Matthew: The Kingdom Principle: The Least is Greatest, Part 3: The Lost Sheep

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on December 1, 1998

Matthew 18:12-14

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 18. Matthew chapter 18 opens with a question. The disciples are questioning the Lord Jesus Christ – a little embarrassed that He knew what they were talking about – but asking Him the question: “Lord, who is the greatest in the kingdom?” And, in the context of responding to the disciples and teaching them about true greatness in the kingdom, Jesus spends this whole chapter teaching them in various ways about how the disciples, who are part of His kingdom, ought to relate to one another.

When we looked at the passage last time in Matthew 18 verses 7 through 11, and He spoke specifically about the issue of being a stumbling block – someone who is used to offend someone else or lead them into sin, the whole context of that discussion was on our responsibility to live a life which is holy, which is in conformity with God’s image as Christ’s disciples, in order that we might not be people who encourage other brothers and sisters into sin. And so throughout the passage you’ll see that Jesus’ concern is for the disciples to be very aware of their responsibilities to one another in the kingdom.  Instead of thinking about how great they are and what their position is and what their reputation is and what their status is in the kingdom, instead, Jesus points their eyes away from themselves and to others and He says, ‘This is how you ought to live with one another if you’re really disciples in My kingdom, because the one who is the greatest is the one who gives Himself in service and ministry.’  So as we bear that in mind, let’s look now to the passage in Matthew 18, beginning in verse 12.  Hear God’s holy word:  

Matthew 18:12-14 

Our Father, we do thank You for this word and we ask that by Thy Spirit You would teach us the truth, teach us the truth about our own hearts and teach us what Christ would have us to do. And especially, O Lord, reveal Your own self to us that having seen the heart of the Father we might by the grace of the Spirit emulate it. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.   

If you’ll look back with me at Matthew 18 verses 10 and 11, you will see two verses which introduce the thought that Jesus is going to deal with in the passage we’re studying today. In verse 10 and in 11, Jesus says, “See that you not despise any of these little ones.” Do not despise even one of these little ones, Jesus says. He’s again speaking in this context of those who are weak or who are marginal in the kingdom. In the eyes of the world they are insignificant. But, the disciples, they are not to despise them.  Why? Because even their angels appear before the heavenly Father. The Father has great care for these little ones, and He goes on to remind the disciples in verse 11 that the Son of Man came into this world to save those who are lost. To save those who seemed insignificant in the eyes of the world. And in light of that, Jesus goes into this comparison, this parable in verses 12 through 14. 

I.    God cares for the weak like a good shepherd.
This is not the only time that Jesus speaks about the ninety-nine sheep and the one sheep. In the gospel of Luke, He gives an extended exposition of that theme. And the idea of God as a shepherd is not a unique theme in the Scriptures. The Old Testament is filled with imagery of God as a shepherd. But Jesus, in this context, in verses 12 through 14, uses the illustration of a shepherd looking after a lost sheep to show us the heart of God and to teach us something about how we ought to relate to one another. So, I’d like to direct your attention to two or three things in this passage today. We’ll look at the same three verses from three different angles and see the truth that Jesus has for us. First of all, I’d like you to see that in this passage in verses 12 through 14 Jesus is showing us what God’s attitude is towards the weak and the small and the lost. Those who may seem insignificant in the eyes of the world, those who may be seen as weak or marginalized  in any way, Jesus is showing us the attitude of the Lord God, the Father, to them. And we learn in these verses that God cares for the weak like a good shepherd.

Notice Jesus’ opening words. They are a question. He asks a rhetorical question. “What do you think?” He says. He asks that question in order to regain our attention and to focus us on the matter at hand. He also wants His hearers to agree with Him in His assessment as He tells them this story. And so, He uses a rhetorical question and then He tells a story of a shepherd and His sheep.

Now, everyone listening to Jesus would have been familiar with the idea that the Lord God of Israel is like a shepherd. David sings of this in Psalm 23. That’s what we’re going to sing at the end of the service today – a version of the 23rd Psalm. But, that’s not the only place where God is pictured as a shepherd in the Old Testament. Think, for instance, of the book of Ezekiel, where God charges those shepherds of His people with neglecting their work; and He’s speaking primarily of their political leaders and their religious leaders. He basically says, ‘You’ve been very bad shepherds of My people so I, Myself, will become My people’s shepherd.’ And in that context you have the beautiful passage in Ezekiel 34 when He talks about sending David again to do what?  To shepherd His people as King. And, of course, that is fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ who comes as the great Shepherd, the Good Shepherd of the sheep. But, that theme of God as shepherd runs throughout the Old Testament.

And everyone hearing this parable would have known that and they would have drawn the conclusion immediately: “Ah ha – Jesus is telling us this parable about a sheep who is lost and the shepherd who goes to find him because He wants to tell us something about the character of God.”  And, of course, that is exactly right. Jesus wants to show them something about the character of God and then He wants to draw a deduction from it. He wants to draw an implication from the character of God to our conduct and especially the conduct of our disciples.

Now, let’s look at the story itself. The main point of this story is to show that the heavenly Father is a shepherd who is interested in each and every sheep. Now, this story used to bother me because as I read it, it looked like God cared a whole lot more about that one lost sheep than He did about the other ninety-nine. After all, doesn’t the story say that He rejoiced over the one that He found more than the ninety-nine that He had not lost?  And that seemed to me strange. Is God saying that He plays favorites amongst His children and there’re some that He really likes and then there are others that He’s not so excited about?  That’s not Jesus’ point in the story. Jesus is using an illustration that we can all identify with in order to emphasize to us not, that God loves some of His children more than others, but to show that God loves all of His children; and each of them, individually. He shows special concern and care for – even those who are lost, even those who are weak, even those who are marginalized, even those who look like they are straying away. He is concerned to regain them. He has a specific and special concern for each one of us. That is the point of this passage.

Let me illustrate. Just a few weeks ago, I went into the bank to move my safety deposit box from a bank out in Clinton to a bank on this side of town. When Anne and I first came to town we naturally got a safety deposit box in a bank on the other side of town and it’s inconvenient now that I don’t work out at the seminary, and I live on this side of town, to drive all the way out there to get in the safety deposit box. So, I thought it would be a good thing to move the safety deposit box to this side of town. One problem – I had lost one of the keys. And, when I went there, they said that’s no problem. You just have to pay your thirty-five dollar fee to have the box re-keyed. Now, being a Scotch Presbyterian, the idea of paying thirty-five dollars for a lost key had not thrilled my soul!  And, yesterday, as we were working around the house trying to get ready for the avalanche of the Christmas holiday season I was rummaging through a drawer of keys in the kitchen and I found the other safety deposit box key. I was jubilant! I could of danced at the thought that I was not going to have to pay that thirty-five dollar fee to have that box re-keyed. Now, I was happier over that key than I was over the key that I already had. Not because I didn’t care about that key, because it didn’t do me any good to have one key and not the other – I needed both keys. But, because that was the key that I lost and I didn’t think I was going to get it back and I thought I was going to have to pay the fee. I was jubilant over it and that is precisely what Jesus is saying. He is saying we all have experiences like that where we lose something and we thought it’s gone for good. Like the coat that I lost in the Dallas airport about three weeks ago – I think it’s gone for good. I don’t think that one’s going to be showing up in a drawer somewhere. And, we mourn over that which we’ve lost and when we regain it, it causes us great joy.

Now Jesus is not saying that God the Father loves some like that, but that He loves each of His people like that, even if they look insignificant in the eyes of the world or in the eyes of other Christians and disciples. And so He’s showing us the heart of the Father. The Father has a concern for each one of His sheep and He’s disclosing to us good news about God. We know that God is a mighty God, He’s a great God, He’s the great King above all gods. He reigns over heaven and earth. He’s sovereign and He’s just. And when we realize that we are sinners and when we realize that we deserve condemnation, we, trembling, think about approaching Him. Why?  Because we know He is just. We know that He ought to condemn us. And the Lord Jesus Christ is saying this: “That is true. God is just and He ought to condemn you, but you need to know this: He loves to recover lost sheep. It delights His heart when lost sheep come back when He goes out and seeks and finds them. It delights the heart of the Father.” And so, the Lord Jesus says you need to know both those things about God: not only that He is just, but that He is a merciful God who delights when sinners are saved and turned to Him.  

II.    God wants us to emulate His heart.
And then, He teaches us something else. Having shown us the heart of the Father, He goes on to remind us that our attitude should be the same attitude towards those who are lost, toward those who are wandering, toward those who have offended us, toward those who are weak and despised in the eyes of the world. We ought to have the same attitude towards them that our heavenly Father has. God’s attitude toward the weak and the small and the lost must become ours. So Jesus shows a picture of what God’s heart is like to His disciples. And then, He tells us that He wants us to emulate God’s heart as we deal with one another. These disciples had been arguing amongst themselves as to which one was greatest and Jesus says, ‘Let Me tell you about the greatest one of all. He’s My Father. And let me tell you what He’s like.’ This is what He’s like.  Now, if you want to be great in His kingdom, what’s the wise thing to do?  Emulate Him.  How are you like Him?  By emulating His heart for those who are weak and despised and lost.  For caring about those who are weak and young and immature in the faith.  By caring for those who have offended us, and by caring for those who go astray. 

Paul picks up on this emphasis of the Lord Jesus Christ at least twice in his letters.  In Romans, chapter 14 verse 5, he talks with Christians very frankly about how we ought to relate to those disciples who are weaker in the faith.  Their consciences are tender. In Romans, chapter 14, Paul is talking about, among other things, the issue of meat offered to idols.  It was a big problem amongst Christians in his day and time, because there were many pagan sacrifices and one of the normal things to do in the market place was to sell left over meat from those pagan sacrifices.  Some Christians did not think that it was right to eat that meat because it had been devoted to another god.  Other Christians said, “Who cares? It’s meat. It’s cheap. We’ll buy it. We’ll eat it.” The apostle Paul knew that that was a point of tension between some Christians, and Paul says in Romans 14:5 that we must not eat meat that offends a weaker brother’s conscience.  So what is his point?  That we need to think not only about our actions and whether our own actions are right, but how our actions affect our brethren.  He’s teaching us not simply to think about ourselves, but think about the impact of our actions on one another.

He comes back to that same idea in 1 Corinthians, chapter 8:11-13, and he says, “If it is going to cause one of God’s children to stumble, then I’ll never eat meat sacrificed to idols again in my life.”  Paul is showing us the attitude that Jesus is calling on His disciples to manifest here when He says ‘I am not the only one that I have to think about when I take actions or when I speak words as a Christian. I also have to think about my brothers and sisters in Christ and especially those who are weak.’  So Paul is putting into practice exactly what Jesus is teaching His disciples here.

Jesus wants His disciples to move from self-preoccupation; to move from preoccupation with what ‘I want to do,’ with ‘What’s good for me,’ and He wants us to start thinking about others.  From preoccupation with ourselves to real loving Christian concern for others. That’s how we imitate God, Jesus says. He says, ‘Look at the Father’s heart.’ He says, ‘He’s a shepherd who loves to recover lost sheep. Now you imitate Him.’  You also ought to have a ‘heart attitude’ that loves to see lost sheep recovered. 

As David Brown says, “Since the whole object and errand of the Son of Man coming into the world was to save the lost, let us take heed lest by causing offences we injure those for whom Jesus died.”  Matthew Henry says, “If He denied Himself so much for their salvation” – and when He says their salvation he’s referring to even the weak – “if He denied Himself ever so much for their salvation, surely we should deny ourselves for their edification and consolation.” 

Do we think this way, friends?  Christian high school student, junior high student, grade school student – do you know Christians in your school who are not considered part of the popular crowd – the ‘in’ crowd  – and they are shunned by that crowd?  And even though they are your brothers and sisters in Christ, sometimes you find yourself not wanting to be found in their company, lest you be thought of as a less than trend setting popular person?  Are you injuring a child of God for the sake of your own popularity?  Are you thinking of them more than you think of yourselves? What about the way we treat those who stray – who fall into sin? 

You know that I find that in this day and age, we have two opposite reactions.  Some people, because we are so morally lax today, just sort of shrug their shoulders.  When somebody falls into grievous sin – even a professing Christian – we sort of shrug our shoulders and we think “That’s no big deal. Everybody commits adultery today.  Everybody lies today.  Everybody cheats on their income taxes today.  Everyone cheats at business today. Everyone uses that kind of language today.”  We could go on and on and on giving examples and we just sort of shrug our shoulders and we think “That’s no big deal.” On the other hand, there are many people who are so angry and so offended by the wickedness that has occurred, that there is no view in sight of recovering the one who is straying.  The Lord Jesus says we must remember both: as Christians, we must remember God’s standards and at the same time we must desire to see that sinner recovered to God. Converted and drawn back to Him.  Is that our attitude towards those who have offended us?

I’ve shared with you before the story of Dr. Dupree Rain, a very great and godly man who was the chairman of the fine arts division at Furman University. After his daughter had been married to her husband of some thirty years, he left her right before the children were to leave the home.  He left her in terrible financial condition, and remarried a women with whom he had had an affair. Dr. Rain had to come out of retirement in order to support his daughter and her children. It was a humiliating experience for him. About twelve months later, his son-in-law was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. The first person at his side was Dr. Dupree Rain, to minister to him and to call him to Christ. Because Dr. Rain had, throughout that whole grievous ordeal – despite the injury that had been done to him and to his daughter, he had kept in mind two things: that what his son-in-law had done was absolutely not right and it deserved God’s condemnation; but, at the same time, he desired to see him recovered for the Lord Jesus Christ. And so he prayed earnestly that God would convict him of his sin. And He did. And he repented and he died restored not only to his Father-in-law, but restored to his God.  Dr. Rain manifested there that godly attitude that we ought to have. Not simply passing over sin but at the same time desiring to see the sinner recovered for Christ. Is that our attitude towards those who sin and offend against us? Is that our attitude toward the weak?

Calvin said, “By His own example Christ now exhorts us to honor our weak and lowly brethren, for He descended from heaven to be their Redeemer, to save not only them, but even the dead, those who are lost. And it is unworthy to reject, in our pride, those for whom the Son of God did so much…for they are not to be assessed according to their own virtues, but according to the grace of Christ.” Do you hear that? A wandering disciple is not to be assessed in accordance to his own virtues or his lack thereof, but according to the grace of Christ. So, we ought to desire to see the lost recovered to Him.  

III. Our God delights in seeing lost sheep reclaimed.
One last thing Jesus teaches us here. Not only does He show us the heart of the Father, not only does He say that we ought to imitate the heart of the Father, we ought to emulate Him, we ought to want to be like Him but

He tells us something about God’s will in salvation. Something very important. In verse 14. Notice these words: “It is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish”. Jesus is teaching us there that our God delights in seeing lost sheep reclaimed. It is very apparent in this passage that God’s reclaiming love is a central truth about His character. We are never told that God delights in the damnation of the wicked. But, we are told constantly in the Scripture that He delights in the recovery of lost sheep. That is very important.

Now, it’s important for us to understand that Jesus is not saying that because God delights in the recovery of these little ones, that because God delights when they are saved from their wickedness and from their straying, that therefore everyone is saved. That is not His point. Jesus makes it very clear numerous places in the gospel that not all are saved but, at the same time, He makes it clear that God delights when sinners are turned from their sin. Ezekiel makes this point. He does not rejoice in the death of the wicked, but He rejoices when sinners turn and repent and are converted to Him. This is a truth of God’s word. God delights in this.

And, that message has two parts. It has one part for the disciple. First, for the disciple, that message that God delights in the recovery of lost sinners says, ‘Disciples, you need to live with the same kind of heart as your heavenly Father has.’ He delights not in the final condemnation of the wicked but in the returning of straying sons to Himself. This is what He delights in. Do you live to see people turned back to Christ? Do we have that kind of concern for one another? When we see brothers and sisters in out own congregation straying away from God whether it be by a deliberate rejection of Him, whether it be by engaging in some immorality or whether it simply be by drifting away? We see those things happening all the time. Do our hearts within us yearn that that brother or sister be regained for Christ, yearn to do what we can to draw them back to the savior? Or, do we just not care? Jesus is saying, ‘I want you to have hearts like your Father has.’

And for unbelievers, for those who have never trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation, this has such a tremendous message. When you trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, the thing that moves you to trust in Christ alone for salvation is that you realize that you are a sinner. You realize that you’re in need of forgiveness of sins. You realize that you ought to be condemned for your sins. And, when you realize that for the first time, when you feel it; the last thing in the world that you naturally want to do is go to God. Why?  Because He is mighty and He’s just and He’s righteous and He ought to blast you out of existence. That’s what He ought to do. Jesus is saying, ‘Yes, God is mighty and He’s awesome and He’s righteous and He’s just. But, you must also know something else about Him, sinner.  He delights in seeing lost sheep returned to the fold.’ And so, you have every warrant to go to Him and trust in Him and expect Him to hear your cry to be saved. Because He’s commanded you to believe in Him, in His word. He has promised in His word that everyone who comes to Him; no one will be cast out. He has issued invitations in His word, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Over and over He has extended His mercy to us in the word, and so we may come to Him confidently because of His character and because of His son.

In this passage, Jesus shows us the heart of His Father. Then He calls on believers to act like Him because we are a visible picture to the world of what our Father is like. To believers, He sets the Father before you and He says, “This is what the almighty God of heaven and earth is like. This is what His heart is like.  You have no need to run anywhere else but to His arms, and you will find salvation and fellowship with Him forever.” May God enable us to act upon the truth of this word. Let us pray.  

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the glory of Your word and for the glory of the Shepherd, Jesus Christ. We pray that You would enable us to trust in Him alone for our salvation as He is offered in the gospel. We’ll give You the praise and the glory. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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