What do these verses mean?
What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish. (Matthew 18:12-14)
What these verses are not about
First, these verses are plainly not about ninety-nine Christians and one lost person. It is not an evangelistic text. I admit that the passage would make a colorful evangelistic text if it were intended by Jesus to be that, but, it is not. We are compelled to read it another way because of the context. Context kills a lot of good sermons and this is a case in point.
The phrase, “little ones,” is defined in what precedes it. Jesus said in verse six, “But whoever causes one of the little ones who believe in Me to stumble . . .” indicating that these “little ones” are believers rather than unconverted people.
Second, these verses are not about children, either infants or pre-schoolers, or children who are “below the age of accountability” (a concept in search of a biblical foundation).
As I have stated, those who take this short three verse illustration out of the context of the whole treatise on “little ones” in verses 1-20 make them evangelistic; but those who isolate verse 14 from the preceding two verses arrive at an even greater error by assuming “little ones” is about children. By lifting this verse out of its context they might even make the case that all little children are promised eternal life if they die. Now, that might or might not be true, but this is not the passage to find anything on that subject.
It may seem acceptable to assume that “little ones” means “children” since the passage starts with Jesus setting a child in the midst of his disciples, but we soon learn that Jesus is only using a child to illustrate what a person must be like in order to be converted. That is, a person must become like a child in simple, eager faith. Following this clear application, Christ uses the term “little ones” or “child” to mean “believers.”
What these verses are about
These verses are Jesus’ way of describing the security a believer has in the fold of Christ.
We know that Jesus is very protective of his own children because of the severe warnings that precede the sheep illustration. He gives three:
He warned that it is a dangerous thing to cause “one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble.” This first warning is so severe that Jesus believed it necessary to make His words memorable in order to get the magnitude of it across to the hearers. He said, concerning any who cause believers to stumble, that “it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (vs. 6).
Millstones were circular rock slabs of immense weight (think of tractor tire proportions) with a hole in the middle. The offender would be better off if he were dropped in the depth, not the shallows, of the sea while wearing a millstone necklace! You cannot forget a picture like that.
God deals severely with stumbling blocks, a term used to mean temptations to cause believers to stumble morally which could divert him from following Christ. Such temptations will come to believers, “but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes.”
Jesus also warns about causing ourselves to stumble (vss. 8-9) indicating that we can aid in our own ruin. In exaggerated language, Christ says, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life [which means, become a believer] crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into eternal fire.”
Perhaps the most rattling of the warnings, however, is this:
See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven. (vs. 10)
Angels can do damage to people. One of them killed 185,000 Assyrians in one night. Angels assigned to protect believers are facing the Father waiting for His command to act on behalf of His children. It is a dramatic picture. Though some people who misunderstand this text see in this passage guardian angels for all infants, it is actually about guardian angels for all believers. God has ways to protect his children that are truly supernatural.
But these warnings do not do what the sheep illustration does. The sheep illustration goes further. It speaks of God’s determination to find lost sheep and to thus keep them from perishing. He will find the straying sheep and bring it back. He adds assurance to the disciples whom He is addressing when He uses the words, “your Father who is in heaven,” as if to remind them that even they are among those who would be returned if found straying.
The return of a straying sheep brings rejoicing on the Shepherd’s part, and, no doubt, on the sheep’s part. More rejoicing takes place over a returned sheep than over the ninety-nine who are doing well enough. Christ likes all his sheep in place and will not rest without bringing them into right proximity to Him.
Jesus does not say if the sheep’s return involves discipline, though it must surely. Hebrews 12:5-11 addresses that. God disciplines every son so that they may “share His holiness.” He loves us too much to let us go, but will bring us back, even if it takes painful disciplinary action. But the point here is not to address how He brings them back, but that He certainly will.
I don’t want to go further than this, though it is tempting to see 1 Peter 3:9 in this light. This is that famous passage that says, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” Concerning this passage, it is essential to consider the pronouns. Does Peter mean that God does not desire “any,” meaning “any of you believers” perish in a similar way Jesus uses the idea in Matthew 18? Again, the larger context of the entire chapter will guide us. Peter either means “all” believers, or “all” people in general, or “all” the elect. As you read the end of the chapter, there are more hints to suggest that 1 Peter 3:9 parallels Matthew 18:14, although I am unprepared to die for this view. Jesus’ sheep passage and this often confusing passage might profitably be studied together.
Of Christ’s words in Matthew 18 there should be little uncertainty, however. God will not let “little ones” perish. He will lovingly search and find them. He will welcome them back graciously, regardless of the scars or even open wounds that briers, rocks and ferocious animals have left upon them. Understood this way, the right way, this passage offers amazing comfort.
 Some may wish to see this passage as evangelistic because of verse 11 (“For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost”). The verse is considered an added one in some later manuscripts and is therefore either not included or in brackets in most translations. If included, it should be thought of as emphasizing the saving work of Christ in this way: “You are protected by God because Jesus came actually to save, not to lose, his own.”