The time of this writing is the brightest night of what is known as the Harvest Moon. This full moon is so named because farmers throughout the world have used the extra bright moonlight to complete the harvesting of crops. For those of you outside types, it is hard not to notice in the Harvest Moon what I would like to call “the friendly embrace of nature.” One can see outside even at night, and the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold. It is just right, and a delight to be outdoors.
There is a sense in which the Lord Jesus is the “friendly embrace of the God who made nature.” He is likewise just right, combining two essential elements. Jesus is “full of grace AND truth” (John 1:14). We do not always hold grace and truth well together, but Jesus embodies them in wondrous harmony.
“Jesus, friend of sinners.” This was a description of Jesus by his enemies. He did not deny it outright, but importantly for us, He did put it in His own context. This is likely because friendship can mean quite a few different things. At one extreme are folks who think that Jesus as friend of sinners shows He is “lite on sin,” that He is so “accepting” that sin is really no big deal to Him. At the other extreme are those who discount the title (Jesus friend of sinners) altogether as being of no help in talking about Jesus, for the title came from his enemies. Both extremes miss what is going on.
Jesus Friend of Sinners does have something to teach us, but as defined, nuanced and filled-out by Jesus Himself. The description “friend of sinners” is not a free-floating suggestive picture, for it arose with a very strong context. As an enemy aspersion, it becomes important that we understand just how it is that Jesus is a friend to sinners.
We saw recently in Luke 15 that Jesus answered the charge of his opponents by telling three parables (the lost sheep; the lost coin, and the two lost sons). Jesus is a gracious friend, even to his enemies, as He teaches them the heart of His Father for all sinners, including those who think they have no problem with sin (namely the Pharisees and Scribes whom He is directly addressing). Jesus makes several points that set the context for His “welcoming and eating with sinners” (Luke 15:2). The points occur across all three parables. They are:
1) Sinners are LOST. The parables talk about a lost sheep, a lost (likely special jewelry) coin, a lost openly rebellious younger son, and by implication the surprisingly lost (openly resistant to grace) older son. Jesus deepens the picture of sinners by speaking of them as lost. They are not just sinners, unclean and untouchable. There is a bigger picture. They are lost sinners, which puts them in the light of the Lord’s gracious concern to rescue, redeem and restore.
2) If something is considered lost, then it is something IMPORTANT. Lost sinners are important in the eyes of the Lord, so much so that Jesus explains, “There is more joy in heaven over one sinnerwho repents than over ninety-nine righteous peoplewho have no need to repent” (Luke 15:7. See 15:10, 24, 32).
3) If something is lost, then there is an urgency for LOOKING. Jesus is explaining His Messiah-Mission to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). There is an urgency to the looking, to seeking the one lost sheep and the single lost coin. The Father “seeing the son afar off” runs to meet His repentant, returning son. Later the Father interrupts His community fellowship celebration to go out to the older son who sinfully refuses to receive the repentant sinner that is his younger brother.
4) When the lost are found, it is a time of great JOY. The response to finding the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son is celebrating and rejoicing.
5) Looking for the lost issues from the Father’s extravagant, “prodigal” LOVE for His lost children. This surprising love is revealed only in the last parable, but thereby works back into the earlier two. The reason for Jesus eating with sinners, for being a friend to sinners, is rooted in the extravagant love of God who is on a mission to restore all the lost to repentance and fellowship through the Messiah Jesus and His kingdom.
6) The point of rejoicing is over the lost who are found and returned. This is clearly interpreted by Jesus Himself as a celebration of REPENTANCE. The turning from sin to fellowship with God is brought out in all three parables. (Luke 15: 7, 10, 21).
So what do we make of Jesus’ teaching regarding “friendship with sinners”? It at least shows that Jesus’ befriending sinners in table fellowship is a great deal more than something like Jesus having the best party trays and unceasing drinks. It is clear that the sinners were “drawing near” (seeking Jesus out) with a purpose not simply to party, but as Luke’s account says, to “hear Him” (Luke 15:1).
Jesus’ befriending “party presence” was a Messiah thing, as is expected from Isaiah 25 which prophesies the coming Great Banquet Feast of God. Jesus inaugurates the banquet as part of the last days fulfilment. How could the Messiah come and not be “eating and drinking” as prophesied? At the Messiah’s table there is celebration indeed.
Yet what Jesus emphasized about his fraternizing with sinners is the “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” (15:7,10, 23-24). Jesus is friend of sinners and it is the kind of friendship, as emphasized by Jesus Himself, that results in lost sinners repenting. Question: What is Jesus saying to us when He expected His friendship with sinners to lead to repentance? “Jesus friend of sinners” in the Gospel does not exactly square with our stealth “friendship evangelism,” where I (we) wait years to disclose, “Hey, by the way, you know how nice I am, well that is because of Jesus.” What kind of sower (Luke 8) would that look like? One that sows only about three seeds a year compared to the countless seed-sowing of the Word of God in Jesus’ parable. All those seeds, and all that sowing. Jesus was a bit more up front, or maybe the better word is “authentic!”
Don’t’ get me wrong. Friendship evangelism is a good thing, for there is truth in the sayings, “Preach the gospel and use words if necessary,” and “No one cares what you think until they know how much you care.” However, a habit of holding Jesus in the shadows of conversation until just the right moment, like a game of trump cards, doesn’t speak well of us or the Lord. Our dealings must imitate Jesus who is full of both “grace AND truth.” Whereas our forefathers tended to err on the side of truth while neglecting to show grace to lost sinners made in the image of God, our generations tend to err on the side of grace while locking truth out back in a corral of a thousand subtle hints. Jesus integrated both grace and truth together as friend. By integrating I mean something like this: that Jesus was graciously truthful and truthfully gracious. The God-man worked and wove grace and truth into each other.
What I am seeing is how our common 21st century form of friendship with sinners so easily divorces grace AND truth. Jesus style “grace AND truth friendship” often becomes degraded when we overlook the 1} urgency of Jesus’ mission to the lost, 2} the truth of sin’s destructiveness as well as 3} the truth of Christ’s costly deliverance and redemption, and 4} the centrality of Christ to the “big party” (e.g., dinner party sinners were coming to “hear Him” Luke, 15:1). The matter was brought to my awareness only a year ago in working with Muslim refugees in Nashville. I asked the mission leader in typical friendship evangelism fashion, “When do we tell them about Jesus?” The leader disclosed how they aim to “do” friendship evangelism. “We tell them right up front we are Christians and we are serving Jesus as we serve them. How can we hide who we are at our very deepest? So we are up front about it. Not necessarily preaching (until they ask to know more) but letting them know who we really are and who is getting the glory.” So I tried this more authentic form of friendship, where I was myself from the beginning, and I experienced what I can only say is a glorious freedom. Instead of hiding the truth under a basket, I was free to let it shine. The Muslims were touched with real friendship and Jesus was getting the glory. And the same Muslims continue to be open to hearing more about our friend Jesus, so much so that they have visited a Christian church twice.
We are rightly concerned to imitate Jesus’ style of friendship. But there are more basic and important Jesus-Friend matters. Please let me redirect our focus: As Christians who find comfort and inspiration in Jesus being our friend, just what kind of friend is Jesus to each of us personally and at every breathing moment? Among the answers are these:
Jesus is our Good Friend who sees the good in us and for us that we are “totally clueless” about. There was a singer who early on had no idea she could even “carry a tune,” much less entertain kings and enchant the angels. Her friend was not threatened by the brilliance of the gift before him, and said upon hearing her voice, “Trust it girl. You really need to do something with that. It’s a gift from God.” The good friend often sees latent possibilities for good and calls them out for us.
Jesus is the Good Friend who does not leave me sinking in sin but rather gets himself dirty and pulls me out with his “grip of grace.”
Jesus is the Good Friend who loves each one of us so much that He is willing to take all the slack in the relationship so we can still be friends. I mean, He is willing to suffer to be a friend, and I mean suffering to the point of bleeding out for even you and me.
Jesus friend of sinners, like me and you. We hope to be friends to sinners as well. We seek to be welcoming like Jesus welcomes us. We seek to be friends to sinners like Jesus is friends to us. He is full of grace AND truth. He is authentic and tells the truth about Himself, myself and others. He is gracious and forgiving. He is a truthful friend. He is a good and powerful friend. He knows and loves me better than I love and know myself. He refuses to be content with me being deluded, ignorant, and lost. His friendship blood says I’m important enough to be carried home in repentance for fellowship. I want others to know this great friend Jesus too. There’s no better friend than Jesus. He is the friendly—fully gracious and truthful–embrace of God. LH
Want to read more about Jesus the good, truthful, and powerful friend? Mars Hill Church of Seattle emphasizes the Jesus Friend aspect. Check out their powerful webpage statement here: