The hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” was written by the 18th century pastor and hymnist Robert Robinson at age 22 in the year 1757. This hymn probably grips most Christian’s hearts because of its honesty when it says,
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
Seal it for Thy courts above.
Considering the very real fact that we are all prone to wander, I thought that it would be helpful to consider the four ways in which we need to show loving concern for a brother or sister who has gone astray from Matthew 18:10-14:
““See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:10–14, ESV)
1. Do not despise the “little ones” (v. 10)
““See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:10, ESV)
It’s all too easy to get side tracked on this verse thinking that it somehow points to the notion of “guardian angels.” Without spending much time in this issue, let me say that there is little evidence that is given to hold to such an idea. The main point of this verse teaches that the mature Christians in the Church are to make sure that they do not despise (kataphroneo, lit. think down upon) these “little ones” which are other believers, especially the less mature.
How can we despise other Christians?
In 1 Corinthians 11:22, Paul rebuked the wealthy Christians in that church for despising the poor in the way that they humiliated them in their feast when they would not share with those who had little to eat. So, we can despise the less mature by humiliating others in regards to earthly things such as wealth, education, clothing, social standings and other such things.
In 1 Timothy 4:12, Paul instructed Timothy to not allow others to despise him as their pastor because of his youthfulness, but rather that Timothy should set the example for the church in godliness. So, we can despise others when we look at age as a standard instead of godliness—younger is not always better and older is not always wiser.
In 1 Timothy 6:2, Paul rebuked those Christians who were taking advantage of their Christian masters by not working as hard as they could, because they had misguided ideas about their oneness in Christ. But Paul tells them that they ought to work harder for a Christian master because in doing so we are blessing a brother in Christ. So, we too can be guilty of despising a Christian brother when we take advantage of relationships we have with other Christians because they are Christians and should “understand,” when in fact we would never treat an unbeliever in this manner. There are of course other ways in which we can despise or look down upon our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Besides Jesus’ words in the first 9 verses of Matthew 18, Jesus adds another reason that we should not despise these “little ones” of God—because their angels are constantly bringing updates and are in the presence of the throne of God. As I wrote above, this isn’t saying that each Christian has his or her own guardian angel, and it is definitely not saying babies have a guardian angel (“little ones” are Christians). Hebrews 1:14 states that angels are ministering spirits for the benefit of the children of God as a group. So, God administers his grace through the hands of angelic messengers, but this is not saying that each person is assigned an angel. The major point not to be missed is this: Don’t look down upon God’s children, because they are so precious to him that he has his angels constantly ministering to us and responding to our needs.
2. Go after the straying sheep (v. 12)
“What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” (Matthew 18:12, ESV)
As stated in verses 7-9, temptations will come, but we are not to be the ones who lead other believers astray. Now in this verse we see that there will be some who are led astray, and it clarifies how we should respond appropriately. Jesus tells a parable, asking the opening question: “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?
Jesus expects his disciples to answer, “Of course!” It’s like saying to me, “What do you think? If you lost one of your four kids, would you leave the three and go look for the one?” YES!! I wouldn’t say, “Well, I do have three spares. We’ll see if she comes back on her own.” No, no, no. Jesus has already stressed how highly precious his little ones are in his sight. We are precious to the Lord. We, among all the millions of believers, are still precious to him. So what should we do when one of our fellow sheep goes astray? We should go after him or her. “Gone astray” is a passive verb, and suggests that this little lamb may have been led astray by a brother in Christ, possibly by someone placing a stumbling block in their path. Don’t get me wrong, each person is responsible for his or her own decisions, but our actions affect others, and we will share in the guilt if we are the stumbling block that led a little one astray.
In verses 15-20, Matthew writes how we need to deal with a Christian who is unrepentant in their sin, so there are guidelines for going after straying sheep. Just as a simple guideline, we are not to overlook the sin that leads a Christian to walk away from Christ or his church. We cannot search for straying sheep with the hope that they can be won back with compromising regarding their sin, which led them astray.
3. Rejoice when the strays are restored (v. 13)
“And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.” (Matthew 18:13, ESV)
Not all those who go astray are returned to the fold. Some sheep that wandered from their flock were eaten by wolves or faced some other death. Those who do not return to the flock of God, but depart from the faith entirely do not lose their salvation, but show that in reality they never were one of God’s “little ones.” First John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” But for those who are eventually restored to the faith through repentance, the parable that Jesus taught that the Shepherd rejoices over this one who was lost and now has been found—even more than he does over the ninety-nine who were never lost.
Hopefully you can see the similarities of this parable with Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son. Jesus is not saying that the ninety-nine are any less special than the one that was restored, but that when the one is restored, the most appropriate thing to do is to rejoice at his restoration to God. In 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, Paul referred to a man who had sinned against him, and whom the church had dealt with for his sin. Apparently, the church was still holding his sin against him. In this passage Paul urges the church to forgive the repentant sinner and to comfort him, for if they did not, the burden would become too much for him and he would be excessively sorrowful.
Likewise, we need to see that when a straying child of God is brought back into the fold, our place is never to hold that sin over him or her in an unforgiving spirit, but rather to rejoice at their restoration. Elsewhere Scriptures teaches, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:32).
4. Understand God’s will is restoration (v. 14)
“So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:14, ESV)
The lesson of this parable is given in this last verse. The Greek word houtos means, “therefore” or “thus,” and brings the teaching to its concluding response for those listening. Jesus has been teaching through this parable that the Good Shepherd loves and cares for all of his sheep, and that even the least stray lamb is important to him. Our heavenly Father doesn’t allow his children to stray off and be lost forever. He cares for them and brings them back to himself…always:
John 6:39 says, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”
John 10:28 “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
John 17:12 “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.”
The Reformers called this doctrine, Perseverance of the Saints, but it is better called, the Preservation of God. Since God sees each of his sheep as precious enough to go after, we must understand this doctrine as our duty as well. We cannot allow the sheep to go off and stray from the faith. If they leave, may it be that they have done so with a chorus of voices from the church calling them back. And, even though some churches rejoice in the loss of a “troublesome” Christian, even calling it “blessed subtraction,” God does not see it that way.
Think about your own local church, do you see people missing? Do you see some who have been gone for a while? Do you know why? Have you pursued them? Now, imagine that something has happened where you have been gone for a month. Wouldn’t you want to be missed? Maybe not. Maybe you have not been walking with the Lord, and you think you are happier at the moment. But, deep inside you know you aren’t. What if nobody cared? What will you do about it? Will you leave your comfort zone and go after the stray sheep?
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