Scripture: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” Matthew 18:10-14 ESV
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Observation: Recapping yesterday’s Daily Focus (click here to read), Jesus sternly warns his disciples about their prideful attitudes revealed when they recently argued over who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He then shockingly illustrates that they and any who cause others to stumble in their faith take whatever drastic measures necessary to do their part in overcoming sin patterns. Using a dramatic figure of speech that echoes his warning from the Sermon on the Mount regarding lust (pluck out the eye rather than be thrown into hell, click here to read), Jesus tells his disciples to cut off the hand or foot or pluck out the eye if any aspect of their life causes them to keep on sinning. While he does not promote self-mutilation, he wants them to take habitual sin seriously because it will otherwise perilously lead to ruin.
Continuing the theme of caring for the little ones (those young in the faith and vulnerable to influence), in today’s reading, Jesus adds that if we act contemptuously toward them, we oppose the purposes of God, for he will watch for their welfare through angels who are in constant communication with him. Indeed, Scripture tells us of angelic care to:
- Individuals such as Jacob (Genesis 48:16, click here to read) or any who fear him (Psalm 34:7, click here to read)
- Churches (Revelation 1:20, click here to read)
- Nations (Daniel 10:13, click here to read)
- Those to inherit the faith, i.e., soon-to-be little ones in the faith (Hebrews 1:14, click here to read)
Jesus concludes this teaching with a parable of a lost sheep that illustrates his Father’s earnestness to ensure none of these little ones will perish.
Takeaway: We must read these verses in flow with the prior warning about causing little ones to stumble. The context points to those who are young in the faith and susceptible to undue influence. Through the Father’s orchestrated will, angelic forces and more mature disciples will do their part in going after those who stray and lose their sense of direction to ensure they find their way back to the fold. Of course, the Holy Spirit plays a central role in our post-resurrection era.
The reference to God’s people being his sheep is replete throughout the Old and New Testaments:
- Under the Father’s care (Psalm 23; Isaiah 53:6; Jeremiah 13:17; Zechariah 10:3; 13:7)
- Distressed or gone astray (Psalm. 119:176; Isaiah 53:6; Jeremiah 23:1–4; 50:6; Ezekiel 34:1–30)
- Under Jesus’ care (John 10:7–18; 1 Peter 5:2–4; Revelation 7:17)
But how does leaving behind the ninety-nine demonstrate loving care for those who are not lost? We must resist reading this passage through the lens of our modern worldview, for Jesus’ audience would not object to the shepherd leaving behind ninety-nine since it was common practice for other shepherds to keep an eye on another’s flock under such circumstances. Regarding rejoicing more over the one lost sheep, as theologian Michael Wlkins rightfully contends, “the shepherd’s joy demonstrates the depth of his concern, care, and love for all his sheep. The depth of that love is often only experienced when faced with the possibility of loss” (NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, p.617).
Our takeaway? In Luke 15:3-7 (click here to read), Jesus tells a parallel parable with an additional teaching point: the importance of lost sheep (wayward sinners) repenting. Knowing that Judas is among the Twelve, these parables together provide a stark reminder that not all who stray will eventually turn back. Some are never genuinely regenerated but merely give the appearance. Still, it is not our call to make that judgment. However, it is our call to go after those who profess to be Christian and have lost their way. So while some will not heed our words of concern, others will. And we who follow the Good Shepherd will experience to some measure the joy of heaven celebrating over them and us, for we were all once lost.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son, our Good Shepherd, who seeks sinners who know they need a Savior. And we thank you for your Holy Spirit, who verifies the truth of our Gospel and continues to deepen our understanding of your grace through repentance and faith. So would you please help us to submit to the lead of your Holy Spirit, whether to guide us to repentance or direct us toward others who have gone astray? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling