There are two places in the Bible that tell of a loving shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep in search of one that is lost — Matthew 18:12 and Luke 15:4. It’s from these verses and their passages that we understand it is Jesus who leaves the 99.
This is because He often used short relatable stories to share deeper spiritual insights about Himself, His Father, and His Kingdom. The lost sheep parables are no different and, indeed, point to some considerable truths, both here on earth and even in Heaven.
To better understand these truths, we’ll need to take a closer look at the nature of parables and what is implied by the stories of the lost sheep.
Parables and the Lost Sheep
While both versions of the lost sheep use the same cast of characters, Jesus was actually speaking to two different audiences about two different concerns. In Matthew 18, the lost sheep parable is given in response to a question asked by Jesus’ disciples about who is the greatest. He uses it to address appropriate attitudes and disciplines among believers.
In Luke 15, the lost sheep parable is given in response to the disapproving comments of religious leaders. This time, He addresses their judgmental attitudes toward the “unrighteous” liars and cheaters in the crowd.
These parables, and many others, were used specifically because Jesus’ audience could immediately relate to them. It was here, the lost sheep, loving shepherd, and remaining flock, spoke so brilliantly and effectively to their respective situations. And they did so because the familiar points of reference added depth to what Jesus was trying to relay.
Particularly concerning the heart of God and human attitudes toward the lost sinner (Luke 15:7) and wayward believer (Matthew 18:6; Matthew 18:14). Those to which the portrayed shepherd was seeking, in the form of lowly sheep.
Understanding the Sheep Reference
Today, it’s a bit harder to relate to this culture of ancient Israel, so it helps to read these parables with a little context. For instance, Psalm 100:3 is one of many places where God’s people are referred to as sheep. It says, “Know that the Lord is God… we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”
Understanding the Shepherd Reference
Similarly, multiple references are found concerning the shepherd. And if the people are sheep, God Himself is the Shepherd (Psalm 23:1). But not just any shepherd — the good shepherd, (John 10:11) the great shepherd (Hebrews 13:20), and the chief shepherd (1 Peter 5:4).
This makes it easy to see the parables of lost sheep and their shepherd for what they truly are, genius word pictures describing God as a heavenly shepherd, Jesus as the shepherd come to earth, and their flock.
I don’t think that it’s by accident that the lost sheep in both parables end up representing the saved and unsaved, alike. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost,” (Luke 19:10) not just the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 15:24) but also those from outside the fold — the gentiles (John 10:16; Acts 28:28).
Therefore, these parables combined speak to the complete body of Christ. To the sheep who are already in the fold, and to the sheep who are yet to come. Both to the lost sinner, and again to the found saint.
What it Means That Jesus Leaves the Ninety-Nine
As has already been implied, the 99 of each parable represents a different group of people. In Matthew, the flock represents the faithful earthly saints. Not that they are perfect, but they’re those who are in Christ. (Matthew 18:7).
In Luke, the 99 can be seen as those who adhered to the law given by God, as the Pharisees He was speaking to would have claimed to do. Jesus calls them the “ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7). Of course, this was just an illustration of their self-righteousness (Mark 7:6-7).
Still, with such differences between the two parables, there are many mutual points to be made.
Both Confirm the Nature of Man
- To stray: We all, like sheep, have gone astray (Isaiah 53:6).
- To fall short: We all fall short (Romans 3:23).
- To sin: We all are under sin (Romans 3:29).
Even the Apostle Paul had this to say, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15, ESV). If he struggled with this, then certainly the rest of us will too. Simply because we’re all human.
Both Confirm the Shepherd's Purpose
- To seek: I will search for the lost and bring back the strays (Ezekiel 34:16).
- To call: Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in (Revelation 3:20).
- To carry: I have made you and I will carry you (Isaiah 46:4).
- To save: For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:17).
Both Confirm Individual Value
- Of the sinner: There is joy over every single repentant sinner (Luke 15:17).
- For the saint: In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones (who believe in me) should perish (Matthew 18:14).
Both Confirm Redemptive Grace
Most predominantly, we recognize this in the life of the “lost” sinner, “Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4).
Because, while we were sinners, Christ died for us, (Romans 5:8) thus securing an eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12) and tearing the curtain between us and God (Hebrews 10:20) that from His fullness we can receive grace upon grace (John 1:16).
But also prevalent in the life of the saint by way of continued mercy — from God, “will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?” (Matthew 18:12). And from each other, “Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them” (Luke 17:4).
Both Confirm Ownership
The Shepherd goes after the sheep who are his (Matthew 18:12; Luke 15:4; 2 Timothy 2:19) amid the goats and the wolves (Matthew 25:33; Matthew 7:15). It is His sheep that hear and recognize their Shepherd’s voice (John 10:27), for they have been chosen and predestined to do so (Ephesians 1:4-5).
The implication here is that the 99 are not left to their own devices but are securely in His hand (John 10:29). For their Father is not reckless in His searching (John 6:39). Because God is everywhere and sees all things (Jeremiah 23:24; Proverbs 15:3). He is faithful to protect (Proverbs 18:10; 2 Thessalonians 3:3), while also providing the flock with heavenly help (Psalm 34:7; Hebrews 1:14).
Both Establish Great Responsibility
- As a saint among the unsaved — to know the gospel (Romans 1:16) and to share the gospel (Mark 16:15);
- As a member of the body of Christ — to have proper attitudes toward the spiritually lost and least of believers (Luke 15; Matthew 18:10);
- To also take initiative against the stumbling blocks of sin within the flock, (Luke 17:3; Matthew 18:15) having a heart of compassion and forgiveness (Ephesians 4:23);
- While taking care not to lead another away with temptation (Matthew 18:6).
Both Confirm the Heart of God
- As a father caring for his own (Romans 8:16; Galatians 4:6).
- As our savior (1 Timothy 4:10).
- In love (1 John 3:1; 1 John 4:16).
- For joy (Matthew 18:13; Luke 15:7).
- Not wanting anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9).
Both Point to the Gospel
Finally, it was for the lost sheep that Jesus came. Leaving Heaven as our shepherd (John 3:13), to lay down His life as a lamb (1 John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 5:7), becoming sin for the sinner (2 Corinthians 5:21), and righteousness for the saint (Romans 3:22).
May we never forget, God’s call to any lost sheep is found in the gospel (2 Thessalonians 2:14).
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Amy Swanson resides in Connecticut where she has recently discovered a passion for Bible study and writing. By God's continued grace, she now enjoys helping others better understand their Bibles, while also being an advocate for biblical church integrity. As a mother of three and a wife of 13 years, she blogs less than she'd like to but shares Scriptural insights, encouraging truth, resources, and musings on her FB page.