We said last week that it is not the angels who are important in Matthew 18.10-14. They may be interceding on behalf of weak or wandering Christians, an encouraging thing to know. But what is really important here is that God is compared to the shepherd who seeks and finds the lost sheep.
The parable tells us many important things about God. First, God cares for us individually. When I see a lot of sheep in a meadow, I cannot begin to imagine how a shepherd can distinguish one sheep from another and miss one if it is caught by a predator or wanders off. They know them individually, and what is more, their sheep know them and respond to their voices. Jesus was building on this fact when He told the people of His day, “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10.14–15).
We know that God knows His people individually and cares for them individually because when He calls them to faith He calls them “by name.” We see this clearly in the earthly ministry of Jesus. Think of Matthew himself. We are told that Jesus “saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax gatherer’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.” Here was a lost sheep who had been given to Jesus by the Father. Jesus called him by name, and when He did, Matthew recognized his Master’s voice and followed Him.
Zacchaeus was another lost sheep. He was a little man who could not see Jesus as He passed by because of the large crowd of people. So he climbed a tree to get a better view. “When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.”
An even more powerful example occurred in Bethany. The brother of Mary and Martha was sick. Word was sent to Jesus, but Lazarus died before Jesus arrived. But Jesus stood before the tomb and cried loudly, “Lazarus, come out!” And he did! Lazarus was another of Jesus’ sheep, and he responded by returning from the dead.
Or how about Mary. Mary was weeping in the garden where Jesus had been buried following His crucifixion. He spoke to her, but she thought He was the gardener. Then He spoke her name: “Mary.” Immediately she knew Him. Her doubts and sorrow fled, faith rose up, and Mary cried, “Rabboni!” which means Teacher.
It is always that way. If you are a believer, it is because God called you individually, and when you heard Him call you by name, you turned from trusting yourself and trusted Him instead. That is the kind of relationship God has with His people. It is an individual relationship. He knows you, even you. If He called you by name when you first believed on Jesus, you can be sure that He will exercise that same individual care in keeping you and seeking you if you wander away. You may be one in a hundred, but you are the one He will go to find and bring home.
Secondly, the parable tells us God understands our weaknesses. We are told that sheep are stupid creatures – incredibly dumb. One way they show their stupidity is by so easily wandering away. They can have a good shepherd who has brought them to the best grazing lands, near an abundant supply of water, but they will still wander off to where the fields are barren and the water undrinkable. Again, by contrast, they are creatures of habit. They will stay in the same spot, grazing on the same land, until every blade of grass and every root is eaten, the fields ruined and themselves impoverished. This has actually ruined land in many sheep-raising areas of the world.
The wonderful thing is that God does not berate us for being stupid. The Bible says, “He knows our frame, and remembers that we are dust” (Ps.103.14).
Finally, it tells us God seeks us when we stray. Doesn’t God have anything better to do than to hunt for lost sheep? He does other important things too, of course. He runs the universe. He directs the flow of history. He sets up nations and brings nations down. But there is a sense in which all these other actions are only a backdrop for the drama of salvation, which means that seeking and saving lost sheep are the most important things God does.
Jesus is described as “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” This means God created the world as a stage upon which the drama of salvation would be acted out. Moreover, when Jesus came, He described His mission by saying, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk.19.10). Indeed, when the drama is over and the curtain has come down on the final act, the angelic audience and those who have been saved will praise the author and chief actor, crying,
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!” …
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!” (Re.5.12-13)
We should remember one more thing: God does not wait for us to come to Him, because we would not. “There is no one who … seeks God” (Ro.3.11). “But God shows his love for us in that: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Ro.5.8).
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org