The Ninety-nine Righteous Sheep
Repentance in Luke 15:1-10
By Zane C. Hodges
In the first article of this series, we maintained that the silence of John in his Gospel on the subject of repentance is a powerful argument that he did not regard repentance as necessary for eternal life. In the second article, we showed that John's frequent reference to repentance in the book of Revelation reveals that he treated repentance as necessary for the avoidance of, or for the cessation of, God's temporal judgments—whether on the saved or the unsaved.
Just as 1 Corinthians 13 is the classic New Testament chapter on love, and Hebrews 11 is the classic chapter on the life of faith, just so Luke 15 is the classic chapter on repentance. The three parables that it contains are familiar and much loved. They are, of course, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Lost Son.
It is a great irony, however, that these three stories are very often misread and misunderstood. This irony is even greater in view of the fact that the text of Luke gives us a clear and unmistakable clue to their meaning. In this article we shall consider the first two of these stories as they are found in Luke 15:1-10. In a subsequent article, Deo volente, we will look at the Parable of the Lost Son, while in yet another article we will consider this son's self-righteous older brother.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
The three parables of Luke 15 are introduced by verses 1-3. There we see the Pharisees and scribes complaining that our Lord Jesus "receives sinners and eats with them" (v 2). They are scandalized by the fact that He accepts them into table fellowship with Himself. This no self-respecting Pharisee would condescend to do. In response to their criticism, Jesus proceeds to tell these stories, beginning with the Parable of the Lost Sheep.
It is clear on the face of this story that the shepherd of this parable owns all one hundred sheep. This is plain in the words, "What man of you, having a hundred sheep" (v 4) and from the words "my sheep" in verse 6. As was frequent in Palestine, especially in the southern region called the Negeb (= "the dry"), this shepherd was grazing his flock in territory described as "the wilderness." This sparsely inhabited region contained sufficient vegetation to sustain sheep as their shepherd led them from grazing place to grazing place. Thus, in the parable, the shepherd is feeding his sheep when he notices that one of them has wandered away from his flock.
Upon making this discovery, he leaves the ninety-nine "in the wilderness" in order to "go after the one which is lost" (v 4). From the perspective of a Middle Eastern shepherd, this can hardly mean anything other than that he felt the flock was reasonably safe and would stay together.
After recovering the lost sheep, he places it lovingly "on his shoulders" (v 5) and brings it back to the flock. When the day's grazing is over and "he comes home" (v 6), he has a party to which he invites "his friends and neighbors" (v 6) so they can share his joy in having "found my sheep which was lost" (v 6). That this "party" parallels the celebrations staged in the next two parables, goes without saying.
Our Lord's application of this story is crystal clear: "I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just [Greek, dikaios = righteous] persons who need no repentance" (v 7; italics added). The words which we have placed in italics are the key to this parable. The ninety-nine sheep represent people who are "righteous" and who therefore do not need to repent. This is what the text plainly states.
But this is not how it is interpreted by many who read and/or teach it. Instead, the "ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance" are transformed into "ninety-nine unrighteous persons who only think they need no repentance! That this manifestly contradicts the text and turns it upside down is so clear that this rereading of our Lord's words is self-refuting.
Plainly stated, the Parable of the Lost Sheep is not about eternal salvation at all. It is about a Christian who wanders away from God's flock and pursues the pathway of sin. His restoration to fellowship with his Savior and Shepherd, as well as to fellowship with the Lord's people, who have not wandered away, requires repentance. When such a recovery of a straying believer occurs, the Great Shepherd is filled with joy and heaven itself rejoices with Him. And so, of course, should God's people as well (a point to be addressed in the story about the brother of the Prodigal Son: Luke 15:25-32).
After more than 40 years of ministering to the group of believers who now gather at Victor Street Bible Chapel, I am thankful that the Lord has allowed me to see this parable fulfilled repeatedly. Time after time, various ones of God's straying sheep have been found and restored to the flock by their loving Shepherd.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
Our Lord's second parable in Luke 15 reinforces as well as complements the first. If the Shepherd Himself is concerned for any of His sheep that stray, so also the Christian Church should be. As has often been suggested, the woman in this parable is very naturally taken as representing the Church itself.
Once again, it is obvious that the woman of the parable is the person to whom the ten coins belong. One of them becomes lost (v 8), but just as clearly the other nine do not! The story assumes that the woman knows exactly where they are. She is looking for the one lost coin, not the other nine.
In order to find it, however, she must "light a lamp" and use a broom to "sweep the house" (v 8). It is evident that the place where she lives is both dark and dirty, and that she believes the lost coin may be found in some dark nook or cranny where there might be considerable dirt or trash. The parable thus admirably fits the reality that the Christian Church lives in a world which contains more than enough darkness and moral and spiritual filth (cf. 2 Pet 1:19 "as a light that shines in a dark place").
Born again Christians do indeed go astray in this world of darkness and filth, but they still retain their identity and value to God just as a lost coin is still valuable no matter how much trash it is buried under. The Church is responsible to recognize, as did the woman in the parable, that the straying Christian still has enormous value and needs to be returned to the company of other believers so that his value and theirs may be properly utilized for God. A Christian church is always "richer" when a straying Christian returns to the fold.
The recovery of such a Christian is a source of joy to the Church and to its heavenly "friends and neighbors," the angels of God (v 9 10). That the angels are intimately concerned with what happens in the Christian church is clearly indicated by passages like Ephesians 3:10; 1 Corinthians 11:10; Hebrews 1:14; 12:22 23; and other texts. Indeed, 1 Corinthians 11:10 in particular implies that the angels observe Christian practices and activities (cf. also Luke 24:6 7). Employing the imagery of the Lord's parable, we might say that whenever the Church gathers the angels are "invited" and in fact attend as unseen guests! So whenever the Church gathers and rejoices over a backslidden believer who has been recovered, it does so "in the presence of the angels" who are there to share that joy (v 10)!
There is nothing at all in either parable about eternal salvation. In fact, Luke 15 as a whole is a celebration of one of the most joyous experiences that a Christian congregation can have—the recovery for God, and for the congregation, of one of God's precious sheep and valued coins. May the Lord grant this joy repeatedly in grace churches all over the world!
The misreading of the parables of Luke 15 as though they applied to the salvation of sinners is very unfortunate. To be sure, it is wonderfully joyful when an unsaved sinner gets saved. That joy too has come many, many times to Victor Street Bible Chapel. But that is not the joy described in these parables about repentance. To be saved, all the unsaved person needs to do is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31)!
Next issue: Lost Son, Not Lost Sonship: Repentance in Luke 15:11-24