A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on December 8, 2019.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you (John 15:12–15 ESV).
What is friendship? The answer is not as easy as perhaps it once was. Logging-on to Facebook, I am told that I have 1,950 “friends.” That’s a lot of friends, many of whom I don’t even recognize. Is this friendship or merely a digital means of connection and limited communication? Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure it’s not friendship.
Maybe friendship is more like the sitcom, Friends, characterized by one observer as depicting “a collection of very attractive twenty- and thirtysomethings ‘hanging out’ together as a kind of quasi-family, a light and frothy fantasy that transposed the social life of the college dorm to not-quite-adult life in implausibly toney Manhattan apartments.” That doesn’t sound like friendship either.
We know that friendship is more. It is deeper than digital interaction. It is richer than a sitcom script. Far different than my 1,950 Facebook friends, Aristotle reasoned, “Great friendship too can only be felt towards a few people…One cannot have with many people the friendship based on virtue and the character of our friends themselves, and we must be content if we find even a few such.” True friendship is true among few and one of life’s true pleasures, savored and enjoyed.
True friendship enjoys an ease of freedom; we can be ourselves with our closest friends. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis explains, “In a circle of true friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts.” What Lewis describes is a mutual love perhaps difficult to understand until experienced: Two people who enjoy that Greek word philia, or brotherly love for one another, are what Aristotle simply called “friendship.”
However, what we know to be true as human beings does not necessarily correlate to our relationship with God. For example, Jesus says to his disciples, “You are my friends,” referring to us as “friends” three times in this passage alone. This is not a new concept. Abraham is referred to as “a friend of God” (James 2:23) as is Moses (Ex. 33:11). Yet, to say that we, like Abraham and Moses, are “friends” of the Lord, must be different than what Aristotle describes. We certainly don’t “meet like sovereign princes of independent states…on neutral ground,” as Lewis puts it. Human friendship and friendship with the Lord are distinctly different but still truly friendship. If this is the case, then, what does Jesus mean by “You are my friends?” What does it mean to be a friend of the Lord?
Sacrifice Demands Obedience
Would you be willing to die for your dearest friend? I would, too. Such a hypothetical question narrows the list of friends though, doesn’t it? You have friends that you would help, but then there is that friend (or friends) that you would take a bullet for. But does your willingness to sacrifice yourself for your friend allow you to demand obedience from your friend? Here we see a sharp distinction of friendship between two people created in the image of God and friendship with God.
Jesus’ statement of truth, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” carries with it a foreshadowing of the cross. The Roman instrument of torture and death meant to shame the guilty serves as an emblem of God’s love for his children:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NASB). Such love transcends worldly understanding revealing a redeeming and eternal love.
I’ve found a Friend, O such a Friend!
He loved me ere I knew him;
He drew me with the cords of love,
And thus he bound me to him;
And round my heart still closely twine
Those ties which nought can sever,
For I am his, and he is mine,
For ever and for ever.
In words hard to believe, the apostle of Hebrews reveals that Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith,” endured the physical and spiritual agony of the cross “for the joy that was set before him.” How could our friend Jesus go to the cross with joy? He endured the cross for a love for his friends the joy of being our Savior forever. And through his redeeming love we are united with Christ, in a divine bond of friendship accomplished by his atoning death on the cross and sealed by his resurrection from the dead.
What then characterizes the recipients of this redeeming love? What does Christ’s sacrifice demand? What is a defining characteristic of a friend of God? Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Christian obedience does not create but reveals friendship with Christ.
Someone might argue that if we were truly Christ’s friend, then he would demand nothing of us, but this is not to comprehend the holiness of God and salvation of sinners. By virtue of Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection, as the Apostle Paul asks rhetorically, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2 ESV). In short, we can’t. Therefore, in his love for his friends, Christ through his Spirit is helping us to put off the old self and put on the new, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24).
Jesus, however, does not leave us to presume what he commands, but reveals it to us as friends: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” What does this tell us about the Word of God? It was given to us in love, not as servants but as friends. He has revealed his will to us while not distinguishing between us. Consider the gift we have received in the Holy Scriptures! As the Shorter Catechism explains, “The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (WSC 3). We not only know our Lord but also how to obey him. He has chosen to reveal himself and his will to us, a loving revelation to his friends.
We should never consider our obedience to Christ as the condition of our relationship, however, but evidence of it. And, not only did Christ procure and secure our friendship, it was established long ago, before the foundation of the world, in fact. He chose us, and in him our lives produce the fruit of our friendship.
Election Produces Fruit
It is said that you don’t get to choose your parents, but you can choose your friends. This of course is not the case in our friendship with Christ. Jesus clarifies, “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” Of course, Jesus’ disciples followed him, but the first choice was his. So it is with all of Jesus’ friends.
The Apostle, in writing to the Ephesians explains, “…he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. …In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:4, 11). This doctrinal truth not only directs all glory to God, but it also reveals the security of our friendship with Christ. It is not a friendship based on my choice but on the eternal, sovereign choice of God.
We are chosen in Christ as his friends, but we are also appointed to bear fruit. Just as obedience characterizes our friendship through his sacrifice so also our election is evidenced through good works. And just as our salvation was predestined so also was the fruit we bear. Paul describes it this way: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). According to his sovereign election, our good works were prepared, that he may be glorified through those he calls friends.
This is no theoretical doctrine of fatalism but a God-glorifying encouragement of friendship that leads us to our knees. As friends of Jesus, he teaches us and tells us to pray to our heavenly Father, saying, “whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” This is not a formula to be applied but a promise of provision. As the Shorter Catechism succinctly defines, “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will…” (WSC 98).
Therefore, we pray as friends of Christ in obedience to his commands, according to his Word, as eternally predestined, bearing fruit for his glory. And what does this friendship with Christ look like in the church? It looks like love: “These things I command you, so that you love one another.”
Friendship Enables Love
We are frequently commanded, to love one another, but if we are not careful we can disconnect Christian love from Christ. You may find it difficult to love me, but then there’s that command, so you grin and bear it (or bear me, as the case may be). This is not the love Christ commands. Our love for one another starts with and flows from our friendship with Christ.
Of earthly friendships, Aristotle said, “Great friendships too can only be felt towards a few people.” While there is truth in this, for the Christian there is only one great friendship.
Jesus! what a Friend for sinners!
Jesus! Lover of my soul;
Friends may fail me, foes assail me,
He, my Saviour, makes me whole.
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!
Hallelujah, what a Friend!
Saving, helping, keeping, loving,
He is with me to the end.
For there is no other friend I know who died for my sin, redeemed me, and secured my eternal destiny. There is no other friend I know who loved me before I was created, gives me all I need for life and godliness, and indwells me with his eternal presence. He knows me at my worst and loves me with his best, and through our friendship he enables me to love . . . you.
Therefore, friendship with our Lord Jesus Christ enables us to love one another, and our love for one another is telling. The Apostle John writes in his first epistle, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God who he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21).
Neither you nor I have loved one another as Christ has loved us. Yet, as we look to the goodness of the gospel, cherishing our friendship with Christ, the more we love as he loves. One of the evidences of Christian maturity is in fact love for one another. And in our friendship with Christ, as we love one another, true friendships begin to blossom. One of God’s blessings upon the local church is true and lasting friendships among brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us pray to that end, remembering,
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love:
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.
From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free;
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.
 Wilfred M. McClay, “Friends,” The Hedgehog Review (Spring 2019), https://hedgehogreview.com/
 Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, Inc., 1990), 517.
 Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, Inc., 1990), 498.
 Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, Inc., 1990), 359.