Who or what groups of people are referred to in the scriptures as sinners other than believers in Christ who inadvertently stray or who temporarily leave the path of righteousness only to return after a short time? Actually, the answer to this question is probably my first response to the query, “Who is a sinner?” I prefer to think of those who have never named the name of Christ as sinners – and most certainly they are. For the next few days, we will examine some usages of the word sinner in the New Testament and how it was used when referring to unbelievers.
“As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ So he arose and followed Him. Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, ‘Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard that, He said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.’” (Matthew 9.9-13).
The first time the word sinner is found in the focus text, inspiration used it to identify a segment of people attracted to Jesus; the author of the book used it in narrating the story. The second time the word sinner is used, the Pharisees used it to describe some of those who were eating with Jesus. In this usage, the sinners who were eating with Jesus were classed as though they were heathens and unfit for social company by the “faithful” Jew. Nonetheless, Jesus dined with them! Surely this must have shocked the sensibilities of the Pharisees, the strictest sect of the Jews (see Acts 26.5). Not only did He eat with them, He openly confessed that sinners were his “target audience.” His mission was to the sinners and not to the righteous!
It is interesting to see how the Pharisees verbally separated themselves from the tax collectors and sinners; they certainly did not belong to the same low class of individuals – or at least, so they thought! Yet, it was this very sect of whom Jesus warned when He said, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5.29). On the one hand, Jesus ate with sinners, while on the other hand He explicitly warned of the Pharisees and their lack or righteousness.
The tendency of the Pharisees is oft times our tendency; we like to think of everyone else as sinners while denying our own lack of righteousness. Yet, the term sinners in the focus text is no more limited to those likened to heathens than it excludes that very group. And How did Jesus treat these sinners? He called them all to repentance! Whether erring believer, heathen-like social outcasts, or men of self-serving interests, Jesus called them all to repentance. How does God treat sinners? First and foremost, He treats them without respect of persons!
1. What word is used in the KJV which is translated tax collector(s) in the NKJV?
2. What office did Matthew hold? How did the Pharisees regard such men?
3. The Pharisees were upset that Jesus ate with sinners. How do you think they took the news that not only was He eating with them, they were the major focus of His ministry?
4. What did the Pharisees stand to gain by separating themselves from the tax collectors and sinners? Was this distinction real or imagined?
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