In Luke 15, were the ninety-nine sheep lost or saved?
Some people have acquired the idea that this passage refers to believers who are out of fellowship with God (backslidden) and then restored. I do not believe it illustrates that. To determine the meaning of the passage, we must survey the context.
Amid rejection by many on His way to Jerusalem and ultimately the cross in the final days of His ministry, Jesus taught various truths through parables, including truths that pictured those who were rejecting Him. The Pharisees and scribes hated Jesus. They especially disdained His keeping company with tax collectors and “sinners” (Luke 5:29–32; 11:53, 54). Of course, the scribes and Pharisees didn’t include themselves in the category of “sinners.” But Jesus made it clear in His ministry that their self-righteousness was not only a great abomination but a great error on their part—something that He must emphatically denounce as He fulfilled His public ministry. Because of Christ’s strong denunciations of their hypocrisy, the Pharisees and scribes wanted to do away with Him.
So we consider chapter 15, which includes three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. The three parables mesh, and they all show how God is concerned about the repentance and salvation of the lowly sinner, how He is in the business of seeking and finding. In fact, some Bible scholars see not three parables in this chapter but one, because in each illustration the grace of God is shown in the Savior’s finding the lost.
There has been some confusion over the ninety-nine sheep. A popular hymn reads,
There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold.
But that is not what Luke 15 says. Verse 4 indicates the ninety-nine, like the one lost sheep, were in the wilderness. So, actually, all of the sheep were sinners. Now look at verse 7, which reads,
Ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance (NKJV).
Doesn’t that indicate ninety-nine saved persons? No. It refers to the Pharisees’ and scribes’ opinion of themselves. They thought they were righteous and didn’t need to repent, but in reality they were in the wilderness of sin too.
That statement does not deny that the Jews had a special covenant relationship with God. But still each person is a sinner and needs personally to believe on and trust Christ as Savior. The self-righteous Pharisees and scribes failed to see and admit this truth. The fact that the Pharisees and scribes were shown in this parable to be lost, though they thought they were just, parallels the self-righteous “elder son” of the parable of the prodigal son. Jesus couldn’t save those who insisted upon their own righteousness, but He could save the lost who knew they needed help, as illustrated by both the lost sheep and the lost son.
Just as the older son became furious with his father’s positive response to the wayward son, the Pharisees were furious with Jesus and His invitation of salvation to all (outcasts; “sinners”); thus they refused to enter such a kingdom. The whining older brother, jealous over the partying for the occasion, revealed his self-righteousness—just as the Pharisees paraded their strict law-keeping as though that could save them. “Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time” (v. 29), said the older brother. What an appropriate caricature of the self-righteous but lost Pharisee.
Luke 15 also shows how compassionate the Lord Jesus Christ is. Carrying the found sheep “on his shoulders, rejoicing” is a beautiful description of the love of God toward the sinner. Verse 7 underscores that fact:
There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.
It is particularly stirring when we think of what Jesus had to endure not long after giving this parable. He was despised, ridiculed, tortured, and left to die on the cross for us. We looked upon the hymn “The Ninety and Nine” with a somewhat critical eye earlier, but the hymn is absolutely right when in another stanza it states,
But none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed,
Nor how dark was the night that the Lord passed through
Ere He found His sheep that was lost.
May we ask and allow the Lord to fill us with His love so that we can, wherever the Lord puts us, reach lost people in a sin-cursed world with the gospel.
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