Text: John 15:11-17
Do you have any friends? I mean true friends, friends you love. Most people don’t. Take for instance the example of Ambrose Bierce. Bierce was a famous American journalist and writer of satire. He wrote a little “dictionary” or social criticism which he called The Devil’s Dictionary. It was a cynical and dark book, but it was meant to be “realistic.” And in many places it is, even if it stings. For instance, he defines a Christian as, “One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.” That’s not the way it should be, but we all know what he’s talking about. We have experienced churches where no one in the room really had any intention of applying Biblical strictness to themselves.
But what happens when Bierce talks about emotions or sentiment? Unfortunately, we learn that his heart really had gotten hardened. I’m not sure he had any real friends or even believed that it was possible to have friends. He defines “friendless” this way, “Having no favors to bestow. Destitute of fortune. Addicted to utterance of truth and common sense.” That’s not a very nice way to think about things. It shows a belief that there really is no such thing as true friendship. It’s all just a show. And the idea that friendship is always superficial and really just a way to use someone else is a rather common point of view today. It’s a sad reality, but I think that a great many people, especially intellectual people and people who consider themselves to be “experienced” or “realistic,” do not believe that true friendship really exists, at least not beyond one’s immediate family. You can understand why they feel that way, having been let down by others and taken advantage of many times. And it is true that a good many people really are selfish, fickle, and uncaring. But is this the whole story? What does the Bible say?
Friendship: What is it?
Before we get to the Biblical examples, we need to be clear about we mean by friendship. The term can have a very “thin” meaning on the level of a buddy or a pal, someone you go out and have fun with but that’s about it. More popularly today, you hear about “bros.” Bros never take things too seriously. In this sense, friendship is a good thing but still something characterized by levity. It’s no big deal. It’s not really like love.
The classical meaning of “friendship,” however, is different and much more profound. Friendship is, in fact, a kind of love, the love of a brother or peer. Friendship is a strong bond of fellowship and affection centered around shared values, common interests, and activity, especially a job or a mission. And friendship draws people together, making them better, stronger, happier, and more energized. In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis explains friendship this way:
Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest… The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What! You too? I thought that I was the only one.” (61, 65)
He even says that, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival” (71).
This view of friendship was held by many great minds of the ancient world. For instance Aristotle defined friendship as, “wanting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one’s own, and being inclined, so far as one can, to do such things for him.” He went on to say “no one would choose to live without friends, even if he had all the other goods.” Plato actually believed that friendship was the highest love of all, and that is why today we still have the expression “a Platonic relationship.”
And so when we talk about friendship, we are talking about a kind of love. It is the love of another where you have common interests and affections and where you truly desire good things for them for their sake. It is a deep and powerful kind of love which creates strong bonds of community and inspires you to do sacrificial acts.
And so what does the Bible say about friendship?
The Bible and Friends
Friendship in Proverbs
Proverbs has a lot to say about friends. There are a few warnings about not making the wrong kind of friends and about not loaning money to friends, but on the whole the picture is a warm and affirmative one. Friends are good. Consider, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Prov. 17:17), “A man who has friends must himself be friendly, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (18:24), “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (27:6) and “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend” (27:17). We see that a friend perseveres through difficult times, is as close or closer than direct family, and is willing to offer loving correction and discipline precisely because he loves his friend. This is all good.
Jonathan and David
The most famous example of friendship in the Bible is the relationship between Jonathan and David. In modern times, with the loss of a strong concept of friendship, many readers have supposed that the two men had a romantic relationship. The Bible nowhere suggests such a thing, and, indeed, it presents both David and Jonathan as having robust romantic relationships with women, sometimes a little too robust. The only reason that modern readers cannot understand David and Jonathan as friends is that they cannot understand friends at all. They’ve never had any true friends, and so their minds go to the gutter.
Consider what we are told about David and Jonathan:
The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul… Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan took off the robe that was on him and gave it to David, with his armor, even to his sword and his bow and his belt. (1 Sam. 18:1, 3-4)
David and Jonathan made a covenant together, where they pledged to predict and look after one another. They were friends, and they were allies.
Then there are those striking lines in David’s song of lament after Jonathan’s death: “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; you have been very pleasant to me; your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). Surpassing the love of women—can we imagine such language being applied to friends today? But if you remember what these men had gone through together—fighting on the battlefield, sacrificing their lives for one another, making a perpetual covenant—then it becomes clearer. They were true friends, and they loved one another. Their friend-love was stronger than any other love that they had with other people. It knit their souls together.
The Teaching of Jesus
No discussion of friendship in the Bible would be complete, however, without looking to the teaching of Jesus, particularly as it is found in John 15:
These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. These things I command you, that you love one another. (vs. 11-17)
In those verses we are taught to keep Jesus’ commandment, but we are also taught that his commandment is to love. This is what is called “the law of love,” and we must love one another in the same way that Jesus loved us. How did He love us? “Greater love has no one that this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” We must be willing to sacrifice our selves—our interests and our desires— for the good of our friends. And, if we do this, our joy will be full.
Notice also that “friends” are a promotion from “servants.” This shows us a hierarchy of relationships. Servants are under you. Being a child is like being a servant, we are told in Galatians 4:1. Being a friend is different. A friend is a peer.
The disciples were certainly “servants” of Christ, and they continue to use that language even later on. Yet Jesus says that the difference between a friend and a servant is that the friend is not ignorant about the other person’s desires and intentions. The servant may have to simply obey and ask no questions, but the friend has knowledge. “All things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” Friends talk to one another and share their thoughts. Friends listen to each other and answer their requests. Friends respect one another and forge a stronger love because of their friendship. This is what Jesus offers us. He is our friend. And we are called to create this kind of friendship with one another, as the highest part of our Christian obedience. We befriend others because Jesus commands us to. We befriend others because Jesus has befriended us.
Indeed, according to Jesus, friendship is the highest, the most mature stage of a loving relationship. You might begin your relationship as a child or a servant, but you ought to conclude it as a friend. We aren’t exactly equal with Jesus, but we are said to be His brothers, and we are promised that whatever we ask in His name will be granted to us. He listens to us. He loves us. He likes us. And so we have a pattern of development, from servants to friends.
It’s also important to remember that in salvation we are considered to be friends of God. James 2:23 says, “And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God.” Upon justification, we are made to be God’s friends, and this is one of the highest privileges that comes with our salvation. God tells us His Will, and, importantly, God listens to us. He hears our requests. He takes notice of our lives, our struggles, and our desires.
How to Make Friends
As Christians we have to believe in friendship. We cannot be cynical or give ourselves to frustration and hardness. Trust me, I know the challenge here. I’ve been let down many times. But we cannot give up. We have to believe.
Now this doesn’t mean that we will be the same kind of “friends” with everyone. Obviously you have closer friends. Some people have a special bond which comes from their similarities or shared interests and affections. But we do know that we should value friendship, and we are told how to be friends, by loving others sacrificially.
This all starts with knowing that we have been loved sacrificially. We can be friends with others because we are first friends with God. And so the first step towards being friends with other people is to start with your friendship with God. Do you really believe that God loves you? Do you really believe that He likes you? If you don’t believe this, or are not sure about your relationship with God, then you will be plagued by guilt or jealousy. It’s very hard to be friends with someone who has a chip on their shoulder. Take your guilt, your anxiety, your insecurity, your frustrations, and nail them to the cross. Our quest for friendship must begin with Jesus Himself, seeing that friendship starts with grace from His cross. Believe in Him. Trust that God is your friend.
Secondly, we can befriend people by obeying Jesus:
This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. (John 15:12-14)
Let us make friends by loving one another.
And thirdly, we should be friends by spending time together, and this cannot happen apart from time. Slow down. Just be around people. Your presence is an essential ingredient to friendship. If you are always on the go, always working on something else, or always planning on larger, bigger plan than the people in front of you, you will not be able to be their friends.
Fourth, show an interest in others. Get to know them. Listen to them. Learn what they are all about. See if you can’t enjoy something they enjoy. See if you can’t enjoy them.
And lastly, this will require you to just follow the golden rule. Treat others how you would like to be treated. The rules of etiquette are helpful here as well, as you will need to respect other people and be nice. If you want to be liked, make yourself likable.
Friendship really ought to be the goal of all our relationships. Authority structures are necessary. We won’t outgrow them all in this life. Law has to be in place. We’ll have to have a few hard edges here and there. But the Biblical model is one of growing up into maturity, moving from a slave to a son and from a servant to a friend. Friendship should be your ultimate goal when you think about deep meaningful relationships.
And so treat your relationships in this life as always relationships in progress. Accept your current situation as being from God, a part of His providence, but keep in mind that there is always a future. God is taking you somewhere new, even if you stay put. In fact, God takes you to new places especially when you stay put and trust in Him. Let us grow together in the bond of love by remembering God’s love for us. Let us grow together in the bond of love by obeying the commandment of Christ which means loving one another. And let us grow together in the bond of love by growing into friends, sharing our lives together and knowing one another.
If that sounds long and difficult, then you’re right. It is. But God put up with us. He stuck it out long enough to become our friends. Now we have to do the same.
Let us pray.
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