Jesus' discourse in Luke 15 breaks down into three distinct illustrations: The Lost Sheep (verses 4-7), The Lost Coin (verses 8-10), and The Lost Son (verses 11-32). The whole chapter is essentially one distinct parable with three illustrations. One illustration flows without interruption into the next; one thought transitions into another to make one parable. We know this because Luke uses the singular "this parable" when he introduces the three illustrations in verse 3.
Jesus' intention is to reveal that, as the Son of Man, He came into the world to seek and save the lost. The three illustrations, when combined, present us with a far more complete picture of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ than would only one. Concern over a thing lost and the joy at recovering it is the fundamental issue of each illustration. The sheep, the money, and the son—all lost—were all worth saving. It was a serious matter to lose a sheep, worse to lose money, and worst of all to lose a son. Part One of this three-part study will analyze what is commonly known as the Parable of the Lost Sheep.
1. What is the reason Jesus spoke this parable of the lost possessions? Psalm 119:176; Ezekiel 34:11, 16.
Comment: This parable results from a statement made by the scribes and Pharisees, "This man receives sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15:2). As the end of Jesus' public ministry neared, the downtrodden, the despised, the lowly, and the sinful were drawn to Him. They were sincere in their desire to be raised out of their poor condition and genuine in their desire to follow Him, and He publicly identified Himself with them. Unlike the Pharisees, these sinners knew they were sinners and needed to be saved.
By this parable, the Pharisees stood condemned, and so they found fault with the godly work Jesus Christ was doing. Their criticism implied that Christ allowed these sinners in His presence because He was like them in character. They never understood that He allowed them in His presence to save them from their sins, as Ezekiel had prophesied.
2. How does the illustration of the lost sheep in Luke 15:1-7 differ from a similar one in Matthew 18:12-14?
Comment: In Matthew, Jesus describes God's care over the least and little ones. In Luke, He magnifies divine grace to the lost, showing that God desires their recovery and salvation. The Bible contains many prophetic references to the One who would be the Ideal Shepherd (Psalm 23:1), the Perfect Shepherd (Ezekiel 34:11-16), and a Savior who would see the multitudes as sheep having no shepherd or, even worse, a worthless shepherd (Zechariah 11:16-17). Christ claims for Himself the title of the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14). In Luke's illustration, Jesus seeks the lost sheep, sinners who desire to change because the Good Shepherd gives His life for those who repent. He desires to save them, give them His Holy Spirit, and help them through a life of overcoming that ends in eternal life.
3. Who does the one lost sheep represent? Luke 15:1, 4; Ezekiel 14:11.
Comment: The lost sheep knew that, without the instruction and the care of the shepherd, it was lost. Nevertheless, because of curiosity, it strayed, wandering away from the shepherd (James 1:14). The lost sheep represents the foolish and thoughtless wanderer from God to whom He says, "Do not listen to anything that will lead you away from Me and My truth." The caution in Proverbs 19:27—"Cease listening to instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge"—is not just for children but for the well-educated adult who instead listens to the ungodly teachings of those who feign knowledge (II Timothy 4:3-4). How often have Christians allowed themselves to be enticed away by their own intellectual vanity? God corrects this type of person's straying by allowing the curse of his sins to fall upon him.
4. Why is there more joy over the repenting sinner than the loyal and faithful righteous? Luke 15:5-7.
Comment: Just people need no repentance because they need no change of mind and purpose. Some people were reared in a godly and righteous family environment. Their parents obeyed and worshipped according to God's laws, statutes, and ordinances, and taught their children to do likewise. The Gentile Cornelius was one such man (Acts 10:1-2). Of course, no human being is completely just (Ecclesiastes 7:20), but he may be righteous in comparison to those who flagrantly sin, such as those succinctly described in Luke 15:1. A just person cannot repent of the idolatries of a pagan, which he has not practiced, nor of the larcenies of a tax collector, of which he has never been guilty. When comparing just people to flagrant sinners, we immediately see what Jesus means: These needed no repentance in comparison to the others, not being guilty of such gross sins.
There is more immediate joy over a sinner who repents and follows Christ than over those who are already repentant and safely within God's flock. The latter already have greater and more intimate happiness—eternal joy!—within the Family of God. Faithful members should be elated by the fact that their Shepherd loves and cares for them so intimately. And for the one who strayed, upon genuine repentance, there is hope of salvation.