Sunday, December 18, 2016

Jesus: the Righteous Friend of Sinners

I have often heard the designation of Jesus as the “friend of sinners” as a justification for accepting sin in the church. If Jesus was a friend to sinful people, surely the church should promote friendships with sinful people, right?

Let’s see if this measures up to what is written in God’s Book about Jesus as the friend of sinners.

Friend of Sinners: A Derogatory Term

First, the designation “friend of sinners” was a derogatory designation given to Jesus by his enemies, the religious hypocrites of his day. Jesus described it like this:

For 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!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”[1]

Jesus was confronting the religious elite with their utter hypocrisy in dealing with both him and John the Baptist. They explained away John the Baptist’s ministry by saying he had a demon, therefore they did not need to submit to his baptism of repentance.[2] They explained away Jesus’ ministry by saying he was a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of sinful people, something the true Messiah would obviously never do. With these labels, they could justify their rejection of the gospel Jesus proclaimed since he was clearly (in their minds) acting unrighteously.

The point, for starters, is that the designation “friend of sinners”, was not something Jesus used of himself, nor did his disciples describe him in this way. It was a slur, an insult, a label that allowed the religious elite to justify why they rejected their Messiah. We cannot, then, turn this into a God-breathed description of his Son as someone who hung out with sinful people and made them feel comfortable with their sin.

Friend of Sinners: Offering a Kingdom

Since the religious elite were mocking Jesus as a friend of sinners, justifying in their minds why they could reject both John’s baptism of repentance, and Jesus as their promised Messiah, what did Jesus really do in his relationship to sinners? Were the religious hypocrites correct that their Messiah would never associate with sinners? Are the cheap-gracers of the church correct that Jesus welcomed sinners just as they were and made them feel comfortable around him even while they continued in their sin? Or, was there something between the two?

Here’s how Jesus described his relationship to sinners, first in a parable, and then in an explicit explanation.

“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.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”[3]

The parable is simple: the first son, the one who said he would not go to the fields but later went, represents the sinners Jesus befriended. They said no to God, went into their lives of sin (prostitution, adultery, tax-collecting, drunkenness, etc), but when John came preparing the way for Jesus with his baptism of repentance, sinners repented and were baptized. When Jesus then came with his gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, the sinners repented and received the gospel.

The second son, the one who said all the right words, but did not actually go and do the Father’s will, represents the religious elite. They were full of outer expressions of acting like they were doing and saying all the right things, but they never actually went and did the Father’s will. It reminds me of a little boy in our daycare who first alerted us to the fact that a child could march around the room singing the clean-up song without doing one thing to clean up!

So, the religious elite were correct that it was the first son who did the Father’s will. The parable gave them a generic picture where the answer was easily admitted. However, they never would have expected the Messiah to explain the parable as Jesus did in his own words.

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 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.[4]

Note that Jesus’ description of these sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes he befriended, was that they “go into the kingdom of God before you.” How does a person go into the kingdom of God?

When Sinners Enter the Kingdom of God

From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he went everywhere preaching the same gospel message, the very thing the prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners would have heard in every town and village he visited. He stated it like this:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”[5]

Jesus’ message was that the time the prophets spoke about was now fulfilled, bringing the kingdom of God nearby. The people of Israel were not in this kingdom, but all were invited to enter it the same way, “repent and believe in the gospel.”

When Jesus told the religious elite that the sinners were going into the kingdom of God before them, he meant that these sinners had repented and believed in the gospel. They were not hanging around with Jesus because he made them feel comfortable in their sin, but because Jesus showed them that he would deliver them from their sin.

Jesus tells the religious elite that John had come to them “in the way of righteousness,” calling Israel to repent in readiness for the Messiah, but they would not believe him, even though John’s ministry was also prophesied by God.[6] However, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.” The sinners understood John’s baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”[7] They didn’t want someone to justify their sins, but to forgive their sins.

Jesus then adds the indictment that, even when the religious elite had the example of these sinners repenting and believing the gospel, they still would not change their minds and believe John. They indeed were the son who said the right answer, but would not go and do his Father’s will.

Gospel Preparation for Kingdom Transformation

We know that Jesus taught things about the kingdom of God that were preparatory for the redemptive work of the cross, the establishing of the church, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. By the time the apostles led the church to carry the gospel to the world, the gospel of the kingdom was thoroughly explained and understood. If someone came into Jesus’ kingdom, they were leaving their life of sin to live in the life of the kingdom instead. Paul expressed it like this:

   He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.[8]

The sinners Jesus hung out with when the religious hypocrites accused him of being the friend of sinners were the people Jesus described as leaving their sin and entering his kingdom. They were the evidence of the work of God to deliver people out of the domain of darkness, including all the sinful things that characterized them in the world, and transfer them into Jesus’ kingdom instead.

Were these people once prostitutes, and tax collectors, and sinners of all kinds? For sure, but not after they entered Jesus’ kingdom. As Paul said,

   Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.[9]

This is what Jesus was beginning to teach in his ministry, that the people had to leave their unrighteousness and come into his kingdom. Those who come into the kingdom come from every sinful background imaginable, but with the clarification, “and such were some of you”, with the emphasis on “were”, past tense.

The description of these same sinners after they entered Jesus’ kingdom was that they were washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit of the Living God. This is what Jesus was doing for the sinners who came to him prior to the cross, and what he is doing through the gospel now that the cross has secured our eternal salvation.

Commissioned for the Kingdom

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, he commissioned his disciples with this description of the gospel.

    “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.[10]

The gospel began with the baptism of John that was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus travelled the road John had prepared by continuing to proclaim the gospel that was for the forgiveness of sins. And Jesus commissioned his church to proclaim the gospel of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.

Do the people who enter Jesus’ kingdom enjoy friendship with God? Absolutely.[11] But God takes us beyond friendship into something better: sonship.[12] All who come to Jesus in faith become sons of God,[13] and brothers to Jesus,[14] making Jesus, “the firstborn among many brothers.”[15]

When God’s Book says that Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brothers,[16] it doesn’t mean that he isn’t ashamed to associate with people living in sin. Rather, because his brothers are those who have entered his kingdom through repentance and faith, and the transforming work of the gospel has cleansed us of our unrighteousness, and our sins have been forgiven in Jesus’ name, Jesus can welcome us as his brothers without any violation of his holiness and righteousness and justice.

The encouragement to us is not to make people feel good about their sin, but to feel good about their Savior. Jesus delivers us from the wrath to come, so let us delight in him and his great gift of salvation. And let’s keep proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom that is the power of God for salvation to all who believe,[17] watching for those sinners who want to be delivered from their sin, not approved in their rebellion against God.

© 2016 Monte Vigh ~ Box 517, Merritt, BC, V1K 1B8 ~
Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures are from the English Standard Version (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.)

[1] Luke 7:33-35
[2] Mark 1:4
[3] Matthew 21:28-30
[4] Matthew 21:31-32
[5] Mark 1:14-15
[6] Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1; Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 1:76-80; 3:4
[7] Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3
[8] Colossians 1:13-14
[9] I Corinthians 6:9-11
[10] Luke 24:46-47
[11] John 15:12-17
[12] Romans 8:15, 23; Galatians 3:25-29; 4:5; Ephesians 1:5
[13] Galatians 3:23-29
[14] Hebrews 2:10-13
[15] Romans 8:29
[16] Hebrews 2:11
[17] Romans 1:16-17

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