Was Jesus Really A “Friend” Of Sinners?
In his second epistle, Peter laments those who distort the word of God making note that, “untaught and unstable people twist [it] to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16) As it was in Peter’s day, so it is in ours as the “untaught and unstable” have increased and the remnant “Berean” has become something of a novelty. We hear often that Jesus was a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Error is proliferated by mangling an element of truth. Pawning of an absolute lie is quite difficult, but subtly twisting the truth is precisely the business of the devil — “It is written….,” he said. Yes, but we must always be prepared with, “It is written AGAIN…” that we might withstand his wiles. Was Jesus really a “friend” of tax collectors and sinners?
As our above text shows, it is plainly stated that Jesus is a friend of tax collectors and sinners, but lest we cast ourselves off the pinnacle of the temple, as it were, in our simple-mindedness, let us examine this passage more closely. Two chapters previous to this, in Matthew 9, Jesus calls Matthew, a tax collector, to follow Him. Later on, Jesus and His disciples are eating in a home (presumably Matthew’s) and many sinners and tax collectors came and sat down with them. The pharisees, always lying in wait, objected immediately and asked why he would eat with such people. Jesus says to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…… For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Matthew 9:12-13) So then, Jesus acknowledges that they were “sick”, that they were “sinners” and they were in need of “repentance”. These were his reasons for allowing them in with Him, namely for evangelism.
Now, let’s return to Matthew 11. After hearing of John the Baptist’s imprisonment, Jesus lauds John to the multitudes even calling him, “…more than a prophet.” (Matthew 11:9) Jesus notes that “they” were slanderers of John and likewise slanderers of Himself. “They” was immediately referencing “this generation” (Matthew 11:16), but it stands to reason that “they” were exemplified by the religious hypocrites; the pharisees and scribes as we see them doing precisely this only two chapters prior. Jesus says that “THEY” say John has a demon, and “THEY” say the Son of Man is a “glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” THEY said this about Jesus but He never said this. Those who claim that Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners are leveling the same false accusation that the pharisees leveled against Jesus, only usually for a different motive. Notice the other false accusations in the same line-up:
1. John has a demon
2. Jesus is a glutton
3. Jesus is a winebibber (a drunk)
4. Jesus is a friend of sinners and tax collectors
If Jesus was truly a “friend” of tax collectors and sinners as was claimed by His enemies, then the other accusations must also be true as we cannot arbitrarily separate them. When one validates the claim that Jesus was a “friend” of sinners (in the sense that they were implying), they unwittingly validate the claim that He was also a winebibber and that John the Baptist had a demon. God forbid!
While “they” were falsely accusing Jesus of being a “friend” of tax collectors and sinners to discredit Him, those who bear this false witness today are usually doing so to justify their wicked behavior in keeping evil company. Whatever “they” meant by “friend” is not what Jesus meant by “friend”. It is true that Jesus was in their midst for the purposes of evangelizing them, but when these same sinners refused to repent Jesus rebuked them. It is astounding to me that those who make these twisted claims on the basis of this passage in Matthew 11, fail to read just a few verses further to see Jesus rebuking the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum because after He had done many mighty works in their midst as an act of mercy toward them, they refused to repent. These were not His “friends”. How do we know this?
What Is A “Friend”?
Jesus tells us the characteristics of his “friends” saying, “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.” (John 15:14) The “friends” of Jesus are they that obey Him, nor can anyone be considered His friend if they do not. By “friend” is meant a companion and one with whom we keep intimate and meaningful communion, not those of the world we may have to work with or those whom we may be witnessing to at any given time. We can and should be friendly and peaceable toward sinners where it is possible, but to keep intimate companionship with enemies of Christ is forbidden.
We are told that, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed.” (Proverbs 13:20). It is the “walking” with and the companionship that we speak of; a habitual keeping of company. Psalm 1:1 tells us the mark of a blessed man is that he is not a friend of sinners in this sense for he, “… walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful.”
We are commanded to keep good company and to forsake evil company as they can and will corrupt good morals or habits. (1 Corinthians 15:33). The Amplified Classic has an insightful expounding upon this verse: “Do not be so deceived and misled! Evil companionships, (communion, associations) corrupt and deprave good manners and morals and character.” After noting the worldly mindset of the sinner; “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” Philip Doddridge in his notable work, “The Family Expositor” commentary renders the same verse thus:
Be not deceived, brethren, but be upon your guard against such pernicious maxims and reasonings as these; and if you value either faith or a good conscience, do not converse familiarly with those that teach them; for, as the poet Meander well express it, Good manners are debauched by talk profane. Awake, therefore, as becomes righteous and good men from the intoxications of such wild and delusive dreams as these; and sin not in supporting or countenancing doctrines so subversive of the christian faith and hope…”
Moreover, to have “friendship” with anyone is to be “yoked” with them in that sense. We are expressly forbidden to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14). While this certainly applies to marriage, it also certainly applies to any intimate companionship, friendship or fellowship in religious duties. What fellowship has light with darkness? The rhetorical answer is this: NONE… EVER! Evangelism and fellowship are two entirely different endeavors. Living at peace with all men as much as depends on you, does not entail keeping intimate company with those who malign God’s word in any sense. There can be no true friendship with those who are themselves enemies of Christ, lest we prove to be his enemies as well. In his commentary on 2 Corinthians 6:14, Doddridge again says,
…Let us therefore cultivate such friendships, and be very careful that we do not form others which may properly be called, being unequally yoked. We profess to be pursuing righteousness, to be light in the Lord, to be united to Christ, to be consecrated to God: let us not then have an intimate converse with the slaves of unrighteousness, the children of darkness, the sons of Belial, the votaries of idols. Far from subjecting ourselves to such dangerous snares, let us rather be earnestly seeking every advantage for making the noblest improvements in religion.”
We have been amply warned in God’s word to keep ourselves from the influence of the world and the devil. How then could we maintain proper friendships with children of the devil and heed these commands? It is impossible. And to suggest that Jesus was a “friend” of those who were themselves yoked to Satan, is to mangle the word of God and to make Jesus a polluter of Holy things. Those who were seeking truth and intimating at repentance, He heartily obliged that He might call them to repentance and make them sons and daughters of righteousness, but those who refused in obstinance were rebuked. Neither did Paul keep “friends” who were not themselves true friends of his Master, Jesus.
Friendship is reserved for those who are themselves friends of Christ. And to be a friend of Christ, one must be obedient to Him. 1 Corinthians 5 reminds us to purge the leaven of those who are disobedient lest they leaven the whole lump of the body, and that presupposes that they actually believe in Jesus and have even made a sound profession of faith. How much more, then, ought we to dissociate ourselves, in any intimate sense, from those who are habitual sinners and enemies of the cross? Does Jesus love sinners? Yes. Does He want them to repent? Yes. Was Jesus a “friend” and “companion” in intimate fellowship with sinners and tax collectors? NO! This was a false accusation against Him. Those who maintain this erroneous position in an attempt to justify their own bad company prove themselves to be “unlearned” and “unstable”, carelessly twisting God’s word for their own perceived benefit, but who, in reality, are working to their own destruction and the destruction of others. Evangelize the lost; witness to sinners with love; share Christ, by all means, but do NOT be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. Jesus was not a “friend” of sinners and tax collectors any more than John the Baptist had a demon. The next time someone tells you Jesus was a “friend” of sinners, ask them who said that and what else “they” said.