Introduction: Today we are going to begin our examination of a trilogy of parables told by Jesus on a particular occasion and recorded for us here in Luke 15. Each of the parables has to do with the joy of the Lord over the salvation of the lost. The first of these parables is the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and we will follow a familiar pattern in seeking to understand this parable. We will begin by examining the context of the parable, a step which all too many teachers seem to ignore, leading to many misinterpretations. Next we will examine the communication of the parable by Jesus, focusing our attention especially on those details of the parable stressed by Him in the context. Then, finally, we will examine any explanation or application of the parable offered by Jesus Himself.
I. The Context of the Parable
In order to properly understand the teaching of this parable, it is important to understand both the broader and the more immediate context.
First, the broader context includes key passages both from the teaching of the prophets in the Old Testament and from the teaching of our Lord Jesus in the New Testament. For example, in the days of Ezekiel, God warned the leaders of Israel, who were supposed to have been 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.”
The Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament deals perceptively with Jesus’ application of the Ezekiel passage to Himself as He takes up the metaphor of the LORD as a Shepherd who seeks His lost sheep:
Jesus asserts that he does the work of God, whose love and mercy for sinful and weak people is reflected in Jesus’ calling tax collectors and sinners (15:1) to repentance. As Jesus’ audience consists of pharisees and scribes who complain about Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners (15:2), he challenges them to understand themselves as shepherds. The Pharisees’ and scribes’ lack of concern and mercy for sinners echoes Ezek. 34, in which Yahweh directs the prophet to speak against the leaders of the nation who neglect their duties and leave Israel scattered “like sheep without a shepherd,” announcing that Yahweh Himself will seek out, rescue, and care for the sheep. Jesus’ parable indicts the scribes and Pharisees for their failure to be the faithful shepherds of Yahweh’s flock and implies that Jesus’ love and mercy for sinners is consistent with Yahweh’s mercy and care for his sheep. (p.341)
That our Lord Jesus is the fulfillment of the Ezekiel prophecy is clear not only from this parable, however, but it is also clearly indicated in other teachings of Jesus as well. For example, on several occasions Jesus made it quite plain to  His disciples that He was the promised coming of the LORD to seek and to save His sheep:
NKJ  Matthew 10:5-7 These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. 6 But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”
NKJ  Matthew 15:24 But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
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; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand [as the Shepherd Jesus keeps the sheep from ever perishing]”
So, Jesus was sent first to seek the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but He would also seek the other sheep not of this fold, which means that He will seek out the Gentiles. But the initial focus on the lost sheep of Israel will be especially helpful in our understanding the parable in Luke 15.
Anyway, such passages provide the broader context and proper background for understanding the parable before us today. This background helps us to understand just how important this analogy would have been to Jesus and to those to whom He was speaking. And it helps us to understand that the scribes and Pharisees would not have missed the points Jesus was making!
Second, the immediate context is found in the first three verses of the passage before us.
NKJ  Luke 15:1 Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him.
In order to get the point of the parable, we need to understand just who made up the two groups being referred to here. The “tax collectors” were those who collected taxes on behalf of the Roman government. Jews who were tax collectors were regarded as thieves and traitors, and, as such, they were regarded as especially heinous and extreme examples of sinners. And this leads to the next term. Those referred to as “sinners” certainly were such, but here the term doesn’t refer to all who have sinned, which would include everyone, but rather is being used in a specialized sense. I think the ESV Study Bible captures the proper nuance of the term sinners:
Pharisees would have regarded as sinners anyone who failed to keep God’s law as they interpreted it, and the term here seems to reflect a commonly understood meaning by which it included both people guilty of publicly known sin and others who did not keep the strict purity requirements of the Pharisees. (BibleWorks)
Thus the term sinners was used by the religious establishment to describe those who were regarded as outcasts not only because they were actually open sinners but also because they did not follow their own legalistic traditions. On the contrary, those who followed the Pharisaic way were regarded as righteous, a fact that will become crucial to our understanding of Jesus’ application of the parable later on.
What is important to observe here is that these outcasts were flocking to Jesus, wanting to hear what He had to say. And Jesus was accepting them and teaching them, which is something no self-respecting – and self-righteous – Pharisee would ever do. And this leads us to the next verse.
NKJ  Luke 15:2 And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.”
You see, the scribes and Pharisees not only viewed these people as sinners and outcasts, but also as unclean, and they believed that close interpersonal contact with such people – as would be involved in eating with them – would make them unclean as well. So they didn’t like it at all when Jesus had meals with them!
In fact, this verse records a complaint about Jesus and His disciples that wasn’t new. The same complaints were registered when Jesus called the tax collector Levi (also known as Matthew) to follow Him and then had dinner at his house:
NKJ  Luke 5:27-30 After these things He went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” 28 So he left all, rose up, and followed Him. 29 Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. 30 And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, “Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
We will look at this passage in chapter 5 again later, but for now we must realize that, even more than risking ritual impurity, when Jesus spent time with such people as tax collectors and sinners He was also plainly denying the legalistic standards that the Pharisees and scribes thought were so important. But Jesus thought there was something far more important, which is why He begins to teach them a series of parables, and these are introduced in the next verse.
NKJ  Luke 15:3 So [here δέ may have this sense] He spoke this parable to them, saying:
Although Luke uses the singular, introducing the first parable – the Parable of the Lost Sheep – we will see that Jesus adds two more parables – the Parable of the Lost Coin and the Parable of the Lost Son, which we will study over the next two weeks, Lord willing. Thus we have here the context not only for the first parable, but for all three parables in Luke 15. Let’s begin today, then, by examine this first parable more closely.
II. The Communication of the Parable
The communication of the parable is found in verses 4-7.
NKJ  Luke 15:4 What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness [ἔρημος], and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?
There are a couple of observations worth noting about the situation being described here.
First, the NKJV translation of the Greek word here as wilderness is a bit misleading in this passage, since it might indicate that the sheep were all in an unsafe place. I think it would be better here to translate it as open country (as in the ESV) or open pasture (as in the NASB). Jesus was simply referring to an uninhabited area with places for sheep to graze.
Second, this is a rhetorical question which expects the answer, “No man among us wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine safe sheep to go seek the one lost sheep.” Some think it odd that Jesus would ask such a question and 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.
The point is that the ninety-nine sheep are safe and in no need of being sought out. The emphasis for the moment is thus on the fact that the shepherd cares so much about the one lost sheep that he personally goes to find it.
NKJ  Luke 15:5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
Notice the two things which happen when the shepherd finds the one lost sheep.
First, the shepherd “lays it on his shoulders,” which indicates the great care the shepherd takes in bringing the sheep back to the flock. He treats the sheep with tenderness and protects it. This probably also indicates that the sheep is too weak to return on its own. This scene clearly portrays the care Jesus has for sinners as He seeks to restore them.
Notice also that the sheep is lost until the shepherd finds it and that the sheep cannot restore itself. The shepherd must find the sheep and restore it. What a beautiful picture of our inability to save ourselves and the initiative Jesus takes on our behalf! He seeks us out and saves us!
This is what the Psalmist understood so well when he cried out to God, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Your servant, for I do not forget Your commandments” (Psalm 119:176). Those of us who have been saved by Jesus know that we are always so dependent upon Him!
Second, the shepherd starts “rejoicing,” which shows the happiness that it brings the shepherd when the sheep is found. This clearly portrays the attitude Jesus has when the tax collectors and sinners are brought to repentance. He is filled with joy!
But notice the way both of these reactions are the opposite of the Pharisees’ and scribes’ reactions. They do not care for these sinners, and they do not rejoice to see them repent. In fact, they just complain that Jesus even interacts with them at all!
NKJ  Luke 15:6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!”
Here we see pictured the kind of joy that one can’t help but share with others. It is not just that Jesus Himself has joy over a lost sinner that is saved; it is that we should all feel this way! And this leads us to our final point.
III. The Explanation of the Parable
The explanation of the parable is found in verse 7.
NKJ  Luke 15:7 I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.
Let us return again to Luke chapter 5, where we earlier saw a very similar situation to that described here:
NKJ  Luke 5:27-32 After these things He went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” 28 So he left all, rose up, and followed Him. 29 Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. 30 And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, “Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered and said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Notice here the reference by Jesus to those who are called “righteous” and those who are called “sinners.” This also reflects the way in which the terms are used in the Parable of the Lost Sheep and its explanation. He is using the terminology the way they understood it in order to challenge them.
Jesus understood that there is “none righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:10, citing Psalm 14:1-2), and He often openly accused the Pharisees of sins like pride and hypocrisy. Indeed, the very parable we are studying here implies an accusation of sin against them, for they do not care for sinners the way that God does or as shepherds of the people of Israel should.
The point is that we know Jesus wasn’t saying here that they were truly righteous. Rather He was indicating that only those who understand that they are sick will see their need for a Physician, and only those who understand that they are sinners will see their need to repent. We could almost paraphrase Jesus statements in Luke 5:31-32 this way: “Those who think they are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick and know it. I have not come to call the self-righteous, but those who know they are sinners, to repentance.”
Similarly, we could understand Jesus’ statement here in 15:7 this way: “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who think they need no repentance.”
The implication is clear! Heaven – and therefore God – will rejoice over the tax collectors and sinners coming to Jesus, but He will not rejoice over the Pharisees and scribes who think they already know Him!
But this bring us to the thrice repeated emphasis upon joy, first in verse 5, then in verse 6, and again in here in verse 7. The repentance of a sinner is a cause for great rejoicing! It is the kind of thing that should make us want to tell everyone and throw a party to celebrate!
Conclusion: I would like to conclude, then, with an emphasis on this point, and I think Klyne Snodgrass puts it well:
Another level at which this parable deserves attention is its focus on joy. Christian worship often lacks any sense of joy. It may have form, tradition, energy, or novelty, but joy is in short supply. Joy deserves focus as the true mark of Christianity, for it is directly connected with the theological awareness of the character and attitude of God as the one who seeks and celebrates recovery. At some level Christian worship entails entering into God’s own attitude at finding and establishing a people for Himself. Join the celebration! (Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 110)

To those of you who are believers, are you joining in the heavenly celebration? Are you anxious to be used by God to seek and save the lost?

To those of you who have not yet believed, do you recognize that you, too, are a sinner who needs to be saved? and do you see what joy the Lord Jesus has to receive you as one of Hos own, if you will but trust in Him as Lord and Savior?

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