Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 11:19b (Holman) “. . .a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”
Sinister lips of malice, hoping to brand Jesus with a title holding everlasting infamy, scorned Him as a friend of sinners. Their scandal published his reputation (Spurgeon). What they meant to be stigma has become an enchanting fascination.
Their intended slur is now deemed a badge of honor, a title loved. Millions take to heart, “If He truly is a friend of sinners, then He is my friend.” Jesus is the sinner’s lover. Though at first a malicious nickname, we now sing songs about it.
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear (Joseph Scriven).
He who noteth every tear, He will banish every fear,
Jesus is the friend you need (Isham Reynolds).
Jesus! What a friend for sinners! Jesus! Lover of my soul;. . .
He, my Savior, makes me whole (Wilbur Chapman).
I’ve found a friend who is all to me,
His love is ever true (Jack Scholfield).
I’ve found a friend, O such a friend! Christ loved me ere I knew him;
He drew me with the chords of love,
And thus He bound me to Him (James Small).
Jesus knows all about our struggles, He will guide till the day is done;
There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus, No, not one! No, not
one! (Johnson Oatman).
The religious leaders refused to rejoice with Jesus over the forgiveness and salvation of sinners. Is it joyful to us? Are we glad when people are baptized, sad when they’re not, or has baptism become to us simply another rite in the ritual?
Our Master, our Example, was a man of the people, a friend of sinners. “Friend” contains the idea of affection. Jesus seemed to enjoy hanging out with the irreligious, and they were attracted to Him. He walked their streets, entered their homes, ate at their tables. His brotherly love sought to help and bless all.
Do we share our Master’s zeal for outsiders? At our church staff meetings, about 25 staff members lobby in behalf of various segments of our Second Baptist family. A question haunts me. Who clamors for the lost? Does our church exist for us, its members? Yes, but in the third place. First comes Jesus, then comes the lost, lastly comes believers. We must wake up to feel our obligation to outcasts.
When churches forget their obligation to outsiders, they leave their purpose behind and cease to grow. Worst of all, they lose touch with their Lord. Churches like this “will soon die, and no mourners will attend their funerals” (Maclaren).
If we in the USA Church don’t figure out how to reach our culture, we’re out of business. Our first priority always is, holiness matters most. Our next priority, for all USA believers, should be, how can we win lost people to Jesus?
We need models all can reproduce. We can’t all be Saddleback and Willow Creek. Ordinary pastors and churches need successful patterns they can simulate.
Lost people matter to God. Jesus was their friend. Are we? Many claim to love sinners, but won’t touch them with a pair of tongs. All their efforts on behalf of outsiders are done through organizations. This lets them not dirty their hands.
They don’t want to degrade or contaminate themselves. Not so the Savior. Up to His elbow He thrusts His gracious arm into the quagmire, to pull up the lost one out of the horrible pit, out of the miry clay. He comes into direct, personal contact with sinners, without being contaminated. He comes as close to sinners as a person can come, yet remain pure. He eats and drinks with them (Spurgeon).
We are to imitate Jesus. He is our role model. “This boundless hopefulness and seeking after the outcasts is the unique glory of Christianity” (Maclaren).
We often despair over the lost, but to Jesus no sinner seemed hopeless. He saw dormant possibilities, always hoping there might be a spiritual spark ready to flare up. Christianity paints human nature bleak, but paints deliverance possible.
Never lose confidence in the Gospel’s power to forgive and change sinners. Gross evil does not shut sinners out from grace. Only self-complacency keeps the door of forgiveness closed. Our Ed Meyer well says, God has a divine forgetter.
God is more willing to forgive our sin than we are to accept His forgiveness. In 1881 USA President James Garfield was shot in the back with a revolver. A doctor probed the wound with his little finger to seek the bullet, but couldn’t find it. He tried a silver-tipped probe, but still could not locate the bullet. Teams of doctors tried to locate it, probing the wound over and over again. In desperation Alexander Graham Bell was called in to see if an electrical device could pinpoint the metal’s location. He too failed. Garfield died, not from the wound, but from infection. The repeated probing, which physicians thought would help, killed him.
People often probe too long into a forgiven sin, refusing to release it. Many are ineffective for God due to a sin He forgave, but one they have not forgiven.
If we repent of sin and ask for forgiveness, God casts it in the sea and posts a “No Fishing” sign. He throws our sins behind Him and commands, “No looking back.” He separates our sin from us as far as the east from the west, and says, “No hunting.” He covers our sin with His blood, and puts up a “No Swimming” sign.
Sinners often see Jesus as foe, not friend. Yet Jesus left Heaven for sinners, He walked and lived among sinners, socialized with them, died and rose again for sinners. If Jesus didn’t love sinners, there would be no people for Him to love.
He came to rescue sinners. How else could He do it apart from loving them, living among them, and lending His own hand to lift them up? He came to seek and save the lost. Saying they were scattered, He scattered to find them, living as others and with others, moving in their circles. This I do not do, to my shame.
The leaders equated Jesus identifying with sinners as identifying with their sins. They accused Him of endorsing their behavior, the bond between Him and them being common sinful tendencies. “Birds of a feather flock together. We’re known by the company we keep. He’s nice to sinners; He must be one Himself.”
This issue is still awkward. For believers, maintaining healthy and proper interaction with unbelievers is a delicate balancing act. The Bible says, “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33). “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord” (2 Cor. 6:17). Jesus is “separated from sinners” (HB 7:26), yet a friend of sinners. How do we reconcile these seeming contradictions?
We carefully analyze our Lord’s dealings with unbelievers. He truly was a friend of sinners, but not in the way His enemies meant it. They said He was immoral. No, He was a rescuer. They called Him a sinner. No, He was a Savior.
Rather than participate in sins, He offered deliverance from sins. Using no fake flattery, He tried to reclaim sinners. He went where they were to bring them where He was. He showed no complicity with sins, nor minimized it. Sinners had to be freed from sins hurting, crippling, yea killing, them. He told the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more” (JN 8:11). His sternness was as obvious as His mercy. He warned tenderly, rebuked gently.
What does Jesus’ life teach us about how to interact appropriately with the lost? We are to socialize and hang out with the irreligious, but to what extent?
The issue boils down to motive. We need to ask, why are we hanging out with unbelievers? When we mix with them, is it for our pleasure or for their reclamation? Jesus sought neither popularity nor indulgence, and made no compromise with sins. He was a companion of sinners, but not a companion in sin. All vices were utterly foreign to His character. Ask yourself hard questions. How many lost people have we won or brought to church with us? Are we influencing them more than they are influencing us? May God make us wise.