Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep was set in the context of an argument that was going on between his disciples about who was the greatest among them. It is likely their argument was the result of an incident in which some of Jesus’ disciples were unable to cast out a demon because of their unbelief (Matthew 17:20). Perhaps, James and John who had just returned from a mountaintop experience in which Jesus was transfigured were taunting the other disciples because of their lack of spiritual experience or were boasting about having just seen Moses and Elijah with Jesus as his face shined like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light (Matthew 17:2). Jesus rebuked his disciples by setting a little child in the middle of them and saying, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
Jesus established that the first step in serving God was to be converted or renewed in one’s relationship with the LORD. Jesus’ disciples didn’t seem to understand that God wasn’t looking for miracle workers, but children that wanted to spend time with him. Jesus began his teaching about restored fellowship with the warning, “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). The point Jesus was making was that a small child that was unable to do anything to impress God was so important to his Father that he kept himself constantly updated on their physical well-being and spiritual growth. Jesus then reminded his disciples, “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost” (Matthew 18:11).
The Greek word Jesus used to describe someone that was lost, apollumi (ap-ol’-loo-mee) is derived from two other words that depict separation and ruin, that is punishment by death (575/3639). Jesus was talking about someone that was going to hell for eternity, an eternal separation from God. After establishing his purpose and specific assignment from God, Jesus said, “How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? (Matthew 18:12). Jesus’ reference to going into the mountains may have been an indication that the lost sheep(s) he was referring to were the three disciples that were taken with him on the mountain to witness his transfiguration. The point being that James, John, and Peter were not more righteous than the other disciples, but more at risk of eternal damnation.
Jesus concluded his teaching about fellowship with an illustration of the benefit of working together with other believers rather than competing against them for God’s attention. He declared, “Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:19-20). The lesson that may have been hidden or tucked away within Jesus’ teaching about fellowship was the way that we are able to do more for God’s kingdom. Although two people agreeing about something may not seem like that difficult of a task, the argument between Jesus’ disciples about who was the greatest showed that they were at odds with each other and didn’t want to admit that they were all lost, separated from God and in need of a savior.