For many years I had found the parables of Jesus confusing. It doesn’t sound like he was talking about Christians. The language was more Jewish, rather than Church (body of Christ). It wasn’t until I began to understand that Jesus always dealt with the nation of Israel under the law, that I learned to leave the parables where they belong: for the Jews.
In the gospel of Luke we read of several parables that Jesus told. One of them is about a lost sheep. Pastors love to preach on it. If you’ve been a church goer for a number of years, you have probably heard a pastor say that it is about a shepherd who left his flock of 99 sheep safely in the fold to go find the one sheep that had strayed. You may have heard that all one hundred of the sheep represent saved Christians and the one who ran off was a backslider. Much of Christendom believes this is the correct meaning, but it isn’t. All of Jesus’s parables were given to the Jews. He had no ministry to the Gentiles.
So what does the parable of the lost sheep mean? Notice In Luke 15, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and the scribes (teachers of the law). They were complaining that Jesus spends a lot of time with sinners, even eats with them. So Jesus asks a question by way of a parable:
“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? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 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. 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.” (Luke 15 4-7)
Notice what Jesus said about these sheep. They were not in the safety of the fold, but out there in the wilderness, totally lost and unaware of it. They were all sinners. It was the lone sheep who separates himself from the group because it knew that it was lost. The Shepherd goes on a search, finds it, puts it on his shoulders and joyfully goes home. He then calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ Notice that the Shepard does not take this sheep back to the 99 and tell it never to stray from them again. No, he takes it home to safety.
The 99 are Sadducees, Pharisees and the majority of Jews. They are religious law keepers who are spiritually lost. They were without THE Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ. But did they know it? No. They were too self-righteous and self-content. They were just like a bunch of sheep out in the wilderness wandering around, thinking they were right with God, but they were desperately lost. There was only one that knew he was lost, and that was the sheep that the Shepherd went and saved. Who does this sheep represent? Lost Gentiles? Backsliding Christians? No. Jesus did not minister to Gentiles. That lone sheep which left the majority represents those Jews who believe that Jesus is the Christ.
Israel, as a nation, is currently blinded, but individual Jews can and have come to Christ. The lost sheep, now found, (saved) represents that remnant of Israel, that little flock which believes that Christ is their king/Messiah.
Although these parables were for the Jews, there are good moral lessons that we Christians can glean from them. The Pharisees were religious zealots who believed they had nothing to repent of. They looked down on others as sinners. We have millions of people today who are the same way. They belong to a false religion and don’t even know it. They think by their piety, ‘good works,’ church attendance, baptism, etc., that they are right with God. But the truth is they have never been born again. They do not recognize that they are sinners of whom Christ came to seek and save via His death on the cross.