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 Vol. 3, No. 7 

Page 2

July, 2001

Parables of Our LordParables of Jesus

The Lost Sheep

Luke 15:1-7

By Louis Rushmore


The parable of the Lost Sheep is unique to Luke's Gospel record, though a similar reference appears in Matthew's account. It should not be thought strange for the same or nearly the same illustrations to be used at different places, at different times by the same speaker. Contemporary speakers (including preachers) do it all the time. Besides, as noted below, the biblical use of sheep and shepherds to illustrate truth appears frequently upon the pages of inspiration. Lockyer concludes that the parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke ". . . must not be confused with The Parable of the Lost Sheep . . . (Matthew 18:1-14), even though the two are told in similar vein."1

Most of us have our favorite passages of Scripture. Luke Chapter Fifteen is among the chapters of the Bible that provide special encouragement to many souls whose spiritual eyes are trained on the ever approaching eternity, at which time we will meet our Great God and Creator. It is comforting to know of the emotional investment and concern God expends on each individual soul.

The fifteenth chapter of Luke is perhaps the most priceless chapter in the Bible. Certainly no chapter is more tender and more lovely. For centuries it has been called "the Gospel in the Gospels" . . .2

Luke 15 contains one parable in which there are embedded three sub-parables: the parable of the Lost Sheep (vv. 4-7), the parable of the Lost Coin (vv. 8-10) and the parable of the Prodigal Son (vv. 11-32)

Usually this renowned chapter of the Bible is broken up by writers and preachers, and dealt with as containing three precious distinct parables . . . Actually, however, the whole chapter is but one parable having three pictures. There is no break in the verses. One illustration flows into the other. So when we read, "He spake this parable unto them" (Luke 15:3), the singular form "this parable" means that the entire chapter constitutes the particular parable.3

"The three parables unite in teaching that God misses even one that is lost."4 "The three parables of the fifteenth chapter of Luke illustrate God's love for sinners."5 ". . . [A]s we pass from sheep and coin to son, the values also rise, and instead of one in a hundred, or one from ten, we have one out of two!"6 "It was serious to lose sheep, worse to lose money, and worst of all to lose a son."7

Together, they form the response of Jesus to his critics, the Pharisees and the scribes (Luke 15:2). The catalyst for the unfavorable review by those religious leaders was the popularity Jesus enjoyed among Israel's spiritual untouchables, namely "the publicans and sinners" (Luke 15:1-2).

This marvelous chapter had for its original audience the indignant scribes and Pharisees. They were not interested in the Kingdom themselves, yet they were angered when they saw Jesus welcome the moral outcasts and black sheep of Jewish society.8

The publicans were hateful to their countrymen, being accounted as traitors who for the sake of filthy lucre had sided with the Romans, the oppressors of the theocracy, and now collected tribute for a heathen treasury. No alms might be received from their moneychest; their evidence was not taken in courts of justice, and they were put on the same level with heathens . . .9

Sadly, the religious leaders who should have embraced the Messiah and introduced him to the masses, instead rejected him. The miserable sinners who made no pretense of being pious, though, gladly sought the Savior. "Unlike the Pharisees, the sinners knew they were sinners and needed to be saved."10

The publicans and the sinners found in Jesus One who did not reject them, but rather One who took a genuine interest in them by pointing out to them the road of salvation and life. . . . They found in Christ none of the bitter contempt to which they were accustomed from the religious authorities of their day.11 

"Pharisees would not eat with them; Jesus looked for them."12 Our efforts to reach lost souls with the Gospel need to include overtures to overt sinners, such as prostitutes, drug and alcohol addicts, the sexually immoral, prisoners, etc. We dare not restrict our evangelistic exercise to courting polite society and the churched, though they need to hear the pure Gospel, too.

"Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them" (Luke 15:1-2).

Notice how fickle mankind can be and often is! In a matter of days Jesus made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:7-11; Mark 11:7-10; Luke 19:35-40; John 12:12-19) whereupon a multitude of disciples hailed him ". . . King that cometh in the name of the Lord: peace in heaven, and glory in the highest" (Luke 19:38). The Pharisees pined that "the world is gone after him" (John 12:19). A few days later, the multitudes cried out for our Lord's crucifixion (Matt. 27:20-25; Mark 15:11-15). Yet, less than two months passed and about 3,000 souls mourned their part in the crucifixion of the Christ and cried out to the apostles: ". . . Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37). However, at this moment in his ministry, the crowds, much to the dismay of the Pharisees and the scribes, were enamored with Jesus of Nazareth.

"All" the publicans and sinners is a synecdoche for a great many. . . . "Were drawing near" (imperfect verb) implies a steady stream. . . . The Pharisees and scribes murmured (imperf.  constant complaining).13

Hence, Jesus was accused of receiving and eating with sinners on an ongoing basis. Our Lord was often the target of accusations by his enemies.

They charged Jesus with (1) being a glutton (Matt. 11:18-19), (2) being a winebibber (Matt. 11:18-19), (3) casting out demons by the power of Satan (Matt. 9:34; 12:22-32), (4) being Beelzebub (Matt. 10:25; 12:26-27), (5) being a sinner (John 9:24), (6) violating the Sabbath (Matt. 12:2), (7) being a Samaritan (John 8:48), (8) possessing a devil (John 8:48), (9) deceiving the people (Matt. 27:63), (10) leading the people astray (John 7:52), (11) possessing an unclean spirit (Mark 3:30), (12) being no prophet because He came from Galilee (John 7:52), (13) being "beside himself" (Mark 3:21), (14) transgressing the traditions of the elders (Matt. 15:2), (15) perverting the nation of Israel (Luke 23:2), (16) being an evildoer (John 18:30), (17) being not from God (John 9:16), and (18) making Himself a king (Luke 23:2).14

The Parable

"And he spake this parable unto them, saying, What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance" (Luke 15:3-7).

Sheep and shepherds were common in Palestine. Consequently, biblical references to literal sheep and shepherds are abundant in Scripture. Add to these a myriad of figurative allusions and sheep and shepherds may be the most frequently used illustrations in the Bible.

The Bible has more to say about sheep than any other animal. There were no cats in Palestine and the dogs, generally speaking, were outcasts, though they apparently at times were used in Job's day to watch the flock (Job 30:1). Horses were few. Asses, sheep and oxen were the main domestic animals. Of the three, the sheep was far more numerous and came closest to man.15

The sheep, though, common in that part of the world, differ from the sheep that are common to other parts of the world. Also, the manner in which sheep were managed in biblical times differs from management of sheep in many places today. Sheep constituted a major portion of Bible times wealth and were economically important to both nomads and settled people. Consequently, the sheep was not disposed of carelessly, but efficiently employed for the best and fullest use, including provision for clothing, milk, food and religious animal sacrifice.

The Palestinian sheep was then and is today the so-called "broad-tailed sheep." The tails of these sheep are extremely large and weigh on an average from ten to fifteen pounds each. These sheep have always been valuable to their owners. To many of the Jews in ancient times, sheep represented their chief wealth and their sole means of livelihood. Sheep provided food to eat (1 Samuel 14:32), milk to drink (Isaiah 7:21-22), wool for the making of cloth (Job 31:20), and flesh for the offering of numerous sacrifices (Exodus 12:5, 6; 20:24; Leviticus 1:10). Because the sheep were by nature wayward and defenseless, it was necessary that they have constant supervision. In both Old and New Testaments the close relationship of God and his people is projected in the winsome figure of the shepherd and his sheep (Psalms 100:3; 23:1; Isaiah 40:11; Matthew 9:36). Thus when we read of the selfless shepherd who went out searching through the hills for one stray lamb, we should remember that Jesus Christ himself is the supremely Good Shepherd who was willing to die for his sheep (John 10:1-18).16

The earliest mention of sheep is found in Genesis 4:2 where Abel is described as "a keeper of sheep." . . . We find that sheep (1) were used in the sacrificial offerings of Israel, both the adult animal (Ex. 20:24; I Kings 8:63; II Chron. 29:33) and the lamb (Ex. 29:38; Lev. 9:3; Num. 28:9; Lev. 27:27), (2) and lambs were an important source of meat (I Sam. 25:18; I Kings 1:19; 4:23; Psa. 64:11), (3) milk was an important source of drink being associated with cow's milk (Isa. 7:21, 23), (4) wool was used to produce clothing (Lev. 18:47; Deut. 22:11; Prov. 21:13; Job 31:20), (5) horns (ram) were used to make trumpets (Josh. 6:4), (6) skins (ram) were dyed red (Ex. 25:5) and used as a covering for the tabernacle, (7) were used as tribute by Mesha, king of Moab, to Jehoram, king of Israel (II Kings 3:4), (8) though normally were called to follow the shepherd (John 10:4; Psa. 77:20; 80:1) they were also driven (Gen. 33:13), (9) were given names as we give names to our cattle (John 10:3), (10) were at times household pets (II Sam. 12:3), and (11) each in the flock was important (Luke 15:3-7).17

The duties of the shepherd in biblical times were numerous. Additionally, the Bible times shepherd had tremendous and perpetual responsibility. His life was one of great and constant vigor.

Sheep demand constant care from the time they are born until they die. Sheep while emblems of meekness, patience, tenderness and submission (Isa. 53:7; Acts 8:32) are also the most foolish and helpless of all animals. The need for constant care and attention shows their total dependence and yearning to be under a shepherd.18

In biblical times the work of the shepherd in Judaea was difficult, hard and dangerous with scarce pasture and a tremendous responsibility to his flock. The shepherd (1) was exposed to extreme heat and cold (Gen. 31:40), (2) ate food, generally, that was produced by nature; e.g., "the fruit of the sycamore" or Egyptian fig (Amos 7:14), the "husks" of the carob-tree (Luke 15:16), (3) must protect his flock from the various wild animals, such as lions, wolves, panthers or bears (I Sam. 17:34; Isa. 31:4; Jer. 5:6; Amos 3:12), and (4) must protect his sheep from robbers (Gen. 31:39).

The biblical shepherd was supplied with various items to accomplish his work and to survive. He had (1) a mantle, probably made of sheep-skin with the fleece left on, which he turned inside-out in cold weather (Jer. 43:12), (2) a wallet or scrip which would contain a small amount of food (I Sam. 17:40), (3) a sling (I Sam. 17:40), and (4) a staff, which served a dual-purpose of (a) a weapon against his various foes and (b) a crook for management of his flock (I Sam. 17:40; Psa. 23:4; Zech. 11:7). If the shepherd tended his flock some distance from home, he had a small, light tent which apparently was easily pitched and removed (Jer. 35:7; Isa. 38:12).

The duties of the biblical shepherd are outlined in the scriptures as follows: (1) in the morning he leads his flock from the overnight fold (John 10:4), (2) he would watch the flock with dogs (Job 30:1), (3) if some strayed, he had to search for it until he found it (Ezek. 34:12; Luke 15:4), (4) he supplied them with water either from a running stream (Gen. 29:7; Psa. 23:2) or at troughs attached to or near a well (Gen. 30:38; Ex. 2:16), (5) in the evening he would return the sheep to the fold, seeing none were missing, by passing them "under the rod" as they entered the opening of the enclosure (Lev. 27:32; Ezek. 20:37; Jer. 33:13), and (6) keeping watch at night or acting as porter (John 10:3; Gen. 31:40; Luke 2:8).19

We are indebted to W. Terry Varner especially for the interesting information above formulated by his studies regarding sheep and shepherds. The description of the sheep under consideration by Neil R. Lightfoot likewise contributes immeasurably to the understanding of the background of the parable of the Lost Sheep. Though lengthy, the foregoing is compelling to ensure that the contemporary student of this parable (and the other applications of sheep and shepherds throughout the biblical text) can sufficiently grasp the figure with which the spiritual lesson is communicated.

In verse four, the manner in which Jesus began the parable evidences a form of logical argumentation.

"What man of you . . ." (Lk. 15:4) This is the beginning of an adhominem argument -- a form of refutation whereby one appeals to the opponent's acknowledged position. Jesus frequently used such on the dishonest Jewish leaders (cf. Mt. 12:11, 12; 18:12-14).20

Generally, it was an agreeable and reasonable conduct for a shepherd to temporarily absent himself from the flock to seek a stray. By the words desert and wilderness, the Bible often refers to uninhabited areas. The 99 sheep were not in any special danger. Also, the flock should not be viewed by reason of the parable to be less important than the lost sheep. Merely, the lost sheep was the one that needed the attention of the shepherd, more so than the flock. Further, ". . . the one sheep does not indicate how few are lost, but of the Lord's concern for a single lost soul!"21

It is interesting to draw analogies between the lost sheep and lost men. Of course, the mission of Christ pertained to lost mankind and this parable colorfully illustrates this.

A sheep is a senseless and careless animal. It wanders here and there. It is apt to go any place where there is an opening. It strays off into the distant hills and does not know the way back home. It does not know that it is lost. Multitudes of people are like this.22

The sheep, intently grazing and moving for the next bite as it grazed, simply lost its awareness of the flock, shepherd and its surroundings. Sheep do not intend to become lost, and they do not know how to find their way back to the safety of the fold. "Men become lost by wandering away from God into sin (Isa. 59:1,2)."23 "The masses are lost now because they will not listen to Christ, the good shepherd. Jn. 10:14, 27."24

. . . nibbling away at the pasture, it drifted aimlessly in the opposite direction and became separated from the shepherd and the other sheep. Such a sheep represents the stupid, foolish, unthinking kind of wanderer from God. Happily it was overtaken by the seeking shepherd and brought back to the fold.25

"For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10). ". . . I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Matt. 9:13). The religious leaders who opposed Jesus Christ should have realized this and accepted his mission. Then, they would have found no occasion to fault Jesus for his interaction with sinners.

Verses four through six indicate the disposition of "I shall find my lost sheep!" The shepherd never entertained the possibility that he would not recover the lost lamb. "The owner's personal interest is evidenced by his going himself."26

Verse five indicates by the gentleness with which the shepherd retrieved the lost sheep the genuine concern and devotion he had for him. "And having found his sheep, the shepherd does not punish it, nor even harshly drive it back into the fold, but he lays it upon his own shoulders and carefully carries it home."27

The joy represented in verse six depicts the true joy that all of heaven has when a lost soul is saved. We likewise ought to manifest the same joy for the redemption of our fellows.

In verse seven, there is no indication that Jesus concurred with the Pharisees and scribes that they were righteous (i.e., not sinners) while the publicans and sinners only were the spiritual outcasts. Rather, "Our Lord draws His own conclusion and makes application of the parable for the reader in Luke 15:7 . . ."28

This does not imply that there are some who need no repentance; it is an ironical statement to the effect: "there is more joy over a sinner who repents than over those who need no repentance -- a condition in which you Pharisees and scribes fancy yourselves to be!29

Our Lord, for the sake of the argument in the parable, accepts their claims about themselves. They posed as "righteous"  they were not -- but on their false claim, our Lord condemns them for "murmuring" against Him in His receiving and eating with sinners.30

. . . the ninety and nine the self-righteous. . . . there was more real joy over one of these publicans and sinners, who were entering into the inner sanctuary of faith, than over ninety and nine of themselves, who lingered at the legal vestibule, refusing to enter.31

Neither is their reason to believe that Jesus or the angels cared more about the one lost lamb (soul) versus the flock.

5. Angels rejoice not because they care less for the ninety-nine but because -- a. To be lost is terrible. b. To be saved is wonderful.32


"God's love of man is frequently expressed under the figure of sheep (Mt. 9:36; 10:6; Jn. 10; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25)."33 God's people are compared to sheep that have gone astray (Psa. 119:176; Isa. 53:6; Jer. 23:1-2; 31:10; Zech. 13:7). Employing the figure of shepherds and sheep, God chastened the leaders of Israel centuries before for their dereliction of duty toward the people. God promised to select a shepherd through whom the defunct shepherds would be punished and the scattered sheep would be recovered (Ezek. 34). Shepherds, sheep and dereliction of duty among the leaders in Israel were as current when Jesus presented this parable as when the Book of Ezekiel was received by inspiration. Jesus came to do what leaders in Israel should have done all along -- "seek and save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10).

Happily, we learn from the parable of the Lost Sheep that despite the wandering in sin which characterizes our mortal existence, God cares and will seek us earnestly.

God's attitude toward the lost is seen in the diligent search of the shepherd . . . It is one thing to accept sinners, it is another thing to go out and look for them.34

A. God will seek the lost. B. The Lord loves the individual. C. People wander from the lord through neglect.35

V. The Shepherd Went To Seek for the Lost Sheep. 1. He did not rationalize. a. That the sheep's [being] lost is not my fault. b. That it should not have wandered away. c. That it was of little value to the flock anyway. d. That after all I have ninety-nine left.36

Jesus identified himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14-15). Peter referred to Jesus as the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4). Otherwise, the figure of a shepherd is often cited in both testaments to describe the relationship of God and Jesus, first with physical Israel, and later with spiritual Israel (Psa. 77:20; 80:1; Isa. 40:11; Ezek. 34:14-16; 37:24). "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters" (Psa. 23:1-2). Further, the illustration of a shepherd and sheep is used to convey the responsibility of elders to the church (Acts 20:28-29; 1 Pet. 5:2-3).

Our Chief Shepherd, through combination of Jews and Gentiles through his redemptive sacrifice, has merged two sheep folds into one flock. Jesus Christ is also described in Scripture as the sacrificial lamb by which sins are remitted (John 1:29, 36; 1 Pet. 1:18-19; Isa. 53:7; Acts 8:32-35; 1 Cor. 5:7). "Jesus is pictured as the 'Lamb of God' some twenty-nine times in the Book of Revelation."37

The Bible pictures the Gentiles as "sheep" not "of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd" (John 10:16). "This fold" is speaking of the world-wide, universal religion of Christianity (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 1:8) under a world-wide Shepherd and Saviour. "This fold" includes both Jew and Gentile in Christ (Eph. 2:11-22; 4:3-6), the church (Eph. 1:22-23; 2:16-22; 3:10-11; 4:3-6). "This fold," the church, is composed of Jews and Gentiles, who have been called by the gospel . . .38


1 Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible, Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 283.

2 Neil R. Lightfoot, The Parables of Jesus, Vol. 2, Abilene, ACU Press, 25.

3 Lockyer, 281.

4 Lightfoot, 33.

5 W. Gaddys Roy, Sermon Outlines on the Parables of Jesus, Anniston, AL, W. Gaddys Roy, 64.

6 J.W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton, Fourfold Gospel, Cincinnati, Standard Publishing Foundation, 501.

7 Lockyer, 281.

8 Lightfoot, 25.

9 R.C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord, Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 133.

10 Lockyer, 283.

11 W. Terry Varner, “The Lost Sheep,” The Parables of Our Savior, Indianapolis, Garfield Heights church of Christ, 294.

12 Jeffery Stevenson, “The Lost Coin,” The Parables of Our Savior, Indianapolis, Garfield Heights church of Christ, 244.

13 Wayne Jackson, The Parables in Profile, Stockton , CA, Wayne Jackson, 40.

14 Varner, 296.

15 Ibid., 300.

16 Lightfoot, 25-26.

17 Varner, 300-301.

18 Ibid,. 302.

19 Ibid., 297.

20 Jackson, 41.

21 Varner, 302.

22 Lightfoot, 27.

23 Jackson, 41.

24 Roy, 61.

25 Lockyer, 281.

26 Jackson, 41.

27 Trench, 135.

28 Varner, 295.

29 Jackson, 42.

30 Varner, 296.

31 Trench, 136.

32 Roy, 63.

33 Jackson, 41.

34 Lightfoot, 29.

35 Jackson, 42.

36 Roy, 62.

37 Varner, 305.

38 Ibid., 301.

Copyright © 2001 Louis Rushmore. All Rights Reserved.
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