The image of a loving and tender shepherd is one of the most common representations of Jesus that the Christian has for comfort and assurance. This image is found throughout Scripture (Psalm 23; 80:1; Isaiah 40:11; Micah 7:14; John 10:11) and extends into many aspects of the life of the church. Jesus is the “chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4). Pastors are often referred to as the “under-shepherds,” assigned the task of caring for the flock (Acts 20:28) and nurturing individual sheep or lambs (John 21:15). However comforting all of this imagery is, we should not miss the fact that it is not at all flattering to speak of the people of God as sheep. This analogy highlights our fallen, stubborn, and wayward nature. It is in contrast to this, however, that the picture of Jesus as a shepherd becomes all the more comforting.
It is in this picture of the divine Shepherd as it corresponds to our depraved nature that we see His strength in our weakness. Sheep are helpless animals that need constant care and protection; the Shepherd is capable, patient, gentle, and alert. The Christian is still a sheep, even after conversion, and just as it is grace that saves so it is also grace that keeps. This all-inclusive security in grace is highlighted in the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus told this parable on two different occasions and contexts, one to believers and the other to unbelievers. In Luke 15:4–7 after being accused of “receiving sinners and eating with them,” Jesus responds with three parables concerning lost items: a sheep, a coin, and a son. The message of these parables is simply that Jesus seeks those that are lost. This is clearly stated in Luke 19:10: “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Those whom the Father has given to Jesus will be saved and not one of them will be lost (John 6:37; John 17:12), and He will seek “until” he has found all (Luke 15:4, 8).
In Matthew 18:12 the parable appears again. In this incident Jesus was responding to His disciples who were disputing among themselves, “Who is the greatest?” Jesus took a little child and gave them a lesson in humility. This lesson has a number of layers to it, where, with the use of these “little ones” He extends the application to weak or vulnerable believers. We are to humble ourselves as a little child for salvation (v. 4), we are receive the least disciple in Jesus’ name (v. 5), we are not to offend the least one who believes (v. 6), and we are not to despise the least believer (v. 10). The point that the Lord is making in this prolonged lesson is that the least or most unworthy believer—the most vulnerable—is precious in His sight and it is no small thing to hurt, offend, or despise these; indeed it is a great sin.
While Jesus teaches the disciples humility and warns them of despising the least disciple, He turns the lesson to the comfort of the injured party. He says if one be offended, led astray, or wander away, the Shepherd will make every effort to recover the wandering sheep and to bring him back into the fold. The point of these parables—in these two distinct contexts—is this: that the Shepherd, having found His sheep once, will never lose His sheep; He will always find and preserve the wandering, injured sheep. Furthermore, He will rejoice over that recovered sheep with great joy. But Jesus does not leave it there. In verse 15 He takes the lesson a step further and tells us that just as He goes to great lengths to recover a stray sheep, so we should make every effort to restore an erring and offending brother.
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.
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.