I was reminded this morning of the widely known Christian hymn, Amazing Grace, composed by John Newton in 1779.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
Newton, a slave trader, experienced conversion to Christ during a storm off the coast of Ireland in 1748. Crying out to God for mercy, he encountered the depths of God’s love. He eventually left slave trading to become an ordained Anglican minister.
Many of us can identify with the lyrics of this song, grateful for God’s grace and mercy given to us through Jesus. Amazing grace, scandalous grace, that reaches down to rescue us! I’m grateful Jesus no longer sees my past, but rather invites me daily to discover the depths of God’s love and grace—long after I said my initial “yes” to follow him.
Consider this: God’s relentless grace pursues us not only during our conversion experience, but throughout our lives. Our salvation experience with Jesus is not merely a “one-time” prayer, receiving God’s mercy and justification. Rather, he invites us to follow him daily and experience his rescuing grace each day—especially during seasons when God seems distant or perhaps we “wander” from the Lord.
I want to examine the Depths of God’s Love in this article through the parable of the Lost Sheep.
Grace to Tax Collectors and Sinners
In Luke 15:1-7, we read:
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” So He spoke this parable to them, saying:
“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. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance. (NKJV)
Let’s discuss the backdrop of this story. In the audience there are tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees and Scribes. The Pharisees and Scribes voice a complaint: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus responds in Luke 15 with 3 parables answering why he eats with sinners (we will only examine the first story, the parable of the lost sheep, but all three are connected).
These stories illustrate how God views and feels about each of us. They represent the “Depths of God’s Love” toward fallen humanity.
The stories are also a rebuke of the religious elite who value practice over presence, image over authenticity, and rules over relationship.
In the Gospels, tax collectors were often linked with sinners, or adulterers, and with non-Jews—Gentiles. Tax collectors were despised by Jewish society. They were primarily Gentile “tax farmers,” people who paid Roman authorities the right to collect taxes—setting their own rates—extorting money from the people!
But notice, these people, despised by the Pharisees and Scribes, are drawing near to Jesus to “hear Him.”
You see, Jesus alone has the words of life! Society, then and now, longs for the real Jesus, because He welcomes them as they are! Jesus didn’t compromise His values, but loved them, seeing past their sin and brokenness. The people knew where Jesus stood on spiritual matters, but they knew he was safe and came close to him.
The Pharisees and Scribes complain or murmur, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them…” The phrase receives sinners is from the Greek prosdechomai, which means “to welcome into fellowship.”
Jesus was doing more than merely sitting down and talking with these societal outcasts, He was welcoming them as friends!
Paul uses the same Greek word, prosdechomai, for welcoming a person as a sister or brother in the Lord (Rom. 16:2; Phil. 2:29).
Not only does Jesus welcome them as friends, but He eats with them! To the Pharisees and Scribes, the religious elite, this is unacceptable. Why?
First, in their eyes, Jesus was now defiled by contact. He was unclean! Understand that today a sure sign of unhealthy religion is control. Religion that is “law” based rather than “grace” based wants to keep the “flock pure” by keeping the “unclean” out! Not so with Jesus though!
Secondly, in Middle-Eastern culture, to eat with a person is accepting them on a very deep level of relationship. If the person was a Rabbi or teacher, to eat with such a guest, imparts a “blessing” by mere presence. The Pharisees and Scribes were infuriated that Jesus, in essence, was “blessing” them!
I’ve ministered in various parts of the world, and in many countries, especially in developing nations, you are received as an honored guest. By having you come into their home to eat a meal with them is a “blessing” to them, in fact, they are “receiving” the grace upon your life into their home.
By the way, the fight that Paul had with Peter was over the question of eating with the uncircumcised. Paul tells his side in Gal. 2:11-12 NLT:
But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile believers, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision.”Paul challenges Peters hypocrisy!
You Are Responsible for the Lost Sheep!
The Pharisees were bi-vocational. They worked secular jobs in addition to teaching. For example, Jesus was a carpenter and Paul was a tentmaker.
However, the Pharisees viewed shepherds as “common people” and avoided them. Jesus, however, does not view shepherding as an unclean profession. The Pharisees would hire shepherds to tend their flocks, shepherding was menial and beneath them.
The phrase “having 100 sheep” can refer to ownership and 100 sheep represented considerable wealth. The Pharisees would not have expected Jesus to infer they were the ones to go look for a lost sheep—that would have been someone else’s job.
This story most likely was a reference back to Psalm 23 and the Shepherd Psalms (Ps 22-24). Jesus is at the center of this story—He is the great shepherd!
Jesus continues, “…if he loses one of them…” but Arabic translations of the past would have turned this statement into a passive to read, “If one of them is lost…”
According to Middle-Eastern NT scholar Kenneth Bailey, in Arabic or Spanish, “I dropped the dish” would be stated, “the dish fell from my hand.” Not, “I lost my pen,” but rather, “the pen went from me.” It took over 1000 years for Arabic translators to overcome this idiomatic phrase, “If he loses one of them.”
Bailey’s study reveals that Jesus broke common speech patterns of his day by placing responsibility on the shepherd, “…if he loses one of them…” Why is this important?
Jesus, identifying himself as the great shepherd, is saying to the Pharisees, “You lost your sheep (they were the spiritual shepherds of Israel), but I went after it and brought it home and you have the nerve to complain and criticize me?” Oh, the depths of God’s love for us!
The Apostle Paul triumphantly proclaims, “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” (Rom. 5:8 NLT) God made the initiative toward us! Paul wrote later in this letter, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” (Rom. 8:1-2 NKJV)
You are loved, accepted, and in right standing with God through Jesus Christ. You are not working for his love, acceptance, and righteousness—it has been freely given—it is called grace! He went looking for you and me, determined to reconcile us to Father God.
The Pharisees and Scribes were not operating in God’s love. Just the opposite—they were judging others for their sins, while ignorant of their own imperfections (hypocrisy). Further, they weren’t concerned enough about those in the margins to go after them. Church, we often do the same! But God has called us His ambassadors, His ministers of reconciliation, to a world that He is reconciling to Himself (See 2 Cor. 5).
Paul wrote of the true nature of God’s love,
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. Love never fails. (1 Cor. 13:4-8 NLT)
Love has patience with imperfect people and is kind toward them. Religious pride inhibits a person from operating in sincere love. Faultfinding is an indication of pride—keeping score of failures is not love, but pride. Love releases the offender and operates in grace, not the justice level of the law. If you want justice, you are not walking in God’s love and grace.
Live in grace and drop the rocks! Love and forgiveness are inseparable!
Jesus leaves the 99 to go after the 1.
Is this wise to leave the flock? Yes! For the shepherd to go after just the 1, gives the 99-real security, for this act demonstrates that He will do it for each of us!
When the Shepherd pays a high price to find one, he offers to the entire flock (His Church, His Body) the deepest security!
God’s love never fails, it never gives up on you, He pursues you with His love across the rocky terrain of your life.
Your “mess” is no trouble for Jesus!
Jesus finds the lost sheep, lays it on his shoulders and rejoices! The shepherd returns to the community with the lost sheep and says, “rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!”
In ancient Israel, a large flock like this might have been jointly owned by members of the village. The loss of 1 sheep is a concern for the entire community! When an individual is lost, or wanders from the faith, it should be a concern for the Church.
The Pharisees, the Scribes, and the Church today must see with God’s heart of love toward broken humanity.
If the “religious” can’t love as God loves, what hope is there for humanity? If the Church is quick to condemn the behavior of humanity, aren’t we pointing the finger of judgment at ourselves?
Jesus, in our midst as His body, wants to eat and fellowship those in the margins of life!
In this story, Jesus says, “There is no such thing as 99 who need no repentance!”
The righteous who need no repentance do not exist, consider—Rom. 3:23 NKJV “for all have sinned…”Eccl. 7:20 NLT “Not a single person on earth is always good and never sins.”
The sheep in this story clearly represents a repentant sinner. But how can this sheep represent repentance?
We often define repentance as “turning from ungodly thinking and behavior toward God and his way.” True, but repentance, as illustrated by Jesus in this story is also, “acceptance of being found.”
Jesus is searching for you, ready to bring you home, accept His love and forgiveness—He is rejoicing over you! Repentance is not a work which now earns rescue, but rather accepting being found by Jesus—the depths of His love and grace!
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!