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The lost sheep parable

Sep 15, 2014

After Luke records Jesus’ warning about the coming destruction of Jerusalem, he includes teaching in chapter 14 that shows the way to avoid divine judgment.

Chapter 15, then, begins a new section, where Luke shows how Jesus expounded on the Kingdom, mostly through the use of parables. This continues throughout Luke 16, after which we see Jesus’ teaching on faith, by which one may enter the Kingdom.

All of this teaching was given while Jesus was making His final trip to Jerusalem to be crucified. (Luke 13:22; 17:11). It is possible that Luke combined the teachings of two trips to Jerusalem into a single narrative, but if this is so, we are not told. All we see is that while Jesus walked to Jerusalem, He spoke of the Kingdom.

The Pharisees Grumble

Luke introduces these parables by telling us the issue that Jesus was answering. Luke 15:1-3 says,

1 Now all the tax-gatherers and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. 2 And both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 And He told them this parable, saying…

To “eat” with someone signified being in fellowship. It was the most common form of communion, i.e., having a common union. In Numbers 25:2, 3 we read,

2 For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the Lord was angry against Israel.

When men ate of the sacrifices that were dedicated to pagan altars, it signified that they were partakers of that altar, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:18,

18 Look at the nation of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?

Paul was discussing the same issue that Jesus faced in Luke 15. It was a question of communion (1 Corinthians 10:16, 17). Paul affirms that believers were not to be partakers at the pagan altars (1 Corinthians 10:20, 21). However, the broader question was whether one should eat meat from the market that had been dedicated to idols.

Eating Meat Sacrificed to Idols

People donated more animals than the priests could eat, and so much of it was sold in the market place. Jews were required to abstain from buying that meat in order to avoid being in fellowship with idols. Paul, however, disagrees with the Jewish viewpoint, telling us in verse 19 that an idol is nothing, nor does it have any legitimate claim upon the meat that is offered to it. He concludes in 1 Corinthians 10:25, 26,

25 Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; 26 for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains.

Paul goes on to say that we ought to be sensitive to other men’s conscience, so that if someone at the table raises an objection about the meat, one should respect his conscience and refrain from eating it. Though eating such meat at home does not cause the believer to fellowship with idols, we should “do all to the glory of God” and “give no offense” (1 Corinthians 10:31, 32).

Eating with Sinners

To a Jew this issue took on a broader application in society. They believed that eating with “sinners” was equivalent to partaking of pagan altars. Sinners were those who were outside of temple fellowship. They were the excommunicated ones, and the rest of the people were supposed to respect the temple ruling by shunning those “sinners.” Such sinners included the publicans, or tax-collectors who worked for the Roman government.

Eating with Converts

Jewish tradition also forbade a Jew to eat with converts to Judaism. It seems that their conversion from paganism to the altar of God did not give them full or equal citizenship in the Kingdom. This tradition carried over into the Church, particularly among the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Paul and Peter clashed over this issue, as Paul describes in Galatians 2:11-13,

11 But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. 13 And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.

This tradition of men had a powerful grip on the minds of the Jews in those days, even after they had come to believe in Jesus Christ. Yet it was obvious that they did not fully understand the implications of Jesus’ practice and teaching when it came to eating with sinners and gentiles. It appears that Peter did not take a bold stand in regard to his vision that Luke records in Acts 10. His revelation about not calling any man common or unclean seems to have been lost in Jerusalem. Fortunately, Luke informed us of this revelation in Acts 10, and no doubt he also had this in mind when he wrote of the grumbling among the scribes and Pharisees.

The Man Born Blind

John 9 tells us about a man born blind, whom Jesus healed. When he gave testimony to the priests, they wanted him to attribute the miracle to God alone and not give Jesus any credit, because Jesus had healed him on the Sabbath day. The dispute ended in John 9:34, “and they put him out.” In other words, they excommunicated him from the temple. Jesus later found him and gave him a greater revelation of the Messiah. John 9:35 says,

35 Jesus heard that they had put him out; and finding him, He said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

The man’s faith in Jesus as the Messiah brought him into fellowship with the Son of Man and made him a citizen of the Kingdom. Though the religion had cut him off, He found fellowship with the Messiah, who alone had the authority to determine who would enter the Kingdom and who would not.

This man born blind was one of those disciples who were scattered abroad by the persecution coming from the temple in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). He was nameless in John’s account, so as not to cause him undue trouble later in life, but we know from later Church history that he took on the Roman name, Restitutus. He bore witness of Christ in Provence, Gaul and became the bishop of Tricastinorum. The nearby church in the village of St. Restitut is where he is buried.

Getting back to Luke 15, when Jesus ate with sinners and tax-collectors, the scribes and Pharisees grumbled, thinking that Jesus was fellowshipping with those who had been cut off from worshiping at the temple.

When we understand the reason why the scribes and Pharisees were grumbling about Jesus’ fellowship with publicans and sinners, we can then understand Jesus’ answer.

Jesus Answers with a Parable

Luke 15:4-7 says,

4 What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!” 7 I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Jesus was telling the grumblers that it was only right for the shepherd to go out and find his lost sheep, rather than excommunicate the lost sheep for wandering away. He drew His illustration from Ezekiel 34, where we find that the lost tribes of Israel had been condemned by the priests in Jerusalem. They were pictured as “lost sheep” wandering in the mountains (among the kingdoms), “and there was no one to search or seek for them” (Ezekiel 34:6).

The prophet condemned the earthly shepherds for refusing to search for them, saying in Ezekiel 34:11-16,

11 For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out… 15 I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord God. 16 “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and strengthen the sick…”

Surely Jesus also knew who was specifically called to deliver His flock of lost sheep, for Ezekiel 34:23 says,

23 Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd.

David had been dead for centuries by the time Ezekiel prophesied of this, so it was understood that this would be fulfilled by the Son of David. Jesus was that Son of David, and so He is the One who will find the lost tribes of Israel, making a covenant of peace with them (Ezekiel 34:25), which is the New Covenant. With them will come many other sheep from all nations as they hear His voice and believe on Him.

Jesus’ answer to the grumblers applied this great mission more specifically to the publicans and sinners in His own time, for they too were lost sheep. Ezekiel implied that the priests in Jerusalem had oppressed those sheep and were the original cause of their scattering. If the temple priests had cared for the sheep of Israel, they would not have wandered from God. But instead, the priests fleeced the sheep without feeding them properly and without healing the sick among them (Ezekiel 34:3, 4).

Even as the prophet condemned the temple priests for their role in scattering the sheep, so also did Jesus imply that the same was being done in His time. The publicans and sinners were sheep that the temple shepherds had mistreated. When the sheep then became disillusioned or discouraged, the shepherds cut them off from the temple as “sinners.”

Jesus, therefore, came to search for them Himself, as the prophet had foretold. And when He found them, He rejoiced. When the sinners saw the Good Shepherd treating people right, they gladly repented and believed that He was the Messiah.

The irony at the end is in verse 7, where there is more joy over one sinner that repents than over “ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” The scribes and Pharisees, of course, were in great need of repentance, but they thought of themselves as righteous men who did not need to repent.

This is the first parable about repentance in this present series of Kingdom parables. It tells us that the citizens of the Kingdom are characterized by repentance, rather than by self-righteousness.


This is the eighty-second part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in the Book of Luke


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Category: Teachings

Dr. Stephen Jones


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