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!