Seemingly innocuous words spoken by Jesus carry a weight of meaning.
Bible text: John 15:13-15
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
Chapters 13-17 in the Gospel of John record the farewell discourse Jesus has with his disciples on the night he was betrayed. Many teachers and commentators on the spiritual life have turned to these chapters because they are a rich source book on the nature of the Christian life. One finds many weighty things said in them.
So when in chapter 15 Jesus says that he calls his disciples his friends, it is easy to let the words slip by without recognizing that they are weighty words, too.
That’s because we in modern America do not value friendship as much as the ancients did. We may have many friends, especially on Facebook. We may like them, and in some cases even love them deeply.
But we don’t tend to think of friendship as the highest form of human relationship. Instead we tend to give that honor to marriage. We expect to find our greatest intimacy in marriage, especially in its sexual aspect. In not in marriage, then we are likely to look for it in the relationship between parent and child.
Marriage, however, did not hold such a high status in the minds of the ancient world. It certainly did not represent a relationship of equality and free choice. Most marriages in the Jewish and in the Gentile world were arranged. The marriage partners had little say in who their marriage partner might be.
Also ancient societies regarded the wife as the inferior partner in the marriage. She was not the equal of her husband either in status or power. Marriage was hierarchal.
Friendship, on the other hand, was a very different type of human relationship. First of all, it involved a freedom of choice. Friends chose each other to be friends. If you were compelled to be someone’s friend, it was not likely that you would call the relationship true friendship.
In a friendship, too, you might come from different social classes, but in a friendship, the interaction was an equal exchange between emotional equals.
For both of these reasons, the ancients tended to regard friendship as the highest type of human relationship. It afforded the opportunity for the greatest emotional intimacy between the two or more human beings.
This carried over into the political realm. Hellenistic kings often had a circle of close associates around them known as the King’s Friends. They represented a very high honor a king might confer upon an associate to enlist him within that privileged circle. Kings might manipulate the conferring of this honor for political purposes, but still be enlisted among the King’s Friends was to have risen to a very high status.
So when Jesus in John 15 says to his disciples that he no longer calls them servants, but friends, we need to keep in mind this concept of friendship that prevailed in the ancient world. He is raising them to a relationship of high status and intimacy with himself.
We see this clearly when Jesus says that he has made known to them everything that he has heard from his Father. He withholds no secrets from his friends. He shares with them what he has heard from God his Father. In the kingdom of God, there are no rules of confidential classification. All Jesus shares is unclassified.
When we understand the weighty meaning that lies behind Jesus’ use of the word “friend,” we begin to see the very privileged and very intimate relationship Jesus is conferring upon his disciples. This is pure grace in action.
A Word of Caution
Reading what I wrote above, I feel I need to add a word of caution, lest I be misunderstood.
When Jesus raises his disciples to the status of his privileged friends, we must remember that he says this as a part of his farewell supper with his disciples. That supper began, according to John 13:2-17, with Jesus rising in the evening, disrobing, wrapping a towel around his waist, and washing the feet of his disciples.
He explains his action with these words:
Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (John 13:12-15)
Jesus may be raising his disciples to the status of friends, but in so doing, he enlists them as partners in his life of service to the world. Privilege is redefined, therefore, as the call to service.
In calling his disciples friends, Jesus’ action gives no authorization for their thinking they can lord it over others and judge others simply because they are Jesus’ close friends. That is vitally important to remember when Christians seek to live out their faith in the political, economic, and social spheres. Christ’s kingdom operates by different rules than most of modern life.