Friend of Sinners: Why Jesus Cares More About Relationship Than Perfection

Friend of Sinners: Why Jesus Cares More About Relationship Than Perfection

by Rich Wilkerson Jr.


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Pastor and writer Rich Wilkerson Jr. shines a spotlight on every Christian’s calling to reach the world, seek the lost, and save sinners with Jesus’ scandalous message of the gospel of grace.

In Friend of Sinners, we learn:

  • that by following his example, we can have the same clear conviction and compassion for the lost that he did,
  • that His gospel of scandalous grace cannot be overestimated, and
  • How to embrace the truth that we all need Jesus equally.

The Bible calls Jesus a friend of sinners. What does that mean? In Friend of Sinners, Rich Wilkerson Jr. shows readers the profound implications of the reality that Jesus calls us “friends, not because of who we are or what we have done, but because of who he is. While he was on earth, Jesus knew that people needed to feel like they belong before they would want to behave. He understood that the power within him was greater than the darkness around him, so he loved fearlessly.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780718032708
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 03/13/2018
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 261,800
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Rich Wilkerson Jr. and his wife, DawnCheré, pastor VOUS Church, a meeting place of faith, creativity, and diversity in Miami, Florida. Every June, they also host thousands of young adults at the annual VOUS Conference in South Beach. He is the author of Sandcastle Kings: Meeting Jesus in a Spiritually Bankrupt World and an internationally recognized speaker who has logged over two million air miles preaching the gospel around the globe.

Read an Excerpt



A FEW YEARS AGO MY WIFE, DAWNCHERÉ, surprised me with a special gift for my twenty-seventh birthday. Now, let me preface this story by mentioning that DawnCheré loves surprises. She likes being surprised, but she especially loves planning surprises for others.

I, on the other hand, hate being surprised. Down deep, I have a compulsive desire to be in control. I like to have a clear plan. So surprises aren't really my thing.

Anyway, DawnCheré came home from work and handed me a box. "Babe, I got you the best gift!" She was clearly excited.

I said, "What — did you wrap yourself up, girl?"

She ignored me, which is one of her spiritual gifts. "Open the box. You're going to love it!"

I unwrapped the box and opened it. Inside was a piece of paper she had designed and printed. It said, "In two weeks I'm taking you to the Kings of Leon concert at the Bank Atlantic Center."

I was pumped. They are one of our favorite bands, and I couldn't wait to see them live. Finally — a surprise I could get excited about!

For the next two weeks, we did what people do when they are anticipating something. We talked about it every day.

"Eleven more days until the Kings!" We told our friends about it, and we insisted they pretend to be excited for us. We sang their songs. "You know that I could use somebody."

Finally, the day arrived. DawnCheré had carefully crafted and curated the evening. She took me to our favorite Mexican restaurant for a pre-concert dinner date. We had decided to skip the opening act, and she had everything timed perfectly so we could go straight from our romantic dinner to the arena, just in time for the headliner.

Dinner was magical. We laughed and enjoyed each other's company over tacos, salsa, and chips. When 8:00 p.m. rolled around, we knew we had to get going to make it on time. On the drive to the venue, we blasted Kings of Leon songs on the stereo and sang every lyric at the top of our lungs. We were flirting with each other. There was so much love in the air. This was going to be the most amazing evening ever. Our expectations had reached epic heights as we exited the freeway and approached the parking lot at the Bank Atlantic Center.

To our surprise, the parking lot was deserted. My first thought was, Wow, I thought this band had a bigger following than this.

DawnCheré said, "I think something's wrong."

"No, this is going to be great!" I'm not one to give up easily.

"Let's park the car and go in."

We got out of the car and walked all the way up to the Bank Atlantic Center doors, and our fears were confirmed. Nobody was there. The lobby was abandoned, the doors were locked, and the lights were off.

So I said, "Babe, let me see those tickets."

DawnCheré was all full of attitude. "I know what they say.

Concert at 7:30 p.m. at the Bank Atlantic Center."

"Girl, just let me look at the tickets."

She handed me the tickets, and I read them. And then I nearly yelled, "These don't say Bank Atlantic Center. They say Bank United Center! We're in Fort Lauderdale, and the concert is in Coral Gables. That's an hour away! We'll never make it in time."

DawnCheré started to cry. "This is the worst surprise ever," she whispered. "I ruined everything."

I replied, "Quit crying! You can't cry on my birthday. This is my party." Actually, I didn't say that. I'm not that insensitive. I told her how much I appreciated her efforts, and I think I lied about loving her surprises. Obviously we missed the concert that night. We still haven't seen the band live. But at least it was a memorable night — just for all the wrong reasons. We ended up laughing and making a memory out of it. To this day it's one of our favorite stories to tell other couples.

Have you ever missed the message in the something? Have you ever overlooked the main point? Bank Atlantic Center ... Bank United Center. They sound so similar, yet they are so different. For DawnCheré and me, missing the message only resulted in missing a concert. But when it comes to following Jesus, the consequences are much more significant.

Jesus came to earth with a specific message. His teachings, his miracles, his reactions to people, and his death and resurrection all communicate one main point. Yet it's far too easy to miss it. This can happen to the best of us — and probably has. Even well-intentioned, good-hearted, and spiritually minded people can overlook it. We might have a portion of the message; we might have a version of the message; but we miss the main theme.

The problem is, if we miss his message long enough, we'll end up somewhere God never intended us to be, and we won't like the result. I find many people are spiritually confused and worn out, not because Christianity is hard or God is a tyrant, but because they have missed what Jesus came to say.

Some people think Jesus came to preach about good works. They think the goal of his life was to get us to talk better, act better, be better. Following Jesus, therefore, is about behavioral change. It's about fixing yourself and those around you, not necessarily in that order.

Others think Jesus came to establish a holier-than-thou country club religion. His goal was that a bunch of abnormally self-disciplined (and equally self-righteous) people would get together, call themselves the church, and spend their days dispensing judgment against a sinful world.

Still others think Jesus was merely a philosopher. He was a good man, an inspiring teacher. He didn't deserve what happened to him. "Too bad he ticked off the establishment," they say sadly. "It always happens. Only the good die young."

Some think Jesus' life was a protest against evil. His martyrdom was his message. His life and death were a legacy and an inspiration, but nothing more. The list of opinions goes on. Some people say he was a rebel, a zealot who wanted to overthrow the Roman empire and failed. Some say he was an apocalyptic prophet who believed and preached the end of the world was imminent. Others say he was insane, or a con man, or a liar.

The more I read the stories about Jesus and listen to his words, the more convinced I am that those views and others like them fall short. Jesus didn't come simply for behavior modification. He didn't come to create a religious club or clique. He didn't come merely as a philosopher or martyr or life coach. Jesus' message is far more simple, yet far more powerful, than any of those concepts.

Exploring who Jesus is and why he came is the central question of this book. I don't want to miss what Jesus came to say, and I'm sure you don't either. If he is who he said he was — and he said he was God — then it's only logical we make sure we get his message straight. What was he trying to tell us when he spent three and a half years roaming a tiny country in the Middle East? Why did he heal people? Forgive people? Call people to follow him? Why did he die and rise again? And based on all that, how should we live our lives today, two thousand years later?

Maybe you aren't too sure about Jesus' claim to be God. In your mind, the jury is still out on whether his words and teachings should carry weight in your life. That's okay. That doesn't bother me a bit. We are all on a journey of getting to know God, life, and ourselves. None of us has all the answers, least of all me. But even if you aren't sure where you stand on Jesus or the Bible, most of us would agree that for some reason, Jesus lived a uniquely impacting life.

For some reason, his birth split human chronology in half.

For some reason, his teachings and his story resonate in the human heart.

For some reason, millions of people, from every nation, in every century, attribute positive changes in their lives to him.

For some reason, people pray in his name, and time and time again, report answers to their prayers.

For some reason, his teachings and principles are so integrated into our thinking that we often quote him and don't even know it.

So, what was his message? And who is it for? The answer might surprise you. And it may impact your life forever.

Jesus and the Gangster

To answer the question, I want to look at a little story in the gospel of Matthew. The Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — are full of stories meant to paint a picture of Jesus. They present in gritty, compelling detail a man consumed with a message.

One of the most revealing stories is how Matthew, a man formerly known as Levi, encountered Jesus. This brief story reveals much about Jesus' message and mission.

Before I jump into the story, you might be wondering why this guy had two names. One of my favorite movies growing up was called Three Ninjas. The plot line revolved around three kids whose grandfather was a ninja. He trained them and gave them ninja names. Samuel, Jeffrey, and Michael became Rocky, Colt, and Tum Tum. I'm not sure why the last one got such a lame name, but those kids were amazing. They could beat up grown adults. I always wanted a ninja name.

Matthew was clearly not a ninja. But his occupation did require a non-Hebrew name. He had been born Levi, a Jew. At some point, however, he became known by a Greek name, Matthew. His name and his identity, just like the Three Ninjas, were inextricably intertwined. There was an important reason for that, which I'll get to in a bit.

Later in life, Matthew turned out to be an incredible guy. He was one of Jesus' twelve disciples and one of the authors of the New Testament. He wrote the gospel that bears his name, which is why most of us remember him.

Much earlier, though, before he met Jesus, he was not a nice person. Actually, that's an understatement. Matthew was the quintessential bad guy. He wasn't just run-of-the-mill bad — he was an outright criminal. He was blatantly and intentionally and famously bad. He was the kind of person parents warned their kids about and crossed the street to avoid.

Before he met Jesus, Matthew was a tax collector. Now, you probably didn't gasp or blush when you read that, but anyone living in that day and culture would have. Back then, a tax collector wasn't the robe-wearing equivalent of an IRS employee.

He was more like a mafia boss, a gangster. Matthew the tax collector was not a man to be trifled with. He put the "original" in OG. He was like all three Godfather movies in one person.

At the time Rome was the supreme world superpower, and Israel was one of the lands they had conquered. The Roman army was notoriously brutal and barbaric. Numerous historical accounts record Rome sacking cities. They would often kill many of the men, rape the women, and enslave the children. History recounts instances when the army lined the streets with people on crosses so anyone who entered would know the force and power of the Roman kingdom.

After conquering a new territory, the Roman government would impose taxes on the local subjects. That's where Matthew came in. His job was to collect taxes from his own people to give to Rome. In other words, he betrayed his people for a pay- check. And here's the kicker: tax collectors were required to turn in a certain amount of money to Rome, but they could keep anything they collected above that. They were allowed — even expected — to extort money from their own people to line their pockets. They were traitors, thieves, and bullies. It's no wonder they were hated so fiercely by their own people.

This was the reason Matthew went by his Greek name. Greek was the language of the day, so Levi would not have been the most culturally acceptable name to the Romans. Matthew had been born into the nation of Israel, God's chosen people — but he didn't care about that. He cared about money, power, and notoriety. So instead of being Levi the Jew, he took on a new identity: Matthew the tax collector. Matthew the traitor. Matthew the extortionist. By working for Rome, Matthew had turned his back on his Jewish heritage.

To put this in context, imagine that a foreign power has attacked your country. First they kill, rape, imprison, or enslave your family and friends. Then they begin to rule your life with an iron fist. To top it off, they impose a suffocating tax; and to collect the tax, they hire your neighbor. Suddenly the guy you used to grill steaks with in your backyard is your enemy. Now he uses everything he knows about you against you. With the full backing of the conquering nation, he takes what he wants from you and your loved ones. Eventually you can hardly feed your kids, and he has a Ferrari parked in his driveway.

You tell me. Is that a good person? Is that someone you want to hang with? Is that someone you are excited about going to church with? Is that someone you would trust with anything you value?

Me neither. That's why it's so startling that Jesus made friends with people like Matthew. He didn't just talk to them: he loved them, he called them, he changed them, and he made them part of his story. It's unbelievable.

Here's how Matthew himself described his encounter with Jesus. Like a true godfather, he referred to himself in third person:

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector's booth. "Follow me and be my disciple," Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and fol- lowed him.

Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with such scum?"

When Jesus heard this, he said, "Healthy people don't need a doctor — sick people do." Then he added, "Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: 'I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.' For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners."

(Matthew 9:9–13 nlt)

Notice that Jesus didn't give Matthew an application to fill out. He didn't put him on probation for three months. He didn't make him pinky promise to never extort money again. He didn't even lead him in the sinner's prayer. Jesus simply said, "Follow me and be my disciple" (verse 9 nlt).

Really, Jesus? people must have been thinking. What qualifies this gangster to be your disciple? In their minds, being Jewish was the only chance for salvation. Matthew the wannabe Roman was a textbook sinner, the epitome of evil, a prime example of people the Messiah would one day come to judge.

Yet Jesus called him. And Matthew followed. Just like that.

We read it so quickly and casually sometimes, but when you stop to consider who this man was, the implications are staggering. Just look at the reactions of people back then. "Why does your teacher eat with such scum?" they asked (verse 11 NLT). That's probably the sanitized, PG-rated version of what they actually said.

Today, if a celebrity or high-profile person talks about Jesus, there is often instant pushback from religious people. "What could he know about Jesus? Have you seen his music videos? Plus, he's on his third marriage! And everyone knows he does drugs. He can't possibly know God." Often they even quote Bible verses that appear to back up their judgmental stance — verses about fruit, about holiness, and usually about hell.

I am certainly not contradicting those verses. And I understand the need for holiness. My full-time job is helping people understand how to apply the Bible to their lives, after all, so the existence of sin is job security. I'm kidding — but my point is serious. If we truly want follow Jesus, then we have to under- stand his message and his heart.

Jesus sought out and befriended a known criminal. Then he named him one of his core group of followers. If that doesn't fit in our paradigm, then we need a new paradigm.

The Message

Let's be honest. Sometimes we make it too difficult for people to follow Jesus. We forget faith is a journey, and on that journey we all are in different places. We can't expect that a person who is just beginning to follow Jesus will have the faith, actions, or vocabulary of someone who has been in relationship with Jesus for years. God certainly doesn't.

Awhile back someone came up to me at church after I finished preaching. He had just recently started attending, and he was clearly excited about what he had heard that night. He loudly exclaimed, "That was f-ing amazing, man! I f-ing love your preaching!" Except he didn't censor himself.

It was the best compliment ever. I loved it. My favorite part was that he didn't realize what he was doing. Why should he? He didn't know you don't typically use the F-word in church. All he knew was that God was real and he was changing his world.

Religion tends to look for outward signs that we are qualified to follow God, but Jesus shatters that paradigm time and time again. He doesn't wait for us to clean ourselves up or renounce our lifestyles. He finds us where we are and calls us to follow him. No application or qualifications needed. That's why I think Matthew's story is such a perfect illustration of Jesus' message.


Excerpted from "Friend of Sinners"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Rich Wilkerson.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword, xiii,
Introduction, xvii,
1. Missed Message, 3,
2. More Than Pants, 23,
3. Weight Shift, 43,
4. Fast Pass, 63,
5. Lost and Found, 83,
6. He Sees You, 103,
7. Tear Up the Roof, 123,
8. Welcome to the Neighborhood, 147,
9. Comfortably Uncomfortable, 165,
10. How to Be Great, 187,
Epilogue: Love Betrayed, 207,
Acknowledgments, 215,
About the Author, 217,
Notes, 219,

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