Christian LivingMinistry

Biblical friendship (part 1): What is a friend?

Over the past few years several studies have shown that social isolation and loneliness poses a bigger risk to our health than smoking or obesity. Loneliness has the same effects on your body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It increases your chances of heart disease by 29% and stroke by 32%.[1]

Loneliness is on the rise and churches are not immune.[2] I’ve had numerous conversations with people about how they have no friends at church and as a consequence are thinking about going elsewhere. They are craving friendship.

We shouldn’t be surprised

These things shouldn’t surprise us. Our great God is himself relational. He exists relationally as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Humanity—you and I—are created in his image as relational beings. 

In Genesis 2 the only thing that is not good in the garden is that Adam has no complement. He is alone—until God creates Eve and declares his creation to be very good. 

We are made for relationships. We need friends.

What is a friend? 

Our world is a bit confused about the idea of friendship. But what is friendship according to the Bible? 

There are lots of parts of the Bible that explore friendship, but if we believe God’s word is ultimately about Jesus, we want to take him as our starting point. So we are going to have a look at friendship through the words of Jesus in John 15, on the night before he was crucified when he was with his disciples in the upper room. Judas Iscariot had already left, so Jesus was lying at the table with the remaining eleven disciples and preparing them for what would take place in the coming days. 

In the moments leading up to this (vv. 1-8), Jesus had been teaching that the mark of being one of his disciples is fruitfulness. He uses an agricultural metaphor to demonstrate his point: God is the gardener, watering and caring for the vine; Jesus is the true vine; and his disciples are the branches of the vine. What flows through the vine flows through the branches, and the branches bear fruit. So Jesus’ disciples will bear fruit that reflects who he is. 

Friendship is a product of love 

Jesus then goes on to talk about love. In verse 9 it’s clear that just as the Father loved Jesus, Jesus has loved the disciples. And he wants them to remain in his love. But how are they to remain in his love? It’s by loving each other as Jesus has loved them (v. 12). 

The Father loved Jesus, Jesus loved his disciples, and Jesus commands his disciples to love each other just has he has loved them. So we see love flow from the gardener to the vine to the branches. 

Maybe you’re wondering how this relates to friendship. Well, look at what Jesus says next: 

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” (vv. 13-14)

And we know Jesus’ command is that they love each other as he has loved them (v. 12). 

So it’s in the context of love that friendship exists. Jesus seems to be suggesting that you can’t be a friend without love. Friendship doesn’t stand alone as a concept. Love and friendship go hand in hand. 

Sometimes I find love such an abstract, wishy-washy concept. But I think Paul’s definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13 can be really helpful in thinking through what it means to be a friend who loves: 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (vv. 4-7)

So a friend is patient and kind. A friend doesn’t get jealous or brag or keep a record of all the times they’ve been hurt. A friend stops others from doing something evil and points to the truth. A friend protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres. 

But this is not easy. Loving comes at a cost. And this brings us to our second point about being a friend. 

Friendship is sacrificial 

In John 15 Jesus also teaches that friendship is sacrificial—that “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (v. 15). And we know that Jesus did go on to do exactly that. 

We see that true love comes at a cost. Friendship will be costly in terms of our personal convenience and time, and as we move out of our comfort zone and make ourselves vulnerable.

When I was at theological college, one of my closest friends was really sick for quite a long time and was sometimes bedridden for days. Before that, we used to get up to all kinds of crazy shenanigans, but when she was sick being her friend sometimes meant saying no to doing things with other people so she wasn’t alone in her room all day. It meant sitting with her at her lowest and being honest. There was a cost to being her friend but because of this friendship I think I am now a more patient, honest and prayerful person. 

As Jonathan Holmes says, “if love in its highest and greatest form was demonstrated through Christ’s self-sacrificial death on our behalf, then clearly the love we display to one another through our friendships must also be characterized by self-sacrifice”.[3] And this leads us to our third point about biblical friendship.

Friendship is outward looking 

Jesus doesn’t have friends for the sake of it. In John 15:16 Jesus says he expects his friends to bear fruit: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last”. 

The purpose of friendship isn’t to sit with someone and gaze at our navels. 

The purpose of friendship isn’t to sit in an enclosed group and let no one else in. 

The purpose of friendship isn’t collecting friends so you can say you have the most. 

The purpose of friendship is to bear fruit for God’s kingdom—fruit that reflects the love Jesus has shown his friends. 

If two friends love one another, their love attracts others. Biblical friendship is an open circle that says the more the merrier; please come and join us. 

Biblical friendship doesn’t allow for cliques. Cliques are a group of inward looking people who have said that this little group is our little group and no one else is welcome. This is the opposite of the model of friendship that Jesus gives us. 

The ultimate friend 

In John 15 we see that friends are loving, sacrificial and outward looking. But most importantly, we see that Jesus is the ultimate friend. 

Jesus is the one who laid down his life for his friends. After he spoke the words in John 15, the very next day he went to the cross and took upon himself the punishment for sin. 

When we look at the cross we see the friend who loves the most, sacrifices the most and looks outward the most. Jesus is the ultimate model of biblical friendship. 

And the most incredible thing is that Jesus invites us to be his friends. Jesus says in verse 14:“You are my friends if you do what I command”. He considers us his friends when we continue in his love and in obedience to him. 

As friends of Jesus we now know everything he knows. He says in verse 15:

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.

Through Jesus we know everything that his Father has taught him. Through Jesus we know God. Through Jesus we can be friends of God. 

Friends with God

I find this truth absolutely mind blowing. We can say that we are friends with God! In the Old Testament there are only two people who God refers to as a friend in relation to himself. One of them is Moses (Exod 33:11) and the other is Abraham (Isa 48:11). In those instances, we see that God calls those who belong to him his friend. 

God has befriended us in Jesus. He is all we need. We may have different kinds of relationships, but Jesus alone satisfies. 

Guilty sinners can find no better and truer friend than in God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Son whom he has sent. 

When you are feeling unloved, lonely and friendless, look to Jesus. He has loved you from before the world began.  

When you are hurt by a friend, feel humiliated and are the subject of gossip, look to Jesus. He is the perfect friend who never fails you.[4]

When you struggle with sin and temptation or are riddled with guilt and your friends aren’t there to encourage and help, look to Jesus. He is there, mediating your prayers and interceding for you before God our Father. 

When you are experiencing friendship breakdown, look to Jesus. He died to bring reconciliation to this broken world.  

When we look to Jesus we see the truest friend you could possibly ask for. This is the friend we all need. And what a friend he is. 

Look out for part 2 of this series next week, where Caitlin will flesh out this picture of what it means to be a friend in practical terms.

[1] ‘How social isolation is killing us’, The New York Times, 22 December 2016.
[2] See A modern disease called loneliness’, My Christian Daily, 20 July 2017.
[3] Jonathan Holmes, ‘Biblical Friendship Cannot Be Hacked’, The Gospel Coalition, 28 July 2016.
[4] Christine Fox, Closer than a Sister, Christian Focus Publications Ltd, Fearn, Scotland, 2017, p. 189.