Jesus on Friendship

Andrew Bunt
Articles 6 mins
Found in: Family & Friends
‘Nobody talks about Jesus’s greatest miracle – having 12 close friends in his 30s.’

This joke has done the rounds a bit in recent years. I confess, when I first saw it, it did make me chuckle. But it also made me stop and think. It makes a good point – I don’t know many people in their 30s who could say they have 12 close friends. Jesus seems to have been unusually good at friendship and to have really valued it. His attitude towards friendship seems to have been somewhat different to the dominant attitudes in modern western culture. So maybe we should stop and reflect on that. What did Jesus say and think about friendship?

There are a few ways we could answer that question. We could look at what the Gospels reveal about Jesus’ approach to friendship. And there’d be lots we could learn. But we can also look at what Jesus taught about friendship. We might easily forget, but at a key moment in his life, Jesus took the time to speak to his closest followers about the nature and importance of friendship. That moment is on the night he was betrayed, after he’s washed the disciples’ feet, and it’s recorded for us in John 15:12-17. In this passage, Jesus teaches us about both his friendship with us and our friendships with each other.

Friendship with Jesus

John 15:14 contains what I think are some of Jesus’ most extraordinary words:

‘You are my friends.’

Just ponder that for a moment. The Son of God, the one through whom all things were created, the one who for all eternity past has existed in relationship with the Father and the Spirit, takes on flesh, comes to earth and on the night before he’ll be brutally executed on a Roman cross for them, looks at his closest followers and says, ‘You are my friends’. It’s astounding. And what’s even more astounding is that we can trust that by extension Jesus says those words to us too. Jesus says to all of his followers: ‘You are my friends’.

Jesus wants to help the disciples to understand what the greatest love is really like, and he doesn’t turn to marriage or sex, he turns to friendship. For Jesus, friendship is a relationship of deep love.

And what does he mean by that? What does it mean to be friends? It’s actually quite a hard thing to define when you stop and think about it. Here in John 15, Jesus seems to imply that at the heart of friendship is love: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). Jesus wants to help the disciples to understand what the greatest love is really like, and he doesn’t turn to marriage or sex, he turns to friendship. For Jesus, friendship is a relationship of deep love.

There’s another way we can see that to be true. Jesus says that we are his friends if we do what he commands (John 15:14). We’ll have more to say on this later, but notice one thing for now. Not many verses earlier, in John 15:10, Jesus has promised ‘If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.’ Keeping Jesus’ commandments means we abide in his love, and it means we’re his friends. Those two things overlap: friendship is a relationship of deep love.

And there’s something else Jesus notes about friendship. Friendship is also about openness.

‘No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing: but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you’ (John 15:15).

Jesus says something new is going on. God’s people haven’t always been called his friends. In the Old Testament, only a few individuals are acknowledged as friends of God (e.g. Abraham in 2 Chronicles 20:7 and Isaiah 41:8, and Moses in Exodus 33:11), and the relationship of the average Israelite and God is perhaps best described as that of servant and master (e.g. Leviticus 25:55).

But now, things have changed. Through the work of Christ, God’s people can once again be known as his friends. And Jesus notes that one element of this change is a new openness. Previously, as servants, they didn’t know what their master was doing. A servant has to get on with their tasks regardless of whether they understand them. But now, Jesus says, he will share with his followers all that God the Father reveals to him. As Paul the Apostle will later say, God has now revealed the ‘mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed’ (Ephesians 3:4-5). Friendship is characterised by openness: an honesty and transparency between friends.

And in friendship with Jesus, there is also challenge. Because of course this isn’t a friendship of equals. And so, we, the friends of Jesus, are also to be obedient to him: ‘You are my friends if you do what I command’ (John 15:14, emphasis added). Obedience doesn’t make us friends of God, but our obedience flows out of our friendship with him. (Just as Jesus’ obedience to the Father doesn’t make him God’s Son, but it flows out of his position as the son. See John 15:10.)

Here is one of the most amazing, most incredible of all the blessings that come to us through the gospel. If we are a follower of Jesus – we are one of his friends. And that friendship is characterised by love and openness.

Friendship with one another

If Jesus said nothing else, this alone would challenge our view of friendship. Think of the dignity and importance Jesus gives to friendship when he says that we are his friends. But this is not all he says. In fact, Jesus’s declaration that we are his friends is sandwiched within teaching about our friendships with one another.

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15:12).
‘These things I command you, so that you will love one another’ (John 15:17).

Jesus calls us to love one another as he has loved us. Think of what that means. At this point, Jesus has just washed the disciples’ feet, taking on the role of a slave, the lowest of the low in his cultural context. And he knows that the very next day he will die on a Roman cross for them. That’s how Jesus has loved them and his command is to love each other with the same kind of love. That’s a big challenge!

And with what kind of love does Jesus love us? With the love of friendship. ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). So, when Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us, he is calling us into friendship, commanding us into it. It’s true that we can only have deep, meaningful friendship with a small number of people and that we are called to love all fellow friends of Jesus in this way, but it is in a few close friendships that we will most deeply and powerfully be able to live out Jesus’s command. Jesus calls us to model our friendships with each other on his friendship with us. He’s raising the stakes on friendship.

The marker of being a friend of Jesus is being a good friend to others.

But I think he goes even further. Remember, Jesus has said that obedience to what he commands is what marks us out as his friends. What commandment does he have in mind? Well, there’s only one command mentioned in this chapter. It’s given twice, both times it’s explicitly identified as a commandment, and the two occurrences actually bracket this whole piece of teaching: ‘Love one another’ (John 15:12, 17). The obedience which marks us as Jesus’ friends is loving one another; it’s being good friends. The marker of being a friend of Jesus is being a good friend to others. That’s how important Jesus makes friendship. That’s how central to Christian faithfulness he makes it.

What a challenge that is to so many of us. Do we see being a good friend as central to Christian faithfulness? I think often our attempts at Christian faithfulness – good things like leadership and serving – can actually be the things that consume so much of our time and capacity that we don’t invest in friendship. Perhaps we’ve missed something important in what Jesus has to say to us.

There’s a cost to laying down our lives for others. Real love costs something, and real love is what Jesus calls us to in friendship.

And what will these friendships look like? I think Jesus has already shown us. Friendships are relationships of love – genuine love, expressed love, love enacted through self-sacrifice. Is that how we view friendship? Is that the sort of friendships we seek to cultivate? Often we don’t. Perhaps we think we don’t need them. Perhaps we fear we’ll be misunderstood if we love our friends too deeply. Perhaps we just don’t want the disruption. But if friendships are about the love of self-sacrifice, perhaps they should be disruptive. There’s a cost to laying down our lives for others. Real love costs something, and real love is what Jesus calls us to in friendship.

Friendships are also relationships of openness. We cultivate true friendship when we are open and honest. As we share with one another, intimacy is fostered, hearts are united. Openness creates connection, and the gospel allows openness. We can be open, even about our weaknesses and our failings, because we know that we are always loved and accepted. We need not feel ashamed, because Jesus says that we are his friends. Of all people, we as friends of Jesus should have the freedom to be open in our friendships with others.

The challenge of Jesus on friendship

Jesus’ teaching on friendship is incredibly challenging. There’s the challenge to accept and experience the depth of Jesus’ love for us in our friendship with him, and there’s the challenge to live out our identity as his friends by loving one another in deep, meaningful friendship. There’s the challenge to cultivate friendships of self-sacrificial love and openness and to value friendship as highly as Jesus does. That’s  Jesus’ challenge to you. What will you do with that challenge?