Did Jesus walk this earth to befriend sinners? Does this partial quote justify hanging out with sinners without preaching Law and Gospel? Does this justify abandoning the purpose of the church found in Scripture (maturing the saints) in favor of creating a cool place for “unchurched” people to hang out, be entertained, and be encouraged regardless of whether or not they believe in the Son of God and what He did as a payment for what their sin deserves? Let’s look at the text.
Jesus, Friend of Sinners
The partial quote “Jesus friend of sinners” is found in the tail end of the account where disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus on John’s behalf to ask if He was in-fact the Messiah. John had been thrown in jail shortly after Jesus’s ministry began, and he wanted encouragement. This account is recorded nearly verbatim in Matthew 11 and in Luke 7. Luke records a reaction from the crowd that I think is important for understanding the message, so we will begin in Luke.
Luke 7:18-35 (ESV) | Messengers from John the Baptist
18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, 19 calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 20 And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” 21 In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. 22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. 23 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” 24 When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 25 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings’ courts. 26 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’
28 I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” 29 (When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, 30 but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.)
31 “To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like?32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,
“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’
33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35 Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”
Interesting. After such a powerful testimony of John the Baptist, Jesus then declares that the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. Why would the tax collectors resonate with this statement? In that day, the top rung of the social ladder was the chief priests and elders, and the lowest were the prostitutes and tax collectors. The tax collectors were equated with prostitutes in that they, being Jews, took money from Jews to pay tribute to Rome. Remember when we discussed in an earlier post, we saw that John’s baptism was one of Repentance. Let’s revisit how Jesus ended one of His parables to the chief priests and elders of the Temple.
Matthew 21:28-32 (ESV) | The Parable of the Two Sons
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
John the Baptist Preached Repentance
Luke records the reaction of the people, specifying that tax collectors were present, demonstrates that Jesus wasn’t talking about John the Baptist to those who were completely ignorant of who he was. These people whom Jesus addressed had gone out to John the Baptist, and Jesus was reminding them of who they saw. Jesus was also explaining John’s significance. The least in the kingdom of Israel had gone out to John the Baptist, confessing their sins and repenting. The religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees rejected the purpose of God for themselves… they did not believe in John’s baptism. John the Baptist was greater than all mankind (except Jesus because He is the Son of God), but the least in the Kingdom of God was greater than John. How? Because their entry into the Kingdom of God is by the Blood of Jesus, not by their own.
The People of This Generation
Getting back to our text, in Luke 7:32 Jesus transitions to describing the people of this generation. Notice how He chose to describe them, as children sitting in the marketplace calling to one another. Are the children encouraging each other? Are they celebrating each other? No… they are frustrated with each other for when they played the flute no one danced, so when they sang a dirge no one wept (a dirge being a mournful song, piece of music, or poem). Jesus is setting up the next point He is going to make about the religious leaders and their whining excuses for rejecting the Kingdom of God.
Luke 7:33-35 (ESV) 33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35 Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”
John the Baptist came as a Nazirite from birth, eating no bread (locusts and honey) and drinking no wine or strong drink, and the religious leaders rejected him and his prophecy and told the people he had a demon (sang a dirge) . Now that Jesus, the Son of Man, had come eating and drinking, the religious leaders continue to reject Him and His Testimony while telling the people, “Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (played the flute).
Immediate Context of the Quote
So, normally, I like to start with the immediate context of a CTT quote, but this time I really felt it necessary to begin with the full context. The immediate context is highly questionable… this “Jesus friend of sinners” is a quote of what the unbelieving Pharisees are saying about Jesus, but it doesn’t stand alone. The Pharisees are lining it up with declaring Jesus a glutton and a drunkard! This is levied as an insult to Jesus. They aren’t complimenting Him, nor is Jesus declaring this accusation to be true, because He also quoted their accusation of John the Baptist having a demon. The immediate context of this quote completely destroys the emergent, seeker-sensitive twist of this passage as somehow proclaim traditional Church to be Pharisaical and contrary to the ministry of Jesus. The greater context also draws that out, when we see that those in attendance knew and acknowledged the message of John the Baptist, who definitely hadn’t “befriended”, ate, and drank with them; rather, he called them to repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
To Seek and to Save the Lost
To call Jesus a “friend of sinners” is to misunderstand either who the “sinners” are or to confuse why Jesus walked the earth. Unless you are acknowledging that we are all sinners, equally dead in our trespasses and sins, you are missing the point of who it was that Jesus befriended. Everyone Jesus spoke to, ate with, walked with, and met was a sinner. Everyone. The Pharisees didn’t get it, they didn’t understand that the call to repent was to them in equal measure as it was to the prostitutes and the tax collectors. Though pointing this out to a seeker-mergent ministry will get an emphatic “amen” it actually destroys their argument that Church needed to be re-envisioned for holding the attention of unbelievers because we are all sinners. We all need to repent and be forgiven every day we live on this Earth. So this partial quote cannot be “properly clarified” and still support the notion that Church that seeks to mature the saints are Pharisaical.
The more dangerous road this can take, is to minimize the work and ministry of Jesus Christ by suggesting that we should seek out sinful living and become a part of it as a form of befriending the sinner. That isn’t what Jesus did, that is what the Pharisees accused Him of doing (gluttony, drunkard, befriending, etc.). Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets on our behalf (for no one else could do it perfectly) and then lay down His life to suffer the wrath of God that we deserve so that the payment for our sin was made (substitutionary atonement) on our behalf. Let’s look at what Jesus did when He visited the home of Zacchaeus, the tax collector.
Luke 19:1-10 (ESV) | Jesus and Zacchaeus
1 He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. 5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him,“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. 7 And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
What did Zacchaeus do when Jesus came to his home? Confessed and repented of his sin. Jesus responded by forgiving him and then declaring that salvation had come to Zacchaeus’s home. You see, brothers and sisters, it is a false dichotomy to assert that we need to act out the Gospel before or even instead of preaching it. By God’s Grace we should endeavor to live in step with the Holy Spirit, but we are all sinners in need of Grace. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only power to save, not our own examples or interpretations. Zacchaeus knew who Jesus was, and wanted to see Him. We do need to go and preach Law and Gospel to the lost in this world, but that doesn’t require abandoning the feeding of God’s sheep for the maturing of the saints.
Who Did Jesus call His Friends?
We know that Jesus came, the first time, not to judge the world but to save it. The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost, from every nation, both Jew and Gentile. He will return again and when He does it will be to Judge both the Living and the Dead. Jesus left us with our marching orders, and gave the Church the Holy Spirit and the Apostles to build her up on the foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, with Christ as its corner-stone.
John 15:12-17 (ESV) 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.
Jesus didn’t call the sinner living in sin a friend. Make no mistake in what I am saying here, I am not saying Jesus didn’t die for the sinners (all of us) or that He didn’t minister to them or seek out the lost. I’m saying that when Jesus speaks of friendship, it is an upgrade from servant. For those who live in sin are enemies of God, that is what sin did to us in the Fall.
James 4:1-5 (ESV) | Warning Against Worldliness
1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5 Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?
Jesus Christ came to save the world, to redeem Mankind from sin… not to befriend the world. The most loving thing you can do is to love your brothers and sisters in Christ, and preach the Gospel. The Gospel is the only means of salvation for those who are perishing in their sin. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world yet lose his own soul? You can pour out good works on your neighbor, giving him everything he ever thought he could ever need, but if he does not hear the Word of God, he cannot gain faith, and without faith he cannot be saved. If you are going err, err on the side of preaching, so that the Word of God might work on the hearts of the lost and might grant them faith.
Galatians 6:1-10 (ESV) | Bear One Another’s Burdens
1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. 5 For each will have to bear his own load. 6 Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. 7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. 9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
May the Grace of God be with you always,
In Christ Jesus,