John 15:14-17 – Friends of Jesus

Not Like This

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Jesus redefines the disciple-teacher relationship in John 15:14-17. His disciples are no longer to be his servants, they are his friends. We tend to read the word “friend” through the grid of contemporary friendships, that Jesus is a sort of “best friend” (or as my daughters say, Jesus is out BFF).  Despite the popularity of this mental picture, it waters down what Jesus is saying so much that we are in danger of losing his point.

I want suggest that the original audience would have heard “friendship” as a statement of status.  “Friendship” in the Greco-Roman world was a statement of social status, involving far more that the modern term. There are only three categories of people in the ancient world, friends, enemies, and people you don’t know yet. To illustrate this, I list below several lengthy quotations from Greek writers describing true friendship.

First, friendship implies loyalty (Isocrates, Dem. 1, Xenophon, Memorabilia, 2.6.1).  A true friend is loyal to his friends beyond what would be expected in other relationships.

Isocrates, To Demonicus 1.1 In many respects, Demonicus, we shall find that much disparity exists between the principles of good men and the notions of the base; but most of all by far have they parted company in the quality of their friendships. The base honor their friends only when they are present; the good cherish theirs even when they are far away; and while it takes only a short time to break up the intimacies of the base, not all eternity can blot out the friendships of good men.

Second, friendship implies intimacy, shared confidences, and shared difficulties (Isocrates, To Demonicus, 1.25). I particularly like the idea that you know who your friends are when you suffer peril with them, they are “gold tried in fire.”

Isocrates, To Demonicus 1.25 Confide in them about matters which require no secrecy as if they were secrets; for if you fail you will not injure yourself, and if you succeed you will have a better knowledge of their character. Prove your friends by means of the misfortunes of life and of their fellowship in your perils; for as we try gold in the fire, so we come to know our friends when we are in misfortune. You will best serve your friends if you do not wait for them to ask your help, but go of your own accord at the crucial moment to lend them aid.

Third, friends share resources. (Aristotle, Rhet 1.5.16; Marital, Epigram 2.43.1-16; Diogenes Laertius, Vit 7.1.124).  Friends do not ask for favors or loans, they ask to share resources with their friends, even if there is no expectation of return.

Aristotle, Rhet 1.5.16 A friend is one who exerts himself to do for the sake of another what he thinks is advantageous to him. A man to whom many persons are so disposed, has many friends; if they are virtuous, he has worthy friends.

Diogenes Laertius, Vit 7.1.124 And by friendship they mean a common use of all that has to do with life, wherein we treat our friends as we should ourselves. They argue that a friend is worth having for his own sake and that it is a good thing to have many friends.

In John 15-17, Jesus declares his loyalty to his disciples as friends and reminds them that he has been sharing with them everything that the Father has revealed to him. In addition, Jesus is leaving to prepare a place in the Father’s house for his friends (14:2), and that he when he is gone he will endow them with the resources they need to do the task they have been called to preform, the Holy Spirit (14:26, 16:12-15).

Friendship also helps to explain the very difficult line “ask whatever you want in my Father’s name he will give you” (15:16). Since Jesus and his disciples are in the same circle of friends, they share resources at the Father’s disposal.  By entering a friend-relationship with the disciples, Jesus gives them access to his own “friend network” and family.  Since Jesus is the Son, the disciples now will have direct access to the Father.

A student was on the level of servant to the teacher, there was almost nothing that a teacher could not ask his disciple to do for him. Jesus rejects that sort of relationship, serving his disciples humbly (washing their feet) and then laying down his life for his friends.

By describing the relationship of the disciples as a “friendship” as wide-reaching implications for mutual care. One is responsible for a friend at a deeper level than for a servant. For example, friends share material wealth with each other. In a master / servant relationship, one does a favor with the expectation of a return on that investment. But friends are to serve one another without the expectation of a returned favor. In a Greco-Roman context, you are not supposed to say “I owe you one” to your friends.

Jesus has demonstrated this new relationship by washing his disciple’s feet. He has lowered himself below their level, showing that he does not consider them to be his servants. Instead they will all serve each other as friends!

13 thoughts on “John 15:14-17 – Friends of Jesus

  1. I think you are right that this text must be understood in the social categories of the Greco-Roman world, but the catchy statement you make early on that there are only three categories of people, “friends, enemies, and people you don’t know yet” seems overly simple and actually in contradiction with the rest of the article. You mention servants and disciples; slaves, patrons, and clients are other categories that come to mind.

    You say here that friends don’t ask for favors; how do you see 15:14 in this context? “You are my friends if you keep my commands” isn’t exactly asking favors and keeping score, but it does seem to have that flavor about it.

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  2. Yes, you are right there is more to social stratification that friends and enemies. What I do not want to deal with here is “client-patron” issues, since Jesus is *not* saying “I am your client, you are may patron, the one who obeys me continues to receive my patronage.” That would also resonate with a Roman, but Jesus is attempting to level things by using friendship language. In the synoptics, friendship is not used, but rather family imagery. Is this an example of John contextualizing to a Greco-Roman World?

    I also think I did a poor job teasing out “friend of God” from the Hebrew Bible, that is likely more important.

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    • Thanks for your reply. I see the point you are making about status. I think I’m having trouble with the distinction between the “wide-reaching implications for mutual care” of friendship, and the “expectation of a return on that investment” / “I owe you one” of the master/servant relationship. (Maybe I’m just too stuck in my own culture’s expectations?) I wonder how reciprocity plays in here; how one gets to *be* a friend; how friendships end; and what the social repercussions were for persons who abused friendship by only taking and not giving, for example.

      The “friend of God” language from the Hebrew Bible (and especially in its Greek translation, I’d guess) is also a terrific point. And thank you for pointing out that John uses friend language where the synoptics use family language.

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      • I noticed this is the RBL email for this week: Martin Cully, Echoes of Friendship in the Gospel of John (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2010). I have not seen this book yet, but it looks like it does what I was hoping to do in this brief post:

        From Anne M. O’Leary’s review: “Thus Jesus’ followers no longer relate to him as a slave to a master. Rather, they share a genuine friendship with him. Their acting in obedience to Jesus is out of the love of friendship rather than out of a patron-client relationship. In this way the Jesus-follower relationship mirrors the Jesus-Father relationship.”

        http://www.bookreviews.org/bookdetail.asp?TitleId=8018

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  3. I do agree with the aspect that how we define who are friends nowadays is different than during Jesus’ time. In today’s society, we find people almost make it a challenge to know the most people and have the most “friends,” but in reality, they are not their friends, but rather acquaintances. This is not how we should be living. The Bible talks about this in Proverbs as it states, “a man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother,” (Proverbs 18:24, ESV). The more friends we have, it does not make you a stronger person, but rather wears you thin. You cannot trust all of them. It is better to have one close friend than to have many people who like you. In Jesus’ time, friends were meant to be loyal and not feel like they have to expect a payment in return for helping them out. This is how we should be living now. As John puts it into perspective, “the vine metaphor thus illustrates the close-knit, organic relationship Jesus desired with his disciples,” (Kostenberger, 151). Through the demonstration of the closeness of Jesus to his disciples and how they treat each other as friends, this is the time of friends and relationships we should have now. We should continue to follow Jesus’ example.

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    • I agree with you that it is better to only have one friend versus one hundred friends because that one friend might be the only one who will not only be happy with you in your good times but also there to comfort you in your time of need. Jesus had chosen twelve people to go with him throughout his travels and he revealed things to them that he did not fully reveal to the rest of his followers. Then there was the Disciple whom Jesus loved. The Bible does not reveal why Jesus loved this disciple, but he may have been closer to Jesus than the rest of the twelve. Jesus showed the twelve disciples that he was no better than them, even if they thought he was, by getting down and doing something that was saved for the lowest of all the servants (Long, 2019). Back in biblical times, friends may have treated each other like family. Jesus may not have had what one would consider a normal family, but he probably treated his disciples like they were his family. After all, he was the one who brought them together and he taught them things they needed to know, like a parent teaches their child, so they could go out after he was gone and teach the world things they knew. Jesus even told them to go out in the world and show the world his love.

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  4. A friend helps out his friends and those around him. and expects nothing in return. That is the example that Jesus left for us. He found and chose his disciples. He called them by name. He cared for each of his disciples and with time they became his circle his top 12. They became less like servants, more than just disciples they were his brothers. “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 (John 15:15).” Jesus told his disciples that a servant only serves his master. The servant does not know the plans of his master. The servant only serves his master and does only what his master tells him to do. While Jesus tells his disciples that he has revealed to them everything God has taught him. And therefore, they are not to be seen as servants of Jesus, but rather friends. Because they have been told the Father’s plan.

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  5. Through our class discussion and reading class material, I got a good illustration on Jesus’s idea of friendship. I also made some of my own conclusion while looking at how much Jesus invested in His disciples. Jesus valued the time He spent with his disciples and also sought to contribute toward their well being. Through John, we see that Jesus wanted to break that boundary between master and servant by displaying acts of kindness that symbolized a friendship. Jesus demonstrated his friendship by revealing everything about himself, and as you mentioned in your post, giving his disciples the resources that were given to him by God. These resources were for his disciples to prosper in their faith and have a helping hand while doing so. Jesus was not keeping any secrets from his disciples and made available all His resources. Resources that involve the Holy Spirit, as stated in John 16:7, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you”. By revealing his resources and identity, Jesus showed a level of trust He had for his disciples, and that was a significant indication of true friendship.

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  6. It is interesting to me how other people felt more of a response towards how the world views friendship now. Most of the other posts talked about how they don’t view friendship necessarily in the same way people did in Jesus time. Personally, when I think about the friendships I have, they are based on the loyalty and intimacy aspects, as well as the sharing of resources with some. I think today’s world just has a much broader view of what a “friend” entails. For instance, Facebook allows you to keep in touch with friends that you don’t see often, but many people add on people they have never met to their “friends” list. Those people don’t truly have a friendship with you, and that is not what Jesus is talking about in this case. He is talking about friends that grow along with you, that are dependable and care about you. This may not have been as prevalent in Jesus’ time, but I would say the world today includes acquaintances in your friend group, which may lead to why we no longer view friends the same way people did in the first century. I love the fact that Jesus calls these people that he has taught and helped grow his friends, and the depth that that statement has.

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  7. Friendship in our modern context usually means, when it comes down to it, a relationship that implies comradery. In other words, I call someone my “friend” when I believe we have spent a certain amount of time with each other and share a multitude of interests. In Biblical times, however, friendship had quite a different meaning. During that time, when someone was called a “friend”, they were allowed to be a part of the family, and in fact, friends had the same privilege as the family members–with just a few exceptions of course. So, when Jesus calls His disciples friends, He is inviting them to be a part of the family of God. This has many very meaningful implications. A family member or friend in Biblical times had access to the same resources as the head of the house, which means that the Father, as He has given all things to Jesus, through Him has given us access to the same riches. In Kostenberger, he points out that because Jesus has now considered us friends, He has a much deeper obligation to serve and support us. Between a master and slave, the master is not obliged to help the slave; in Biblical friendship, just the opposite is true. Therefore, the fact that we are friends of God is actually a profound notion that should bring us to our knees in worship.

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  8. It would be correct to think that we tend to miss the meaning behind certain words being used in the Bible, because of our lack of knowledge for the context. Like you mention, we tend to read the word friend as like our best friends or people we hang out with regularly. This is not what is meant in this passage. Friend has a different meaning than what we think of when we hear the word friend. Knowing the context of the passage is important. If we do not understand the context, we may miss the point completely. If someone is considered you their friend in that time, they considered you to be loyal. They also were intimate and had confidence in you and recognized shared difficulties and resources. (Long) If you were a friend of someone, you were treated with the utmost respect and were not treated wrongly unless you wrongly treated them. Now that I know what it means to be a friend, the verse that says, “ask whatever you want in my Father’s name he will give you”. It means that since you are a friend of mine, we will share the same resources and that resource is God. Jesus wanted his disciples to be his friends rather than essentially his servants. They were so much more than just servants to him. He wanted a much deeper relationship with them which also translates to us as well.

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  9. I must say that I had never thought of friendship as a status statement before this but understanding the context and cultural background it clearly makes sense. It is a statement of how Jesus sees His relationship with His disciples, and how He wants them to see it. Discipleship refers to being under someone- to study and follow after them, and this had been the relationship that Jesus and His disciples had. Now Jesus is calling them His friend. To state this was to put them on the same social level as He was. He was telling them that they now have access to all of Jesus resources; meaning that they were a development of loyalty, relationship, confidence, and even access to the Father. In these times, to have friendship meant that friends were in the same social group of friends and family. Since Jesus is the Son of God this brings His disciples into that inner circle of relationship with Jesus so that they now are able to also be in relation with the Heavenly Father. This also meant that they were in a position to share all that they had and take care of one another. Jesus took it one step further and humbled Himself to the point that He served His friends by washing their feet; and by doing this He is leading by example of what this relationship should look like.

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  10. How incredible is it that Jesus considered the disciples his friends after he had done so much for them. Rabbis and disciples are not on the same level. Rabbis are way above disciples so for Jesus to say that they were his friends was very radical for that time period. The crazy thing is that Jesus calls us his friends too even though we have never physically been with Jesus as the disciples were able to. Jesus loves us so much and he did not care what anyone has done he still loves them just like he loved the woman caught in adultery. Jesus calls us his friends but he is more than that he is our savior because he laid down his life for us. Everything that Jesus had done up until that point was radical so this statement of Jesus calling him his friends should not surprise us at all. However, the best part is that he calls us his friends as well.

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