The parable of the lost sheep sufficiently explains what the true repentance is. We will now correctly read the parable that is frequently misunderstood.
[Luke 15:1-7] 1 Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. 3 And he spake this parable unto them, saying, 4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? 5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. 7 I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
Pharisees’ Murmur Seems Reasonable Somehow
The Pharisees and the scribes murmur as Jesus gathers together with the tax collectors and sinners and eats with them. On hearing this, He answers to them through the parable of the lost sheep to explain why He does so.
This parable shows the qualification of the persons who can be friends of Jesus. All believers as well as the Pharisees want to be friends of God, because it is the actual purpose of believing in God. So, if someone says that he believes in God or Jesus, it means that he wants to be one of friends of God. Jesus says about the qualification of the men who can be friends of God through the parable of the lost sheep.
The Pharisees were strongly against Jesus in each case, and Jesus also rebuked them they were children of the devil. They seemed to be opponents each other. From this, we tend to think that the Pharisees were ugly, criminal-faced and full of greed and wickedness.
However, they were not of that looks. They were gentle looking and were devoted to God with all their hearts and soul. We cannot imagine how zealous they were as to keeping the law for God. We will now see below their faith.
[Luke 18:11-12] 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. 12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
There are many believers who say, “I sometimes do evil things.” “I will give tithes when I have made sufficient money,” and “I am not fond of fasting by physical constitution,” and so forth.
However, the Pharisees were different. They did not rob, did not do evil things, did not commit adultery, but they fasted and gave tithes. If the believer leads Christian life as the Pharisees did in this age, he will be spoken very well of by others. It is quite natural for the Pharisees who are living such a devout life not to highly estimate Jesus who gathers together with the tax collectors and sinners.
“How can He mix with the sinners or robbers instead of avoiding them?” The Pharisees’ murmur may seem to be natural. For instance, if a so-called devout Christian makes friends with harlots and sinners and hang out with them, we will be accusing him. If we have such an accusation toward such a man, then we have the same mind of Pharisees who murmured against Jesus having mixed with sinners. Therefore their murmur looks quite reasonable to our eyes.
However, differently from the Pharisees, we do not fasten a quarrel on Jesus who has associated with the sinners. We always take sides with Him in any cases, right or wrong, thinking that is the right way to believe in and serve Jesus. But, the Scripture doesn’t support these behaviors as right faith. If we continue to believe in Him in that manner, we will be for Him outwardly, but we will be the Pharisees who murmur His behaviors inwardly.
Meaningless, If the True Meanings is Missing
Upon hearing the Pharisees and the scribes, Jesus told them the parable of the lost sheep. It will be of no use to read the parable if we cannot understand what it says rightly.
For example, let us assume that Jesus wrote a letter to us “I will see you at the watermill over the brook at nine pm.” We will never see Him if we conclude that He wants to see us at the brook at nine pm after reading the letter. We should catch what He meant in the letter, and come to the right place, the watermill, not the brook.
The Scripture says that Jesus will meet us and abide in us forever. We, of course, are to come to the right place at the right time as the Scripture indicates. If not, we cannot meet Him even though we have read the Scripture a hundred times. If we understand the true meaning of the parable of the lost sheep, we will realize that we have been waiting for Him at the wrong place thus far. This is a very well-known parable, and we think we all know very well the meaning of this parable.
The meaning of this parable that we traditionally have is as follows:
“The one lost sheep represents a person who once was a church member but disappointed and went out of the church. So we must find him and persuade him to come back to the church.”
Our understanding is that being one lost sheep is not good and being amongst ninety-nine sheep is considered good. We are very much mistaken in this matter. There are several points, which cannot be explained if we follow the traditional understanding.
Firstly, the shepherd, when he found one lost sheep, brought it to his home, not to the place where the sheep was, i.e. where ninety-nine sheep are.
Secondly, Jesus refers one lost sheep as the one sinner that repents over whom the haven has joy. From this, we can understand that the sheep is the metaphor for sinners. Therefore, this is the parable about one sinner that is lost versus ninety-nine sinners that are not lost yet. Remember! No joy of heaven was expressed over ninety-nine sheep.
Thirdly, Jesus poses this parable to explain why He is mixed with sinners with joy. Naturally, the parable is to read to explain why Jesus is the friend of them. Nevertheless, the traditional understanding says “You! Go and find dismayed former church member, and bring them back!” which is totally out of the context.
To say the conclusion first, the true meaning of this parable is that one lost sheep refers to a believer who has a sound faith, and ninety-nine sheep are those who have misguided faith. We understand quite the opposite to the true meaning. This will be revealed as we go on.
Wilderness Where Jesus Feeds Sheep
The shepherd in the parable feed a hundred sheep in the wilderness. The term “wilderness” is translated from the Greek “eremos”. The Greek “eremos” was translated as the “wilderness” in many other cases in the Scripture (E.g., Mt3:1, 4:1, 11:7, Jn3:14, and Rev12:6). However, the “eremos” in this parable is translated into various English words according to the Bible versions, as “the wilderness” in KJV, as “the open country” in NIV, and as “the open pasture” in NASB.
The eremos, however, needs to be translated into “the wilderness” to reflect the spiritual world right. It seems that some of the translators of the Bible have digressed from the true spiritual meaning because of the fixed idea that sheep are fed in the pasture. I will explain why it is appropriate to translate the eremos into the wilderness.
The world we live in now is a world that produces thorns and thistles and is hard to live. The Scripture says this hard world is the wilderness as a metaphor. The law dominates men in the wilderness.
One Lost Sheep
We come to the church to believe in Jesus. In church, we do various many things such as attending every service, prayers, donations, worships, sharing, teachings, bible study and etcetera. However, even though we have spent long time up to now in doing so, we feel still lack and futility deep inside of us.
Further, we never ever have been able to love our neighbors as ourselves at one moment. We keep on sinning even though we believe that Jesus has forgiven our sins once for all. We have done many things many years, but no change in us at all.
What is the reason for this? That is because we have been living in the wilderness under the law as one of the ninety-nine sheep. We will query; “How come? We came to the church to believe in Jesus, not the law.” I will reply; “No, sorry! We cannot meet Jesus unless otherwise we spent long time under the law.” When we are exhausted and consequently fall down, being lost like one of sheep here, then we can meet Jesus.
Only at that moment, we would repent and be able to follow Jesus from the bottom of our heart.” The sinners, tax collectors, woman caught in adultery, prodigal son in the Bible represent such ‘lost sheep.’ The lost sheep will be made perfect by Jesus spiritually by reaching home of the shepherd.
We all are to start our faith life as one of ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness. Only when we fall down completely from such a life under the law, being one lost sheep, then Jesus will find us and bring us to His home. At that time, our faith will change from legalistic one to true one. Then, we can love our neighbor as ourselves, and our sin will be forgiven once for all.
God permitted this hard world, the wilderness, to us, the sheep, with Divine Providence. When each one of the sheep is lost in the wilderness, not the green pasture, he is then brought to the home of Jesus. In a spiritual sense, it is quite evident that Jesus feeds sheep in the wilderness on purpose for the sheep to become lost in there, and to have chance to return home. Being one lost sheep in the wilderness is the true repentance.
Friends of Shepherd
We can find no text in the parable that the shepherd returned to the place where the ninety-nine sheep stayed, after having found the lost sheep. He put it on his shoulders, went home, and rejoiced with his friends and neighbors.
In general, it will be easier for us to understand if the shepherd brought the lost sheep to the original place where other sheep stayed. However, the shepherd went home with the lost sheep and had a feast.
From his behavior, it seems that he was eagerly waiting for sheep to be lost, and that relatively he was not much pleased with the ninety-nine sheep remaining in the wilderness. Yes, he was. The shepherd was much more pleased with the one sheep that is lost.
The shepherd found the lost sheep and came home with it and called together his friends and neighbors to rejoice together. Home of shepherd means the Kingdom of God where Jesus is living together with His believers, which the believers must enter within lifetime. Therefore, we can reckon that the shepherd has the great joy over the one lost sheep, not only because he has found it but because the sheep has finally returned to home of shepherd, the Kingdom of God.
Who are those friends and neighbors invited to the feast of the shepherd? Of course, the shepherd indicates Jesus Christ. Friends and neighbors are the other lost sheep each of which was lost and brought home earlier. Jesus says He Himself is the friend of the disciples as below.
[John 15:15] Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.
Jesus said this word to his disciples that He will be the friend of them after the crucifixion. This means that the friends of Jesus are those disciples who are born again by the crucifixion of Jesus. Therefore, we can reckon that the lost sheep brought to the shepherd’s home represents born again man like disciples.
In fact, disciples were once lost and found by Jesus, and after the cross of Jesus, they got to the home of Jesus, the Kingdom of God. When they come home of Jesus, they become friends and neighbors of Jesus.
In the parable, bringing the lost sheep to home and allowing it to join the group of friends and neighbors means that if a man is saved then he now belongs to the existing group of saved men. Lost sheep gather together in the home of Jesus, and this gathering represents the ‘church’ in this world. The true church is an organic gathering of the lost sheep, the kingdom of God in this world.
99 Sheep in the Wilderness
At the end of the parable, Jesus says: “Likewise joy shall be heaven over one sinner that repents, more than over ninety and nine persons, which need no repentance” Jesus says ‘one lost sheep’ as ‘one sinner’ that repents, and other ‘ninety-nine sheep’ as ‘ninety-nine righteous men’ that do not need to repent.
In the parable, the shepherd is Jesus Christ of course, and the sheep are believers. 100 sheep refers to all believers under the sun, 1 lost sheep is the true believer, being rare breed as the number one out of one hundred implies, and 99 sheep are self-righteous believers with whom Jesus are not so much pleased.
At first look, the ninety-nine sheep seem to have good faith because Jesus is saying that they do not require repentance. It would be a big mistake if we think they are real righteous men. We should read between the lines to catch Jesus’ real intention. He is somehow sarcastic here. Ninety-nine sheep refer to the believers who think that they are righteous by themselves. Jesus can do nothing for them as long as they hold fast to their thoughts of self-righteousness, and so, He calls them righteous sarcastically.
Let us have another case where Jesus refers Pharisees as the righteous even though they are not in reality.
[Matthew 9:10-13] 10 And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? 12 But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. 13 But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
In the above scene, the Pharisees saw Jesus was with the tax collectors and sinners, and they blamed Him. On hearing this, Jesus referred Himself to be a physician and said that the healthy needed no physician but the sick needed one. In other words, the tax collectors and sinners are the sick who need Jesus, and the Pharisees are the healthy who do not need Jesus.
Here, Jesus calls Pharisees as healthy and righteous, but Pharisees are neither healthy nor righteous. Here is another verse about self-righteousness.
[Luke 16:15] And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.
The Pharisees, even though they are believers of God, cannot associate with Jesus. Why? Because they do not recognize yet they themselves are sinners. Maybe they thought their sins were forgiven, as they were the chosen Jews, just as we, the believers,think our sins were forgiven as we came to the church to believe. Unfortunately, that is not the true sin forgiveness of Jesus, which is mentioned in the Bible.
Earlier we saw Peter’s case whereby at the end of his tether, he recognized himself as a sinful man, and repented. After that, he was able to associate with Jesus to follow Him. However, as for the Pharisees here, they do not reach the Peter’s status whereby they realize that they are sinners.
Eventually, therefore, they cannot think that they are sinners who need repentance and thus, they cannot repent. Jesus calls this kind of people as “repentance is not needed,” in the negative sense.
The ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness are the believers, who think righteous by themselves, and so they do not repent and so they cannot follow Jesus. The Pharisees are such ninety-nine sheep.
One lost sheep taken home is the believer who is made really righteous by Jesus. He repented, had followed Jesus to His home, the Kingdom of God. He is saved and become a true believer.
Jesus gave the parable to explain why he is mixed with the sinners, not with Pharisees who seem righteous. Jesus was with sinners because they were ready to follow Jesus to the Kingdom. But Pharisees refused Jesus because they themselves thought righteous by keeping the laws. Quite naturally Jesus could only be the friend of the sinners, one lost sheep in the parable.
The righteousness of God is only given by Jesus Christ who comes through the true repentance. Other ways of righteousness except Jesus are self-righteousness that makes doers arrogant and boastful. The ninety-nine righteous men are self-righteous men. All men who come to church and believe in Him belong to the multitude of ninety-nine.
They are in the wilderness under the law spiritually. Time will come when they are exhausted and falls down during their individual faith life, being one lost sheep. Jesus will gladly meet him and lead him to His home, the Kingdom of God.
Our faith is destined to start from ninety-nine sheep, and when we are exhausted and repent, then to one lost sheep.
(Taken from the title “Fresh Eyes to Read the Bible I : with Added Illustrations – Biblical Steps for Growing in Faith”)