Jesus was called a friend of sinners by the Pharisees (Matthew 9:11; 11:16–19). They meant it as an assault on His reputation. The Pharisees, from their own sense of self-righteousness and superiority, kept their distance from "tax collectors and sinners" (a despised group), whereas Jesus conversed with and even dined with them (Luke 19:5–7).
The Pharisees were, of course, sinners as well (Romans 3:23; Matthew 23:27–28), but they did not view themselves as such (Luke 18:9–14). Ironically, the one (Jesus) who they accused of sin by association is the only sinless person to have ever lived, and the only one who could have saved them from their sin (Hebrews 4:14–15; Acts 4:12). What seemed a slanderous accusation does actually contain truth in some sense. Not that Jesus is a sinner (1 Peter 2:22), nor that Jesus was a friend of sin—He loathes and despises sin—but that Jesus is a friend of sinners.
Jesus' purpose in befriending sinners was not to join with them in their sin, but to save them from it (1 Timothy 1:15). Christ did not come to earth to indulge in sin, but to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). In order to do that, Jesus Christ, who is very God of very God, humbled Himself as a servant, taking on human flesh so that He could both sympathize with our weakness and die in our stead (Philippians 2:5–11; Hebrews 4:15; Romans 5:6). To be a sinner is to be in a dangerous predicament. Sinners (us) are born under the curse and condemnation that follows from failing to keep the law of God (James 2:10). In order to save sinners, Jesus Christ fulfilled the law of God through perfect obedience to the Father (John 6:38–40) and sacrificed Himself on the cross to pay the penalty our sin incurred (Colossians 2:13–15). Christ did what we could not do so that if we trust and believe in Him for forgiveness of our sins, we can be saved from death and hell (John 3:16). He laid down His life for His friends. There is no greater love (John 15:13). There is no better friend.
However, Christ's friendship does not end at Calvary. Jesus not only died for us, but He has given us new life (2 Corinthians 5:17) and has risen from the dead so that we, too, might be resurrected and receive a glorified body like His on the day He returns (2 Thessalonians 1:10; Philippians 3:20–21). He has sent us the Holy Spirit to be our guide, teacher, comforter, advocate, aid, strength, and empowerment (John 14:26; 16:7–15). He has given us His Word through which the Spirit illumines our hearts and minds to the truth of God and His very precious promises to us (Hebrews 4:12). Even now, Jesus intercedes with the Father on our behalf, if we are indeed His friends (Romans 8:34). He has gone to prepare a place for His friends to live with Him eternally (John 14:2–3).
Who would not want a friend like Jesus? However, not all are His friends, but only those who do as He commands (John 15:14). First John 3:19–24 says, "By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us." Jesus is not only our friend, but our elder brother, Lord and God (Romans 8:29; John 20:28). Only those who forsake the self-righteousness of the Pharisees and trust in the righteousness of Christ and believe in Him can call Him friend (Romans 3:22).
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