Christ the King Community Church


The Friend of Sinners


By Mark G. Jonhston, Editor

From April 2023 The Banner of Truth Magazine, Issue #715


The Bible gives innumerable glimpses into the person and work of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God who entered the world to be our Saviour. Indeed, our Lord himself provides multiple insights into who he is and why he came through what he says about himself and through the names and ways by which he makes himself known. He does so, not merely that we might understand him more fully; but also, that we may become more like him as his children. We are to be conformed to his image and to serve him in the church and in the world.

Some of the epithets by which he is known are obviously mirrored in the church. He is ‘the light of the world’ (John 8:12) and the church, by virtue of its union with him is also ‘the light of the world’ (Matt. 5:14-16). He is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6) and his people are ‘the followers of the way’ (Acts 9:2), walking in the truth (3 John 14) and living out the life of Christ in whom we have eternal life.

Other labels he is given in the Gospels are perhaps surprising. They certainly shocked many of his contemporaries during his earthly ministry—especially the Pharisees. The one that stands out most strikingly is the fact he was ‘the friend of sinners’ (Matt. 11:19). Indeed, when Jesus says this about himself, he is in fact quoting the Pharisees’ choice of words to denigrate his character. From the earliest days of his public ministry, he went out of his way to seek out those who were regarded not just as ‘sinners’ in some generalized sense; but those who were clearly such by virtue of the lifestyle they embraced and by the company they kept.

When Jesus was calling his disciples, he singled out Levi the tax collector to be one of his followers, even though such individuals were despised by the Jews because of their collaboration with the Romans and were notorious for their corruption. Mark indicates that soon after Levi followed him, Jesus was happy to dine with him along with his former associates, despite the fact this also drew the scorn of the Pharisees. It soon became clear this was not an exception to the norm of Jesus’ practice. He not only proactively sought out people like Levi; but he was not embarrassed to speak to women involved in prostitution as well as to others on the moral fringes of society in those days. Indeed, responding to the jibes from the religious leaders, Jesus defended himself, somewhat
facetiously, by saying, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2:17).

One can only surmise, but it is hard to imagine that the kind of people Jesus went out of his way to engage with were probably not regular worshippers in the synagogue, nor would they have joined the pilgrims heading up to Jerusalem for the annual feasts at the temple. So, they were probably not expecting Jesus to show any interest in them; but he did. And he did so, not because he regarded them as potential converts; but because he genuinely cared for them as his fellow human beings. Even when they rejected his gracious overtures—as was the case with the rich young man—we are told, ‘he loved him’ (Mark 10:21). It was his genuine love for the lost that fired Jesus to reach out to them with the words of life.

As the record of Christ’s life and ministry in the Gospels spills over to the continuation of his exalted life and ministry in Acts, we see the imprint of Christ on his disciples as they fulfil his great command to preach the gospel everywhere and to everyone. More than this, it very quickly became clear that their converts followed the same pattern. Even in the aftermath of bitter persecution, when Christians became asylum seekers for the sake of Christ, Luke tells us that they ‘went about preaching the word’ (Acts 8:4)—almost certainly not just in the formal sense of proclamation; but also, through informal opportunities in conversation. In other words, they were Christlike in the way they propagated the message of the Saviour.

Why is this relevant in our day? Because the church—at least in the West—needs to rediscover its calling to bring Christ to the ruined world in which he has placed us. Our churches are not to become evangelical monasteries, or the spiritual equivalent of the country club. Nor are we to be passive with the evangel entrusted to us by Christ. We are called to intentionally seek out those who have no hope and whose lives, perhaps, bear all the marks of hopelessness, and we are to befriend them as Christ’s ambassadors. If Jesus was not ashamed to be ‘the friend of sinners’ then neither should we.