In the Gospels, Jesus is frequently criticized by his enemies for eating with sinners. For example, Luke tells us that when “tax collectors and sinners” were drawing near to hear Jesus, “the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1–2). By making this statement, they were attempting to prove that Jesus was not a prophet.
The theological significance of Jesus eating with sinners, however, was far more profound than they realized. Jesus was not merely a prophet but was and is, in fact, the eternal Son of God. Sinners were having fellowship in the form of a meal with the one in whom the whole fullness of deity dwelt bodily (Col. 2:9). They were eating and drinking with God himself.
The simple fact that Jesus shared a meal with those who, because of sin, had been cut off from fellowship with God signified that salvation had come to sinners. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were driven out of the Garden of Eden away from the presence of the LORD. They were cut off from the intimate communion with God, which they had once enjoyed.
But the Lord Jesus Christ, the new Adam, came to restore and perfect the fellowship with God that was lost in the fall. Christ came to end the hostility between God and man and to reconcile them in a covenant bond of communion and fellowship. By eating with sinners, Christ heralded the good news that in him, “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). His table fellowship with sinners was a visible gospel. It visibly proclaimed the good news of salvation for the lost.
In Luke 15, when Jesus was criticized for eating with sinners (vv. 1–2), he told three parables in response to the criticism: the parables of the lost sheep (vv. 3–7), the lost coin (vv. 8–10), and the prodigal son (vv. 11–32). These parables explain the significance of Jesus receiving sinners and eating with them. Eating with sinners was a sign that the lost sheep had been found, the lost coin had been recovered, and the prodigal son had returned to his father’s house and was feasting at his table. Thus, by eating with sinners, Christ visibly proclaimed the good news of salvation to the lost; his actions symbolized and confirmed the message he preached.
This is why Jesus characterized evangelism as an invitation to attend a feast in the Father’s house. In the parable of the great banquet, for example, the master of the feast orders his servants, “Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame” that they may partake of the feast (Luke 14:21). When the master discovers that there is still room, he sends his servants out again saying, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled” (v. 23). Thus, evangelism may be characterized as an invitation to all people without exception to come to the Father’s house and sit as welcome guests at his table and enjoy loving fellowship and communion with him by his Spirit through the merit and mediation of Jesus Christ.
By the simple act of eating with sinners, our Lord Jesus Christ was visibly proclaiming the good news of salvation for the lost.