Was Jesus really “a friend of sinners”?
We’ve all heard this “Jesus was a friend of sinners, so you, as a born-again Christian, need to befriend sinners before you share the Gospel.” This is what I’ve been told for many, many years in churches, by nice, good church going folk.
Let’s examine this Statement or Premise a little deeper.
The implications here, seem to force Christians to get to know and befriend sinners. This does not mean just as “hi how are you doing” kind of passing acquaintance, but something like a real friendship is implied here. Once that is established, at some undetermined point in that relationship the Christians is to somehow, in a nice, congenial way, share the Gospel in a loving, nice and the least offensive way. That seems to be how this Premise stands. Yes, most Christians, Evangelical Christians, have heard it this way.
First off, I do believe we should be nice, loving, kind, and friendly toward those who are outside the faith, Always. Yes, to those we work with, our neighbors, our close family members, extended family, friends, and strangers. The Premise is that I, as a born again Christian must “earn the right” to share the Gospel, to get a “hearing” with my new friends, etc.
It is true, that a majority of those who are going to church and have received Christ for Salvation, it was usually through a close family member and/or friend that they trusted, etc. — and it is someone, now, whom they would consider a “close friend” or “close relative”.
I wanted to see if I could find any examples of this “Premise” in the New Testament. I looked throughout the New Testament Documents and I could not find any command, principle or example of Jesus Christ or his apostles doing anything like this. I could not find a command, a precept, a principle, nor any clear example of anyone in the New Testament doing this (become a close friend, and seek to earn the right to share the Gospel, etc…)
Let’s first think about what we mean by friend, today, in our culture in the 21st Century. A friend is someone whom you genuinely like. You genuinely like to hang out with that person and have some shared, common interests. You like to do things together. You like to converse with that person and just be around one another. Again, in this loose definition we are NOT talking about heterosexual marriage (i.e.: biblical marriage) … but a simple friendship-relationship. I know of relatives, cousins, 2nd cousins, aunts, in-laws … etc… close and extended family members that could be considered friends. Also, we all know of and probably have some degree of friendship with those we work with or have worked with in the past. Friendship takes the investment of time and effort but it is always rewarding. We can see friendships in the record of Scripture, and one of the most famous is the close friendship between Jonathan and David. But, again, is this what we are commissioned to do by Jesus Christ in Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15-20, and Luke 24:46-47?
Examine this, lets say (hypothetically) there is a supposed “friendship” that is composed of
- a person who is fully opposed, may even be hostile towards Christ, the Bible, and the things of God
— AND —
- a person who is fully sold-out, fully surrendered and on-fire for Christ and Christ is the center and LORD and KING of everything in his/her life …
No matter if they both have a ton of “common interests” there will always be something that will seem to be pulling that friendship apart: –> how each person relates to Jesus Christ.
The #1 friend above will not want to talk about anything related to the Bible, Jesus, etc… the #2 friend, that is all he/she wants to talk about all the time.
How can they, really, be friends even in the most “loose” definition?
They can be “some-what” friends or acquaintances with some common interests, such as, “fishing” or something like that, but God’s Spirit will always be compelling the Christian to share the Gospel with his “lost” friend. This doesn’t mean that the Christian doesn’t want the non-Christian to be his/her friend, but in many cases we see the non-Christian finding excuses more and more as time goes by, to avoid the Christian, more and more… until the friendship fades. Jesus said that those who sin and love it, are in the darkness, they don’t want to come to the light, because that light will expose that their deeds are sinful and full of darkness (see John 3:18-20). In that kind of relationship described above, the Christian is the Light (Jesus is the Light through that Christian) and the non-believer is in the darkness and loves the darkness.
So, did Jesus commission us to befriend sinners?
If we look at the actual texts that this “concept” comes from, Jesus is being accused of being “a friend of sinners”.
The main texts … It starts with Jesus calling of Levi (Matthew) to be one of His disciples: read Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:27-32.
Then, Jesus talks about John the Baptist in Matthew 11:16-19, Luke 7:31-35.
Luke 5:27-32: After these things Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he left all, rose up, and followed Him.
Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. And the scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, “Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” [NKJV]
The context: Levi (Matthew) and his Friends gave Jesus a party or feast. It was a celebration focused on Levi being called by the Rabbi Jesus (that’s what most folks thought Jesus was, a Rabbi). The Feast was for Jesus, it was to honor Jesus. Levi and his friends were friendly toward Jesus and His disciples. Levi and his friends were not enemies nor were they hostile toward Jesus, His disciples or His teachings. They were happy about Jesus and about Levi becoming one of His disciples.
This does NOT mean that Jesus and His disciples were close friends with Levi or Levi’s many friends (tax collectors and sinners) [they just met Levi and his friends]. This DOES mean that Levi (Matthew) and his friends were fully open to Jesus and His teachings. They wanted to learn, to follow, to know Jesus and His teachings. In essence, because of the first action by Jesus in His calling of Levi, Levi’s current friends (not any new friends) came to be followers of Jesus. Jesus said, in their hearing, that He is the One calling sinners unto repentance. That meant, Levi and his friends were those specific Sinners and that Jesus was calling them unto Repentance. None of Levi’s friends got angry at Jesus when He said such a thing to them in their presence.
The only people who were hostile toward Jesus and his disciples were the Scribes and the Pharisees. They were the ones asking the questions, seeking to undermine Jesus’ ministry and authority. I’ve been at gatherings in which the non-religious “friends” were quite hostile toward me, the Bible, the Gospel, and Jesus Christ, etc. Really everyone except the Christians, were pretty hostile. But, in the case of Jesus Christ and Levi, and Levi’s friends … Levi and his friends were NOT hostile toward Jesus Christ. Only the Scribe and Pharisees were.
In Matthew 11:16-19: Jesus described how wonderful John the Baptist was and the sad state of affairs of those who opposed him and of those who also were opposing Jesus.
“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places, who call out to the other children, and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” [NKJV]
Notice that the well-known, public accusations and rumors about Jesus were not just that he was a “friend of sinners”… notice the full accusation…
“Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”
The Full Accusation: Jesus was a man controlled by gluttony and He was a drunkard, as well as being a friend of tax collectors and sinners.
Again, in context in all the passages regarding Jesus being a “friend of sinners” … it is really a nasty accusation, NOT something for us to get warm fuzzies about inside our tummies.
As we examine this, just a wee bit deeper, let’s look at what is actually happening.
It seems that if Jesus is invited to a feast or a party or get-together or wedding, whatever it is… He attends. We see this throughout the Four Gospels. Starting in Cana of Galilee, at the Wedding, the beginning of His ministry and miracles (John 2). Jesus is not shy, He attends a supper with a Pharisee, hangs out with tax collectors, goes to a wedding He is invited to. Notice, He is NOT crashing any parties. He is going ONLY when invited. He does not try to find a way to get invited to parties. But, when He is invited, He goes.
He is our example. So, if someone invites you to some event, party, celebration, etc., as God leads you, prayerfully, consider attending. Use Godly, Biblically-based wisdom, of course, but if God is leading you to go, then obey Him. God may use you in some way to open the way for the Gospel, now or in the future, etc. It may not happen at this specific event, but it may open the way or doors for some future conversation that can lead to a complete Gospel presentation with one or more people who are there at that event.
It does NOT mean that you have to become best buddies with everyone or anyone at that party or celebration. It DOES mean that you are on a mission, the Great Commission and you should seek to be nice, friendly, loving and kind to those you meet. Prayerfully, as you converse with folks, seek God as you chat with folks. Your aim should be to lovingly direct the conversations toward God and/or the things of God, as possible, in a gentle way, being intentional. Again, you are on a Gospel Mission (all the time), your whole life is the Gospel Mission until God takes you home. So, use these opportunities as Open Doors from God for the Gospel as He leads you. It DOES NOT mean that you have to find a pulpit and start Preaching Hell, Fire, and Brimstone … but you should look for opportunities for further points of contact with folks to discuss Jesus, if you can’t fully do so that evening or at that event, etc. If you have a card leave it with them and/or get their phone number, email or other contact info, if they are willing. Seek to build bridges for the Gospel. Again, I am not suggesting that you have to “earn the right to share the Gospel” … you already have the right and the Great Commission from Jesus Christ. All you are seeking is to work out the Logistics of doing the Great Commission toward real people who may not know that they are sinners, bound to sin and going on their way to the Lake of Fire, living under the Wrath of God, etc.
Be in prayer before the event, on the way to the event, and have many other folks pray for you and for the people you are going to be with, as well. It may be that you may just mention that you are a part of a church, or looking for a church (as the case may be) or something that relates to something in the Bible and then see how they react. Remember, we are called to be “fishers of men/humans” … so cast it out and wait and see if there is nibble. If there is a nibble, then pull it in a bit … or change your bait and try again. It is an interactive process and finding out what works with different folks. Sometimes you just have to use a lure with no bait. The lure might be something God is doing in your life or has done in your life, that relates to some struggle they just mentioned in your conversation. Be gentle, loving, kind, considerate, listen a lot, but remember to be proactive and intentional, as well. And, be Prayerful while you are there at the event. Enjoy yourself … be filled with God’s Spirit and abound with the Fruit of His Spirit – Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Remember it is the Kindness of the LORD that leads us to Repentance (Romans 2:4).
I know in my own adventures with folks, sometimes it isn’t at the event, it is after the event in a one-to-one situation in which we can talk a little more freely without peer pressure being involved. That is when things are easier to talk about the Gospel, sin, God’s Wrath, Salvation, the Bible, etc. It is in the “bucket” moments, not when the fish is struggling on the line, that the fish is really yours. So… Remember to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves (Matthew 10:16)
If a person comes to Faith in Jesus Christ, fully Repentant, etc… then real, deep, close friendship can happen since the CORE of our Interests are wrapped up in Jesus Christ.
So, the sinner becoming a “saint” in Christ, that is our Goal, not Friendships.
Friendships, in Christ, are one of the after-effects or fruits of Salvation in Christ Jesus our LORD and Savior.
May God Bless you Richly….
Pastor Andy Thomas