Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 18:11-12 (Holman) For the Son of Man has come to save the lost. What do you think? If a man has 100 sheep, and one of them goes astray, won’t he leave the 99 on the hillside and go and search for the stray?
No image is more deeply ingrained in, and more loved by, believers than the thought of Jesus as our Shepherd. When artists depict Him carrying a lamb, we all sense “That little lost sheep is me. He felt I was worth His finding. One day I was more important to Him than a herd of sheep.” We cannot escape it.
The picture drawn in our text is striking. After sheep have pastured, they return to the fold, where they are precisely counted. If only 1 of 100 sheep is missing, terror strikes the shepherd. Immediately smitten with fears of possible danger and destruction, he refuses to leave the stray to its self-caused trouble.
The shepherd, putting aside every other concern, leaves the 99 safely in the fold, or with other shepherds. Only one emergency matters. At all cost, find the wanderer. The word is planomenon, the basis of our word “planets,” the stars the ancients saw as wandering, as opposed to the ones fixed and stable.
The obvious question is, “Isn’t 99 enough?” I guess not. Why not? Because 99≠100. We may think God surely has more important duties to perform than to chase down one lost sheep, but evidently He doesn’t think so.
Our Great Shepherd is busy guiding history, ruling human affairs, setting up or putting down rulers, and superintending the course of our lives. Yet all this activity is merely a backdrop for the main event: the rescue of lost sheep.
God loved us before He made us. He knew in advance we would sin, but created us anyway. He knew His creation would grind on in discord, yet let this world become the stage on which the drama of salvation could be worked out.
Why did God make reclaiming sinners His number one priority? Why does He pursue sinful, wayward sinners running full speed away from Him? Because His “love is indestructible by human sin” (Dykes, in B.I.).
The more we try to stop up our ears, the louder He calls. A fleeing sheep’s effort to increase its distance of separation from the flock does not deter the Shepherd. The farther away the lamb is, the more concerned He becomes.
Distance does not diminish His love. The farther we run, the faster He chases us. We cannot wear out Jesus. We can never exhaust His tenderness.
No one ever entered Hell without Jesus’ outstretched hand being within six inches of grasping him or her. Even at the last instant, as the lamb dangles over the chasm of perdition, God’s hand is reaching out. The dying thief on the cross is God’s way of saying it is okay to be saved one inch this side of Hell.
Jesus saves to the uttermost and from the guttermost. He seeks sinners whose salvation looks improbable at best, impossible at worst. Follow His lead. Don’t give up on the hardest cases. Until a person crosses over into eternity, the Shepherd is chasing and inviting them. Never quit trying before God does.
Let’s not limit ourselves to what appear to be hopeful cases, thinking our efforts with them might be more successful. Instead, sometimes go a different direction. Set your sights on one who looks hopeless. Quit writing sinners off. Jesus doesn’t. The salvation of the worst is worth the efforts of the best.
The context of our text tells us our duty in this. We are still considering the disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest?” The answer is growing clearer. The greatest are ones most like the Shepherd, ones who seek and serve outcasts.
Our assignment is to chase them down. Jesus tracked us down. It is easy to imagine Jesus’ last words before capturing us were, “96, 97, 98, 99, Mine!”
Our assignment is to love unbelievers because Jesus loved us. Don’t wait till sinners improve. If we tarry till they’re better, they’ll never come at all.
We are never at liberty to focus only on the 99, to the expense of the one. We believers have no qualms about protecting ourselves. Every Monday morning at staff meeting, I look into 27 pairs of eyes whose job is to look out for the needs of the 99. The question we as a staff, and especially me as Pastor, always have to grapple with is, “Are we doing anything at all for the lost one?”
I tell a story in churches that illustrates the lesson in our text. Frederick Sampson spent a summer on his uncle’s farm. The first morning, his uncle woke him at 4 a.m. and set him to work around the barn. He cleaned stalls, fed horses, and carried water. He finished four hours later. Exhausted, he started climbing up to his bed in the hayloft. His uncle asked, “Where are you going?” “To bed.” “Why?” “I’ve finished my work.” Frederick always remembered what happened next. His uncle leaned over, put his finger in his nephew’s face, and said, “Son, I’m going to tell you something I don’t want you ever to forget. What you do around the barn is chores, what you do in the fields is work.”
Churches excel in chores. We do well inside our spiritual barns, our church houses. Church members do not hesitate to clamor for their rights and privileges. Our problem lies in deciding we are also to advocate for the lost.
In chores we minister to each other as believers, in work we do unselfish worship by reaching the lost for God. We must go out among the wanderers.
To sit idly by and wait for them to come to us is a strange way to seek lost sheep. Few Ozark hunters sit in their kitchen and wait for ducks to fly through. Fishermen don’t sit on their pack porch and hope a fish will swim by.
Farmers don’t stand at the fencerow and summon a crop to come in. My dad, who was raised a cotton farmer, returned from the US Marines in 1948, took one look at my mom-to-be, and picked 2290 pounds in one week (514 in one day) to buy her a 21-jewel Bulova watch for $90.56. Dad did not stand inside the barn and beckon, “Here, cotton; this way, cotton; come jump into my sack, cotton.” Nor did he nail a sign to the barn, reading, “All cotton welcome!” He had to go out among the cotton stalks. We too have to move, overcome inertia, and draw near sinners.
The Gospel is best conveyed not by come or osmosis, but by pursuing lost sheep. The good news has to be picked up, carried, and delivered to them.
Let me ask us all a pertinent question. In light of what Jesus modeled in this parable, would we be willing to go after one—only one—lost sheep?