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In Deuteronomy 22, Moses begins by discussing the mind of God in terms of lost and found items. Verses 1-3 says,
1 You shall not see your countryman’s ox or his sheep straying away, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly bring them back to your countryman. 2 And if your countryman is not near you, or if you do not know him, then you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall remain with you until your countryman looks for it; then you shall restore it to him. 3 And thus you shall do with his donkey, and you shall do the same with his garment, and you shall do likewise with anything lost by your countryman, which he has lost and you have found. You are not allowed to neglect them.
When we were lawless or ignorant children, we used to lay claim to lost items under the principle of “Finders, keepers—losers, weepers.” We thought we could rightfully keep what we found, while the losers might weep over their loss. But such actions did not reflect the mind of God. We are to restore lost items, if we know who lost them, and if we do not know the owner, we are to hold the lost items in trust until the owner comes to claim them.
This is one of the statutes that help us to define the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not steal” (Deuteronomy 5:19). Furthermore, the fact that Moses speaks only of “your countryman” does not give anyone a license to keep something that is lost by a foreigner, as some have taught. The Eighth Commandment teaches us how to love our neighbors as ourselves, and so Leviticus 19:33 and 34 tells us to apply this law of love to them as well:
33 When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Numbers 15:16 also says,
16 There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you.
The law of Lost and Found is discussed by the prophets as well. Ezekiel 34 chides the shepherds (“pastors”) for their refusal to care for God’s lost sheep of the House of Israel. In verses 3 and 4 the prophet says to them,
3 You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. 4 Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them.
Verse 8 concludes, “the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock.” For this reason, we read of God’s solution in verse 11,
11 For thus says the Lord God, “Behold I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out.”
God’s “sheep” in this case were the lost tribes of Israel, who had already been taken to Assyria, as we read in 2 Kings 17:6,
6 In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and carried Israel away into exile to Assyria and settled them in Halah and Habor, on the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.
Ezekiel was a missionary prophet, as God sent him to find His lost sheep of the House of Israel. Ezekiel’s commission is found in Ezekiel 3:4 and 5,
4 Then He said to me, “Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with My words to them. 5 For you are not being sent to a people of unintelligible speech or difficult language, but to the house of Israel.”
The Spirit then appears to have transported Ezekiel hundreds of miles to the area in which the captive Israelites resided at the time. Ezekiel 3:14, 15 says,
14 So the Spirit lifted me up and took me away… 15 Then I came to the exiles who lived beside the river Chebar at Tel-abib, and I sat there seven days where they were living, causing consternation among them.
That must have been quite a sight! The people were going about their business, when suddenly a prophet appears out of nowhere sitting among them. For the next week he was struck dumb, while the people freaked out. I can image the huge crowd that came to see him for themselves. Then after a week of this, he suddenly starts to speak.
Ezekiel was a prophet who lived in the time of Jeremiah and Daniel, when the Babylonians were coming to conquer Judah and Jerusalem. The Israelites—that is, the Northern Kingdom, whose capital was Samaria—had already been deported to Assyria a century earlier. Having been resettled south of the Caucasus Mountains in large groups, they had not lost their native language, God says. Ezekiel was sent to Israel, while Jeremiah prophesied in Judah, and Daniel prophesied among the Judahites when they were deported to Babylon.
Judah itself was not destined to be lost, for God had decreed a seventy-year captivity for them, after which time they were to return to rebuild Jerusalem and the nation. But Israel had been divorced from God (Jeremiah 3:8; Hosea 2:2) and sent out of the house. She was barred by the law from returning (Deuteronomy 24:4), for she was outside of the marriage covenant. Having been divorced under the Old Covenant, the only way for an Israelite to return to God’s house was through the New Covenant marriage covenant, which Jesus Christ was yet to ratify by His blood.
This would require faith in Jesus Christ as the Husband. The true regathering of the House of Israel, then, was not a physical trek to the old land of Canaan—their Old Covenant promise—but to the Person of Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant. Hence, Hosea 1:10 and 11 indicate that they would be regathered as “sons of the living God” and “they will appoint for themselves one leader,” who is Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, however, having been brought into divine judgment, the Israelites were “lost sheep,” and Ezekiel was sent with the word of truth to lead them back to God. The prophet was told ahead of time that those sheep were “a rebellious house” who would not listen to him (during his time). Ezekiel 2:4 and 5 says,
4 And I am sending you to them who are stubborn and obstinate children; and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord God.” 5 As for them, whether they listen or not—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them.
Israel’s lawlessness and rebellion was the cause of their captivity and deportation, as the judgment of God fell upon that nation. But the word of God later called them “lost sheep,” showing that Ezekiel’s calling was to be God’s servant who was sent out to find His lost sheep and shepherd them. The problem is that if sheep do not recognize the voice of the master, they will not follow him. And that is what happened.
Ezekiel was a type of Christ in this mission, for Christ came later to seek the lost in a greater way as the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4) and the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). At the start of His ministry, He instructed His disciples in Matthew 10:5, 6,
5 … Do not go in the way of the Gentiles [ethnos, “nations”], and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; 6 but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Jesus also told a parable about the lost sheep in Matthew 18:11-13. Some have used this to exclude other ethnic groups from the Kingdom, as if God did not care about anyone other than the lost Israelites. But when Jesus said, “do not enter any city of the Samaritans,” He did not intend for this to be a prohibition for all time. Jesus Himself evangelized a Samaritan town in John 4 after talking to the Samaritan woman at the well. He even stayed there an extra two days at their invitation (John 4:40).
Likewise, just before Jesus ascended to heaven, He told the disciples in Acts 1:8,
8 But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.
It is plain from this that Jesus’ intent was to establish the order of priority. Judea was to be given the first opportunity to hear the gospel, and then Samaria and the rest of the world. And so, shortly after Pentecost we read of Philip going to Samaria as an evangelist, for Acts 8:5 says,
5 And Philip went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them.
He did this in obedience to Christ’s instruction in Acts 1:8, for the earlier instruction in Matthew 10:5, 6 no longer applied. Soon after this, Saul was converted and was called “to bear My name before the ethnos and kings and sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15).
As the revelation of God unfolds in Scripture, we see that the regathering of the lost sheep of the house of Israel would include many from other ethnic groups (Isaiah 56:8). God’s first priority was to find the Israelite sheep, but God was also interested in the whole world. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also “the God of all the earth” (Isaiah 54:5).
During this time of searching for God’s lost sheep, Ezekiel’s prophecy against the shepherds stands as an admonition for every generation of shepherds. The shepherds are the political and religious leaders, those called to care for the sheep in their respective callings. The problem has been that the shepherds have often failed to fulfill their calling, treating the sheep as if they were their own, fleecing them of their tithes but not feeding them properly with the word of God. Worse yet, many have remained unconcerned with finding the lost tribes, whereby they might gain a better understanding of Bible prophecy and know the distinction between Israel and Judah. As it stands today, most shepherds mistakenly assume that the Jews today are the lost Israelites and that Zionism is the fulfillment of prophecies of the regathering of the House of Israel.
Ezekiel himself is our first biblical example of a good shepherd who sets out to find the whereabouts of his lost sheep. Finding them just south of the Caucasus means that they were no longer lost to him, in the sense that he knew where they were. But secondarily, they were still lost as long as they did not hear his voice, for Jesus said in John 10:27,
27 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.
Finding God’s lost sheep is only the first step in this process. They were to be cared for until the Owner comes to claim them. This job is difficult, however, when many of the sheep do not recognize the voice of Christ in the shepherd. This indicates that those sheep had been hearing the voice of other shepherds and gods for so long that they only recognized their voices.
In that sense, the Israelites who refused to hear the voice of Ezekiel were not yet ready to be reinstated as God’s sheep. Yet prophetically speaking, Scripture is clear that a generation will arise who will indeed hear His voice. In fact, in the end, all will hear His voice and come forth from their graves (John 5:28, 29), when they are summoned to the Great White Throne. At that time, “every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance” to Christ (Isaiah 45:23). At that point, everyone will be part of God’s flock, though the majority will face a time of judgment, correction, and training.
Meanwhile, in this present time only a minority have ears to hear. We are yet in a time of rebellion and lawlessness, not only in the House of Israel, but among all nations as well. Like Ezekiel, we are called to do two things. First, we are called to find the lost sheep of Israel, since most of the shepherds today have no idea what happened to the lost ten tribes of Israel. Secondly, we are called to speak the word, knowing that those who have ears to hear at the present time are the real sheep that will hear His voice and follow the Master back to the sheepfold. This is how Israel is regathered under one leader.
The law of Lost and Found in Deuteronomy 22:1-3 governs all evangelization and missionary work. It is therefore important to study that law and the manner in which the prophets apply it to the House of Israel as a nation as well as to the individual sheep who hear His voice. It is also helpful to understand the divine plan to restore all mankind to Himself, or else we may become discouraged at how few today have ears to hear His voice. Knowing the plan and believing the prophecy assures us that God wins in the end, and that we are on the winning side.