Both Matthew 18 and Luke 15 record Jesus’ parable about a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in the fold to go in search of one that had wandered away. Jesus gave this illustration in response to the Pharisees who were incensed that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). The religious leaders in Jesus’ day had structured their system to exalt the self-righteous and exclude anyone who did not live up to their often arbitrary standards (Matthew 23:28). They had added so many rules and regulations to God’s law that no one could keep them all, including the ones who drafted them. When Jesus came along, His methodology confused them. He seemed to be from God, yet He rebuked the outwardly righteous and welcomed the wicked. How could this man know God?
So Jesus told them a story, as He did many times in order to explain spiritual truths: “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:12–14). The people of Jesus’ day understood the relationship between shepherds and sheep, but the significance of a shepherd going in search of one lost sheep is sometimes lost on us. It seems strange that a shepherd would leave his flock to search for one missing sheep.
We might consider the shepherd leaving the 99 to find the 1 this way: a father and his five children are asleep in their home when the smoke detectors go off. The father awakens to find his house filled with smoke and the sound of flames and crackling timber coming nearer. Panicked, he races to his children’s bedrooms and begins to rouse them. Calling to some and carrying others, he stumbles down the stairs and out the front door. He deposits the sleepy children on the grass a safe distance away and then turns. Gasping for air, he squints through the smoke to count kids: “Tim, Sally, Angel, Jojo—where’s Lilly!” He is missing his youngest, three-year-old Lilly. Four children are safe, one is not. What will this father do?
God is a Father. He counts His kids. He rejoices that some are safely in Christ, prepared for eternity and nestled near His heart. But some are missing. Where’s Karen? Where’s Abdul? Where’s Jose? The Father sent Jesus on a rescue mission “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). God does not abandon the 99. They are already safely in His kingdom, attended by His angels, and guided by His Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14; Hebrews 13:5). But His heart aches for those not yet in the fold.
So the Good Shepherd pursues the lost sheep, woos them, calls to them, and allows circumstances into their lives designed to make them look up. It is often in the bleakest of circumstances that we finally surrender our demands to have our own way. We finally submit to our Shepherd, who carries us back to the fold (Luke 15:5). In John 10, Jesus again refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd, saying, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (verses 16–17). Then in verses 27–29 He says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” The 99 are still important to Him, but He knows the flock is not complete without the lost sheep. And a good shepherd always goes after the lost sheep.
In Luke’s gospel, two other parables follow the one about the one lost sheep, and both of them reinforce Jesus’ main point, which is the value of individuals. The parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8–10) and the parable of the lost son, also known as the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32), continue the theme of God as a pursuer of lost people. We were all lost at one time, and the Lord came after us. If He had not taken the initiative, no one could be saved (John 6:44). So, when our Good Shepherd wants to pursue another lost lamb, the 99 who are in the fold can joyfully support the rescue.