4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the grassland and go after the one that was lost until he finds it? 5 And when he* has found it,* he places it* on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he* returns to his* home, he calls together his* friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found my sheep that was lost!’ 7 I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” The Lexham English Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), Lk 15:4–7.
This is one of those parables of Jesus which has evoked tons of commentary and questions. Just who are the 99? What sense does it make that the Shepherd leaves those unattended to search after one? Why are the Shepherd’s friends and neighbors so happy when he returns with this one errant sheep? How exactly are we to make sense of this somewhat strange parable?
It is in a case like this that once and a while we get to glean something of the treasures of those who have gone before us in the faith. In this case, the 4th century Bishop of Salamis (in Cypress), Epiphanius. In his commentary on Matthew’s recording of this parable, Epiphanius conjectures a most charming way of getting away from the questions which take us away from the meat of the fruit of this passage. He suggests that the picture is that of the Son of God leaving Heaven and the righteous angels in the presence of God, to come and die. To seek out the “lost sheep.” It is a picture of the incarnation. In other words, the very oddity of the scenario is meant to suggest to us something we wouldn’t ordinarily consider.
The 99 represents the majority of all of God’s Creation which has NOT strayed from Him, especially the righteous, unfallen angels. And the one sheep, that one small part of Creation which has strayed – fallen mankind. Jesus leaves the 99 in Heaven, safe, secure and righteous, and comes seeking we lost, foolish and rebellious ones. And finding us, what does He do? He places us upon His own shoulders, with the full weight of all of our guilt and sin. He takes us up upon Himself, since we have no means to return to the fold ourselves. And carrying us to the Heavenlies on His scourge-scarred shoulders, He presents us blameless before His glory with great joy. (Jude 24) So it is Jesus notes it is joy “in Heaven” over the repentant sinner, above the righteous angelic host who need no repentance. And how they rejoice with Him in the fulfilling of His redemptive work.
And so we come to that closing thought: there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over the 99 – the angelic host – who have no need of repentance. And we are humbled to think how such a salvation, such a Savior can be ours. Glorify Him Christian – He values your soul more than all the holy angels in heaven. No wonder the Psalmist must gasp: “What IS man, that you take notice of him?”