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The parable of the lost sheep is at the root of a common Christian saying: “he leaves the ninety-nine.” But do we really know what that means beyond a surface level? There is so much rich doctrine in this parable that gives light into the heart of God, who we are in our sin nature in need of repentance, and who we become upon salvation.
This article will explain the parable of the lost sheep, digging deep into the representation in the characters, the significance of those roles, what “he leaves the ninety-nine” means, and how it should affect our walks with Christ.
There will also be a section at the end listing more scripture that presents the Lord as the great shepherd for further study into that aspect of the Heavenly Father.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
The parable of the lost sheep, found in Luke 15, is as follows:
In this profound parable of the lost sheep, Jesus Christ prompts the tax collectors, sinners, and religious leaders called the Pharisees with a convicting scenario. He asks them if if they were shepherds of a hundred sheep, and one sheep strayed away from the herd and got lost, would they leave the ninety-nine sheep in the open country where they are at least together to find the lost one? Then Jesus furthers the prompt by describing the pure joy of the shepherd upon finding the one lost sheep; pure joy to the point of calling everyone he knows to share in the joy with him.
But of course, Jesus didn’t tell parables to entertain with a fun story but rather to teach of the kingdom of Heaven. So then Jesus puts the final bow on the lost sheep parable by saying that the joy in the kingdom of heaven over the finding of one lost sinner is even more than the joy of the shepherd in the parable.
So what does this mean?
Who is Who?
To start making sense of and applying the parable of the lost sheep, we first need to understand the representation of the characters: the shepherd, the ninety-nine sheep in the open country, and the lost sheep.
In this parable, the shepherd, or haver-of-the-sheep, represents God. The ninety-nine sheep in the open country represent children of God who have already been justified by the saving sacrifice of the Son of Man, and the one lost sheep that has strayed away from the herd represents the lost child of God who has fallen victim to their sin nature and is in need of repentance.
Before re-telling the parable of the lost sheep with the characters reflected as those above, let’s first go deeper into the nature of shepherds and their sheep.
In Biblical times, especially in the Old Testament, being a shepherd was a crucial role that was often entrusted to young children. But regardless of age, a shepherd’s main responsibility was to safeguard and guide their flock to abundant pastures with ample food and calm, accessible water.
It was essential for the sheep’s well-being that they were provided with nutritious grass and the opportunity to quench their thirst without fear. This duty of guiding the flock to fertile land was paramount in maintaining their health.
In order to fulfill this task, a shepherd would carry a few essential tools. The first was a sturdy rod with a knob at one end, sometimes even equipped with nails, serving as a formidable weapon to protect the flock from potential danger. They also carried a long staff as a walking aid and a tool to direct the sheep when necessary skillfully. And for added protection, shepherds often had a sling – a leather pouch on a string – which they would use to fling stones at wild animals from a safe distance.
Such were the duties and tools of a shepherd entrusted with the care and protection of the flock. Their diligence and resourcefulness ensured the well-being and safety of their sheep, making their role an integral part of the community.
I’m sure you’re beginning to see why God would be considered our shepherd, but why would we be considered sheep? Well, sheep have no ability to defend themselves, meaning they are completely helpless on their own without a shepherd. They have a “herd mentality,” meaning they just follow the leader, whomever that may be, having no idea what they may or may not be getting themselves into, and they are prone to wander away from the flock out of distraction or rebellion.
Make sense now? I think we can be completely honest here and say that the stereotype given to sheep should be given to people, too; we are dumb.
So now let’s finally tie all of this who is who together. Just like sheep, we are completely helpless without a shepherd. We can do nothing in our own strength, at least nothing with actual significance. We are gullible to the things people say that may sound nice but are actually false teachings, and we get overconfident and prideful, leading to rebellion against truth.
Upon belief and repentance, we become children of God, saved from the eternity of suffering that we were walking ourselves into. God becomes our shepherd, there to defend us against enemies, correct us when we sin, and guide us to a peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).
God as our shepherd, the great shepherd, is perfectly laid out in the infamous Psalm 23:
The Lost Child
Now that we fully understand the representation in the parable of the lost sheep, along with its significance, we can dive into the main point of this parable: that He leaves the ninety-nine for one.
This parable is truly one of the greatest examples of the depth of God’s love and care for us. The kingdom of God is growing and growing as each day passes, it’s not like God is lacking. Yet He says His kingdom just wouldn’t be the same without you. He wants you specifically. No matter your earthly status; rich, poor, popular, outcast, liked, hated, etc. God specifically chose and actively chased after you. Does that not just make your heart leap for joy?
Let’s put ourselves in the position of the shepherd, but with something we can relate to. If you were walking outside with a hundred one dollar bills in your hand, and the wind blew one of them out of your grip, would you set down and walk away from the ninety-nine other dollar bills to race the wind for the one that blew away?
Probably not. I mean the wind could blow the rest of them away if it blew the one, and someone could walk up to the ninety-nine bills you no longer tending to and take it, leaving you with none. I assume you would pick your battles in the scenario and let the one-dollar bill drift away. We can all agree that ninety-nine dollars is a lot better than one.
But God doesn’t.
You were once a sinner in need of repentance, a lost soul going your own way, different ways from the flock. God could have so easily given up on you in your constant state of rebellion and focused his energy on the ninety-nine righteous persons that he already had in the kingdom of heaven. But instead, he left them to chase after you and bring you back to where you belong.
And when he found you and rescued you, he didn’t take out the frustration that you probably caused on you, he didn’t pretend like this whole thing never happened, no, he was full of nothing but utter joy at your repentance and welcomed you home with open arms. He called on the rest of the kingdom of heaven to rejoice with him.
You had God’s entire kingdom in an uproar of cheer all because of the saving of your soul. What a beautiful thing. The heart of God holds so much love for his children that the repentance of just one lost sinner is more joyous than ninety-nine righteous persons.
How This Affects Us
Understanding the lost sheep parable, or any teaching of Jesus Christ, wouldn’t have much value if we didn’t allow it to change our lives.
I believe there are two significant things that we can pull from the parable of the lost sheep as we move forward in our own daily life walking with Christ.
First, no matter the value the world gives you, or the even the value you give yourself, God has made it abundantly clear that you are more than precious to Him. Whenever the world beats you down by looking over you, devaluing your accomplishments and importance, hold your head high knowing that God had a place for you in his kingdom from the beginning of time that he was not willing to let go unfilled.
He relentlessly chased after you even when you continued in your sin until you repented and finally took that spot meant just for you. There is no opinion, not your own, not your parent’s, not your friend’s, not anyone on social media’s, that matters in the eyes of the eternity you were meant for in the first place.
Second, you should rejoice whenever a sinner is saved as well. Now that you are a part of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, you get to be a part of rejoicing whenever each lost sinner repents and is brought home into eternal life with the Heavenly Father, just as you were.
This should encourage you to pursue the great commission, being a witness to the world of Christ Jesus’ saving work. Chase after that lost soul, your coworker, friend, family member, etc., like the greatest joy that you could possibly experience, is seeing their salvation, because it should be.
The parable of the lost sheep is a parable that changes lives. The great lengths of God’s love will never be fully grasped by the human mind, but this teaching depicts it pretty dang well. You are absolutely priceless in the eyes of the Father.
More Scripture with God as the Great Shepherd
For further study on God as the great shepherd to his children, here is more scripture that continues the analogy:
The parable of the prodigal son, also found in Luke’s account of the gospel, gives more insight into the rejoicing upon the saving of the lost sheep.
The lost son was welcomed with open arms by his father whenever he returned home from his rebellion, even to the point of a feast where the father killed the best calf he had for his son. Just as the father rejoiced in the return of his son without him deserving it, so too God rejoices in the salvation that we did not deserve.
In summary, the Parable of the Lost Sheep teaches us about the unconditional love and forgiveness that Jesus has for each and every one of us. Through this powerful story, we are reminded that no matter how lost or imperfect we may feel, we are never beyond the reach of God’s grace and mercy.
Jesus’ message is one of hope, restoration, and redemption, and it is a message that continues to resonate with us today. As we reflect on this parable, let us also reflect on our own lives and the ways in which we can show love and forgiveness to those around us. Let us be the shepherds who never give up on our lost sheep, and let us always remember that we, too, were once lost but now are found.
As the saying goes, “There is more rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7). So let us take action and spread this message of love and grace to others, for it is truly the heart of Jesus’ teachings. Now, let us open the doors for further discussions and delve deeper into the meaning of this timeless parable.
You may enjoy this clip from the TV Show “The Chosen” on the parable of the lost sheep.
You may also enjoy one of these recommended resources:
Praying for the Lost Sheep: Sheep Without a Shepherd by Mikró Arnáki
The Parable of the Lost Sheep: A Commentary in 7 Days by Matthew Stroupe
The Importance of Just One Revisited: The Parable of the Lost Sheep by Rev. Al Stewart, D.D.
ESV – “Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”