“Which of you does not leave the ninety-nine and go after the one?” Luke 15:4
Not long ago, a popular song was on Christian radio singing about how Jesus leaves the 99 to go after the 1. Why would Jesus do that? Why would He leave 99 good sheep to go after one who is clearly belligerent? Did He ever actually do that?
The parable of the lost sheep isn’t merely a story. The Bible tells us of several occasions when Jesus often left His “flock” to chase after one gone astray. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
The Life of a Shepherd
In Luke 15, Jesus tells a group of tax collectors and sinners a series of stories, or parables, about finding something that was lost. It begins with the parable of the sheep.
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” Luke 15:4-5
A shepherd in the Middle East was not an independent farmer. He worked for a master who expected his sheep to be well-tended. If one wandered off, the shepherd had no choice but to go after it.
Before he left, the shepherd would surround the flock with piles of sticks and rocks to give the sheep a sense of boundaries. And believe it or not, the sheep typically stayed put. Then, the shepherd would go after the one sheep that was lost.
He would take his shepherd’s staff with him. The top of the staff had a curled end that he used to wrap around the sheep’s horns to help pry it free from bushes or pull it up out of a hole. He would then take the sheep back to the flock where he would use the rod, or handle, of the staff to conduct a headcount of all the sheep. The shepherd was very diligent in making sure all the sheep were with him in his care.
“Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4
Break a Leg
The shepherd would do whatever it took to keep his sheep with him. So, if the same sheep tended to wander off, the shepherd would leave the flock, find the misbehaving sheep, and break its leg. Yes, you read that right.
The shepherd needed to teach the sheep a lesson. It wasn’t a lesson of punishment, but rather one of obedience. The sheep needed to realize it needed the shepherd’s care. It needed to learn that wandering away was very dangerous, and staying with the shepherd would ensure its protection.
So, over the weeks of healing, the shepherd would carry the sheep every day on his shoulders, gently caring for the sheep until it could walk again. As a result, a bond grew. The sheep developed a caring relationship with the shepherd, and it learned to stay with him.
Though Jesus based His story on actual shepherd practices, the theme of the story is still true.
God isn’t waiting for you to come to Him. He’s willing to take the initiative and go after you wherever you are. He’s not waiting for you to return to the flock on your own, even if you might. God is already chasing you with His love and grace, and He won’t stop until He finds you and rescues you.
He might allow certain unpleasant circumstances to happen to you to get your attention, maybe even allow a broken bone. He does this so you would understand your need for His loving care. Jesus desperately wants you to grow a relationship with Him.
You can be sure Jesus will do anything to find you and to get your attention.
Braving the Storm
Some of us may have already experienced God’s love like the sheep and its shepherd. We know it’s not just words. Still, it seems more spiritual than actual sometimes. Yet, during His time on the earth, Jesus often went after a “lost sheep.” Let’s look at one example in the book of Luke.
Shortly after preaching to a throng of people, Jesus told His disciples to board a boat and cross the Sea of Galilee.
“Now it happened, on a certain day, that [Jesus] got into a boat with His disciples. And He said to them, ‘Let us cross over to the other side of the lake.” Luke 8:22; Matthew 8:24-27
Tired from preaching all day, out of the blue, Jesus tells His disciples it’s time to go across the Sea of Galilee to a place called Decapolis. This area was widely known for its paganism. The people there despised the Jews. But Jesus said He wanted to go there.
The Bible doesn’t tell us the disciples’ reactions, but it’s rather safe to assume they had no idea what Jesus was up to. Why would He want them to go to Decapolis of all places? And why so late in the day?
It wasn’t an easy trip. A storm had suddenly broken out as the disciples sailed across the Sea of Galilee.
“And they came to Him and awoke Him, saying, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ Then He arose and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water. And they ceased, and there was a calm. But He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’” (v24-25)
Such storms were common in certain times of the year, and Jesus knew it. Yet He was willing to do whatever it took to find His one missing sheep. When they reached the shore, His sheep was in worse shape than one might think.
A Lost Sheep in Decapolis
“And when He stepped out on the land, there met Him a certain man from the city who had demons for a long time. And he wore no clothes, nor did he live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out, fell down before Him, and with a loud voice, said, ‘What have I to do with you, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg You, do not torment me!’” Luke 8:27-28
You may remember this man who was filled with demons. They called themselves “Legion” because there were so many of them. Jesus commanded the demons to leave the man. Then, He cast them into a group of pigs nearby that ran off a cliff and into the ocean below (v33). With that, Jesus completely restored the man’s body and mind.
Jesus left the 99, the crowds of people begging to hear Him preach back in Israel, to chase after this one man who, for years, wandered the cave tombs naked and out of his mind. But Jesus went after him. Through sea and storm, He refused to leave His sheep alone to fend for himself.
A Sheep in Samaria
Early in Jesus’ ministry, He and His disciples left Jerusalem and headed back to Cana in Galilee. They could have taken several roads, but Jesus told them they were going to use the one that went through Samaria. The disciples did not like the plan. Though they knew the route through Samaria was the shortest one, they did not want to go through that area if they didn’t have to.
If you’re not aware, the Jews loathed the Samaritans. The Samaritans were considered filthy, rebellious Jews from the northern kingdom of Israel. They had married Canaanites, and some engaged in idol worship. But the “real” Jews, the ones who strictly followed Moses’ Law, were in the southern kingdom of Judea. They were the good guys, as far as they were concerned. It was racism before the word even existed.
The disciples’ misgivings did not stop Jesus. In fact, He said He needed to go through Samaria (John 4:4). Why? Because a certain woman was there who Jesus needed to see.
This is the famous story of the woman at the well. The woman had married so many times the other women shunned her to the point she had to draw water at midday instead of during the cool morning hours. She believed in God, but in addition to her low public standing, she also felt God had rejected her just for being Samaritan. She was tired, poor, and she battled depression.
But then one day, Jesus sat next to the well and asked for a drink. Within minutes, she was crying and screaming her way back to town to tell everyone she had just met the Messiah. Her life was forever changed.
It’s a beautiful story. If you’ve never seen a cinematic representation of it, I highly encourage you to watch The Chosen: Episode 8 on YouTube. Get your tissues ready!
Here again, Jesus has left the crowds—the 99—to go after the one lost sheep. Yes, He was already planning to walk 70 miles back to Cana, but He took a specific side trip to find this one woman.
Searching for Disciples
Throughout the Gospels, we find instances of Jesus healing the sick, blind, and deaf. Many times, it’s the person seeking out Jesus. People like the bleeding woman, Zacchaeus, Jairus, the synagogue leader, and others. But it didn’t mean Jesus wasn’t aware of those who had left the flock and gone their own way.
A great example of this is when Jesus met His soon-to-be disciple, Matthew. As you may know, Matthew was a tax collector. He worked for the Roman government. Not only that, but he would also often demand a little extra from the people to pad his life of luxury. Most tax collectors did.
One day, Matthew was working in his office, collecting the taxes when Jesus walked by. Of course, it was no accident that Jesus just happened to be walking by. He knew Jerusalem inside and out. But He chose that particular street that day so that He could meet Matthew.
“As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s office. And He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ So [Matthew] arose and followed him.” Matthew 9:9
Jesus purposely walked by Matthew’s office to catch his eye and say, “Follow Me.” Jesus already knew what was in Matthew’s heart. He knew that despite Matthew’s occupation, he would be a good disciple, one who could readily share the Good News with the Jews one day.
Jesus again rescued one of His lost sheep.
We could say Jesus sought out each of His disciples- Peter, John, Andrew, Thomas, all of them. What’s important to note is that Jesus specifically searched for them, and He rescued each of them from a life devoid of true salvation. These were not men possessed or horribly oppressed. They were ordinary people just going about their business.
But then they met Jesus. The Shepherd had come, and He called each of them back to the flock. It’s no wonder Matthew 4:20 records Peter and Andrew immediately dropping their fishing nets to follow Him.
Jesus Loves His Sheep
The same night he met Jesus, Matthew threw a big party and invited many other tax collectors to meet Jesus and hear Him speak. The Pharisees saw what was going on, and they were astonished.
“And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, ‘Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (v11)
Jesus’ reply was spot on.
“When Jesus heard that, He said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.’” (v12-13)
Jesus’ response sums up the very reason He leaves the 99 to go after just one sheep. He knows His sheep need Him. And He’s willing to do whatever it takes—walk 40 miles, take a detour through the wrong part of town, or even brave a horrible storm in a boat.
He did it for the possessed man, the woman at the well, Matthew and the other disciples, and He’ll do it for you.
If you’re feeling lost and away from God, you can be sure He is searching for you. He’ll go to any lengths to find you. The Shepherd wants to rescue you with His grace and love. He has His rod and staff ready to lead you back home. All you have to do is let Him.
Is that you today? Are you ready to respond to Jesus’ love for you? If you do, just grab hold of His staff. He’ll get you out of that pit. He’ll untangle you from the bushes. He’ll calm the storms and lead you to a life of eternal love. All you need to do is trust Him.
He loves you with an everlasting love, and He’ll go to any lengths to prove it.