We assign a lot of titles to God. King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor, Adonai, El Roi — I could go on. Each represents an aspect of God’s Character that has a personal and intimate meaning, shedding new light on our relationship with Him. There is one title, however, that I think a lot of us do not fully understand. We tend to get it “half right.”
It’s the name: Friend of Sinners.
To give a little context, this title was given to Jesus in Matthew 11:19 and its parallel passage Luke 7:34. In these scriptures, Jesus references what the Pharisees and other religious teachers have said about him. He is called “friend of sinners” after eating a meal with Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector — it was intended to be an insult.
Most people hear the name “friend of sinners” and think of this story, but when I hear it, I think of something else.
When I hear this title, I think all the way back to the Old Testament — to Abraham and Isaac. Abraham was the original patriarch, the one who is referenced as being the father of Israel. Though this is true, there were many mishaps that occurred before Abraham was truly “a blessing to all nations.” God promised Abraham and his barren wife Sarah a son — by human standards, that was clearly impossible. As the years passed, unbelief led Sarah to make Abraham sleep with her servant. Ishmael was born, Hagar and Sarah were at odds, and they seemed to be right back where they started. Abraham continued to make more mistakes. He played Sarah off as his sister, challenged God time after time, and seemed to have more than one area of questionable judgment. Finally, God opened Sarah’s womb and she had a child.
You would think they would be in the clear at this point, but God decides to test Abraham. Most of us know what happened. God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and as he is about to plunge a knife into his son’s body, an angel stops him and says he has found favor with God for obeying.
A lot of parallels have been drawn between this scene to the crucifixion of Jesus. Isaac carried his own wood to the altar just like Jesus carried his own cross to Golgotha. Abraham was asked to sacrifice his one and only son just as the Father did with Jesus. God provided the ram, just as Jesus was the perfect lamb—a ransom for humanity. I don’t think that these parallels were meant to only connect the Old and New Testaments, however. I think God was also trying to make a unique connection with Abraham when He gave him what appeared, at first glance, to be a “test.”
God gave Abraham a very specific test. It was not to sell his son into slavery, or to abandon him somewhere in the desert — it was to literally offer his only son as a sacrifice. The parallel to not only what Jesus goes through, but also to what the Father experiences, is uncanny. God did not give this test to Abraham only for us to think “how interesting” thousands of years later and then move on.
It was to establish a shared experience with Abraham. A friendship.
This story is the only time in the Bible where a follower of God is asked to end the life of their only child for the greater good. Even though God stops him, Abraham now understands the meaning of this sacrifice on a deeper level than anyone else before or after him ever could. Isaac was Abraham’s most prized possession. He had waited and trusted for a son, and then God commanded him to give Isaac away when things finally seem to be coming together. Instead of withholding his son from God, Abraham freely gave what he loved the most. By doing so, he showed that his love for the Lord was greater than his love for any earthly possession.
One of the most powerful details about this story is that the budding friendship God makes with Abraham happens during the Old Testament. The context is completely different from Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus. The reason Jesus came into the world was to reconcile us with God. He truly met us where we were at. In the case of Abraham, God had every reason to want nothing to do with humanity. Though we were separated from Him, He so desperately wanted to be in communion with us — to be accessible. God’s desire to connect with humanity doesn’t begin with Jesus in the New Testament.
It begins with Yahweh, our loving father.
By dwelling on this reality, we can think about our earthly trials a bit differently and intentionally grow our relationship with God. What if every time we encountered a roadblock, we didn’t sulk or feel sorry for ourselves? Instead, what if we used suffering as an opportunity to relate and connect to God when no one else seems to understand? Jesus understands all of our tears, all of our suffering. He understands being left out, feeling rejected, and being afraid. He even understands when the people who are supposed to be your closest confidants (like his own disciples) don’t truly understand you or get who you are. Jesus desires an intimate relationship with us, and part of that includes a deep friendship rooted in shared experience.
We can’t miss the significance of this truth. God has always desired communion with us, despite our disappointing Him time after time. Instead of wanting nothing to do with humanity, He sought connection — something he pursued long before He sent Jesus.
Whenever a trial comes our way, we can lean into Him, knowing that a deeper friendship with our loving Father awaits.