Was Jesus a Friend of Sinners?

“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” – Jesus (Matthew 11:19)

Was Jesus a friend of sinners? Many people quote the scripture aforementioned to claim that He was, but I don’t think the answer is that simple.

It’s not often in the Bible that God calls anyone His friend. In fact, only once in the Old Testament does God refer to anyone as a friend, and that is Abraham:

“I have chosen the descendants of Abraham my friend.” – Isaiah 41:8

And in the New Testament, there’s only one place that Jesus calls anyone His friend. It’s found in John 15:

“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known unto you.” – Jesus (John 15:13-15)

Now, I hate to go against the flow, but I have a difficult time agreeing with the idea that Jesus was/is a friend of sinners. Now, I say that cautiously. Jesus was certainly friendly towards sinners and he certainly loved sinners (Mark 10:21). So a lot of this depends on your definition of the word ‘friend.’ If your definition of the word friend simply refers to the idea of being kind, generous, and loving to all you encounter, then, yes, Jesus was certainly that. However, if your definition of the word ‘friend’ is deeper than that, then I’d have to say no, Jesus was not a friend of sinners. Far from it actually. And it seems to me that when the Bible uses the word ‘friend’ that it is speaking in this deeper way.

Now some might say that the scripture emphatically states that Jesus was a friend of sinners. But actually, it does not. If we use the passage from Matthew chapter eleven to establish this idea then we would also have to conclude that Jesus is a glutton and drunkard, too. If you look at the context of this passage, you will see that Jesus is quoting what others had demeaningly said about Him. He’s not saying these things about Himself.

But why is He called a friend of sinners?

Jesus was called a friend of sinners by the Pharisees because of His radical approach to ministry. The Pharisees didn’t like it and sought to slander Him. They used shame and hatred toward sinners, but Jesus exercised love and compassion. Jesus would sit with them, talk with them, listen to them, pray for them, and extend grace towards them. And often they would become His friend. Jesus is the master at turning enemies into friends. I am one of them. But He isn’t a friend to sinners. He’s a friend to former-sinners.

Think about it, if Jesus were a friend of sinners, He would have been friends with the Pharisees–but He certainly wasn’t. He would have been friends with Herod–but He wasn’t. Heck, He’d even have to be friends with Satan–but He isn’t. Jesus actually lays out VERY stringent requirements for friendship. We mentioned it already in John 15:

“You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.” – John 15:14

This passage bothered me the first time that I read it. Actually, it bothered me for quite a while. Doesn’t it seem a bit one-sided for Jesus to command complete obedience as a requirement for friendship? Do you lay this same burden upon those with whom you wish to be friends? I hope not. So why does Jesus?

The reason Jesus requires complete obedience as a condition of friendship is because of the position that Jesus holds as head of the church and as Judge. I had a hard time understanding this until I became a business owner. My wife and I bought and ran a coffee shop for several years. We hired about ten employees and many of them were (and still are) friends. However, I soon realized that there was a shift in the way that our friendship worked while on the job. Now that they worked for me I expected them to do what I told them to do. It became their moral obligation to obey my commands since I paid them to work for me. If I asked them to do the dishes, I expected them to do it. If they didn’t, our friendship was soon on the rocks. Of course, in that circumstance, we could just part ways and maintain a normal friendship outside of the business; but it doesn’t work that way with Jesus. Jesus is our Lord 24/7. His commands apply to everyone all the time, whether you are a Christian or not.

The truth is, if you forsake obedience to Jesus, you become His enemy.

You didn’t like that last sentence, did you?

But it’s true. I have scripture to prove it:

“Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” – James 4:4

What do you think it means to be a friend with the world? It simply means to love the sinful things of the world. This is what is meant by ‘sinner.’

“But,” someone will say, “Jesus is loving and forgiving!” Of course, He is! Anyone, at any time, can repent, forsake their sin, and come into friendship with Jesus. Just like the woman who fell at Jesus’ feet, to wash them with her hair. The Pharisee said, “Jesus is no prophet; if He was, He would know that this woman is a sinner.” But Jesus knew that this woman had come in brokenness and repentance. He said, “Her sins, though they may be many, are forgiven.” He made an enemy a friend.

Think of it this way. Imagine that a man had a wife that was unfaithful to him. She packed a bag, left the kids, the house, and went off to live with this other man. Then imagine that one day she shows back up at the house and says, “I’m moving back in.” The husband, a little shocked says, “Well, wait a minute, it’s not that simple.” She replies, “Well, why not, I’m your wife, aren’t I?” He says, “Yes, you are, technically, but you hurt all of us deeply and you haven’t even said that you were sorry.” She replies, “Well, I’m not sorry. As a matter of fact, I’m still with the other man. However, I like living at this house better. You’re a good provider and I appreciate that.”

How would you respond if you were the husband? Well, remember that Jesus fashions Himself as the groom and us as His bride. Just as my wife and I can be friends as long as we abide by the terms of the covenant, so we can be friends of Jesus when we abide by the terms of our covenant with Him. And thank God, He hasn’t made it difficult! He doesn’t demand that we live up to some high standard of holiness. He simply demands repentance and faith. Just like the husband who simply wants his wife to truly be sorry and faithful to him alone, so Jesus only asks that we come with hearts broken over our sin. He will always welcome such.

But it is of vital importance that we understand Jesus’ full character. He is not a long-haired, limp-wristed hippy that goes around saying, “love is the answer!” Jesus is as fierce as He is friendly. He’s as severe as He is good. He’s not out trying to get people to join His club. He’s proclaiming the way for us to be saved from the wrath of God. Remember that those who believe will be saved, but those who do not ‘will be damned.’ Jesus isn’t offering a better way of life, He’s showing the only way to live. It’s His way or no way. It’s life through Him or death without Him. We often don’t understand this.

I think many people skim through the gospel and zero in on Jesus kind nature towards those who are broken. This is certainly the Jesus we know. But often we forget that there is more to this Man. The book of Revelation helps us to understand the full picture of who He is. Look at some of His words to the seven churches:

“Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth.” – Revelation 2:16

“I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.” – Revelation 3:1-3

“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.” – Revelation 3:15-17

And see how serious His words are here:

“I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent. Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds.” – Revelation 2:20-22

And lest there be any doubt about the fierceness of the judgment of Christ, it is written:

“He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.” – Revelation 19:15

What’s the point of all this? Is it to paint Jesus as an angry judge? Not at all. However, we need not deceive ourselves into thinking that Jesus winks at sin. With His own words, He said that He is friends with those who obey His commands. Those that become friends of the world set themselves as His enemies.

We can sum all this up in one sentence: “He resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Any sinner who humbles himself can come to a gracious and merciful Savior. He will look upon him with kindness. He will, in an instant, turn him from sinner to saint. He will turn him from foe into friend.

But those who are proud and unrepentant are no friend of His. He calls out to them, extending to them a gracious offer of peace, but those who refuse will soon be condemned. They will meet a fierce and powerful Jesus on judgment day, and there will be no mercy then.

It’s important that we remember that Jesus is not as one-sided as many people portray Him to be. Our ministry to others should be flexible. Some emphasize love, others emphasize judgment.  But the truth is that both must be taught, and we need to be discerning enough to know when to say what. Jude puts it best:

And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh. – Jude 22



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