More recently, I’ve discovered true riches in the cultivation of enduring friendships. Telephone, e-mail, and Facebook work well for connecting and staying connected with long-time friends. However, for me, social media do not provide the glue necessary to sustain relationships beyond the “acquaintance” level. I agree with the statistics reporting that most people have many acquaintances but only a few close friends. One of my goals now is to give greater attention to deepening some "old friendships" that have languished over time. But first, let's consider some biblical teaching on friendship.
The New Testament account of Jesus Christ’s relationships with men and women reveals different “levels” of friendship. Here, we find two Greek words most commonly translated “friend.” The first is hetairos, meaning an “associate” or “companion.” This denotes a relationship without strong sentiment or close affection. However, a “dear friend” (philos) is one for whom there is strong affection (Gr. phile). For a “beloved friend” we purposely ‘do good’ as a result of an ‘affectionate conviction.’ Jesus was involved in both levels of friendship.
When one of the twelve disciples, Judas, approached Jesus to betray Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said, "Friend (hetairos), do what you have come for (Matt. 26:50)." But, regarding Lazarus who experienced a fatal illness, Jesus said, "Our friend (philos) Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep (John 11:11)." The Jewish leaders must have witnessed Jesus’ compassion toward sinners, for they considered Him “a friend (philos) of tax collectors and sinners (Matt. 11: 19).”
During His 3-year ministry on Earth, the friendship of Jesus and his disciples advanced from the level of acquaintance or association (hetarios) to one of strong affection (phile) and endearment (philos). After Judas departed from the gathering in the upper room, Jesus expressed the level of His affection toward the remaining disciples as recorded in John 15: 12-15 (NIV):
“My command is this: Love (agapao) each other as I have loved you. Greater love (agape) has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (philos). You are my friends (philos) if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants (doulos), because a servant (doulos) does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends (philos), for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
Note that this deepening relationship was not because God’s love (agape), already infinite and perfect (1 John 4: 8), was deepening over time, but because His followers were growing to love Him more. I am learning from this study that endearing friendships require agape love which, in turn, is based on faithfulness and commitment, and upon knowledge and communication.
Love is ultimately a gift from God, and apart from His grace, there is neither love nor enduring friendship. Christ communicated the depth of His love when He foretold that He would lay down His life for His disciples (John 15:13). In return, the strong and growing affection of Jesus’ followers toward Him is represented by Peter who exclaimed, Lord, …I will lay down my life for You (John 13: 37).
After comforting and encouraging His disciples concerning His impending death and departure, Jesus explained that love toward Him will be evident by their commitment and obedience as illustrated by the branches of a vine that must faithfully abide in order to bear fruit (John 15: 1-14).
In addition to love and commitment, the deepening friendship between Christ and His disciples was based on knowledge. In John 15:15, the Savior declares His intent to reveal to them more of those things the Father had made known to Him. The relationship Jesus was defining is one in which His disciples could know or recognize (as in Gr. oida), more and more of His will and purposes. Earlier, as recorded in John 10, Jesus used the same word, oida, in the context of sheep that know or recognize the voice of their shepherd and they obediently follow him.
Today, Jesus invites us into an agape love relationship with Him that deepens according to our commitment when we withhold nothing from Him, even our lives; a friendship in which we learn to recognize and follow His voice through the discipline of prayer and reading of His Word. This three-fold, love-commitment-knowledge, relationship is what Jesus means when He commands us to Abide in Me, and I in you (John 15:4) so that you can bear much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing (v. 5). As you abide in me, Jesus says, My person and power through the Holy Spirit will abide in you resulting in much fruit—God’s love, joy, peace, etc. (Galatians 5: 22-23).
Out of our intimate, abiding relationship with Jesus, He promises, If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it (John 14: 14). This relationship is not one in which Jesus poses as the “central bank” and gives us an ATM card for anything we want. Rather, He is describing what will happen when our beloved friendship with Him, characterized by love and faithful commitment as evidenced by our communion with Him through His written Word and through prayer leads us to ask in prayers that are in harmony with what Christ stands for (i.e. His Name). The fruit of this level of ‘beloved friendship’ is the servant stewardship God rejoices in.
The servant steward recognizes that he or she is not the vine (John 15: 1). The true vine is Jesus upon Whom the steward is utterly dependent. Nor is the steward the Gardener (or Vinedresser, v. 1). The Gardener is the Father God. Instead, the steward is a branch of the vine, submissive to the authority of the Gardener. Yet, the Gardener calls us to be fruitful stewards, or “gardeners” (small “g”) in His image by cultivating friendship relationships as sons and daughters; and, perhaps later, as husbands, wives, parents, teachers, pastors, scientists, lawyers, and government or civic leaders. Each of these roles ultimately involves the stewardship of friendships that grow out of our abiding friendship with Christ.
The level of friendship possible through God’s love, commitment, and knowledge is not easily achieved—I speak from my own faltering efforts and from my continual need of God’s grace and forgiveness. My wife is my witness, but she is also my most cherished gift and focus of learning how to be a beloved friend.
I believe God wants us to view friendship as both the “core responsibility” and the personal side of our larger responsibility to Him as stewards. The quality of human stewardship rooted in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:15-25 depends on the quality of relationships, especially friendships, from the very beginning.
|Lloyd and I on a memorable Sunday afternoon in May|
This summer I have been blessed by occasions to renew my friendship with a high school friend, Lloyd; and, a college friend, Roger. My relationship to both of these men had been weakly maintained over the years. Geographic separation and the priorities of our careers and family had made closer friendship impossible. Thankfully, all of this is beginning to change this summer.