Straying sheep must be found and carried home with compassion and care. This is the picture Jesus paints in Matthew 18 as He describes the church discipline process. He begins with a parable about a lost sheep and then transitions to His instruction on church discipline (Matthew 18:12-18).
I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
A man once told John Wesley, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion. Therefore a man must find companions or make them. This is an important aspect of New Testament Christianity. It is not a faith that can be lived out in solitude…This may fit some religions, but not Christianity.”1
Oh, how times have changed.
For many, solitary religion is the preferred norm of the day. Virtual church is favored over corporate gatherings, digital platforms take precedence over actual pulpits, and Facebook friends are welcomed more than discipling relationships.
This is the Siren’s song of spiritual isolationism: You Don’t Need Other Believers is the title, and You can live the Christian life all by yourself is the refrain. It’s the song we sing to justify our empty church seat, the tune we hum when we are tired and drained, and the anthem we blast when we see believers fail us, hurt us, and cause us pain. 2
The Siren is Wrong!
God has designed the Christian life to be lived together, not alone. Proverbs 18:1 declares: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire.” Spiritual isolation is proud selfishness. And it is far more dangerous than you might think. It leaves you helpless when you fall (Galatians 6:2), foolish when you think (Proverbs 18:1-2), and powerless when you evangelize (John 13:34-35)—teetering you on the precipice of spiritual ruin (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Why? Because spiritual isolationism is Christless living. It rejects the shepherding task Jesus was sent to perform (Matthew 15:24)—a role given to each of His followers to fulfill.
Not only do we need spiritual shepherds in our lives, but we need to shepherd fellow believers in theirs: offering them our care and love, while also feeding and protecting them, and even bandaging their wounds when they are hurt.3 Each is a shepherd’s work. But more importantly, each is a “one another” command Christ has given His people. Like the transfer of a baton in a race, Jesus has passed us His shepherding staff.
Jesus, the Promised Shepherd
Throughout the Old Testament, Israel was often referred to as a flock in need of a shepherd. And yet every shepherd God sent His people failed in one way or another. Think of Moses: he was a disobedient shepherd. Think of David: he was an abusive shepherd.4 And this was Israel’s pattern—until Jesus, “the good shepherd” (John 10:11), arrived on the scene.
In Matthew 15:24, Jesus claimed to be God’s promised shepherd when he said, “I was sent…to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He was the teaching shepherd sent to feed His sheep in the pastures of God’s truth, the obedient shepherd sent to lead “His flock in the strength of the Lord” (Micah 5:4), and the dying shepherd sent to die so that His sheep would live.5
Jesus, the Perfect Shepherd
Though His sheep often bit Him and wandered away, Jesus refused to isolate Himself from His people. Why? Because this was His divine mission. He was the perfect shepherd for His very imperfect flock.
Jesus cared for His sheep.
Christ fulfilled Isaiah 40:11, “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arms He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.” Is this not what we see Jesus doing throughout His ministry? His shepherd’s heart was stirred when He saw the spiritual angst of His people (Matthew 9:36). Through His miracles, He bandaged His sheep’s physical wounds, and through His teaching, He healed His sheep’s spiritual needs.
Jesus loved His sheep.
In John 10:14-15, we hear Christ’s love for His own: “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own…even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father.” To know His sheep was to love His sheep—and amazingly, Jesus compared His love for His people to the eternal love He enjoyed with His Father. No greater love could be described. And yet, this was Jesus’ love for His always weak, continually failing, never quite-getting-it flock—a shepherd’s love that even laid down His life for His sheep (John 10:11).
Jesus guarded His sheep.
The most frightening concern for a shepherd was a wolf or jackal creeping into the pen to devour his flock. Sheep are helpless creatures with no claws, fangs, or speed for defense. This was why a faithful shepherd would never leave their flock unattended. They stood guard with rod, staff, and sling—precisely what Jesus did throughout His ministry.
Jesus raised His rod when He warned of the Pharisees’ damning gospel. He swung His staff when He pronounced judgment upon the Sanhedrin—not once, but twice. He let loose His sling by calling the religious leaders “false prophets” (Matthew 7:15), trees that would be “cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19), and “serpents [who]…will not escape the sentence of hell” (Matthew 23:33). Jesus was no gentle shepherd when wolves were nearby.