Luke 15:1-10: Seeking and Saving the Lost

God loves sinners and He seeks for them to save them. John Stott shares this truth from the experience of Augustine: ‘He was born in North Africa (in what we now call Algeria) in the middle of the fourth century. Already in his teens he was leading a dissolute, even promiscuous, life, enslaved by his passions. He wrote in his Confessions:

“Clouds of muddy carnal concupiscence filled the air. The bubbling impulses of puberty befogged and obscured my heart so that it could not see the difference between love’s serenity and lust’s darkness. Confusion of the two things boiled within me. It seized hold of my youthful weakness sweeping me through the precipitous rocks of desire to submerge me in a whirlpool of vice.”

Even while half-drowned in sin, Augustine also plunged into study, and his studies took him first to Carthage, and then to Rome and to Milan. A great tug of war was going on in his mind between Christianity (which at this time he rejected) and Manicheism (which he had embraced). In this turmoil of moral shame and intellectual confusion he found himself in utter misery. Yet, through his inner restlessness of mind and conscience, as also through the prayers and tears of his saintly mother Monica, and through the kindly admonitions of Bishop Ambrose of Milan, Jesus Christ was surely pursuing him.

As with Saul of Tarsus, so with Augustine of Hippo, the climax came suddenly. He went out into the garden attached to his lodgings, accompanied by his friend Alypius. He threw himself down under a tree and let his tears flow freely, as he cried out, ‘How long, O Lord?’

As I was saying this and weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice from the nearby house chanting as if it might be a boy or a girl (I do not know which), saying and repeating over and over again, ‘pick up and read, pick up and read …’ I checked the flood of tears and stood up. I interpreted it solely as a divine command to me to open the book and read the first chapter I might find … So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting. There I had put down the book of the apostle when I got up. I seized it, opened it and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit: ‘Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts’ (Romans 13:13–14).

I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.

Augustine attributed his experience to the sheer grace, that is, the free and unmerited favour, of God. He claimed that God had quickened all five of his spiritual senses—hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch:

You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.’

If you are a Christian today it is because of this truth, God sought you and saved you. Now we take this wonderful truth of God for granted, but the picture of God as the Shepherd who goes in search of the sheep is not new but is a picture found in the OT, Ezek. 34:16, ‘I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.’ But at the time of Christ it was not the picture the first century Judaism had of God. Yet this is the God that Jesus incarnates and invites sinners to.

Luke 15 is a key chapter which places the picture of God as a seeker and Saviour forward in three memorable parables, the parable of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost son. In each of these parables something precious is lost, searched for and found with celebration. You will notice an intensification as 1 out of 100 sheep goes missing, yet the shepherd goes searching, then 1 out of 10 coins goes missing and the housewife goes searching, and 1 out of 2 sons goes astray and the Father seeks His sons return earnestly. Luke 14 and 15 stand in contrast to one another. In 14:1 we see the religious leaders gathering around Jesus but only to watch Him and to catch Him out, but in 15:1 we see sinners and tax collectors attracted to Christ and gathering around Him to hear Him, ‘Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.’ Tax collectors we know were seen as the scum of the earth because they worked for Rome and that against their own people. They were known to add their own profit onto the back of the Roman taxes and relied on Roman authorities to enforce the injustice. They were seen as traitors and not welcome at anyones table or parties. ‘Sinners’ is the word used to describe perceived to be outside the law and who have forfeited a relationship with God. V1 emphasizes that they ‘all’ drew near to Him. The question we are forced to ask at this point is this: why were they so drawn to Christ and not to the religious leaders?

They obviously sensed something different about Jesus. When He looked at them He would not have looked at them with eyes full of contempt and accusation. When He spoke to them He would not fling cheap verbal assaults that refused to view them as individuals but just branded them as outcasts. He was willing to spend time with them, not to approve or participate in their sins but to preach the truth to them. The message that He preached was one where no matter who you are, you are a sinner but God receives the poor in Spirit. So come, freely and receive the gift of eternal life. The poor in Spirit can be adopted as children of God, no matter their past, and they will be given the inheritance of children, the kingdom of God. He presented a God who gives laws like the Sabbath, not as a burden but as a gift. In the miracles being dispersed it was all people who received not only the so called ‘good’. They had hearts that were hungry and sin and hypocritical religion could not satisfy them, they were primed and ready for the truth.

But this put Jesus at odds with the religion of the day, v2, ‘And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” What a contrast between how Jesus, who is incarnating God’s love for sinners, and the religion of the day that had lost sight of God’s love for people in a zeal to keep rules to produce their own righteousness. That word ‘grumbled’ only appears twice in the NT, here and when Jesus visited Zacchaeus’s house. The Pharisees saw themselves as forbidden from eating with, entering into business dealings with, or any other social engagement with those who were perceived to be outside the law. The word describing Christ’s accepting of sinners, that word ‘receive’ literally means ‘to have good will towards.’ This was the polar opposite to the attitude of the Pharisees. Rabbinic teachings say that eating with such people will make you unclean and that you should not even associate with them even if it is to bring them to the law. O how different this is to God’s attitude. He is willing to draw near in order to win us to Himself.
Jesus then goes on to tell 3 parables, we will look at the first two, the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. All of these parables are given as a rebuke to the attitude that does not seek the salvation of sinners, nor delight in their salvation. These parables are given to expose the wrong priorities of legalism. Since the parables are so similar we will take them together and look at them under two headings, the seeking and the celebrating.