In what way does Jesus ‘welcome’ sinners?

When I was a teenager, one of the books I treasured was William Barclay’s New Testament Words. It was a collection of word studies—with an impressive Scrabble-style tiling of Greek words on the cover—though the words were not necessarily the most common, obvious, or theologically weighty terms. But it was my first introduction to the Greek of the New Testament, and the systematic study of the ideas arising from those words.

There is a danger in this kind of approach to the New Testament. It can lapse into a kind of ‘colour by numbers’ approach to the text, and we also need to note that the same word can be used in quite different ways in different contexts. We do it all the time in English.

Nevertheless, this can be a very good way of understanding the ‘semantic domain’ of a word—the range of meanings that it has, and the way it is used—and this in turn can give insights into a word’s particular meaning in a specific context.

I was reminded of all this by a Facebook reel I watched recently by someone called Ryan Miller, who is based in San Diego. (All his profile says is that he studied at Wheaton College; I tried searching for ‘Ryan Miller pastor San Diego’ and it seems there are a lot of them and none are him!). The reel is linked below, so you can watch it after reading this.

Miller was reflecting on a key term found in Luke 15.2:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15.1–2)

The verb that Luke records the Pharisees using is προσδέχομαι meaning to ‘receive favourably’ or ‘welcome’. My French Bible uses the verb accueillir, which is the term that you would use for receiving invited friends round for dinner at your house. This in itself is interesting, since although Luke uses this term on the lips of the Pharisees, none of the gospels ever record Jesus inviting sinners to his home—he always only ever accepts invitations to their homes and eats there. So there is a strong metaphorical sense that Jesus welcomes them into his company as they ‘gather’ around him.

But the term becomes more interesting as we look at its meaning and use elsewhere in the New Testament. One of the standard NT lexicons (dictionaries) BDAG gives these meanings:

To receive favourably, welcome, receive in a friendly manner, receive willingly.

To look forward to, wait for, await the realisation of something, to wait day after day.

The verb occurs 14 times in the New Testament; half of these occurrences are in Luke-Acts, and a further three are in Paul’s writings. There are three main kinds of usage.

First, there is the acceptance of a statement or a state of affairs. When Paul is on trial before governor Felix, he refutes the accusations of his fellow Jews by noting that they ‘receive‘ the same thing he is proclaiming about the hope of the resurrection of the dead (Acts 24.15). And in Hebrews 10.34 the writer observes that his readers have ‘accepted‘ suffering with joy, whilst others refused to ‘accept‘ release to avoid suffering (Heb 11.35).

Secondly, other texts use the term in connection with personal relationships. Negatively, Paul’s cousin warns the centurion in charge of him that forty men ‘waiting‘ in ambush in order to kill Paul (Acts 23.21). Positively, Paul exhorts his Roman readers to ‘welcome‘ or ‘receive’ Phoebe, the leader (‘deacon’) of the church in Cenchreae, who is the bearer of Paul’s letter and therefore its first interpreter to its intended audience (Rom 16.2). Similarly, he encourages the Philippians to ‘welcome in the Lord’ his co-worker Epaphroditus (Phil 2.29)

But the third, and largest, group of texts (half of the total) relates to eschatological expectation, both for the coming and for the return of the Messiah and his kingdom.

  • In Mark 15.42 we learn that Joseph of Arimathea, in whose tomb Jesus is buried, is a prominent member of the Sanhedrin who is ‘waiting for the kingdom of God.’
  • Luke 23.51 fills out more detail, telling us that Joseph did not agree to the decision of the council, but also adding that he was ‘waiting for the kingdom of God’.
  • At Jesus’ dedication in the Temple in Luke 2, we meet Simeon who was ‘waiting for the consolation of Israel’ and Anna who speaks to all who were ‘waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem’.
  • In Luke 12, Jesus uses language very similar to the story of the ten virgins in Matt 25 of those seeking the kingdom being like those who ‘keep [their] lamps burning, waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet’ (Luke 12.36).
  • Paul reminds Titus that a key motive for purity of life is that we are waiting for the blessed hope of the appearing of Jesus when he returns (Titus 2.13).
  • And, similarly, Jude encourages his readers to keep themselves in God’s love whilst they wait for the mercy of our Lord (when he returns).

This sense of waiting isn’t passive, as the English word suggests, but a positive sense of hope, longing for, and expectation. (Other languages do better than ours; I think the Spanish esperar means to wait and to hope for.)

This, then, sets the context for reading the accusation that Jesus ‘welcomes’ sinners. There is another more common word for welcome, δέχομαι, which occurs 56 times in the New Testament, and is used in all of Jesus ‘welcome’ sayings (‘Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me) in Matt 10.14, 10.40, 18.5, Mark 9.37 and so on, and also in his sayings about receiving the good news of the kingdom, particularly in Luke (eg Luke 8.13).

But our word προσδέχομαι has an intensive sense—not merely receiving or accepting, but welcoming with enthusiasm, after a sense of longing or anticipation. This is what strikes Ryan Miller in his video, and made it such a powerful word for him. Jesus does not merely ‘accept’ sinners, but he enthusiastically welcomes them with a great sense of anticipation.

And of course we can see this acted out in the parables that Jesus tells in response to the accusation of the Pharisees. The shepherd doesn’t not simply find the lost sheep—he is so excited that he throws a party. The woman does not merely find the lost coin—she invites all her neighbours around to tell them. The father does not simply accept the son’s return—he embraces him, dresses him in finery and celebrates with the whole household. These three stories function as a narrative exposition of the word προσδέχομαι—and the irony is that it is the Pharisees who have given Jesus the word.

To this we need to add two further observations. First, this is the second time in Luke that Jesus has faced this accusation, and in his earlier response he makes clear the purpose of his welcome:

Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5.31–32)

Jesus’ enthusiastic welcome is not quite the reception we give to friends who have come for dinner; it is the enthusiastic welcome of a doctor who longs to see the patients healed and healthy. Jesus’ welcome has a transformative purpose. It is interesting that Luke makes this clear and explicit, whereas the parallel sayings in Mark and Matthew are more implicit. This accords with Luke’s emphasis on the importance of piety; it is to pious, expectant Jews that God often reveals himself. It is not the case (as is often claimed) that this gospel focuses on the disreputable and the outsider, at least it is not the whole story. The goal of Jesus’ association with sinners is that they might repent and discover the new life of the kingdom that he is calling them to. And thus it is striking that that word προσδέχομαι is frequently associated with pious expectation.

This leads to our second observation. As we have seen, the most common use of this word is about eschatological hope and expectation. We must therefore see Jesus’ welcome of sinners precisely as the expression and fulfilment of this hope; the longed-for kingdom of God was not just about ‘the glory of your people Israel’ but also concerned ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’. The drawing in of gentiles—the outsiders, the ‘sinners’—was always part of God’s plan for his people, as we can see in texts like Isaiah 2.2–3, where all the nations shall be drawn to Zion when it is lifted up, and all the peoples shall flow to it. This is the reason why, in Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem recognises the inclusion of gentiles as part of God’s plan.

All this suggests some important implications. First is the personal: do we realise that we are welcomed with enthusiasm into the company of Jesus, sinners though we are? Do we understand that our inclusion in the divine drama is not just a happy accident or a personal blessing, but a sign of our participation in God’s cosmic plan to draw all things to himself?

The second is communal and missional. How do we respond when new people join us in the community of faith? What happens when someone walks through the door? Do we welcome them with the enthusiasm and joy that reflects Jesus’ own welcome? Might we even be able to say ‘How great to see you—we’ve been looking forward to welcoming you!’?

And with that sense of anticipation, before that happens are we living a life, personally and communally, which means that ‘tax collectors and sinners are gathering’ to us? Are we offering them a warm sense of invitation? If not, then we are not yet living out the welcome that Jesus offers.

Here is the link to Ryan Miller’s Facebook video on this word. Enjoy!

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22 thoughts on “In what way does Jesus ‘welcome’ sinners?”

  1. Historical revivals are nearly always associated with outreach to groups who are shunned by the establishment and often condemnation of corruption in the establishment.

    We live in an age where there are lots of “hated” groups of people – benefits claimants, immigrants, trans people, librarians, educators, Muslims and Jews etc etc and also an age where deferrence to the establishment is gone. This seems ripe for revival, but, almost by definition, it isn’t going to come from establishment figures trying to maintain the established order

    • “This seems ripe for revival, but, almost by definition, it isn’t going to come from establishment figures trying to maintain the established order”

      Christian revival certainly involves radical change in the hearts of people, and you might indeed expect those who benefit from a secure place in the established order to be the last people who would be open to that kind of an upheaval in their lives.

      But that is to discount the nature and power of the Holy Spirit to work where he chooses; and we shouldn’t overlook some notable historical instances of where unexpected people can turn out to be called by God directly and to respond positively. Biblical examples could be Moses (brought up in the heart of Egypt’s establishment) who encountered God in the burning bush or Paul (a zealot for Jewish religious authority) who similarly met God on the way to Damascus. Both went on to play pivotal roles for God which arguably continue have their effect across the world today.

      Perhaps we should remain more open to the unexpected – or even the least expected – when it comes to discovering the people or place where God is at work!

  2. Yes, Jesus welcomes sinners – and so should the Church. The question then is: will we bring our sins to Him and let Him transform and sanctify us?

    Pope Francis in his general audience of 2nd October 2013:

    There has been in history the temptation for some to say: the Church is only the Church of the pure, the perfectly consistent, and expels all the rest. This is not true! This is heresy!

    The Church, that is holy, does not reject sinners; she does not reject us all; she does not reject because she calls everyone, welcomes them, is open even to those furthest from her, she calls everyone to allow themselves to be enfolded by the mercy, the tenderness and the forgiveness of the Father, who offers everyone the possibility of meeting him, of journeying toward sanctity.

    “Well! Father, I am a sinner, I have tremendous sins, how can I possibly feel part of the Church?” Dear brother, dear sister, this is exactly what the Lord wants, that you say to him: “Lord, here I am, with my sins”. Is one of you here without sin? Anyone? No one, not one of us. We all carry our sins with us. But the Lord wants to hear us say to him: “Forgive me, help me to walk, change my heart!”. And the Lord can change your heart.

    In the Church, the God we encounter is not a merciless judge, but like the Father in the Gospel parable. You may be like the son who left home, who sank to the depths, farthest from the Gospel. When you have the strength to say: “I want to come home”, you will find the door open. God will come to meet you because he is always waiting for you, God is always waiting for you, God embraces you, kisses you and celebrates.

    That is how the Lord is, that is how the tenderness of our Heavenly Father is. The Lord wants us to belong to a Church that knows how to open her arms and welcome everyone, that is not a house for the few, but a house for everyone, where all can be renewed, transformed, sanctified by his love, the strongest and the weakest, sinners, the indifferent, those who feel discouraged or lost.

    The Church offers all the possibility of following a path of holiness, that is the path of the Christian: she brings us to encounter Jesus Christ in the Sacraments, especially in Confession and in the Eucharist; she communicates the Word of God to us, she lets us live in charity, in the love of God for all. Let us ask ourselves then, will we let ourselves be sanctified? Are we a Church that calls and welcomes sinners with open arms, that gives courage and hope, or are we a Church closed in on herself? Are we a Church where the love of God dwells, where one cares for the other, where one prays for the others?

    The ‘tricky’ part is how the Church responds to those who appear to want validation for objectively sinful lives as opposed to presenting as open to Divine healing and change.

  3. Ah, False theologians, these Churchmen, they had forgotten how God had found the Jewish People!
    “I found you in your blood, your cord was not cut, no one pitied you”
    See Ezek.16 vs 4 – 15.
    Deut. 32:10 He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.

    They had no concept of sin or sins just like their fathers.
    From the beginning sin came upon all men through Adams sin [otherwise one has to explain how or why sin is hated by God and entered into the DNA of humankind.]
    Hence Paul could say, “All have sinned”

    Of course, Jesus loved sinners, he came not to judge;
    John 8:15 Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man.

    John 12:47 And if any man hears my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.
    Hence we cannot despair of any man whatever his condition for God is able to raise up children from the very stones if He so wished.

    God sees us in our sin and provides a way of escape from its dominion, lies deception, robbery, slavery, dis-ease and death. All of which He can save us from;
    all of whom God has given to Him will come to Him to be justified, sanctified and glorified; made perfect and holy.
    He would not and will not leave us in our sin but commands all men everywhere to repent in order to receive holiness [wholeness,beauty,equilibrium, peace and rest.]

    Neh 4:2 And he spoke before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, What do these feeble Jews? will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned?
    Isa 57:15 For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
    Hab 3:2 O LORD, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid: O LORD, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy.

  4. ‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’

    What does Jesus mean by this? That he is only calling those who recognise their own sins? Is he implying there are some who dont need to come to him because God already views them as ‘righteous’? Or is he saying Im not calling the self-righteous? The standard evangelical view is that he is calling all because all are sinners. Does that view fit with his words here?

    • I think it’s the first possibility you suggest. The righteous who have already heard God’s call, turned their lives around and are living faithfully don’t need to hear the same call as those who haven’t yet done so.

    • From the context, it seems clear Jesus referring to the self-righteous:

      “The Pharisees saw Jesus eating at the table with Matthew and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” He heard this and said, “Those who are well, do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:11-13)

      Isn’t Jesus being ironic? He’s saying to them that if someone believes he is righteous then he doesn’t need the help of Christ the physician. It’s a rebuke. The Pharisees showed off to the people how righteous they were by offering sacrifices to God. Jesus is telling that mere offerings mean nothing; what counts is being open to God and to other people around you, especially the least of amongst us.

      • Perhaps, perhaps not. Yes he is saying God would rather show mercy, and is saying to the Pharisees they should be showing the same mercy to others, rather than relying on sacrifices. But that in itself does not mean Jesus viewed them as unrighteous.

        • Perhaps there are two types of righteous, ones who are waiting to be employed in the vineyard, and two, those working in the vineyard.

  5. Is not a key to understanding a wrong righteousness of the Pharisees, the Pharisee and the Publican passage:

    A wrong righteousness was also seen in the Elder son, in the parable of the Two lost sons.

    Believers in Christ are clothed in His Royal Robes of His Righteousness.
    True righteousness:
    Jesus is the only One to be perfectly, obediently, sinlessly, actively righteous on our behalf.
    Belivers are as righteous as Jesus in our Union with Him.

  6. It’s an interesting observation that Jesus *didn’t* invite people to his place, instead, he did his evangelism when *they* invited him to *theirs.*

    The usual system for churches and Christian Unions is that *we* organise an event and then invite “outsiders” to it. But Jesus did it the other way round. If he had been a footballer, he would have been perpetually playing “Away” matches rather than “Home” matches.

    So I would love to hear here – please post a reply – from people who believe in evangelism and have a successful track record of unbelievers inviting us to *their* events. From my observation this doesn’t happen often. How do you become someone who get invited to things outside the Christian community?

    • Jamie, good thought,
      One could test your idea by engaging in street witnessing and staying out long enough for someone to invite you home, or to wherever they spend the night.

      • Steve, that worked for me. Once. “Once” is not a successful track record. I want to hear from people who have been regularly successful.

          • There is no “right” answer, nothing I “want to hear.” I want to know what has worked for other people. (And of course there is some realism in my enquiry, because the cost of imitating the “successful” may be more than I am willing to pay.)

          • I expect it is simple singleminded devotion. I’ve only been out witnessing on the street a few times recently. I’m not the one to ask. Many commenters on this blog seem super confident in their beliefs. I’m sure they have good advice for the would be evangelist.

  7. Fascinating. This really got me thinking about Jesus’ encounter with the sinful woman and Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7. In this case, Jesus is invited into the home of a Pharisee and we have teaching based on the “welcome” given *to* Jesus. Simon finds his own “welcome” compared very unfavourably with that given by the sinful woman. She has been forgiven much *as her great love has shown.* As in many other places, it is her faith that saves her and she is told to go in peace. The welcome she receives from Jesus is in accord with the love she has shown him, knowing herself to be forgiven. I wonder if this event was one of those that informed the Pharisees’ comment about Jesus welcoming sinners. If so, it seems that they completely missed the point and the power of the event and of Jesus’ parable.


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