Do We Leave the Ninety-Nine?
by Berry Kercheville
The text is Matthew 18:1-14. Verse 12 presents a principle every person who has been a Christian for very long has heard. Jesus repeated these words on more than one occasion. The principle is simple: leave the ninety-nine and go search for the one who is astray. We all believe it. No Christian would disagree with the principle. But the test is not whether we agree, but whether we will make application.
When the disciples asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom,” Jesus gave a “picture sermon.” He called a child and set him in their midst, but then spoke of a spiritual child, a person who is a young, new believer, with little knowledge or experience.
How serious is Jesus’ admonition? It would be better to be drowned in the depth of the sea than to cause one of these “little ones” to stumble. In other words, a person who is lost or a new believer is top priority. Jesus even pronounces a “woe” on the offender similar to God’s pronouncements of condemnation on wicked cities and nations in the Old Testament.
Jesus then added to the seriousness of causing offenses: “Cut off your hand, cut off your foot, pluck out your eye” – it is better to enter the kingdom without them than to have them and enter into hell fire. Radical sacrifices are required to facilitate our salvation and the salvation of others. Consider that Timothy was circumcised as a grown man just for the opportunity to teach Jews. Paul said he would not eat meat while the world stood if it meant keeping a brother from stumbling. Let’s admit it, we would be seriously challenged if we were asked to make such sacrifices for a better opportunity to save others.
Verse 10 offers the crowning point. Speaking of young believers, Jesus said, “Their angels in heaven always see the face of their Father.” We may not completely understand all that is implied by this statement, but the message is not missed. If we cause one of these to stumble, if we hinder a person from salvation, God is going to know it and that will not be good for us. As verse 11 points out, “For the Son of Man came to save that which was lost.”
In verses 12-14, Jesus asked a rhetorical question to help his disciples understand the point. To illustrate the priority the lost have, Jesus asked what a shepherd would do. A shepherd would leave the ninety-nine. A shepherd would search. A shepherd wouldn’t casually walk a hundred yards or so from the flock and take a quick gaze around. He would search. There is diligence implied.
Now note the words, “If it turns out that he finds it.” That is, when he begins to search, he does not know whether he will find the lost sheep. But he does not say to himself, “Since I’m not sure whether my search will be successful, I just won’t try.” No, the lost sheep is too valuable. Christians are often heard to say, “Do you think this effort or that effort will really help someone to Christ?” Well, if you are asking me to say for sure, I have no idea! If a shepherd had that attitude, he would never search for his sheep.
What happens when the lost sheep is found? “He rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine who hadn’t gone astray.” Again, the ninety-nine might say, “What about us? Who is going to cater to us?” No, we are already safe; we are not the priority. In fact, the implication is that we are to be the “searchers.” There is rejoicing over us, but there is more rejoicing over the one who is lost and is now found, because that is what this is all about. It is not about us who are already saved.
Finally, Jesus drives the point home: “It is not the will of your Father that one of these should perish” (verse 14). Will we get in the way of the will of the Father because of our own personal preferences, or because of what is comfortable to us, or whether we will have to make some sacrifices?
Have We Left the Ninety-Nine?
What was the original question? “Who is greatest…?” The disciples were thinking about themselves. One cannot ask their question without betraying his priorities. He is looking inwardly and lost souls are secondary to his desires. Ask the question another way: who or what is most important in the church where you are? Visitors and new Christians bring added challenges. They may not dress like we do; they may not act the same way we do in worship; they may not handle their children like we do; they will ask odd questions; they will not understand most of the “traditions” we take for granted; they will have different moral challenges and will have often come from an immoral lifestyle. After all, the Corinthian church had former practicing homosexuals, fornicators, adulterers, and drunkards. I wonder how comfortable that was?
If perhaps you think it is a rare thing for Christians to complain or be insensitive to visitors or new Christians, I can tell you that in my years of teaching the lost I have never brought a person to Christ without hearing complaints, criticisms, or insensitive remarks from members. One lady expressed boldly what others would only say in veiled terms: “I don’t like this. These people are messing up our nice church.”
Now, who is the greatest in the kingdom? What did Jesus say? It is time some “eyes were plucked out and some hands cut off…for whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”