Summary: The parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15:4-7 teaches us that there is joy in heaven over every sinner who repents.
In our study in The Gospel of Luke we are now in chapter 15. Jesus was reaching the tax collectors and sinners with the good news of salvation. This infuriated the Pharisees and the scribes. Luke 15 is Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees and the scribes. It is a marvelous illustration of the good news of the gospel.
In fact, commentator William Barclay puts it this way:
There is no chapter of the New Testament so well known and so dearly loved as the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. It has been called “the gospel in the gospel,” as if it contained the very distilled essence of the good news which Jesus came to tell.
Let’s read the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15:4-7, although, for the sake of context, I shall begin with verses 1-3:
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that 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 that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:4-7)
Psalm 23 was written by David, and is the best-known psalm in the entire Bible. David realized that the loving care he gave his sheep was like the loving care he received from God. So, David began his famous psalm with these words, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1). Then he listed all the things that his shepherd did for him: lying him down in green pastures, leading him beside still waters, restoring his soul, walking with him through the valley of the shadow of death, preparing a table of food for him, anointing his head with soothing oil, filling his cup with overflowing joy, and the sure promise of dwelling with God forever.
We love Psalm 23. So did God’s people throughout history. As commentator Philip Ryken says, “The shepherd from David’s psalm became part of Israel’s working definition of God.”
God was viewed as the perfect shepherd of his people. So, whenever the people of God got into trouble – which was often! – they would pray the words of Psalm 80:1, 3, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock . . . Restore us, O God; . . . that we may be saved!”
The prophets of Israel pictured God as a good shepherd. For example, Isaiah emphasized God’s loving care for his smallest sheep. He said in Isaiah 40:11, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom.”
God entrusted the work of shepherding to under-shepherds. However, they were not always good under-shepherds to the people of God. God accused the under-shepherds of scattering his flock through Jeremiah, “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them” (23:2). God’s criticism through Ezekiel was even stronger, “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought . . . . My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them” (34:4, 6).
According to God’s prophets, God’s sheep were lost. But the prophets also proclaimed God’s remedy: the Good Shepherd himself would come to seek and to save the lost (cf. Luke 19:10). Ezekiel proclaimed this message from God, “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered” (34:11-12). God made a similar promise through Jeremiah, and said that the shepherd who would save his people would be the son of David (cf. Jeremiah 23:3, 5).
The Pharisees and the scribes were familiar with the motif of God as a shepherd and the people as his sheep. They understood that they were the spiritual under-shepherds of Israel. But they did not understand that Jesus was the Good Shepherd whom God had sent to seek and to save the lost sheep.