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!

4 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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