NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 13a: “And if he finds the lost sheep, he is happier about that one sheep than about the 99 sheep that were never lost.”
Then, to show how seriously His heavenly Father considers the safety of His children, Jesus proposes a question that every one of those listening to Him could answer, some from personal experience. It is obvious that since our Lord was talking about believers being led astray, the lost sheep became a symbol of a lost believer. Even the Psalmist says of himself, “I have wandered away like a lost sheep”.1
The prophet Isaiah uses the same language, “We had all wandered away like sheep. We had gone our own way.”2 To the prophet Jeremiah, God says, “My people have been like lost sheep.”3 And to the prophet Ezekiel the LORD promises, “I will search for the lost sheep. I will bring back the sheep that were scattered and put bandages on the sheep that were hurt.”4 This was because the heart of God was troubled because He had said, “My flock wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My flock was scattered over all the face of the earth. There was no one to search or to look for them.”5
Epiphanius gives us an interesting commentary on this verse: “No one is more truly a shepherd than Christ our God. One of His sheep has strayed. It is not the fault of the shepherd but of the sheep that had strayed from its flock. This one sheep is the man Adam, whom in the beginning the Lord had created in His image and likeness. This one strayed from the company of the angels by sinning, and through him, the entire human race strayed from God. Our Lord seeks to recall all humanity from death to life. For it was for us that He went to death so that He might make us alive, these who had died. For He rejoiced even more over the hundredth sheep that was lost than over the ninety and nine. The patriarch of a hundred years, Abraham, had faith in God, and from his faith was held righteous. He received back his one and only son Isaac. Thus, Abraham was called, because of his faith, father of the nations.”6
Verses 13b-14: “I can assure you, in the same way, your Father in heaven does not want any of these little children to be lost.”
Again, our Lord refers to the young believer in the flock. This certainly offers an explanation for what Jesus has to say next about the rejoicing that takes place when the lost sheep is found. The point that seems to confuse most believers is that the shepherd rejoices more over the one errant sheep that either wandered away or was lead away, than over the 99 faithful ones who remained obedient. This is caused by misunderstanding the reason for the rejoicing. Let’s put it in context by using a different illustration.
Imagine a beach where children are playing in the water while the parents or guardians watch from the shore. All of the kids had been warned not to wade out beyond a certain point because the waves are bigger and there is a sudden drop-off. Suddenly there are screams and lifeguards are seen running toward the water with their equipment. Everyone looks and sees a child who aimlessly followed others out into deep water and is now unable to swim back to shore on its own. Once the child is secured and returned safely to the beach, the rejoicing by the mother or father over this rescue does not mean they were unhappy with those kids who did as they were told. As a matter of fact, the other children will join in greeting their sibling back to shore. The same with this errant sheep. Not only God the Father and the angels but the other 99 believers also rejoice over their wandering comrade being brought to safety.
Zephaniah saw this when he said, “The Lord your God is with you. He is like a powerful soldier. He will save you. He will show how much He loves you and how happy He is with you. He will laugh and be happy about you.”7 But that does not mean He doesn’t rejoice over the faithful who have remained obedient. Christ by no means made this statement to belittle the faithful. He merely expressed the idea that when a lost sinner is recovered it brings rejoicing in heaven. The emphasis here is on the recovered sheep’s change of status and the faithful sheep’s constant state. This rejoicing by no means enhances the glow of the one who proved vagrant and aimless, nor does it diminish the luster of ones trustworthy and true.
Jesus is pointing out the joy of the moment. The faithful sheep will be rewarded by heaven’s rejoicing one day which will be shone to them in full measure. Everyone has at one time or another experienced the euphoria of finding something that was lost. Can you imagine anyone not being able to see the difference between the exuberant joy of a person who found their lost wallet in a parking lot and why they did not show the same ecstatic emotion over finding their car in the spot where they originally parked it? Or can you not discern the significance of a mother’s joy and excitement in having their child returned after getting lost on the way home from school, and her contentment with the other children who made it okay and are safe at home? With this parable Jesus in no way disparages those sheep who were obedient and faith to the shepherd’s call that led them home. He is trying to express the joy of the moment when the one who was lost was recovered and returned to the fold.
Chrysostom preaches on this subject and says: “Do you see in how many ways He leads us to care for our less esteemed brothers? Don’t, therefore, say, ‘That fellow is only a blacksmith, a shoemaker, a farmer; he’s uneducated,’ so that you despise him. In case you suffer the same, see in how many ways the Lord urges you to be moderate and enjoins you to care for these little ones. He placed a little child in the midst and said, ‘Become like children,’ and, ‘Whoever receives one such child, receives me.’ But ‘whoever causes one of these to sin’ will suffer the worst fate. And He was not even satisfied with the example of the millstone, but He also added His curse and told us to cut off such people, even though they are like a hand or eye to us. And again, through the angels to whom these small brothers are handed over, He urges that we value them, as He has valued them through His own will and passion. When Jesus says, ‘The Son of man came to save the lost,’8 He points to the cross, just as Paul also says, writing about his brother for whom Christ died.9 It does not please the Father that anyone is lost. The shepherd leaves the ones that have been saved and seeks the one lost. And when he finds the one that has gone astray, he rejoices greatly at its discovery and at its safety.”10
Verses 15: “If your brother or sister in God’s family does something wrong, go and tell them what they did wrong. Do this when you are alone with them. If they listen to you, then you have helped them to be your brother or sister again.”
Now our Lord takes this same theme and applies it to how the ninety-nine believers should treat the one misguided sheep. After all, their Rabbis taught: “He who publicly puts his neighbor to shame has no portion in the world to come.”11 When God spoke to Moses about how to deal with wrongdoers, He gave him these rules: “You are guilty of sin against the LORD when you do any of these things: when you lie about what happened to something you were taking care of for someone else; when you lie about a deposit you received; when you steal something; when you cheat someone; when you find something that was lost and lie about having it; when you fail to keep a promise; or when you do any other bad things like these. If you do any of these things, you are guilty of doing wrong. You must give back whatever you stole or whatever you took by cheating. You must return whatever you took that another person asked you to hold, or whatever you found and lied about having, or whatever you made a false promise about. You must pay the full price and then add one-fifth of that amount as a fine and give it all to the true owner”.12
Verse 2 here in the Jewish Text of Leviticus, is actually verse 9 in the Christian Text. It talks about the law of the burnt-offering for these kinds of sins. It states: “The burnt offering must stay in the fireplace of the altar all night until morning. The altar’s fire must be kept burning.”13 One Jewish commentator states: “God is thus understood as spending the entire night with the children of Israel.”14 From a Christian perspective, it would permissible to believe that this could be a call for everyone to stay near the altar of repentance lest something may cause them to go astray, so they can have quick access to the power in the blood of the Lamb of God to purge such temptation before it can take root.
Later on, He gives Moses some more instructions: “Don’t secretly hate any of your neighbors. But tell them openly what they have done wrong so that you will not be just as guilty of sin as they are. Forget about the wrong things people do to you. Don’t try to get even. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD”.15 King David had the right attitude when it came to being counseled, “If good people correct me, I will consider it a good thing. If they criticize what I’ve done, I will accept it like a warm welcome.”16 But there was the other side of the counseling. That was the responsibility of the counselor. Solomon gave this advice, “If you want to tell your friends about your own problems, tell them. But don’t discuss what someone told you in private. Whoever hears it will lose their respect for you and will never trust you again.”17
This is the basic rule of confidentiality. This led Solomon to conclude, “Those who dispense wisdom, help give others a new start.”18 The prophesy that God would send another prophet just like Moses19 is borne out here by Jesus’ advice. When this happens, it is best to take a positive restorative view of those who may have erred rather than a negative punitive view. Don’t allow your inquiry to become an interrogation instead of an interview. For instance, rather than asking the individual: “Why did you do this? How could you do something like that, when you knew it was wrong? What have you got to say for yourself?” say to them: “I’m here for you? I want to help you carry your burden? Give me the privilege and joy of walking with you so we can get back on the right road again.”
If you are a pastor or church elder, you must first inform them why you are at their side. You can begin by saying: I’ve heard that you may be involved in something that is contrary to your faith. But I will not believe it unless I know more about it and hear you explain it to me. I don’t want to try and handle this based on second-hand information because you are much too valuable a person to me and our church. Whatever you confess to me is between us and God. We can pray for whatever guidance we need from the Lord right here. But I must also tell you, that if it does affect the reputation of the church, then the leaders will need to be informed in a confidential way of your confession and forgiveness from God. This would no doubt fit the model that Moses was given. But then our Lord adds a New Testament perspective for believers to follow.
6Epiphanius the Latin: Interpretation of the Gospels, 27
10Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 59.4
11Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 107a
14Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, Piska 6:3, footnote (58)
19See Deuteronomy 18:17-18