What does ‘following Jesus’ mean to you as a Christian? What does it mean to be ‘Christlike’? I want to suggest to you that a person is not Christlike if they are not spending significant relational time with secular, non-churched people. Here’s why.
We’ve come to think of Christ-likeness as defined by Jesus’ character, his resistance of temptation, his purity. We think of his relationship to the Father, his prayer life, his servant leadership, his love of scripture. All of these things are beautiful marks of Jesus’ life on earth and will also mark our lives as we grow to be more like him.
But there is something else that we see again and again in the descriptions of Jesus by those who knew him best and gave us his story. In fact, this something else is presented as such a foundational characteristic of Jesus’ life, something he himself spoke of with words overflowing with purpose and significance, that we can truly say that a person is not Christlike if this thing does not mark their lives as his followers.
What is this other thing? Jesus constantly spent quality relational time with secular people!
Maybe you think, “Of course he did. Culture was much more relational back then and people had way more time for relationships than they do today.” But you would be wrong. What Jesus did was not normal for his culture.
The origins and history of the nation of Israel were all about religion and commitment to God. But in Jesus’ day a large chunk of the population had become secular. They didn’t go to synagogue; they didn’t learn the Bible; they didn’t worry about keeping the rules laid down by the religious leaders.
The gulf between these people and the religious people was huge. To religious people there were two categories of people: on the one hand were those who attended synagogue and kept all the rules and rites of purification, and on the other hand were the “sinners”. They used this word “sinners” as a technical term to refer to the secular, non-synagogue-attending Jews. In their minds, if you spent relational time with “sinners”—if you spent time in their homes and ate and drank with them—it made you unclean.
That’s why they were so puzzled at Jesus’ actions. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Mark 2:16
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Luke 15:1-2
Later in his ministry when they were really criticising him Jesus would point out: “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
It wasn’t normal in his day for a person who followed God to spend time with secular people. It wasn’t natural among Jesus’ friends to eat in the homes of people who didn’t attend synagogue. It was looked down upon for Jesus to be a friend of “sinners”.
So why did he make it his way of life to do so? He answered this very question: Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Those secular, non-synagogue-attending Jews would not come to synagogue to get right with God, and they would never be reached by those who stayed aloof from them. They would only have their hearts turned back to God if someone reached into their world, became a part of their lives, hung out in their homes, and pointed them to God.
Jesus was committed to doing just that. He wants you to have an equal commitment to it as his follower. If you want to follow Jesus, then spend relational time with secular, non-churched people!