Evangelism training has left many well-meaning Christians at a loss. Should we stand on the street corner and proclaim the Gospel? Or should we spend years building rapport with people before we ever even breach the topic of faith? Should we love, welcome and accept everyone regardless of their lifestyles and choices? Or should we expect people to live in the world, but not act like the world? Does the Bible really teach us to love the sinner but hate the sin? How did Jesus really do it?
The United States is quickly becoming a post-Christian culture, as much of Europe already is. It is no longer expected that people go to Church on Sundays, and there are many amongst us who have never darkened the doors of a Church. It is trendy and cool to explore the world religions, develop one’s own Spirituality by merging any myriad of teachings, and while there are many who claim to be spiritual and have faith, there are few who truly submit to any one teacher. We essentially believe that we have the autonomy to create our own belief system and thus make ourselves out to be our own gods.
With this blurring of lines and lack of true adherence to one religion or teacher, it has become a curious reality that many will quote Jesus, claim parts of His teachings and even try to corner more devout followers with attributes of His life. Most poignantly, Christians and non-Christians alike regularly declare that Jesus never judged anyone, he hung out with sinners, and Jesus is essentially made out to be just one of the guys who happened to preform a lot of miracles and taught a lot of people.
With whom, however, did Jesus really spend His time? Of his twelve disciples, we know that some were fishermen and Matthew was a tax collector (a government employee). Mary Magdalene was possessed by 7 demons, but Jesus freed her from those (Luke 8.2). John the Baptist was a prophet and had taken the Nazarite vow – he was as holy as could be. Nicodemus was on the Sanhedrin and Joseph of Arimethea (who buried Jesus) was on the religious council – Jewish teachers and leaders.
Scripture teaches us that Jesus was widely regarded as a religious teacher. He also preformed many miracles. Most of these miracles were helping people whom the pious considered “sinners” or “dirty”. Jesus most commonly gets the reputation for having hung out with sinners because of two specific incidents:
“As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man called Matthew, sitting in the tax collector’s booth; and He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’ And he got up and followed Him. Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, ‘Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?’ But when Jesus heard this, He said, ‘It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: “I desire compassion and not a sacrifice,” for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”
– Matt 9.9-13
When Jesus called Matthew to be one of his disciples, the pious religious teachers were confused and judgmental.
The other common story is the stoning of the woman caught in adultery:
“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?’ They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.'”
– John 8.3-11
We see much about the character and heart of Jesus in both of these stories. On the most basic level we can observe that Jesus did in fact interact and eat with “sinners”. He also intervened on the behalf of a woman who was either sleeping with a man who was not her husband or sleeping with someone else’s husband. This is no small matter.
To simply leave the observation there, however, is inadequate at best, and wicked at worst. Jesus did in fact interact with those whom the world considered sinners. He also interacted with those whom the world considered righteous or holy. Interestingly enough, He was in the temple teaching the religiously devout when the Pharisees brought the woman before Him (John 8.2). He regularly went to the temple, he often met with religious leaders, and some of his disciples were religious leaders like the Pharisees. Jesus did not have a type with whom He normally chose to associate.
He associated with those who came to Him.
This is a jarring reality. Jesus had an intentional plan and agenda. He went to specific towns, followed the leadership of the Spirit, and ultimately went to Jerusalem where He was crucified. He met many people along the way. Some were unsuspecting, like the Samaritan woman at the well and the twelve disciples when He called them. But by-in-large, His reputation and His presence drew a crowd. He was continually surrounded by people wanting to hear Him teach and looking for a miracle. We have no stories of Jesus in Scripture casually wandering into a bar or “sinner’s hangout”, just to blend in with the people.
Jesus also never trivialized or condoned sin.
Everyone who has ever been born has sinned. Except for Jesus. This is the foundation of Jesus’ profound response to the Pharisees who sought to kill the adulteress. Even the Pharisees, who were pious and religious, knew that they were not perfect and without sin – thus none were able or willing to throw the first stone at the woman. However, after He proved their guilt before the crowd, Jesus turned to the woman and strongly commanded her to “go and sin no more”. He did not condone her adultery. He did not excuse her sin on the basis that everyone sins, He told her to change. He knew that in a very short time He Himself would pay the penalty for her adultery and all other sin. He was giving her no leeway or freedom to continue in her lifestyle, He was profoundly offering forgiveness by preparing to take her place on the cross.
With Matthew and the tax collectors, Jesus also boldly proclaimed that He was there to call the sinners to righteousness stating simply that the sick need a healer. All of humanity is sick, and we all need a healer. Jesus is that healer. He was not dining with the tax collectors to condone their theft and abuse of the people, He was eating with them calling them to righteousness.
What then is the application? Jesus regularly preached to the masses and He also had intimate conversations one-on-one with people. Jesus spent three years teaching and training the disciples, but he also sent people out to be His witness after a single encounter. Jesus condemned some sinners for their sin and encouraged others to repentance.
In short, there is no science to evangelism and disciple-making. Every person is unique. Some people are sinning and know that they are sinning, but are ready to repent. Some people are sinning and know that they are sinning but are not ready to repent. Some people are sinning and do not know that they are sinning! Each situation is dramatically different and should be handled intentionally. Some people are open to instruction in a group setting while others prefer instruction that is specific to their situation and personality.
What is vitally important, however, is Jesus’ clear example of never entertaining sin. He build intentional relationships with people and spoke truth clearly from interaction number one. He never welcomed or overlooked sin, but intentionally pushed each person according to their disposition and personality. Even so, however, almost everyone deserted Him. There were many times throughout His ministry that the crowds came to Him to listen to Him preach or to receive healing and His teaching was too difficult for them to hear – so they left. Many times people sought to kill Him – both the religious leaders and the crowd. And we all know that ultimately they did kill Him, with even the twelve disciples being scattered.
Because of this reality, the biggest misunderstanding about Jesus and His interactions is not always the “who” but the “how”. Jesus never just hung out with people. He was always teaching, building up, healing, praying, and fulfilling His mission on Earth. We must live with this type of urgency and intentionality.
There is very much a place for “relational evangelism” today. However, we often use that term as an excuse to avoid the topics of sin and salvation. We think that we will just be friends with non Christians and “sinners” and hopefully one day they will see what is different about us and ask. Jesus’ relational evangelism was the exact opposite, however. The truth was always boldly proclaimed and he continued to work with people towards the goal of their understanding and salvation. We cannot condone sin. We cannot overlook it and pretend it isn’t there. But we also must remember that the greater problem is salvation – it serves no good to clean up a person’s actions if they have not yet met Jesus.
In short, Jesus hung out with anyone who wanted to hang out with Him. However, in every situation He was intentional and spoke truth. We should strive to be like Jesus. We should engage everyone, speak truth with everyone, and adapt that truth fittingly to every situation and personality. Let’s live with urgency and intentionality!