On a recent article I tacked the question of “should Christians be close friends with non-Christians?”
I think there are certainly some interesting scriptures we must take into account, and I am left with the impression that while Christians should be “friends” with everyone (in the sense of being friendly and loving), it probably isn’t wise (as the scriptures command) to enter into deep or close associations with those who oppose God’s will in life (especially when unrepentant).
But this brings up an interesting question: What’s up with Jesus hanging with the sinners? I did touch in this in the article, but thought I would take a closer look. My good friend Eruesso made a great comment about this:
One can grasp the impact of Jesus’ relation with sinners by understanding what it meant to be a sinner in relation to the Jewish purity system of 1st century Palestine which governed the social, political, and even the economic spheres of Jewish society.
The term ‘Sinner’ in 1st century Jewish society related to the pure or impure state of the Jew, from the commoner to elite. There were rituals that would return one to a pure (or purer) status after coming in contact with any impurity (gentile, animal, the dead, and even women). There were also levels of purity based on one’s social status and behavior (how well one followed the purity system). The purity system of the Jewish social world is immensely more complex than this but the point is that the term ‘sinner’ in relation to the Pharisees’ criticisms meant Jesus went out of his way to associate himself with those who did not (or even could not) try to purify themselves.
One of Jesus’ non-violent responses to the strict interpretation of the purity system was in the form of table fellowship. To share a meal with someone in 1st century Palestine is an acknowledgment of mutual acceptance.
Sharing a meal with someone in the 21st century may be something that is casually done but to share a meal in 1st century Palestine was equivalent of being close friends (and even equal in purity) within the Jewish social world. As a Jew, one would not want to wine and dine with impure people, not only is this socially unacceptable but could risk becoming impure yourself.
Not only did Jesus dine with them he celebrated it! It was customary to sit during ordinary meals and recline during festive meals (and even in certain areas and social circles, the women sat at a different table while the men and elders reclined). Jesus chose to recline with impure people as a symbol of mutual acceptance and as a response to the establishment.
I believe that Jesus did in fact go out of his way to associate himself with “sinners”, the outcast, and the downtrodden not to save them, but as an example of imitatio dei – an imitation of God- a living, breathing image of being “compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36) Jesus challenged the Jewish purity system by being close friends with the impure (“sinner”) and even going as far to say that an impure person (like a Samaritan) can be a closer imitation of God’s central quality (compassion) than even the Pharisees, the purest (and therefore most righteous) people in the land. Luke 10:29-37
May peace and blessing be upon you and yours, my close friend.
Thanks so much for the comment Eruesso! You did bring up some interesting points, and certainly some historical truths concerning the Pharisees views and man-made rules. I do want to get a little more into why Jesus perhaps ate and occasionally interacted with sinners.
I also agree that the term “sinner” in some contexts may simply mean “unclean” people (according to Pharisees and not God). While in most contexts it refers to those who are committing an actual sin (as dictated by the scriptures).
Why Did Jesus Associate and Spend Time with Sinners?
I think it is very very important to understand what Jesus was doing when he “hung” with the sinners, because this sometimes gets blown out of proportion and people use it as a crutch to hang with people they shouldn’t be hanging with. Anyway, could Jesus even talk to 1 man if he didn’t talk to a sinner? Of course not. There wasn’t a person on this Earth that wasn’t a sinner at the time except for Jesus. But did he hang with people who stayed in sin once Christ preached? Aha, that is the question.
First, let me start by commenting on the point you brought up about the “social order.” Jews at that time certainly did see a great many people as “heathens.” If you were a non-Jew (gentile), you were looked down on. If you were a tax collector, you were looked down on. If you were poor, you were looked down upon. If you did not follow the cleansing practices you were looked down upon (and they even criticize Jesus/disciples for not washing hands).
Jesus certainly didn’t adhere to this imagined arrogance and pride that the pharisees created in their minds. He blew the doors off of it. He constantly confronted them about this, and constantly mocked and debated their nonsensical views. He showed them daily how even though they sometimes follow God’s laws, they rarely followed God’s spirit of love. And it isn’t outwardly things or social acceptance that makes you right before God, it is your obedience and repentance to God.
But did Jesus hang with the sinners to do sin (or to listen to their sinful life)? Or did Jesus hang with the sinners to reveal sin? Did he engage in sinful behavior along with the sinner? Did he tolerate sinful behavior? Let’s See:
How Jesus Dealt With Sinners and Sin in Friendship
First, Jesus tells us the exact reason why he hung with sinners with his own lips. The Pharisees accused him of hanging with sinners, and what did he say?
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17
I think it says a lot when we really read this. Jesus didn’t view his hanging out with sinners as fun or just hanging. We don’t go to the doctor to hang out do we? Of course not. We go to the doctor to get healed. We go with purpose and intent.
Jesus clearly shows his intent right here with his own lips: He isn’t hanging with sinful people to party or because he thinks they are cool, he is hanging with them to reveal their sin, bring them to repentance, and to follow God’s word! Repentance means to turn from sin. So how could Jesus force them to repent, if he condoned their behavior? He couldn’t! It is either repent or perish before God in Jesus’ mind.
And let me add: Jesus was blunt! He told people the truth. He preached truth and didn’t care what they thought about it. If he offended them when he preached (as he often did offend the Pharisees), then oh well. Jesus certainly didn’t care.
Jesus even says this to his disciples:
“And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city.” ( Mark 6:11).
So Jesus is basically saying, preach to them. If they receive you and repent, great, they will be rewarded. If not, just shake off your shoes, and move on to the next “patient to heal.” The town that didn’t repent will suffer a severe consequence. Seems like an odd thing to say if Jesus enjoyed hanging with unrepentant sinners.
Again we see a very sharp distinction of how Jesus views dealing with sinners. Here is yet another extreme example of Jesus’ views on this. In this passage, we see what commands Jesus gives regarding “brothers” who sin against us:
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will bed bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will bee loosed in heaven. Matthew 18:15-19
Wow, keeping with what you brought up about the very negative light that gentiles, tax collectors, and sinners were viewed by Jews in this time period, Jesus here COMMANDS us to view people who will not turn from their sin in the same way. This is pretty heavy stuff. Again, if Jesus truly liked to be BFF’s (best friends forever) with unrepentant sinners, then what gives with all of these verses?
We are to love our enemies, but we certainly shouldn’t hang with those sinning against us or God in an unrepentant way. Loving enemies and hanging with enemies are 2 different things. This scripture right here has Jesus” own lips telling us so. Love your enemy does NOT mean hang with your enemy! It means feel compassion on your enemy, and pray they come to Christ.
In fact, this is even reinforced by examining the scriptures each time Jesus was with one of these “sinners.” Just take a look at what Jesus is doing while “hanging.” One of these so called “sinners” Jesus befriended was a man named Levi:
And after that He went out, and noticed a tax-gatherer named Levi [more commonly known as Matthew], sitting in the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me.” And he left everything behind, and rose and began to follow Him. And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax-gatherers and other people who were reclining at the table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax-gatherers and sinners?” (Luke 5:27-30)
Jesus certainly befriended this man (who was labeled as a sinner), but did the man continue in sin or follow Christ? He COMPLETELY repented and turned from sin and followed Christ of course (Matthew). He becomes a disciple of Jesus.
So to use the comment about Jesus hanging with sinners as an excuse for Christians to be best friends with people who are NOT willing to repent and follow God’s word goes against all scriptures. What kind of friendship could Jesus have with Satan? What kind of fellowship does light have with darkness?
Does God not cast Satan into the lake of fire? Or does God hang with Satan in the end?
What Would Jesus Do To an Unrepentant Friend? How Would He Act If a Friend Sinned?
It is interesting to speculate about how Jesus would have responded if he had befriended a person, and that person committed a sin. Luckily, we have quite a few examples of this exact thing!
Jesus sharply rebukes His disciples when they fail to cast out a demon due to their unbelief and doubt:
” ‘I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.”
‘O unbelieving and perverse generation,’ Jesus replied, ‘how long shall I stay with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.’ ” (9:40-41)
And again, Peter merely suggests that perhaps Jesus is out of line with saying He must die. What is Jesus reply?
Then he began to teach them that the Son of man would have to suffer a great deal and be rejected by the elders and the high priests and the scribes, and be killed, and rise again on the 3rd day.
And he spoke that word openly. So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But he turned around and looked on his disciples, and he rebuked Simon, saying, Get behind me, Satan; for you are not thinking of the things of God, but of men. Mark 8:31-33
How Would Jesus Respond to Friends Sinning in This Century?
Okay, now as I suggested, Jesus was certainly acquaintance type friends with any and everyone so he could attempt to “heal them.” But how would Jesus respond today if he was hanging out with someone and they sinned?
Can we not all agree that Jesus would have been rebuking them like white on rice? I think so! In fact, I know so!
So if Jesus is at Marilyn Manson’s house, and Marilyn turned on some porn, or started talking how the bible is obviously man’s interpretation of trying to discover God, or started bragging about sleeping with some random woman the past weekend, would Jesus just laugh or brush it off?.
What would Jesus say in that case? I can imagine quite accurately it would be something along the lines of:
Get behind me Satan! How dare you blaspheme against God’s Holy scriptures! If you do not repent, it would have been better for Judas or Sodom and Gomorrah than that which will happen to you!
Jesus rebuked even the slightest hint of sin. He certainly didn’t celebrate it. He didn’t laugh and ignore it. He certainly didn’t keep his mouth shut at it’s presence. He certainly wasn’t involved with people actually committing a sin (unless he was there to point a finger and say, “Go and sin no more”).
Did Jesus sometimes talk to or eat with sinners? Of course, otherwise, He would have never been able to talk with anyone (since we are all sinners). But they either repented, or Jesus went on His merry way preaching to others (and left them for the later judgment).
Did Jesus embrace sin? Oh absolutely NOT. This is a HUGE thing to understand Christians! Jesus didn’t tolerate it for one second.
In fact, we have so many commands in the bible on how to deal with fellow Christians (or close friends) who sin against God:
“Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.” (1 Timothy 5:20)
“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it… Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith.” (Titus 1:9, 13)
I think all of these scriptures are pretty clear. Can we ignore them? Can we brush them off as a big joke by Paul and the disciples and even Jesus? Or should we take them as God breathed scriptures? I view they as God’s word.
Again, as I pointed out in the article, Christians are free to be friends with anyone. But should they be close friends with unrepentant sinners? Absolutely not. There is no basis to subject yourself to a friendship of those who have made up their mind to reject God’s will, even after you try and bring them to repentance.
But Jesus Did Hang With Sinners, So Can I? Aren’t We Supposed to Be Like Christ?
I think it is obvious that God has clearly warned us of being unequally yoked with unrepentant sinners. Again, we are all sinners, but there is a big difference between sinning and repenting, and sinning without repenting.
But let’s play along and say, Okay, so are we supposed to follow Christ exactly? Literally? On everything? If so, then we must all do this:
- We must all be crucified. If we die old in our beds, we have neglected to fully follow Christ.
- We must all move to the Jerusalem area. After all, that is where Jesus lived.
- We must all sell our possessions (all of them), and be homeless and preach. That is what Jesus did.
- We must all turn water to wine, walk on water, cast out demons, feed a crowd with a few loaves of bread, and more. Jesus did that too.
- We must all sharply rebuke those who commit sin, because Jesus certainly did this too.
So if anyone would like to be close friends with people who mock God, or choose to reject God’s will without repenting, do so. After all, if you are going to use Jesus as an excuse for it, don’t let me stop you. Did Jesus eat with sinners? He sure did!
But why not COMPLETELY follow Christ and do the other 5 things as well. But I don’t think anyone is going to do that, because they understand that Jesus had a particular mission on this Earth, and we aren’t required to do those things.
Likewise, Jesus ate with sinners and talked to them for a reason. He was building God’s Kingdom and getting them to follow Him. He was fulfilling the scriptures. If they didn’t follow Him, he stayed away (just like he did with the Pharisees). We should certainly imitate Christ, but not literally every event or deed.
And Jesus would have never tolerated a sinful remark. He would have rebuked them faster than light travels. Again, remember, this same Jesus whipped a bunch of people and ran them out of the temple because they were selling stuff. This same Jesus rebuked tons of people and constantly preached to them about right and wrong. Would Jesus simply sit there and let someone talk about any kind of sinful behavior without strongly scolding them? I think not.
Final Words on Christians Being Close Friends with Non-Christians
We must take ALL of the scriptures into consideration when seeking to follow God’s word. I think the scriptures are abundantly clear that Christians should be loving and kind to all. We can be friends with anyone (in terms of being an acquaintance or neighbor).
But we should limit spending time (or being close friends) with those who are simply not willing to follow God’s word. The scriptures give us ample warnings, and we must not ignore those.
Should a Christian Drop Non-Christian friends? They will probably drop you. In fact, did you know that Jesus Himself even lost a few “friends” and “followers” because of His teachings. It is true! Look at what the scriptures say:
“Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.’ . . .
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’ Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, ‘Does this offend you?’ . . . From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (John 6:53-56, 60-61, 66, NIV)
I would recommend remaining friends with any and everyone. However, your friendship will probably swing from a close friendship to a not-so-close friendship if you are preaching to your close friends all the time (like Jesus would have done). I addressed this in the article about friendships.
After all, why are your friends going to want to hang with you if you are not into the same things as they are? Why will they want to hang with you if you disapprove of them cheating on their spouse, having promiscuous sex, lying, cheating, stealing, watching porn, listening to inappropriate music, and so forth?
I can’t help but see that two opposites will not be too close for long. The same thing that happened to Jesus will probably happen to you. Will you have close and true friends that remain in Christ, and those who branch off and reject God’s will.
Should We Be Loved By the World and Despised by God? Or Loved by God and Despised by the World?
By Jesus’ own admission, if you are loved by the world and make close friends with everyone, you probably aren’t doing something right. Why? Because here is what Jesus had to say:
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. (John 15:18-20)
What is the world? Is Jesus talking about planet Earth, or the people in planet Earth? He is talking about society and people.
I would rather have 6 billion enemies but be loved by God, than to have 6 billion close friends, but be despised by God. What would it profit anyone to have a world full of money, friends, and luxury, if they lose their own soul?
That doesn’t mean we can’t have friends. God wants us to have fellowship and love with all creation. But it does mean that our friendships will be limited if we adhere to following God’s word when our other friends choose to reject God’s word. While we can be friendly to all in a shallow (yet loving way), we certainly won’t be considered close friends by all. These are Jesus’ teachings, not my own.
Conclusion: Jesus Was Not Friends With Unrepentant Sinners at All
I cannot find even 1 good example of Jesus being close friends with any unrepentant sinners at all. In fact, Jesus rebuked those who didn’t follow His teachings exactly. To me, it is ridiculous to assume Jesus would ever be yoked with anyone who didn’t repent and follow Him, especially considering the future judgment the bible says is coming. Who did Jesus hang with most anyway? His followers, right?
Who were Jesus’ friends? Here is who Jesus’ close friends were and still are:
Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12:49-50)
In other words, for those who don’t follow God’s will, Jesus doesn’t consider them a brother, sister, or close friend. For those who don’t follow God’s will, I have bad news…Jesus isn’t your friend. He said Himself he will say this:
“And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’ (Matthew 7:23)
As always, I appreciate your comment Eruesso. I do certainly agree with some things you said, but I think Jesus makes it very clear that when he did associate with sinners, it was for a reason. He was doing it for a purpose, and he had a mission. It wasn’t for entertainment or fun. He was there to do God’s will and preach.
He preached to everyone He came into contact with. If those rejected His teaching and did not repent of sin, would Jesus still hang with them? I don’t think so at all. In fact, Jesus gives very serious warnings to those individuals.
Thanks again, and God bless you!