THE NINETY AND NINE
By Pastor Chris Burke
The two places in the Scripture that reference the “ninety and nine” are found in Matthew 18 and in Luke 15. In this message we will consider both of these passages of Scripture separately and provide a possible explanation for each.
We need to be careful about reading too much into parables. A Biblical parable is an earthly story with a heavenly or spiritual application. The Lord typically used parables to make a specific point of application to a specific person or group of people. We need to be very cautious about building doctrine on a parable alone. There are plenty of plain texts provided in the Word of God for that purpose.
1. First we want to consider “The Church with 100 Members”.
Matthew 18:12-14 How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? 13 And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. 14 Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.
The context of Matthew 18 is dealing with offenses, and our Lord’s parable of the lost sheep was carefully placed right in the middle of His teaching on offenses. We have often used Matthew 18 to teach the proper way to handle offences in the church and to teach church discipline. I believe the Lord is addressing His Church here in Matthew 18 (please read verse 17) and therefore it seems appropriate to think of the flock of sheep in our parable as the membership of one of the Lord’s Churches.
In the context of Matthew 18, Jesus likened the one sheep that went astray to a little child (please read verses 1-10), and the little child Jesus likened to a new convert to the faith. This is an extremely practical illustration that anyone should be able to understand. Like lambs, little children in the faith are weak, unlearned, inexperienced, and vulnerable to the wiles of Satan and to the evil world around them. They are easily deceived by false shepherds and are easy prey for wolves and lions.
Little children in the faith are easily led down the wrong path. They are easily influenced and persuaded by evil men. They are easily overpowered by their enemies. They are naďve and ignorant of Satan’s devices. They are tender and helpless and in need of much loving kindness and tender care from the older sheep of the flock. Such are the characteristics of all new born children in the faith, who are like tender lambs in so many ways.
Sad to say, the ninety and nine older church members sometimes are careless and thoughtless, and inconsiderate toward the little ones in the faith. The ninety and nine can be ruthless and reckless before these little ones, who are watching them, hoping to find in them an example of true Christianity. Many times the ninety and nine don’t care what they say or do in the company of a young lamb. They don’t care who they hurt in their selfish ambition to have their own way in the church.
The ninety and nine should be pillars in the church. They should be good examples of the faith. They should show forth the power, and love, and grace of God to change lives, and to make them like unto their Savior. They should be leading the little lambs, and instructing them in the right way. They should be setting an example of righteousness and godliness before them.
But all to often, beloved, the ninety and nine behave more like wolves than like the Good Shepherd they are supposed to represent. And sometimes by their selfish, inconsiderate actions they offend a little sheep, and help to drive it away from the fold.
Praise the Lord, Jesus the Good Shepherd is intimately and infinitely concerned for His little lambs that He came down to this world to save. The ninety and nine may not care what becomes of a straying lamb, but the Good Shepherd does! This parable expresses the Savior’s deepest love and concern for one little straying lamb, so much so that He will leave the ninety and nine in the fold, as it were, to seek for the straying lamb in the mountains, which implies dangers of every kind. Yes beloved, lambs that go astray are in great danger if they are left to themselves.
When the Good Shepherd finds His lamb that went astray He rejoices more over it than He does over the ninety and nine that went not astray (see verse 13). He didn’t rejoice over the ninety and nine at that particular moment, because of their selfish pride and their cold heartless behavior. The ninety and nine were like the disciples in verse 1, who argued over who was the greatest in the kingdom of God (or, you might say, in the church), and who should have the most say, and who should have the preeminence, and who should be most honored, rather than being concerned about the needs of the little lambs among them.
Truly God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways. The Good Shepherd is most concerned about the little lambs of His flocks. He cares for them with every drop of His precious blood that He shed for them, and He will not let one of these little ones perish, but He will seek it until He finds it. This is great comfort to all children of God, to know that our Good Shepherd will not lose a single sheep for which He died!
The ninety and nine in the parable might be truly saved sheep that are behaving carnally. Then again, some of them might be goats. Maybe some of them are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Maybe some of them are hypocrites and imposters in the church – like Judas! My friends, to have our name written on a Baptist Church role doesn’t mean our name is written on the Lamb’s book of life. I sometimes wonder about church members who so carelessly offend the Lord’s lambs (please read verse 6). May God help us to seriously consider this verse…
2. Now, let us consider the Ninety and Nine Self-Righteous.
Luke 15:4-7 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? 5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. 7 I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
As we stated already, we need to be careful how much we read into this or any parable. For example, we know that Jesus the Good Shepherd never loses a single sheep, as some teach. Neither is the Lord teaching in verse 7 that there are really “…ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance”. Now, we want to try and see just who the sheep in this parable represent.
The contrasting persons in the parable are the “sinners” on one hand and the self-righteous Pharisees and Scribes on the other (please read verses 1-2). Sinners were the lost sheep in the parable. They were known by the Jews to have been guilty of what they considered gross sins. They probably had been excommunicated from the Synagogues because of their sins, and were the outcasts of Jewish society. For example, harlots were often referred to in the New Testament as sinners, but lawbreakers of all kinds were included in this category of “sinners”. And as long as they were living in their lost sinful condition, they needed Jesus to find them in their wilderness of sin, as it were, and save them from certain eternal death.
The ninety and nine were the Pharisees and Scribes, which were the religious elite of their day. They were considered by the Jews, and by themselves, to be practically perfect and blameless. They thought so highly of themselves that they didn’t even believe that they were sinners in God’s eyes, and therefore they didn’t see their need for repentance, or their need for Christ to save them from their sins. The apostle Paul was a perfect example of just such a person before the Lord saved him (see Philippians 3:3-8).
I believe we can still find these two groups of people in our society today. There are still those horrific sinners that stand out from all the rest of society. Even in a world where most sin is commonly accepted, there are still exceptional crimes against society that are especially abhorred. Murderers, rapists, child molesters, thieves and robbers (among others), are still considered to be great sinners, or great lawbreakers by our society. From the Biblical perspective, sinners such as adulterers, fornicators, sodomites (among other vile sinners), are still classified as exceeding great sinners by Christian circles today.
Beloved, classifying sin and sinners is an old practice, but let us beware. It isn’t man’s classification of sinners that matters, but God’s classification of sinners is what really counts in the final analysis. All sinners will answer to Almighty God in the Day of Judgment, and God’s Word says, “…all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). God’s Word also says, “…there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). God sees sin of any size and color as big and black in His eyes. God will punish all unforgiven sin with eternal death!
On the other hand, we still have the self-righteous ninety and nine among us today. These might be religious people who don’t think that they are sinners; who think that they are just and right with God because of their own good works and deeds, or because they think they keep the law of Moses. They never knew a time when they were lost in their sins. They never saw themselves as lawbreakers before God. They have never seen their need for repentance, or their need for Jesus as their Savior. What an awful state to be in!
The self-righteous could also be those who say, “I’m just as good as those church members next door”. They judge themselves by the shortcomings of others (especially Christians), who they see as being more sinful than themselves. Self-righteous people always use either themselves or other people as their standard of righteousness. But beloved, God’s standard of righteousness is His Holy Law, and Jesus Christ God’s Son is the One that men must compare themselves with. To be good enough for Heaven, men must be as good as Jesus Christ, who kept the law of God perfectly in all points. Nothing less than absolute perfection will be acceptable to God. Woe unto the self-righteous! For they will never be “found” by the Good Shepherd until they see that they are lost. They will never be saved until they realize they are sinners in danger of hell fire.
The truth is, beloved, there are no such ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance. Our Lord’s parable simply reflects men’s own estimation and appraisal of themselves. The self-righteous think they are just and righteous before God. They think they have not sinned, and therefore they think they need no Savior.
The main point of the parable in Luke 15 is that Jesus came to seek and save lost sinners. He didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Beloved, Jesus gets more pleasure and joy from saving one lost sinner than He does from ninety and nine self-righteous “just” persons who think they have no need for repentance. The fact is, Jesus doesn’t have any joy or pleasure in self-righteous persons, who don’t see themselves as sinners, who don’t think they need repentance or need Him as their Savior. But one day every knee shall bow at the Name of Jesus, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (see Philippians 2:10-11).
Do you see yourself somewhere in these parables? Perhaps you are the lost sinner whom Jesus came to seek and save? If so, repent and believe that the Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins, that He was buried, and that He rose again from the dead the third day. He will save your eternal soul the very moment you believe this gospel message. Yes, all of Heaven greatly rejoices over one lost sheep when it is found!
Perhaps you are that young lamb that has gone astray from the good way of the Lord. If so, the Lord loves you and cares for you, and desires to bring you back into the fold of His New Testament Church. Yes, there is great rejoicing over one straying lamb that the Lord brings back into His fold.
Perhaps you are one of the ninety and nine who has been careless, who has not considered the Lord’s tender lambs. Maybe you have been part of the reason for an offended lamb to go astray. God help you to repent of our selfish pride and reckless life, for putting a stumbling block in the path of your weaker brothers and sisters, and causing them to error from the way.
Finally, perhaps you are among the ninety and nine self-righteous persons who think they are just and have no need of repentance. If this is you, repent of your wicked sin of self-righteousness. God especially hates the sin of self-righteousness because self-righteousness denies the need for the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross for sinners. By pretending to be just, you deny your very need for Jesus Christ as your Savior, and I can think of no greater sin than this.