Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Friend of Sinners

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Watch "Jesus—Friend of Sinners."

Leslie Basham: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth says it's so easy for us to forget what the gospel is really about.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: We have this concept that somehow God looks favorably on good people, respectable people. But the fact is, Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners.

This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Choosing Gratitude, for Monday, November 19, 2018.

Leslie: Over the last couple weeks, we’ve been getting to know Jesus more deeply by looking at the meaning behind His names. If you’ve missed some of the programs in the series, “The Wonder of His Name,” you can hear them at ReviveOurHearts.com.

Nancy: Today we want to look at a name of Jesus that was given to Him by His enemies. It was not intended to be a compliment. It was meant as a criticism. It was actually spoken in contempt.

We see this name in the Gospel of Luke chapter 7. Let me give you a little bit of that context. Jesus has been commending the ministry of John the Baptist. And we see in this passage that there are two groups of people in the audience that day. There are two different responses to Jesus. Luke 7 verse 29:

When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, [remember that] they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him (v. 29–30).

So there were those who believed, the people, the tax collectors, and then there were those who rejected this message, the Pharisees and the lawyers, the theologians, and they were Jesus critics. So Jesus turns and addresses His critics, and He says to them in verse 33:

John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, "He has a demon." 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!"

Now we hear the term “Friend of sinners,” and we think Oh, isn’t that lovely? But in the original context in which that epithet occurred, it was a criticism—a glutton, a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

Well, I want to suggest that there may be no more precious name given to Jesus than this one, Friend of sinners. To think that the purest of the pure would be a friend to those who are so utterly unlike Him.

Look at Mark chapter 2, and you’ll see this concept. The term isn’t used there, but you’ll see the concept in Mark chapter 2 as Jesus goes to dinner at the home of Matthew the tax collector. And verse 15 tells us:

As he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.

You have the same two groups of people here. You have the tax collectors and sinners and then verse sixteen:

And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" (v. 16)

So here again we have this criticism.

Now let’s look at who these different people were. First of all, the tax collectors. They were Jews who worked for the Romans. And as you know, they exploited their fellow Jews by collecting taxes as they were required to do, plus a profit for their own pockets. They were kind of like the Jewish mafia. They were dishonest. They were despised.

Kent Hughes in his commentary on Mark says:

The Jewish tax collectors were easily the most hated men in Hebrew society. They were considered to be despicable vermin. . . . They were the lowest of the lowest!

That’s how tax collectors were viewed.

And then who were these sinners—the tax collectors and sinners that Jesus ate with? Well, “sinners” were outcasts in Jewish society. This would have included those who disregarded various religious laws. For example, they might have been those who were ceremonially unclean, or money-lenders who charged excessive interest to their fellow Jews, which the book of Leviticus said they were not allowed to do. They might have been prostitutes, or people who made their living by ill-gotten gain, people who were morally questionable in some way. This whole group of people, they were law breakers. They were sinners.

So we have tax collectors, we have sinners, and then we have Pharisees. Now we use that term and we think bad guys. But in those days they would hear that term and they would think good guys. These were the ultra-religious people of their day. They were moralists. They were separatists. They prided themselves on not associating with sinners, lawbreakers. And the reason was, they didn’t want to become contaminated by rubbing shoulders with these sinners.

So it was shocking to them that Jesus ate and hung out with “sinners”—people who didn’t live by the rules. It made them furious that by eating with these tax collectors and sinners, Jesus was in effect inviting them to be part of His Kingdom.

The Pharisees spent their lives drawing these lines and fences and keeping people out of the Kingdom. And here Jesus is eating with them and saying, “Welcome to My Kingdom.” Whew! This was a huge cultural breach of protocol that Jesus did.

Well, verse  17 tells us,

When Jesus heard it, [this criticism, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”] he said to them, [Who’s he speaking to? He’s speaking to the Pharisees—the ones who were mad at him. He said:] “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

You see, Jesus came to heal those who were spiritually sick with the disease of sin. Now, He’s suggesting, “You Pharisees think you’re well, so you don’t need a doctor. These sinners, they’re sick. They need a doctor.” But what the Pharisees didn’t realize is that they were just as needy of spiritual healing as the tax collectors and the sinners that they so carefully avoided. But the Pharisees couldn’t see their own spiritual need.

Just like some of us who’ve grown up in the church, never known anything different. We’re like first-born law keepers. You know what I’m talking about? I’m one of them—a recovering Pharisee.

They couldn’t see their own need. They thought they were fine. They didn’t realize that they were “terminal” with sin and that only Jesus, the Great Physician, could heal them. And so these Pharisees who thought they were “well,” they looked down on and despised those who didn’t live up to their standards. They wouldn’t think of eating or sharing table fellowship with these tax collectors and sinners—these despicable vermin.

But over and over again the Savior welcomed sinners. He reached out to them. Over and over again, sinners welcomed the Savior and responded to His outreach. I mean think about who some of these people were: 

  • Zacchaeus the despised tax collector
  • Mary Magdalene who had seven demons in her
  • The demoniac of Gedara
  • Judas the betrayer
  • The woman of ill repute in Luke 7
  • The woman caught in adultery—in the very act in John 8
  • The woman at the well who’d been married five times and was living with a man who wasn’t her husband
  • Extortionists, a.k.a. tax collectors
  • The condemned thief on the cross

Think of how Jesus initiated fellowship, relationship with these and so many others, how He was drawn to them and how they were drawn to Him.

Let me quote again my friend, Charles Spurgeon who says:

Some people appear to like to have a philanthropic love towards the fallen, but yet they would not touch them with a pair of tongs. They would lift them up if they could, but it must be by some machinery—some sort of contrivance by which they would not degrade themselves or contaminate their own hands. Not so the Savior. Up to the very elbow he seems to thrust that gracious arm of his into the mire, to pull up the lost one out of the horrible pit and out of the miry clay.1

Jesus was intentional about reaching out to people who were considered undesirable to those holy, so-called holy religious folks—those undesirable outcasts, sinners, the marginalized, the despised, the weak, the poor, the needy, the disreputable, broken people, people who were trapped in sin.

And the fact is—we’re ALL in that category. Whether we look clean and righteous on the outside, or not, when you look at the heart we’re born with, we’re all in that fallen condition.

So Jesus eating with sinners is an awesome picture of the very heart of redemption. And it foreshadows and anticipates that Day when those from every tribe, and language and nation and people and background, who have experienced His amazing, transforming, scandalous grace will sit together and fellowship with Jesus, eat with Him, at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

That heart to befriend those who were headed down a wrong path, to be a friend of sinners, even extended from Jesus to the disciple who betrayed Him with a hypocritical expression of friendship.

Remember that in Matthew chapter 26 how by night Judas led this angry crowd of Jewish religious leaders, armed with swords and clubs, and they came to arrest Jesus in the Garden where He had been praying. And verse 48 tells us in Matthew 26:

Now the betrayer [one of Jesus’ own disciples who’d walked with Him those three years. The betrayer] had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. [And what did Jesus say to him?] “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him (vv. 47–50).

God created us for companionship, for friendship, for relationship. But it is sin that has created alienation and isolation from God and from others. And Jesus came to restore that friendship, that relationship—vertically our relationship, our friendship with God, and horizontally our friendship and relationship with others.

Jesus was a friend. He cared about people, regardless of their past, regardless of their failures. He spent time with them. He ate meals with them. He visited their homes. He got to know them. I imagine Him getting to know their names and their kids’ names and their interests. He showed friendship.

Now, let me say, by the way, you may be in this crowd of people today but feeling like you are really friendless. Do you ever feel lonely, alone in a crowd? I know I do sometimes. You are a public person and people feel like they know you. But you know people on the surface level. And sometimes my heart feels like, “I just need a real friend.” Well, we have a Friend in Jesus. What a friend we have in Jesus!

Maybe you feel like, “I’m one of those sinners. I’m an outcast.  If people in this room knew my past or knew what I’ve done or knew what I’m doing on the Internet or in that relationship at work where I’m playing with fire, they would never let me into this room. They would not fellowship with me, eat with me, have a friendship with me.” Well, can I say if you’re that sinner—and who of us is not? You have a Friend in Jesus—all our sins and griefs to bear.

You see, we have this concept that somehow God looks favorably on good people, respectable people. But the fact is Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners of whom I am the foremost of sinners. One commentator said:

The first link between my soul and Christ is not my goodness, but my badness; not my merit, but my misery; not my standing, but my falling; not my riches, but my need. (Kent Hughes)

It’s our very need, our failure, our sin, our lack of anything to qualify us to be His friend that makes Him want to be our friend.

Now this whole concept of Jesus as a Friend of sinners raises some tough questions and issues. Now we don’t have time to go deep into this, but I want to just touch on it. We read in Hebrews 7 that Jesus is “holy, innocent, unstained, and separated from sinners” (Heb. 7:26). So how could Jesus hang out with prostitutes and adulterers and Mafia-types and still be holy? And, more practically to us, to what extent should we hang out with flagrant sinners?

What about Scriptures that caution us to choose our friends wisely, to avoid temptation and evil influences? What about verses like 1 Corinthians 15:33 that says: “Bad company ruins good morals.”

I remember talking with a mom recently who’s wrestling with what kinds of boundaries to establish for her teenage daughters in relation to the friends they hang out with. We’re talking with a woman a few days ago and we were talking about how to befriend ungodly people without in any way dishonoring the Lord or acting like their sin is okay?

Well, let me just remind us, and I don’t have all the answers to those questions. I’m grappling with those same questions. But let’s remember that Jesus is not the friend of sin. His is not a friendship that condones sin. He came to deliver sinners from their sin.

He doesn’t overlook our sin—sin had to be paid for and Jesus did pay for it with His life. The penalty for our sin and for the sin of every sinner in the world who will trust Him was placed on Christ as that’s what it means for Him to be a friend to sinners.

Jesus is a friend of anyone who knows himself to be a sinner and will receive His friendship. Jesus’ friendship is not just chumminess. It’s a pursuing, purifying friendship. And as so many sinners experienced when Jesus was here on earth, once you receive His friendship, you can’t keep going on in your sin. His friendship is transformational. It’ll take away our bent to sinning, our desire for sin.

So being a friend of sinners doesn’t mean that we condone or we participate in their sin. Jesus likened Himself in the passages we’ve been looking at, to a physician. Think about a doctor who deals with a lot of disease. The doctor doesn’t like the disease he’s dealing with. He doesn’t love it. He doesn’t have the desire to be around it or to catch it. And he doesn’t condone the disease in the sick person’s life. His purpose for being around sick people is to help them get well. Well, Jesus associated with sinners, so He could help them get well. So they could be restored to wholeness by His grace.

So as we think about friendship with sinners, I think we need to ask questions like:

  • What’s my motive?
  • Why do I want to be their friend?

And these are things you can help your teen kids or grandkids think through also.

  • Is it because I enjoy their lifestyle, and I want to participate in it?
  • Do I have a sincere desire for them to know Jesus who can deliver them from every thing that is unholy?

Then I think this is a helpful question to ask as we think about friendship with sinners.

  • Am I influencing them, or are they influencing me?

And helpful again as you help your kids think through this.

Let me just venture a thought here, for what it’s worth. Sinners who are unrepentant, and not open to consider the gospel, probably won’t and shouldn’t be our closest friends because you don’t have in common the thing that matters most to you, which is love for Jesus.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t be true and good friends to them.

We’ve got to be willing as friends of Jesus, once we’ve been befriended by Jesus to extend His love and friendship to sinners of every sort, remembering that we too are sinners desperately in need of His mercy. We don’t deserve His mercy or His friendship any more than they do. Jesus has befriended us, and that helps us to remember that no “class” of sinners is beyond God’s forgiveness.

I read a book not too long ago and watched an interview by a woman named Rosaria Butterfield. I don’t know if you’ve seen this story yet, but it’s an amazing story. Rosaria was a tenured professor in English literature at Syracuse University, a large university.

She was also a radical lesbian feminist and activist and had been for many years. She published a piece in the local paper critiquing a Christian organization. In response, she tells of how she received a lot of hate mail and a lot of fan mail.

She said I would put these in two different piles—my hate mail and my fan mail. But then she said, “I received one letter that I couldn’t figure out which pile to put it into.” She said, “This is a kind letter from a local pastor who had read her piece in the newspaper. She said he clearly didn’t agree with her, but he wasn’t argumentative. He didn’t hate her.

He asked thoughtful questions about how she had arrived at her position, and he invited her to call him to talk about these things further. She said, “It was the kindest letter of opposition that I had ever received.”

Well, at the time, Rosaria was researching to write a book on the Religious Right, which of course she was not in favor of. But she thought “Maybe it could help my research to talk to this man.” So she finally gave him a call, and when she did, this pastor invited her to come to their home for dinner so they could explore some of these questions. She was a little nervous about this, but she thought it could help her research project, so she decided to take him up on the invitation.

And that evening, at the home of Pastor Ken Smith and his wife, was the first of many hours and evenings spent together with this couple. In fact, she spent two years meeting with Ken and Floy before she ever set foot in their church. And through the course of those two years, she said, “Ken and Floy and I became friends.” And ultimately, long story short, and it was a long story, she came to know Christ, the Friend of sinners. Her life was radically transformed. It’s a powerful story. Get the book. Read it. Go on YouTube. Get the interview with Rosaria Butterfield. 2

I love to see in that story how Pastor Ken and his wife, Floy, reflected the heart of Jesus, who left the unbroken fellowship of kindred spirits in heaven to come to this earth for the purpose of befriending hell-bent sinners. Isn’t it sometimes hard for us to get out of that tiny little circle of fellowship we enjoy with friends who are kindred spirits and to get out and in and among those who don’t yet know Jesus?  

And it leads me to ask this question: Are you a friend of sinners? Am I? How many lost “sinners” do we actually even know? How many do we spend time with? These are questions that have searched my heart as I’ve been meditating on Jesus, the Friend of sinners.

We tend to organize our lives around people who are like us. We want to spend time with people that we’re comfortable with. And the longer we know Jesus, statistically, the fewer nonbelievers that we know around us—sinners who are in desperate need of a true friend.

Listen, as sinners who’ve been befriended by Jesus, we should be known for welcoming and befriending repentant sinners and for taking friendship and the gospel to them—substance abusers, sexually immoral people, homosexuals, heterosexuals—those we may not be comfortable with. And right here in this city they’re all around us. And you may live in a small town like I do they’re all around us there, too. We need to look for ways to introduce them to Jesus, the Friend of sinners.

I’m thinking of that song by Casting Crowns: “Jesus, Friend of Sinners:”

Open our eyes to the world.
At the end of our pointing fingers,
Let our hearts be led by mercy.
Help us reach with open hearts and open doors.
Oh Jesus, friend of sinners,
Break our hearts for what breaks Yours. 

You love every lost cause,
You reach for the outcast,
For the leper and the lame.
They're the reason that You came.
Lord, I was that lost cause,
And I was the outcast.
But You died for sinners just like me,
A grateful leper at Your feet.

Oh Lord, how we thank You that You have befriended us. We’re just grateful lepers at Your feet coming back to say, “Thank You.” Now give us grace to let Your love go through us to love others that they may come to know Jesus, the Friend of sinners. We pray in His great and Holy name, amen.

Leslie: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has been teaching on names of Jesus. It’s part of a series called “The Wonder of His Name: 32 Life-Changing Names of Jesus.” 

Today’s teaching on Jesus as the Friend of sinners—as my friend when I don’t deserve it—truly does make me stand in wonder of Him.

We’re able to provide teaching like this each weekday thanks to listeners who believe in this ministry and see God working through it.

Do you get a lot out of Revive Our Hearts? Do you see God using it? Would you consider investing to make the program possible? If so, would you pray for Revive Our Hearts? We need the prayers of our listeners and you can make a big difference on your knees for this ministry.

If you are praying for the ministry, would you send us an email and let us know? You can contact us by visiting ReviveOurHearts.com.

While you’re there, check out the beautiful new Advent devotional we’re sending to listeners this week. It’s called The First Songs of Christmas, and it’s a great addition to your study of Jesus as you listen to the current series and prepare your heart for Christmas.

We’ll send you the Advent devotional when you support the ministry with a gift of any size. Again, visit ReviveOurHearts.com, or call with your donation: 1–800–569–5959.

Throughout this series, you can watch a short video version of each day’s teaching. That’s at ReviveOurHearts.com.

Do you ever worship Jesus as your Captain? You may not feel like much of a soldier, but as a believer in Christ, He is your Captain. Nancy will explain why when she’s back tomorrow for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants you to know Jesus is your friend. It's an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

1Charles Hadden Spurgeon. “The Sinner’s Friend.”

2 Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: an English professor’s journey into Christian faith (Pittsburg, Pa: Crown & Covenant Publications: 2012), 9.

3 Casting Crowns. Come to the Well. "Jesus, Friend of Sinners." Provident Label Group LLC, a unit of Soniy Music Entertainment, copyright 2011.

All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version.

Dawn Wilson, Lindsay Swartz, and Darla Wilkinson provided helpful research assistance for this series. 

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