Parable of the Lost Sheep

Commentary: What does Jesus' parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15 mean for us today?

Missions: The heart of God

"Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn't he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and until he finds it?" -- Luke 15:4

Lost on the ocean. Lost in the desert. Lost inside a cave. Lost in the mountains. A lost dog. A lost child. Such phrases evoke gut-wrenching images in our minds. The emotionally-charged word "lost" is also how Scripture describes people who have not yet embraced Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

The book Classic Sermons on World Evangelism includes a George Truett message which mentions Jesus' Lost Sheep parable. In the middle of that "A Quest for Souls" sermon, Pastor Truett turns to the world evangelism implications of the Lost Sheep parable. To Truett, long-time pastor of Dallas First Baptist Church, finding the lost sheep Jesus was talking about will necessitate a thorough global search as well as intensive near-neighbor evangelism.

Let's be clear: Near-neighbor evangelism is critical to carrying out Jesus' Great Commission. However, millions of lost sheep today will never be found unless believers unstintingly follow Jesus' instructions to go to the "ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

The Lost Sheep parable is one of three stories in Luke 15. The other two are about a lost coin and a lost son. Jesus used all three stories to describe the loss of something valuable, something that is valuable enough to merit an all-out search. With the Lost Sheep parable, Jesus was clearly rejecting an argument about evangelism that says: "Well, let's be content with the ninety-nine that are safe. After all, 99 percent is a really good percentage."

Christopher Chapman, pastor of a church in Jakarta, Indonesia, says the lesson of the Lost Sheep parable is this:

"God surely cares for the ninety-nine sheep that have access to the green grass of the Gospel . . . but the Lord has made clear to us that He feels a special urgency for the lost sheep that have no access to the Gospel."

In some areas of the world, it is dangerous to openly p[roclaim that God has come in Christ Jesus to reconcile all the world to Himself. People living in those areas can seem beyond the Church's reach. Indeed, a few decades ago, it was common to refer to places where it was illegal to do open evangelism as "closed countries." World missions strategists no longer speak of "closed countries." Maybe that is because the Church has realized that in His lost sheep parable, Jesus was clearly implying, as Australian missions pastor Andrew Chisholm has said, that "unreached does not mean out of reach."

The message of the Lost Sheep Parable, says Chisholm, is that, regardless of obstacles, Jesus expects His Church to come up with ways to go to the ends of the earth to find those lost sheep, every one of them.

Discussion questions

  1. What relevance to the cause of world evangelism do you see in Jesus' parable of the Lost Sheep? What might that parable suggest about the importance Christians should give to global outreach?
  2. How has the approach to cross-cultural missionary ministry changed over time, and what role does the concept of "unreached but not out of reach" play in this shift?
  3. What might the Lost Sheep parable suggest about the urgency of reaching out to those who have not yet embraced Jesus as their Savior and Lord?
  4. How can believers balance the importance of near-neighbor evangelism with the call to reach out to those in remote or dangerous areas of the world? How do we keep evangelism from being "either/or" (i.e., EITHER I'm committed to near-neibhro evangleism OR I'm involved in some way in ends-of-the-earth outreach)?
  5. In what ways can Christians develop innovative and fruitful strategies to reach the "lost sheep" in today's world? What challenges may arise in carrying out this mission?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

This mini-essay on a world missions Bible passage is one of more than three dozen articles in the "Heart of God" series published in Engage magazine. That series explores what the Bible says about missions.

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