Restoring the lost sheep

(This is the third in a series of posts on the Parable of Luke 15. You can read the previous posts here and here.)

In the last post we talked about the immense value of the one lost sheep to the shepherd, and saw that this is a picture of the love Jesus has for each one of us. There are two more thoughts I want us to take away from Jesus’ story of the Lost Sheep. They are the joyful burden for the shepherd of restoring the lost sheep, and a clear picture of the magnificent illustration of grace in this story. We must understand these things deeply, because in these stories Jesus is teaching us about our salvation, what it means to be saved, and our role in it.

“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 go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.  Luke 15:4-7

The joyful burden of restoring the lost sheep

The restoration of a lost sheep is no easy task. For the shepherd it involves two distinct tasks: the finding of the sheep and restoring it to the flock.
Finding a lost sheep is a difficult and costly task to the shepherd. He could easily spend a day or more in his search, roaming over rocky hills and rugged wilderness, hoping to find his sheep before it is attacked by a predator, or succumbs to the harsh environment.

When the shepherd finds his lost sheep, his work of restoring that sheep begins. The shepherd picks up the sheep and carries it home on his shoulders. While many of the depictions of this scene show the shepherd with a small lamb, a mature sheep could easily weigh between 150 and 200 lbs. Obviously this is a tremendous burden for the shepherd. Yet in verse 5 Jesus says, “And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.” The shepherd is joyful, he is happy to lift that sheep on his shoulders and carry it home!

In the story of our saving Jesus is happy to search for us, find us, pick us up and carry us back home. When you or I stray from the flock, He knows it, and He sets out to find us, searching tirelessly, pursuing us until we are found. He then joyfully picks us up and carries us home, looking forward to the celebration that will occur when He arrives with another lost soul that has been saved.

Jesus’ magnificent illustration of God’s gift of grace

This story is one of the most beautiful illustrations of God’s gift of grace toward us. Let’s look at the elements in this story one more time and see the role they play in the story of our redemption.

You and I are the sheep. The role we play in the story is simple: we manage to get lost. I’m sure if you think back on your own life, you can remember times when you lost your way. It’s amazing sometimes how easy it is to find ourselves to be lost! Often it can be done with very little effort.

Jesus is the shepherd. He is the shepherd who loves His sheep, all of them, one by one. And when He discovers that one is missing, He immediately sets out to find that sheep and restore it to the flock.

Remember that Jesus was telling this story to the religious leaders in the crowd. He was talking to people who believed that, in order to be right with God, they had to observe a strict set of rules that governed every aspect of their lives. They believed their salvation was their responsibility and a result of their own effort. If they were telling the story of salvation in terms of a flock of sheep, they would say it is the job of each sheep to stay with the flock (by keeping and following all of the rules of the Law), and if a sheep got lost, that sheep must find its way back and restore itself to the flock.

Jesus told a very different story of salvation, and it was revolutionary. The only action on the part of the sheep was to become separated from the flock. All of the work of saving was done by the shepherd. The finding was done by the shepherd. The return to the flock was performed by the shepherd as he put the sheep on his shoulders and carried it home. Kenneth Bailey writes,”Terrified and alone, the sheep is overjoyed to be found and in the process becomes a symbol for repentance. Repentance is not a work which earns our rescue. Rather, the sinner accepts being found.”

So, in the story of the lost sheep, Jesus defines repentance as the acceptance of being found. It is He who pursues us. We only come to an understanding of our need for salvation after He has tenderly and relentlessly shown us our need. Once we accept His saving, He carries us home on the shoulders of his death on the cross. And He does this work joyfully, excitedly, happily.

(Many of the thoughts in this series on Luke 15 come from one book: The Cross & the Prodigal by Kenneth E. Bailey. I recommend it highly.)

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