Most probably refer to this parable as the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” and view it as a parallel text to the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15. However, I have preferred to call it the “Parable of the Straying Sheep,” since I do not think it is a parallel text to that found in Luke 15. In fact, it deals with a different issue. The reason for this position will become clear when we examine the meaning of the parable in its context.
Introduction: In the days of Ezekiel, God issued a dire warning to the leaders of Israel, who were supposed to have been faithful shepherds of His people, but who had failed to protect and care for them. He also foretold a day when He Himself would come to seek and save the sheep:
NKJ Ezekiel 34:11-16 For thus says the Lord GOD: “Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land; I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, in the valleys and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them in good pasture, and their fold shall be on the high mountains of Israel. There they shall lie down in a good fold and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I will feed My flock, and I will make them lie down,” says the Lord GOD. 16 “I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgment.”
Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy. He was the promised coming of the LORD to seek and save the sheep, as He made clear to His disciples. For example:
NKJ John 10:11-16 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. 12 But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. 13 The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. 15 As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. 16 And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.
NKJ John 10:24-28 Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father's name, they bear witness of Me. 26 But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. 27 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28 And I give them eternal life [as the shepherd Jesus seeks and saves the sheep], and they shall never perish [ἀπόλλυμι]; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand [as the Shepherd Jesus keeps the sheep from ever perishing].”
This provides the larger context and proper background for understanding the parable before us this morning. It reminds us that Jesus not only calls His sheep to Himself, but that He also keeps them from perishing. As we will see, this is the very issue taken up by the Parable of the Straying Sheep.
But before we get into the parable itself – having already been informed by the broader context of Scripture – we should also take some time to examine the immediate context of the parable, so let's take a brief look at vss. 1-11:
NKJ Matthew 18:1-11 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, 3 and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever receives one little child like this [i.e. like the disciple who has humbled himself and has thus become as a little child] in My name receives Me. 6 But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me [i.e. the disciple who has become a little child in the faith] to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes! 8 If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire. 10 Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones [i.e. the disciple who has become a little child in the faith], for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. 11 For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.”
Now, many modern versions either leave out verse 11, relegate it to a footnote, or place it in brackets. The reason for this is that it is not found in this passage in some of the older Greek manuscripts (although it is contained in Luke 19:10), and it appears to some that it doesn't fit the context, since in the following parable Jesus clearly has straying believers in mind rather than those who are lost and in need of salvation. However, as we have already seen, Jesus can refer to Himself as the one who comes to seek and save the lost – in the context of being a shepherd who seeks His sheep – and then refer either to bringing them to eternal life or to keeping them from perishing. Both are aspects of His saving work. It just happens that the focus of this passage is upon the latter – His preserving work.
Anyway, now that we have both the broader and more immediate context in mind, let's turn our attention toward understanding this parable.
NKJ Matthew 18:12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray [πλανάω], does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying [πλανάω]?
There are three things that need to be highlighted in this verse.
First, the initial question here is intended to get the disciples – and us – to do just what it asks of us, to think. He is calling to us to consider the situation He is about to present and to think about what a shepherd should do in such a situation. Jesus no doubt also wants us to think about what it is that He Himself does in such a situation.
Second, the followup question here – “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying?” – expects the answer, “Yes, of course he leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go seek the one straying sheep.”
Some think it odd that Jesus would ask such a question and then seriously expect such an answer. Who, they wonder, will look after the ninety-nine sheep left behind? Well, Jesus doesn't concern Himself with this, and He doesn't expect His disciples to be concerned about it either. This is no doubt because what He is describing is a realistic situation, in which it would be expected that more than one shepherd would be looking after one hundred sheep.
At any rate, Jesus doesn't dwell on the ninety-nine and the point of the parable really isn't about them anyway. It is about the fact that the shepherd cares so much about the one straying sheep that he personally goes to find it.
Application: At least one possible application of the parable thus far is readily apparent: God's care for His sheep is expressed in His personal and individual concern for each one of them. Whenever one of his sheep – one of the “little ones” (vs. 6), one of those who has believed in Jesus – goes astray, God is deeply concerned and seeks him out to restore him.
Third, we come to an idea twice repeated in this verse, namely that the one sheep has strayed. The emphasis upon the one sheep, as I have already indicated, reflects such an emphasis in the preceding context. For example:
Verses 5-6: Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Italics mine)
Verse 10: Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.
Thus Jesus has warned those who would cause one of the little ones – i.e. one of those who humble themselves and believe in him – to stumble. But what about when one of His little ones – here represented as one of His sheep – does stumble or stray? Well, then God seeks him out in order to restore him. And He restores him with great joy, as the next verse indicates.
NKJ Matthew 18:13 And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep [referring back to the one] than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray [πλανάω].
D.A. Carson is surely correct when he observes that, ”This love for the individual sheep is not at the expense of the entire flock but so that the flock as a whole may not lose a single one of its members” (EBC, Vol. 8, p. 401).
Remember that in verse 14 Jesus goes on to say that the shepherd here represents God the Father. So the point here is that, when God has restored a straying child of his, it brings Him joy.
Application: This is not to say that we should take sin lightly, as though it is just another opportunity to bring joy to God when we repent. Such an attitude is like that of the person who asks, ”Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound”? And the answer is the same one that Paul gives to that question: “No way!” (See Rom. 6:1-2). Such an attitude forgets that our sin grieves God in the first place! This is why Paul admonishes us, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30).
Yet it is good to remember that our Father rejoices over the straying believer who repents, since this tells us what our attitude should be as well. Even though we may be grieved by the sins of a brother or sister in the Lord, we must not allow such grief to rob us of the joy to be had when he or she repents!
NKJ Matthew 18:14 Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones [i.e. the disciple who have become a little child in the faith as in vss. 1-10 above] should perish [ἀπόλλυμι, same word as in John 10:28].
Here Jesus explains His main point. It is not the Father's will that any of His children should perish. This is why He seeks them out when they stray. And this is why Jesus became a man and laid down His life for the sheep, as we saw earlier in John 10. Remember that He said:
NKJ John 10:27-28 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28 And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish [ἀπόλλυμι]; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.
We don't save ourselves, and we don't keep ourselves saved either! This is the work of God, who seeks and restores His sheep so as to lose none of them.
D.A. Carson helpfully drives home the gist of this parable, reflecting the way that Jesus again picks up the reference to the “little ones,” about whom He has spoken earlier in verse 10:
Here is another reason not to despise these “little ones”: the shepherd— the Father (v. 14)—is concerned for each sheep in his flock and seeks the one who strays (v. 12). His concern for the one wandering sheep is so great that he rejoices more over its restoration than over the ninety-nine that do not stray (v. 13). With a God like that, how dare anyone cause even one of these sheep to go astray? Jesus drives the lesson home: the heavenly Father is unwilling for any of “these little ones” (see on vv. 3-6) to be lost. If that is his will, it is shocking that anyone else would seek to lead one of “these little ones” astray. This love for the individual sheep is not at the expense of the entire flock but so that the flock as a whole may not lose a single one of its members. (EBC, Vol. 8, p. 401)
Or as Klyne Snodgrass puts it:
What is revealed about the character of God is the value he places on even the least deserving and the care he extends to such people. God is not passive, waiting for people to approach him after they get their lives in order. He is the seeking God who takes the initiative to bring people back …. (Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 109)
This has importance also for what Jesus goes on to say in the following verses about church discipline, because it helps us to understand that the goal of church discipline is loving restoration of the sinning believer. This is one way in which we cooperate with Jesus in His shepherding work to seek and restore the one sheep that strays:
NKJ Matthew 18:15-20 Moreover if your brother sins against you [singular], go and tell him his fault between you [singular] and him alone. If he hears you [singular], you [singular] have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you [singular] one or two more, that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you [singular] like a heathen and a tax collector. 18 Assuredly, I say to you [plural], whatever you bind [plural] on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose [plural] on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you [plural] that if two of you [plural] agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three [i.e the original person (vs. 15) plus the one or two more that he takes with him (vs. 16)] are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.
Jesus – the Good Shepherd – promises to be with us as we seek to help the straying sheep. We have the great privilege of being involved in each others' lives in this role. But this is especially true of the disciples to whom Jesus is speaking, because they would become the leaders/shepherds of the early Church.
But this same task has been passed on to the elders who have taken over the leadership role in the churches, although without the same authority the Apostles possessed. To such elders Paul says, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).
Peter admonishes elders similarly, when he says, “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away” (1 Peter 5:3-4).
Conclusion: Application: I would like to conclude this teaching with a couple of additional points of application.
First, given that the elders have a special responsibility to help seek and restore straying sheep, what should your attitude toward them be? Shouldn't it be a positive, encouraging, supportive, helpful, and submissive attitude? As the author of Hebrews admonishes us:
NKJ Hebrews 13:17 Obey those who rule over you [i.e. the elders, for no others could be in mind here], and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.
Second, to the degree that we all have a responsibility to help a straying brother or sister, we must not see our role as taking the place of the elders, or as opposed to that of the elders, but as being in cooperation with them. I do not think that Jesus here intends that any brother or sister usurp the role of those He has set over the churches. But I do think we all do have the responsibility He charges us with in these verses. This means that we must all seek the maturity that makes us capable of fulfilling this role. As Paul admonished the Galatian believers:
NKJ Galatians 6:1-2 Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. 2 Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
In the context of Galatians, the spiritual person is the one who has learned to be led by the Spirit rather than the flesh. It is thus the believer who has attained some degree of maturity. We must all seek such maturity, not only for our own sake, but for the sake of that brother or sister for whom Christ died, who may be straying in some way and who may need the help that we can offer. In this way we may all have the privilege of serving the Great Shepherd in His ministry of preserving His sheep.