Straying Sheep
(Exhortation - June 2002)

There are so many references to lost sheep in scripture that their very familiarity may dull our senses to their impact and meaning.  The plan this morning is to re-examine some of these passages and apply them, not only to selected biblical characters, but also to ourselves.

Faced with this strategy it may be that our comfort level is challenged.  If we are honest, how often do we consider ourselves as lost and outside the fold?  Yet the words from the prophet Isaiah are frequently quoted in the context of the memorial service: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.”

We readily acknowledge that, for this very reason, the Lord Jesus laid down his life for us: “The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6 RSV).  Paul was wise when he exhorted: “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (I Cor. 10:12 KJV).

Probably the most well known sheep analogy is the parable given by the Lord Jesus, who calls himself the shepherd with the believers his sheep: “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine…He that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep…and he calleth his own sheep by name…the sheep follow him for they know his voice…I lay down my life for the sheep…I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:14, 2-4, 15, 28).

Notice that sheep and shepherd are well known to each otherConditional upon the sheep continuing to follow the shepherd’s voice is the blessing of eternal life.  Nevertheless, prior to leading his flock to safe pastures there is a great enemy to overcome; like a lion crouching and waiting to devour its prey; “sin lieth at the door…” (Gen. 4:7).  In the process of this deliverance, the shepherd willingly gives his life.  Incredibly, in spite of the safe haven provided, the sheep will persist in straying and it has ever been so.

Jonah was an example of deliberately straying from the path set by God: “Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me” (Jon. 1:1-2).  Whatever the reason that caused him to flee from the presence of God, it was nevertheless blatant rebellion and strict justice demanded death.  The Lord, however, who is long-suffering and merciful, chose to recover his erring servant.  It is instructive to see that the process of recovery was by a providential storm and a whale.

When thinking of Moses, we visualize him as a giant of leadership and endurance, certainly not as a lost sheep.  Once his initial hesitancy was overcome, endowed with special powers and with Aaron as his spokesperson, Moses was well equipped and eager to commence his mission.  Something went grievously wrong though, because on his return from his father-in-law, the Lord met him with the intent to take away his life!  The prompt action of Zipporah in the circumcision of the couple’s son indicates that strange as it may seem, Moses had neglected to perform this essential rite (Ex. 4:24-26).

Scripture frequently demonstrates that recognition of disobedience, followed by contrition and repentance, always brings forgiveness; clearly here was the situation in this puzzling lapse of Moses.

Before moving on, we should perhaps seek a lesson for ourselves.  The covenant of circumcision was given to Abraham as a reminder to him and his descendants that the cutting off of the flesh was necessary to attain the inheritance.  This was achieved by the death of our Savior, whereby the covenant was ratified.  Thereupon baptism was instituted as the rite through which identification with the same promises was to be achieved.  Failure to instruct our children in the vital aspects of the New Covenant and the necessity for baptism would be extremely foolish.  Equally dangerous is a “laissez-faire” attitude to the things of the truth.  As with Moses, so with us, neglect or a casual approach to the commandments of God brings mortal peril.  It is our duty to teach and demonstrate this axiom to our children and friends by our own positive behavior.

The doctrine of Balaam
Contemporary with Moses was Balaam the soothsayer, or as the KJV margin gives: diviner (Josh. 13:22).  Peter adds more information, referring to him as a prophet whose downfall was his devious conniving for wealth (II Pet. 2:1).  Revelation reveals how he went about it: “…The doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication” (Rev. 2:14).  This perverse behavior sealed his fate and eventually he was killed under the direction of Joshua.

Here was a lost sheep indeed and yet it is interesting to observe the interaction between this complex man and the God of Israel who is, “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Pet. 3:9).  Prior to responding to the request of King Balak, Balaam expected and received communication from God (Num. 22:8-12).  Yet after receiving the divine directive, Balaam did what all men find so easy, he rationalized that changing circumstances justified disobedience.  His action resulted in an angry adversary blocking the pathway he traversed on his donkey, but Balaam was oblivious, unaware and insensitive to the presence of the angel.  The Lord graciously opened his eyes and the prophet acknowledged his sin.  Sadly, the record reveals that the repentance was short lived and the divine intervention to no avail.

Lost but unaware
Although Jesus was sent to recover the lost sheep of Israel (Matt. 15:24), the majority had no concept that they were off track and wandering.  The incident of the man born blind makes this apparent.  Paradoxically, restoring sight to the blind illuminated the blindness of the self-righteous Jewish leaders: “Some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also?  Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9:40-41).  Nevertheless, the Lord in the role of shepherd was so vigilant that he would be at pains to recover one sheep out of a hundred (Matt. 18:12).

The brethren and sisters at Ephesus and Pergamos who labored patiently and hard for the truth must have been shocked to receive the condemnatory letter from their Lord: “I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love...Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev. 2:4, 16).   In this respect, it is a lesson for us to be constantly on the alert and not be guilty of complacency in our ecclesial life.

Lest we should become discouraged, it is helpful to remember how God works to retrieve straying and lost sheep.  As we have seen, He patiently and mercifully works in the lives of erring ones to warn, make aware and redirect their footsteps to the right pathway.  A variety of methods, circumstances, people and the spirit word are all used by our Heavenly Father who, as shown in the parable of the prodigal son, not only waits expectantly but also feels great joy at the return of the penitent.  Of course, the response must be that of Moses, not Balaam.  Like the psalmist, there must be an acknowledgement of God’s presence and a desire for His intervention: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant; for I do not forget thy commandments” (Psa. 119:176). 

Strong to help the weak
Another aspect should be considered.  The disciples received a commission from the Master to preach and heal the lost sheep of Israel along with the statement: “…freely ye have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:6, 8).  The maxim remains today; having received much, those who are spiritually strong have a responsibility to reach out and help the weak.

“Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness…Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men”  (Gal. 6:1; I Thess. 5:14).  If we are aware of someone who is straying or lost, it is imperative to do everything in our power to help that person.  Equally important is a warm welcome for those who find the courage to return!

As we prepare to take the emblems, let us gather our thoughts by considering the words of the apostle Peter: “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth…who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.  For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls” (I Pet. 2:21-25).

Phillip MacKinnon

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