In Luke 15, there are three famous parables: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Lost Son (also known as The Prodigal Son). (Read my post here about the Prodigal Son).
The most common view on these parables in Luke 15 it that the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son all refers to unbelievers, and Jesus goes out and finds them, and brings them back to Himself. So when people ask about the meaning of Luke 15 and the three parables, the answer that most people get is that unbelievers are becoming Christians.
But is this really what Jesus meant by these stories in Luke 15? I think not.
The Lost Sheep are Not Unbelievers, but Believers
Upon careful inspection, however, it soon becomes clear that the parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Prodigal Son in Luke 15 are not about unbelievers becoming Christians, but about straying Christians repenting and being restored back into fellowship with God.
For example, the Lost sheep already belonged the shepherd. The Lost Coin already belonged to the woman. The Lost Son was already a son of the father. The Shepherd does not get a NEW sheep into his sheep fold, but returns one that was lost and found. The same is true of the Lost Coin and Lost Son.
Furthermore, the Gospel of Luke itself is not an evangelistic book in the Bible, but is a discipleship book. That is, Luke does not say much of anything in his Gospel about how unbelievers can receive eternal life. But he writes a lot about how believers can better follow Jesus and grow in their faithfulness and obedience to Him. The Gospel of John is the only real evangelistic book in the Bible, and it says over and over and over how to receive eternal life (believe in Jesus for it).
So again, the immediate and broader context of Luke 15, we see that the issue is not unbelievers becoming believers, but straying believers being brought back into the care, protection, and provision of God. In light of the context and the terms uses in the passage, this seems to be what Jesus is saying in these parables.
Furthermore, the traditional interpretation of this passage leads to some dangerous theological results.
The Traditional View of Luke 15 Can Lead to Universalism
For example, if these three parables are talking about how Jesus goes out to find unsaved people, and the lost sheep, coins, and sons therefore represent all the people of the world, what is keeping us from a universalist interpretation of this passage, since Jesus doesn’t stop searching until he has gathered all 100 back into his fold?
I recently discussed this online with a person who had come to this exact conclusion. He wrote:
I’m living for the Shepherd who will leave ninety-nine sheep to find the one that is lost. If the entire world was lost, I expect He found every last one.
Certainly, not everyone who holds the view that the lost in these parables in Luke 15 refer to unbelievers are universalists, but this man did arrive at a universalist position partly as a result of viewing the lost sheep, the coins, and the sons as unbelievers.
Luke 15 is an Encouragement to You
This truth from Luke 15 is a great encouragement to you and to me. It shows us how much God loves us, and that even if (when!) we stray, God will not shrug His shoulders and say “Good riddance! Buh bye!” No, instead, God will go to every length possible to find you and bring you back into His care. He will search high and low. He will scour every nook and cranny. He will never stop watching, waiting, and looking.
And when He sees you far off in the distance, He will not make you crawl back and beg for forgiveness. No, He will run to you with open arms and throw you a party for your return.
Have you stayed from God? It’s okay. Hopefully you have learned a few things while away. Now, return to Him. He is ready, willing, and waiting to welcome you back.
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Church Planter says
Well, I’m certainly not a universalist, but I do believe that the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son refer to unbelievers, not straying believers. The primary reason is because Jesus seems to be addressing the self-righteous pharisees about how God goes out to reach “sinners” (15:2, 7, 10).
While Christians can and do sin, they are not characterized as “sinners.”
john kempf says
The context is established in Luke 15:1-2, which is about sinners. Not believers.
The point Jesus is making is that the Pharisees and Scribes cared far more about literally lost sheep – literal lost animals, than they cared about human souls that were lost. There are many examples where the religious frauds cared more about rescuing a cow on the Sabbath, but again not caring about hungry or needy people.
So, Jesus points out to them that when they rescue their lost sheep – referencing a literal animal, not allegorically referring to a believer, the religious people rejoice and tell everyone of their success in retrieving their misguided animal (sheep).
Therefore, Jesus is saying that in contrast to the Pharisees and Scribes, who care exceedingly more about the temporal life of animals, than the eternal well-being of humans – the Kingdom of God is concerned far more with the eternal well being of people as opposed to the temporal well-being of animals.
That is why Jesus says that when a sinner repents, heaven is overtaken with joy, heaven goes crazy of the salvation of a human-being – unlike the Pharisees and Scribes that go crazy over finding a lost animal! Meaning they were spared financial loss.
So, I believe if we keep the context in focus, it still does not allow for the establishment of Universalism but in fact further strengthens the fundamental and essential principal established in John 3:16.
Mark of Faith says
Thank you for that Jeremy.
I used to believe that these passages referred to unbelievers, but my eyes were opened when I considered the position of the lost items.
The lost sheep was not one that hadn’t been with the Shepherd. The sheep was known to the Shepherd and the Shepherd had noticed he was missing. He belonged to the fold and had previously been in the fold.
Likewise the coin was not one that was to be added to the ten coins, but was an integral part of the ten coin necklace. (It should be noted that the ten coins refers to a wedding gift of a necklace of ten coins, therefore it can be regarded to be a full part of the group and not in any way separate.)
Likewise the lost son. He wasn’t a stranger to be found and then adopted. He was already a son.
I believe these verses speak of the faithfulness of God to the saints rather than the salvation of every one, although I understand that some could argue that they only refer to those unbelievers who are predestined to be found.
Jeremy Myers says
You have nailed it! Yes, these verses speak to the faithfulness of God in keeping and protecting His own. Even when we stray, He goes to great lengths to bring us home.
David Burns says
Why do you think He refers to one passage as going to find and another letting them come to their senses? Maybe it’s simply teaching us that sometimes we’ll need to go out but other times they will return, but both times we should desire to see them restored
B Crump says
Tried to work my way through a concept of casting the “church” (Western organized religion)in the role of the prodigal son awhile back. Maybe I need to revisit that one. I never could quite wrestle it down to the ground long enough to write about it.
The interesting part of the idea to me was that if the “church” is the prodigal son then those of us that feel we are staying true to the gospel and serving the Father through tolerance, objectivity, and humanitarian efforts might be pissy when the “church” comes back home to the Father. Easy to cast stones at Evangelical Fundamentalists now, but what happens once God’s Spirit restores unity?
Either way, the lesson seems to be that I don’t get to punch Mark Driscoll in the mouth once God restores his spiritual sanity. In other words, I don’t get to pout when all the dumbasses I rail about come home and Pops throws them a party. Dammit!
Jeremy Myers says
Eventually I want to write a lot more about the Prodigal Son. I don’t think the older son truly exists….
Mike Donahoe says
I believe the prodigal son is referring to those of us who are already saved through faith, but have strayed away from our first love. Just as Revelation 3:20 could be interpreted to be speaking to believers who have strayed from a close fellowship with their Father, or to those who have not come to a saving faith yet. Best thing is, either way we interpret these verses, it shows that we have a loving Father who is interested in us and wants a close daily fellowship with each of us.
Jeremy Myers says
I agree (on Rev 3:20 as well).
The Bible is God-breathed and so it’s Truth. The older son represents us —maybe the 99 sheep.
Perhaps the prodigal son is portraying the decendants of the tribe of Judah and the lost tribes of the house of Israel. It seems to me that typically when you see the words “near” (Judah) and “far” (Israel) in a story or parable that is what is being spoken about.
Jeremy Myers says
Interesting idea. I have never considered this before.
I think you are reading too much into the parables. It is wrong to look for a parallel for each element of the parable. Jesus tells the parables to respond to the religious self righteous specifically about why he was hanging out with lost people. The point is God really cares and makes a massive effort – leaving heaven – to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). The irony here from verse 4 is that Jesus says it should be obvious to the Pharisees that Jesus would be seeking lost people.
You say “The Traditional View of Luke 15 Can Lead to Universalism” as if that’s a bad thing!
These parables are about believers who are lost.
The Prodigal son was alive again. He was alive before but he fell away. It is impossible for those who fall away to repent but with God all things are possible. The Good Shepherd rescues His lost sheep.
Ginger Edwards says
It appears to me as though the first two parables would be referring to those chosen by God, but who have not yet been saved. (See Ephesians 2) The coin and the sheep are unaware that they are lost or that they have a need for repentance and restoration. God seeks them out. In the third parable, the prodigal son has a previous relationship and understands his need for repentance and seeks out the Father for reconciliation. This sounds more like a believer who has gone astray. Either way, I think we should avoid dissecting these stories to the nth degree. They aren’t there to teach doctrine, but to demonstrate God’s relentless love for his people. Just my two cents. : )
Aidan McLaughlin says
I.,m a universalist. Jesus died for every living soul on planet earth and beyond of,s there is anyone out there. That’s the good news. So that everyone would have eternal life. On the other hand, a looooot of person, s have not come to this realisation. Sin holds them back. But they are no less saved. If it is finished. Its finished. To hold any other view is setting oneself on a pedestal. And that pedestal can grow very tall. Be careful. It can be a long way down. And it hurts!!
Gurdyal Masih. says
Very nice and meaningful message. May God prosper and use the writer abundantly for his work.
Jesus didn’t come to seek any lost sheep, only the sheep that belong to Him. He said MY sheep hear my voice and in so designating sheep as His own, He’s also saying some other sheep are not His.
Just as everyone didn’t get on the ark, Everyone doesn’t belong to God, this is where Universalists make their mistake. There are sheep there are goat, there is wheat there is chaff. There are those who receive Him and believe on His name and there are those who never will. The former receive eternal life the latter do not.
John 1: 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
Where we draw the line is never declaring who belongs to Him and who does not because Judgement unto death is His job, not ours
You are on point and I agree. It’s easy to understand when you realize that he is talking to Jews…God’s chosen people. The law has not been taught or followed properly in years! The Pharisees look down on these Jews and want nothing to do with them, but Jesus wants to restore them. By the way, it’s all one parable…singular. Notice the first two stories of the parable begins with a question…basically “What man, what woman wouldn’t do this?” They realized the value of sheep and coins and therefore understood searching for them. The last story, no question is asked. It’s as if he’s saying “Since you understand those scenarios, let me go a little deeper and tell you how God sees things.” All of this being a response to the fact that the Pharisees are murmuring that Jesus is eating with sinners.
Lino Buni Anguyo says
Easy and simple to read and understand.
If this is not about a sinner/unbeliever coming to Christ, how do you explain verse 10?
In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
one sinner who repents
He explained it when He said, “In the same way,” in other words both are true. We are all born with an inheritance. That we don’t acknowledge that truth doesn’t change the fact that EVERYONE has been created unto good works. In other words, the plans that God has for us do not begin at the point when we acknowledge His Lordship as Our Savior. Those plans existed before we were formed in the womb, to paraphrase Psalm 139 “all the days of our life were ordained before there was yet one” We came from God with a purpose he preordained, sinner or saved only determines whether we choose to walk in them or not. The point of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son is that all three already belonged to the person from whom they were lost.
Dealon Tinashe Mudonhi says
the thing is, when God created Adam and Eve, they were like Him. Then when they fell in sin thats when they went astray. then through His love he sends His son to die for us, seeking the lost. so at first we were like Him/we were part of the fold,coins but then we sinned, [thats going astray] so all of us are the lost…coin,sheep and sons. Jesus came to die for us, Seeking the lost.