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The Life of Jesus - Series 7: Episode 8

Parable of the Lost Sheep

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 18:10-14

Everyone is important to God, and he cares about each individual, just as the shepherd leaves the 99 to find the lost one.

Everyone is important to God, and he cares about each individual, just as the shepherd leaves the 99 to find the lost one.


Hello, and welcome to Series 7 and Episode 8. We're going to look at the parable of the lost sheep as it appears in Matthew 18: 10 - 14. This parable also appears in Luke's Gospel, in Luke 15, and we'll discuss that a little later on.

Introduction and Recap

We're in the middle of Matthew 18 in our studies. If you've heard the earlier episodes, before this one, you'll see that we are working systematically through Matthew 18, which is one of the major discourses of Jesus' teaching, as recorded in Matthew's Gospel. Let's set the wider context first of all, reminding ourselves that Series 7 is a point at which the story turns and changes, and moves in a different direction. In the Gospel accounts, from the beginning up until Series 6, we have been studying for the most part Jesus in Galilee. This has been where his ministry has been focused and he spent most of his time. He travelled round extensively; he's raised up disciples; he's appointed twelve Apostles; he taught the Sermon on the Mount; he's performed some very remarkable miracles; and he's gained a huge reputation. Thousands of people have come to Galilee to meet him, to hear him, or to be healed by him. This is, broadly speaking, what's happened in the earlier part of the gospel narrative. We've seen that story unfold as one series has led on to another. We've reached a high point at the end of Series 6, and that was symbolised by the feeding of the five thousand, the gigantic, wonderful, miraculous event with a huge crowd - the largest number of people recorded in Jesus' audience, as he's speaking and healing. Some of the crowd got so excited that they wanted to make him a political leader at that point, to take over the country. That moment triggered Jesus to reconsider his situation.

Very shortly after that, he moved out of Galilee, in order to avoid public pressure, and ended up in the town of Caesarea Philippi on his own with his disciples, teaching them about his identity and the future of the Church. From then onwards, after the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James and John, he indicates that he's now going to focus his ministry on moving to Jerusalem. He tells them that in the future he'll be suffering, dying and rising again from the dead. There's quite a lot of material about that in the accounts that we've been looking at, particularly as we've focused on Matthew's Gospel. That has led us to this substantial piece of teaching in Matthew 18, which is about the community of the Kingdom. Jesus is teaching about community relationships in the discipleship community, which will become the Church. We're halfway through that teaching as we come into this episode.

It's worth looking back for a moment before we look at this particular parable and its implications for our theme. One thing to say, by way of a reminder, is that the structure of Matthew's Gospel gives prominence to Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of God. Matthew describes in detail the times when Jesus expands his teaching, and gives substantial information and teaching to his disciples. There are five occasions when this is done very clearly, and there's a lot of other teaching material in Matthew's Gospel as well. Those five occasions start with the Sermon on the Mount - the lifestyle of the Kingdom, Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7. Then it moves, in Matthew 10, to the mission of the Kingdom, teaching about evangelism and mission. In Matthew 13, the theme becomes the growth of the Kingdom through the years from Jesus' time, through to his second coming. He teaches here in parables. There are seven parables grouped together in Matthew 13. The fourth main teaching section or discourse is the one we're looking at now, in Matthew 18, which covers the whole of this chapter and which focuses on the community of the Kingdom. There's one more to come. Matthew 24 and 25 tell us about the future of the Kingdom and especially focus on the Second Coming of Christ.

For now, our focus is on community relationships. Jesus has a lot to say about those community relationships. He's said a lot already, and we need to keep all those things in mind as we come to this passage. In the first section that we looked at, Matthew 18: 1 - 5, Jesus defined what true greatness in the Kingdom of God was. He defined it in an unusual way - quite a provocative way - by bringing a child, probably aged between 6 and 8, and sat the child with the disciples, and commented on the attitudes and life of a child like that. He commended to his disciples that they needed to follow the pattern of children in their trust, their receptivity, and their humility; trusting God, receptivity to his will, and humility towards him.

In Matthew 18: 6 - 9 we have a section about protecting believers from danger; the danger of being led astray, either through nominal Christianity in the midst of the Church, or through outsiders seeking to influence questions and discourage them in their faith, or prevent them practising their faith. The third section here is about protecting believers from wandering.

We've spoken of the particular danger of people directly leading Christians astray but now we have the more general problem about believers wandering. This is going to be the theme of Matthew 18: 10 - 14. Jesus chooses to illustrate this point by the use of a parable. In the previous episode he's illustrated what he was saying by the use of hyperbole and exaggerated examples - about cutting off hands and feet - if you remember that from the last episode. That's a literary device which we call hyperbole, making a point by saying something very exaggerated that draws your attention to the issue. Jesus did that in the previous passage. Now he uses another familiar form of teaching - parable. ‘The parable of the Lost Sheep’, one of the best-known New Testament parables.

Before we look at it, let's remind ourselves - parables are stories that essentially have one major point. They're not, generally speaking, designed to be used as allegories, where every detail in the story has an exact correlation to some other reality. It's the main point that counts. Some of the details will have significant meaning, and usually we can interpret that easily from the context, without having an imaginary, allegorical structure imposed upon it. Parables are stories that strike you; they make you think. The effect of parables, as described when Jesus first introduced them in Matthew 13, (and you can look back in that episode if you're interested to see that.) The effect of a parable is to divide people's responses; those who really get it and those who don't; those who understand and those who are confused about how the parable might apply to them. Jesus often used parables in different contexts.

Before I read this parable, let me comment on an interesting aspect of this particular situation. This parable of the lost sheep, also appears in Luke 15. I'll comment on the different contexts in a moment but it makes us realise, or reminds us, of something very important about the teaching of Jesus, and that is, that he often taught in a similar way in different contexts. This is hardly surprising if he had a ministry that lasted, shall we say, approximately 3 years. If he was speaking publicly almost every single day, he is likely to use similar teaching, similar analogies, similar metaphors, similar stories, similar parables in his teaching. Sometimes we get this recorded in the Gospels but the two contexts are very different. I'm going to treat these as two different situations and we'll come to the parable in Luke 15 in a different context.

Little Ones

Let's read Matthew 18: 10.

"See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the 99 on the hills and go to look for the one that has wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep, than about the 99 that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish."

Matthew 18:10-14, NIV

The context here concerns little ones. This expression has been used throughout Matthew 18, and the important question for us is to identify who these little ones are. We need to go back over the passages and see what their identity is. Some people have identified ‘little ones’ here to refer to children and that's a possibility, drawn from the fact that in Matthew 18: 2, Jesus called the little child and placed the child amongst the disciples, and the child can legitimately be called a ‘little one’. It is also clear in Matthew 18: 6, that Jesus defines the ‘little ones’ in a slightly different way. He moves from the literal child and uses it as a metaphor for the ordinary, humble believer.

"If anyone causes one of these little ones, those who believe in me, to stumble,"

Matthew 18:6, NIV

Notice that the ‘little one’ is defined as ‘those who believe in me’. In other words, Jesus is talking there about believers, not about children - humble believers, not children, are in view. That helps us to interpret the passage and there's some implication of that, that we'll come back to. This tells us that the context for this parable is about the Church, and the existing group of believers. Jesus is concerned for the protection of those who've already decided to believe. This is a different context than the use of this parable in Luke 15, in the first part of that chapter, which focuses on unbelievers and their need to be saved. It focuses on the ministry of God and of Christ, particularly, to go and seek and find those people. Here the focus is much more on the community of the Church, and the implication here is the responsibility of those who have the opportunity to go and find the sheep that have wandered. We'll come back to that point in a moment.

Verse 10, "Do not despise one of these little ones." Do not despise, in other words, the people in church communities who seem insignificant; don't consider them secondary; don't despise them. The church community, like any community, will always have: leaders; will always have richer people; will always have more capable people; will always have more extrovert people who are more prominent; and it'll always have younger people with more energy than older people. There's a risk in the church community that some of its members become ignored or despised, because they are apparently insignificant. The point here is that they need to be given as much respect as other more prominent, capable, able, or richer people. That's a very important principle for church life. Have a think about the church community you belong to, if you belong to a church community. Have a think of the less prominent people. How well are they respected? How well are they integrated? How well are they communicated to? How well are they supported? What happens if they cease to attend the church community? These are important questions. I think of my own church community, where the membership goes from some people in their 90's to infant children, who have only been born in the past few weeks. We have a spread of people across all those generations. There are prominent people; there are able people; there are richer people; and there are people involved in leadership but there are a lot of people involved in that community who are not prominent, don't say much, don't apparently exercise much influence. They are just as important as the others. "Do not despise one of these little ones", in other words, those who profess Christ. You know they're a believer but they don't have any obvious human importance.

Angels of Little Ones

Then comes this reference, in verse 10, to the angels of the little ones. I've many times heard this verse referred to by those who assume that the little ones are children, and the angels are guardian angels, assigned individually to each child. I don't believe this is a good interpretation of this verse because the little ones are not specifically children, as explained a few moments ago. We have to be careful about over-simplistic interpretations of verses like this. Nor does this verse necessarily say that every single believer has their own guardian angel linked, or assigned to them. The New Testament and the Gospels, and Matthew's Gospel in particular, have a very positive view of angels which I'm going to comment on later. I think it is fairer to say that this is a description of the general role of angels to serve and to help believers, and in particular they will help those in need, such as the little ones described here. In Hebrews 1, as mentioned in other places, but worth repeating, there's a very interesting, descriptive sentence about angels. Hebrews 1: 14,

‘Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?’

Hebrews 1:14, NIV

The general function of angels towards the Church is clearly defined in the book of Hebrews. They are to help us who are going to inherit salvation. We'll say a little bit more about that in a moment.

The Shepherd and His Flock

The majority of this parable is given over to the story of the hundred sheep and the shepherd on the hillside, and the fact that, out of his flock of a hundred, one has gone missing. He then faces a decision. What is he going to do? Is he going to say “Well, we'll forget about the one, doesn't matter very much. I've got 99, let's just leave the one. I'll never find it anyway out here on the hillside. We'll just allow for the fact that we've lost one sheep; these things happen.” No, the shepherd in this story does exactly the opposite of that. He is highly motivated to maintain all his flock. The narrative goes here, that he leaves the 99 on the hillside and then he goes in search of the one. He seeks to bring back that one sheep, to restore the sheep to the full flock. When I first heard that story, I puzzled over it as a child, wondering why the 99 sheep didn't get lost as well! What's the point of saving one sheep and then all the other 99 get scattered when you are away? Knowing a little more about how sheep were looked after, and what the function of the shepherd was in the Middle East in this particular era, helps us realise what this story is saying. The first thing to remember, and it's been mentioned before when we've discussed this topic in earlier episodes, is that the Middle East, and Israel at this time, was not covered in fences, and boundaries, and barbed wire to divide different farms, and different hillsides from each other, as is the case in a more developed countries in the world today. No, in general, the countryside was open and flocks of sheep and goats would wander widely across considerable distances of open land and hillside. Shepherds worked in teams, not on their own generally speaking, and they were on duty as a team for 24 hours a day. They had to keep watch of their sheep and they had to know their sheep; very often they would mark their sheep in order to know them. In order to protect the sheep in the night-time, generally speaking, sheep were gathered into a sheep fold, as Jesus referred to in John 10 when he described himself as the Good Shepherd. They come into the sheepfold, they get counted in, then they get counted out, and this is a way of knowing how many sheep you've got, which you can't really do if they're all wandering over the hillside. It's also a way of protecting them at night when they'd be more vulnerable to attacks by wild animals. Knowing these things helps us to understand the sort of decision that the shepherd is described as making. When he leaves the 99 sheep, he's not leaving them in the open countryside, he's leaving them probably with other shepherds and leaving them in a sheepfold. God is likened to the shepherd who cares for his sheep and is interested in the one who goes astray.

When I talk to modern shepherds, I'm aware that they know an awful lot about their sheep and they can recognise their sheep; they can identify them; they can tell when sheep are missing. They have a very perceptive way of knowing what's going on with their animals, as livestock farmers characteristically do in a way that other people don't. For such people, especially if they're counting their sheep in and out, day and night from the sheepfold, they'll quickly know when a sheep is missing, just as they know when animals are injured.


This is an important and powerful story. What does it teach us? What kind of broader reflections can we make? What can we learn from this passage, particularly in this context? First of all, let's comment a little bit further on angels. This reference to angels is not an isolated reference in Matthew's Gospel, nor is it an isolated reference in the New Testament. Angels are mentioned frequently. Let's think about Matthew's Gospel for a moment, and take one or two examples. Matthew clearly, firmly believed in the influence and involvement in angels to help and guide and protect God's people. If you go back to the beginning, you'll notice how Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus, was guided by the angel. First of all, in his decision to marry Mary when she became pregnant miraculously. Secondly, in his decision to flee from Bethlehem when threatened by Herod the Great. Thirdly, in his decision to come back from Egypt after fleeing from Bethlehem and to go back to Nazareth. We see an angel described as being involved in the process of helping Joseph look after his family and his new-born son, Jesus. Then, when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness and after those temptations are complete, we read in Matthew 4, that angels came and ministered to Jesus. When Jesus is in the tomb we find, in Matthew 28, that an angel comes and rolls the stone away. We find at the second coming, Matthew 24: 31 describes angels gathering together believers from the four corners of the earth. These are just a few examples but you can see that Matthew is very happy and willing to describe the role of angels as real, tangible, powerful but largely invisible to us. The spiritual reality - spiritual beings operating on behalf of God's purposes in his people but rarely perceived directly or seen.

Let's talk about the vulnerability of some believers, the 'little ones' that Jesus is talking about here. Why did they wander? This is not like the last passage where people are pressurising them to give up their faith, or neglect their spiritual duties, or go away from the church. This is just a natural wandering. Why do some believers wander? Maybe they're new in faith and not very experienced. Maybe they lack secure relationships in church. Maybe their family, or their society, pull them away from church allegiance. Maybe they don't have much Bible knowledge and experience in discipleship. Maybe they're emotionally vulnerable and form unhealthy relationships with other people. These are only some of the causes of believers, described here as 'little ones', to wander. Each one is valuable. What this passage encourages us in, is that the church should be actively seeking out those who have wandered from their community. This is a particular responsibility of leaders but it's also a responsibility of church members.

We, as churches, should be communities that are guided by spiritual shepherds. Leaders of churches are actually described sometimes a shepherds, for example, in 1 Peter 5: 2, speaking to elders and pastors of churches, Peter said,

‘Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, watching over them - not because you must, but because you are willing.’

1 Peter 5:2, NIV

Notice that expression ‘watching over them’. Then in 1 Peter 5 verse 4, Jesus is described as the Chief Shepherd. What a wonderful description. In John 10: 11 - 14, he's described himself as ‘the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.’ Churches are shepherding communities. There's a particular responsibility on the leaders to look out for weaker members and to help them when they can. It's also the responsibility of other members to help one another, when others begin to drift, or to struggle, for one reason or another.

In this passage, in conclusion, we have more important teaching about what makes up a healthy Christian community. We found out in the first part of Matthew 18: 1- 5, the attitudes that are important; trusting God in humility, and being responsive and receptive to him. We found out out in the second passage, Matthew 18: 6 - 9, some of the reasons that cause people to stumble, and some of the warnings against those either inside the church or outside the church who literally influence people negatively. Here we have something more general about the culture of the church; a community where everyone belongs, everyone has a place, however insignificant they may be, and their absence really matters. You might be one of those people who was in a church and you're no longer in a church. Can I encourage you, now is the time to return to a living church community? Can I encourage you if you think of people who you know who've left church communities, now is the time to consider, ‘How might I go and seek them out and encourage them?’ If you're a church leader may this passage encourage you in your pastoral responsibilities. Thanks for studying.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Who are the sheep in this parable? What is Jesus’ main point here?
  • Discipleship
    1. Are there people in your own community who are in danger of being ignored?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Discuss the topic of angels and guardian angels.
    2. Are there people who have left your church - for whatever reason? Pray for them and discuss ways of reaching out to them.
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