His order, we are no more in Adam, and we reckon ourselves dead unto sin and the Spirit is that which is characteristic of our new state before God and not the flesh.
Here, however, it is not put doctrinally but in a simpler and more easily understood manner. The point is, I must get to the Father, all blessing is there, therefore I must get there.
It never entered into the prodigal's mind that it was possible that he should become more to the father than if he had never sinned and had never left his father's house. I think, too, it is a long time before it ever enters our mind that we are far more to God than if we had never sinned.
How slow, too, we are in learning that the Father gets far more out of us than we from Him. Yet it is so simple. It is more blessed to give than to receive, and He, the Blesser, must get more than we who are blessed.
What is the theme of this chapter? Is it not the gratification of God Himself, His unspeakable delight in blessing? Oh! how happy it makes God to do this. If we only saw this better we should better apprehend the character of the blessing, for we should see that God blesses us for His own satisfaction and joy, and how much this will do towards making us at home with Himself. His unspeakable love will make it such joy to be consciously in His presence. Do you find it hard to realise this? Does not the mother get more out of the baby than the baby gets out of the mother? Does not this help you?
Moreover, what He does for me must be commensurate to the value which He sets upon His Son. We know God so very very little. What we generally call love is not love at all. It is pity, kindness, mercy, etc., that we see, but God wants us to see that He cannot do without us. Have you ever said, "The Father loves me so much He cannot do without me." I believe that most of us see this much, that God is very good and kind, but what we do not see is this; because God is love, and I am one whom He has linked with His Son, therefore He cannot do without me, and heaven would not be heaven for Him if He could not have me there.
If you get hold of this truth you will not have any difficulty in understanding eternal life. You know the story of the mother whose daughter went astray. The door was never closed for many years, and one night the girl came back and found the door was ajar. She said to the mother, "How was it that the door was not closed to-night?" The mother replied, "That door has never been closed from the time you left us; it has always been left ajar for you. All these years I have been waiting for this moment." So God cannot do without His children, He must have them with Him. He is so happy in blessing them. We are defective in everything, but the special point in which we are most defective is in the sense of His love. What does God's Son deserve? Everything. Then that is the value of what God gives to you. He must lavish everything on you.
What is the best robe? It is not something put over us to hide our nakedness as clothes do, but, God's clothes are inside; it is Christ formed within. It is the divine nature formed by divine love, that which is altogether new; His own workmanship for His own pleasure. He enjoys Himself by making us capable of enjoying what He enjoys. You see that this is something which goes far beyond justification.
If you want to gratify the Father's heart you must enter into this love and enjoy it, and the more you enjoy it the more He will be pleased. I have heard a story of two children to whom two kittens were given. One had one and the other the other, and they loved them much, but one day one child was seen crying over her kitten. Why was this? she was asked. Her answer was as follows: "Oh! the kitten that Bobby has whenever he strokes it is so pleased and it purrs; but my kitten, no matter how I pet it, it will not purr, and never seems pleased." How many of us are like that kitten? we do not show our pleasure in response to the infinite love of God shewn to us. Is it not sad that we should be so ungrateful for this love? If you want to give satisfaction to God you must be like the kitten who purrs. You know what pain it gives you parents when you find that your child thinks you do not love it, and are not doing the very best for it. How often have parents to feel this pain, and sometimes when two children are treated alike one is so pleased and bubbles over with joy, while the other is glum and dissatisfied, and his conduct pierces the father's and the mother's hearts?
What then is the fatted calf? The fatted calf is the Son. It is God's feast of joy in His own Son. Nowadays a rich man often makes a feast for a number of poor people, but he does not sit down and share it. He does not make it for himself. He does not say, "Let us eat, and be merry."
It is the Father who gets the most joy of all, and no one enjoys the feast as much as He does, and how little we enter into His joy. Self is so fearfully predominant.
Take the Lord's supper, how much do we enter into this? Very little, I am afraid. The Lord's death is generally looked at from the side of our need, but this is not to eat the Lord's supper as we should. The Lord's supper is feeding upon the love of Christ, delighting in Him for what He is, not delighting in His gifts, but in Himself. If we really eat the Lord's supper we are with Him in happy liberty, and are perfectly at ease with Him. You wanted Him for Himself, and now you have Him your heart is satisfied.
The elder son was further away from the father than even the younger son was when he was in the far-off country. This is the worst place of all: to be positionally near, while in reality to be very far off. We are often deceived thus, and think all is well when all is wrong. He shews when he speaks. This is what we all do, as it is written, "By thy words thou shalt be justified and by thy words thou shalt be condemned." We may be in the most blessed place nominally and in reality have nothing because we have never touched divine love at all.
When the elder brother said, You never gave me a kid that I might make merry with my friends, he shewed what was in his heart. He wanted to make merry away from his father. There is no happiness to be found in this way.
The people said to the disciples, Why does your Master eat and drink with publicans and sinners? The disciples might have answered, Because it makes our Master so happy, and it makes God so happy to bless.
When we repent we say, I am all wrong, I must let God come in and have His way, and this it is that makes God so happy, for then He can come in and bless.
I am sure we shall all find it a very blessed thing to get a real taste of this love. There is a very great lack here, and the sense of being loved is something better than all the intelligence in the world.
When we really have a grasp of this love we shall find the joy thereof such a strength and power. What is so powerful as love? There is a well-known story that an eagle carried off a babe on to a high mountain. Among those who witnessed it, and sought to save the child, was a sailor. He, with others, tried to scale the cliff, but even his head swam, and though he climbed further than the rest, yet he had to return. When this happened and all seemed hopeless, lo and behold the mother started up, and in some wonderful and semi-miraculous manner clambered up the cliff, clinging to the ivy or whatever there was. Up and up she went while all gazed on her with awe till she reached the eagle's eyrie and brought back her child safe and sound. If this is what love will do in natural things, what will not divine love do? What will not God who is love do? And above all, He will cause us to have the best robe, and thus to be formed in love ourselves. There is no real power save that conferred by the sense of love.
Faith is that with which we begin, but we must go on to love; and how does faith work? By love, and by love only.