Parables of the Lost, Part One

Folks, we at Mike’s Place took a week off to do some much needed renovations around the house.  I’ll be posting a number articles over the next couple of days.   Thanks for your patience.

The Lost Sheep, Luke 15:1—7

There is a connection between chapter 14, specifically the last 10 verses, and chapter 15.  Remember, the chapter divisions were added much later and the doctrine of inspiration does not extend to either the chapter divisions or the verse numbers.

Luke 14:25—35 deals with what it costs to be a true follower of Jesus Christ.  Those who profess allegiance to Christ must be prepared to pay dearly.  But notice what Jesus says in verse 25—

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said.

Jesus is not teaching His disciples only; He is speaking to the large crowds that followed Him around.  The same crowd of hangers-on is being addressed in chapter 15, and among those in that large crowd were Pharisees, teachers of the law, and tax collectors.

What we have here is an interesting situation:  Jesus is teaching what being His true follower is really all about, which was important because many of His teachings were attractive, as He was an attractive personality, and it was likely that some in the crowd were following Him but for the wrong reasons.  Over-hearing this teaching on discipleship was a group of “outcasts” in Jewish society; tax collectors.  The religious leaders of the day, were also in the crowd and they noticed this group listening to what Jesus was saying, and that prompted those religious leaders to say this—

Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  (15:1, 2)

This murmuring of self-righteous people prompted our Lord to tell three stories called parables; simple illustrations of a profound truth.   The order of these parables is significant and serves to drive home that profound truth:

  • Parable one:  one sheep out of one hundred goes lost;
  • Parable two:  one coin out of ten is missing;
  • Parable three:  one son out of two leaves.

What is that profound truth?  What do these lost sheep, coins, and sons all represent?  How do we make proper interpretation of these parables?  Let’s examine the first parable, the parable of the Lost Sheep.

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

1.  An awful discovery:  one sheep is lost.

Sheep all look the same to most people, and they all tend to stay lumped together, so it is remarkable to think that the shepherd of the parable could notice one that went missing.  Imagine trying to count each sheep, keeping in mind that they would be constantly moving around, bumping into each other, hiding under each other, and so on.  At the very beginning of this illustration, we are struck by how well the shepherd knew his sheep.

2.  A new mission:  looking for the lost sheep.

Consider the profound meaning behind what the shepherd did when he discovered one of his sheep had strayed—

Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?  (verse 4b)

In our mind’s eye, we can see the shepherd counting and recounting his sheep and each time coming up one short.  We might be prone to say, “What is the big deal?  He still had 99 after all.”  But the shepherd’s concern was not for the 99, but on the one that was lost.  The 99 were safe, probably in a pen, but the lost one was outside in the rocky desert of Palestine, exposed to the elements, to hunters, both human and animal.  From a cost-benefit perspective, the shepherd taking time to look for that lost sheep and risking his own life for the life of that sheep did not make sense.  What motivated the shepherd?  It must have been something other than money; love perhaps, responsibility certainly.  These sheep were in his care.  It was the shepherd’s job to care for the sheep.  But now, with one missing, his mission suddenly changed; now the shepherd’s purpose was one of pursuit and rescue.

Of His mission, Jesus Christ said this—

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.  (Luke 19:10)

3.  A purposeful search:  he searches until he finds.

Verse 4 makes it clear:  the shepherd searches for the lost sheep until he finds it.  He does not give up, he presses on until that sheep is found.   Christ is equally determined to save the “lost ones.”  In John 12:32, Jesus said this—

But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.

Of course, Jesus is referring to His crucifixion; the climax of His earthly mission to save those who are lost.  Jesus the Shepherd did all that was necessary, He gave all He had to give, to save the lost.  But that verse has another, more ominous meaning.  If lost man is not drawn to Christ by the power of the Cross, they will be drawn by the power of His judgment throne.  The Son of God will find every lost soul as Savior or Judge.

4.  A time to rest and rejoice, verses 5, 6

And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’

Even though the search was long and arduous, once he found the lost sheep the shepherd placed it over his two shoulders, wrapping it around his neck.  This was a typical way to treat a sheep in the Middle East.  The sheep would have been exhausted, perhaps weakened for lack of food and water, maybe even injured.   The weary, aimless wandering sheep was not spanked or beaten; he was carried, all the sheep had to do was abide with the shepherd.  The rescued sheep paid no toll to be carried nor did it ask to be carried.  The sheep did absolutely nothing but get found.  The shepherd did all the work.  We are reminded of these powerfully comforting words—

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  (Matthew 11:27—29)

Loaded down with this burden, the shepherd returned home, rejoicing, not so much because he saved himself from a loss, but because he loved his sheep and was concerned about its welfare.  So the sheep was, in reality, no burden at all.

So happy was the shepherd that he threw what Hendriksen referred to as “a stag party.”

Meaning and application

Verse 7 constitutes Jesus’ application of this parable, so we are not free to change it.  Here is His application—

I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Here we are reading what the attitude of Jesus is toward the lost that have been found.  Reflected in the shepherd, His attitude, and the attitude of heaven is that of .   When a sinner is found, all heaven rejoices.

Clearly, the shepherd represents Christ.  But who do the 99 represent?  There has been much debate in Biblical scholarship since the days of Martin Luther over this very point.  Luther, for his part, taught that the 99 represented genuine believers; they those who had previously repented and were a part of Christ’s fold.  Such believers who stand in good stead with Christ need not repent over and over again.  Van Ooosterze, another scholar, thought that Jesus was referring to those who thought they were righteous—namely, the Pharisees, who were part of the crowd being addressed by Christ.  Still others think the 99 represent angels in heaven.

What is the correct view?  The lost sheep was part of a greater community; there were 100 sheep that belonged to the shepherd, then one went missing.  That missing sheep never stopped being a part of the greater community—the 100—even though it was separated from them by its own volition, for it deliberately wandered off.  Even though it is true that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were being addressed by Christ, we need to go back to 14:25—35 and Christ’s discussion of the cost of being a disciple.  The majority—the 100—clearly have reference to the body of genuine followers of God.  The 99, then, represent faithful members of the covenant who have never wandered off, away from God.  They live according to law of God and have no need for repentance for they already have it.

Are they Jews or Christians?   At this point, we would say that the 99 simply represent true followers of God.  There was no Church established yet, so true followers of God were those who had regulated their lives around the light they had; the light of the Old Testament Scriptures that carried the Divine Law.  These were considered righteous because of the faith planted in them, the faith that was growing even then by the teaching and presence of Christ on earth.  The one lost sheep would have to be considered a backslider, one who strayed from the truth he knew.

What a comforting message.  What a message of hope.  Though a believer may wander from God, like the lost sheep, he never stops being the property of the Great Shepherd and Christ, that Great Shepherd, will do what He can to bring the errant believer back to a place of repentance.

The love of God can never be overstated!

(c)  2009 Witzend
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