In October 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell 22 feet down an eight-inch-wide abandoned water pipe, where she was lodged for three days. One of her legs, stuck awkwardly above her head, was the only thing that prevented her from falling farther. At the very point where Jessica stopped, the pipe widened significantly; she hung over a drop of 67 feet. It took thousands of workers and drilling through near-impenetrable rock to save her. No wonder it’s considered one of the greatest rescues of all time.
The same perseverance, sacrifice, and compassion demonstrated by first responders toward this baby are on display in one of the Bible’s parables. In Luke 15, a shepherd leaves 99 sheep to search for a single missing one, representing the extraordinary heart of God to rescue lost men and women.
Jesus asks a rhetorical question: what kind of shepherd would just let a lost sheep die? The answer might not be obvious to us, since most of us are unfamiliar with shepherding. We might think the shepherd is still in good shape—he only lost one sheep! But this would have been unthinkable, the same way ignoring the lost should be unthinkable to us.
It’s too easy for me to neglect reaching out to the lost. And this raises some uncomfortable questions. Why do we often care less about the lost than God does? Why is something so central to Jesus’s mission often pushed aside? Luke 15 shows us three reasons why evangelism, which Jesus did so well, feels so hard for us.
1. We don’t see the danger.
The shepherd, representing Christ, knows that a lost sheep is a dead sheep. That’s why he pursues it without a second thought. A sheep is easy prey for lions or bears or wolves. Its defenses are pathetic; it is perfectly helpless. And guess what? Unbelievers are helpless like sheep. They too are in great danger, with no way of saving themselves. We’re all justly doomed apart from Christ.
Though evangelism can be scary, there is immense joy on the other side.
The danger that awaits the lost is far worse than anything we can imagine. Eternal punishment is a necessary result of God’s holy justice. We may not want to think about it, but Christ’s love compels us to keep in mind the judgment we deserve. If we see as he sees, it will move us to reach out to those around us with his compassionate love.
2. We don’t see the value.
The next thing the shepherd does is shocking. He leaves 99 sheep to go after one. Because he values each sheep, his one lost sheep receives special attention and care. Similarly, our great Shepherd values persons made in his image, even unbelievers who are rebelling against him. He has immense compassion for the lost.
The Pharisees who heard Jesus’s message didn’t value people the way he did or share his desire to build God’s family. In fact, they fought to keep people out of their community, preferring a smaller, elite club. They were content with their comfortable group. Are we? Or do we remember God wants to use us to expand our community, valuing the neighbors around us enough to go after them?
3. We don’t see the joy.
Imagine the shepherd after days of searching. He finally spies his lost sheep, races to it, checks it over, removes some thorns, and joyfully places it high on his shoulders. This is who God is. This is what he did. He rescued us, lifted us high on his shoulders, and came back rejoicing.
We often miss the joy in evangelism. It seems hard and messy and awkward. We fear rejection. We doubt it will even work. But though evangelism can be scary, there’s immense joy on the other side. Indeed, nothing in this world brings more gladness than seeing someone forgiven of their sins and rescued from the wrath of God.
Maybe one reason we don’t share the gospel is that we haven’t tasted this joy very often. We don’t know—or we’ve forgotten—what it’s like.
Yes, it will be hard work. Yes, it will be scary. Yes, it will take time and require sacrifice. But inexpressible gladness awaits. Maybe one reason we don’t share the gospel is that we haven’t tasted this joy of seeing sinners rescued very often. We don’t know—or we’ve forgotten—what it’s like. But it was “for the joy set before him” that Jesus endured the cross (Heb. 12:2, NIV). He sacrificed for joy, and he wants us to do the same. He wants us to share his compassion for the lost—imitating his perseverance, sacrifice, and compassion—so that we can share in abundant joy.
Imagine the rescue worker’s exuberance when he emerged from the shaft, holding baby Jessica in his arms. That’s the kind of gladness that awaits as we follow in the footsteps of our Good Shepherd, who came to seek and save the lost.