Am I a Friend of God? (John 15:15)

blogheader-1.jpg

 

Pre-Intro

Have you ever heard the phrase, “I am a friend of God”?

Have you ever thought about what it means?

Am I the only one who has ever wondered about that?

We all have had friends, so we know what a friend is, right? Think of some things you might do with a friend? (movie, fish, golf, hike, shop, bonfire, eat…) Which of those can you do with God? Now, I know that God is always with us in a very real sense. And I know that we can and should talk to him regularly. But there is a difference, right? You can’t hug God like you hug a friend. Even though we may say Jesus is our copilot, I wouldn’t make a sandwich while driving believing that Jesus would take the wheel. You can’t golf or fish with God, because he doesn’t do those things. So being a friend of God has to be fundamentally different from being a friend of Scott … right?

We usually think of friends as peers, or people we have something in common with. Anyone here see God as a peer? I hope not! The bible says there is none like God, and that includes us. We are not like him. If you doubt that, read Job[1]. God makes the differences quite clear. How about the idea of having something in common? Anyone here share things in common with God? Anyone sinless? Omnipotent? Eternal? Yeah… he’s kind of in a category by himself. Again, being a friend of God can’t be identical to what we usually mean when we say, “I am a friend of X”.

Intro

This summer we’ve been working our way through the book of John by examining the major themes of the book.

In John 15:15, Jesus tells his disciples, “Now, I call you friends”.

People have done different things with that statement. One response is to see this as an anthem. “I am a friend of God!”, some shout. It’s a cheerful refrain. A slogan. Even a chant, perhaps. It’s all about us and who we are. This is not completely false, but it’s not completely true, either. It’s just not complete.

Jesus tells his disciples, “Now, I call you friends”. This raises some questions – for me at least. If “now”, then why now? If “now”, then what were we before? Who is the “you”? And even if I identify the specific “you” he was speaking to, can we equally apply it to the “you” that is here today? In other words, was it just them or are we friends too? And what does he mean by friends? As we’ve just seen, that seems like unusual language for God to use. As you can see, I ask a lot of questions. Hopefully, we will answer those and more before we are done today.

 

Slaves or Friends?

Let’s expand the reading a bit. You know I’m a big fan of context. That’s the only way to properly approach scripture.

“No longer do I call you servants (…) but I have called you friends,”

You can see how context helps here. He’s using the word friend in contrast to the word servant[2].

On the surface, it sounds like Jesus is saying we are no longer servants/slaves. But if that’s true, when I read the rest of the bible, it adds some confusion for me. For instance, later in the same discussion, Jesus says a servant isn’t greater than his master[3].

In fact, Jesus’ closest followers – some of whom were there when he called them friends and no longer servants – said some confusing things:

  1. James calls himself a servant of God – James 1:1
  2. So does Peter – 2 Peter 1:1
  3. And Jude – Jude 1:1
  4. And John – Rev 1:1

And notice the references. Chapter one, verse one. These writers, and many more, introduced themselves as servants of God. But didn’t Jesus say they were no longer servants?

I think Paul helps us understand the issue. He tells us that “having been set free from sin, [we] have become slaves of righteousness”[4]. Paul’s point is that we are all slaves. We have always been slaves. We were born as slaves to sin, but we are now slaves to Christ. In fact, this is the testimony of the bible. Our story begins with our rebellion and rejection of God, but after what the bible calls “regeneration”, our minds and our affections are turned to Christ. No longer do we seek after the pleasures and approval of the world. Instead we seek to please God. This is the transition from being friends of the world to friends of God. Slaves before, and slaves after. What has changed is the direction of our heart.

History

I think this is helpful, but we can do more. Let’s look at some history.

Ancient slavery

In ancient times, slavery was very common as a means of repaying debt. This wasn’t antebellum slavery like we saw in the South, so don’t think in those terms. We’re talking about relatively free people who chose to become slaves.

I don’t think it should be that hard to relate to. Imagine having a dozen credit cards maxed out. You are upside down on two car loans and you can’t make your mortgage payment. Not to mention the medical bills you are ignoring because they’re too much to deal with. For a whole bunch of people, this is not difficult to imagine. Now add this. What if you could walk into Wal-Mart and fill out some paperwork giving up your freedom to them in exchange for all your debt being wiped clean. No more payments, no more bad credit, no more harassing calls. You’re in the clear. The only tradeoff is now someone else controls your resources. You’re not in charge of your time. You don’t get a paycheck, but they give you what you need. Your family is provided things like food, shelter, and clothing, and you do whatever the company needs you to do. For people in desperate circumstances, this was pretty appealing.

In Jesus’ time, living in essence as property of another person was often a much better life than the slaves could have otherwise had. No matter what we might think of that concept, it was the norm for over half the population.

Bondservants

Sometimes a slave would be so appreciative of how his master treated him and his family that he would pledge himself to his master for life. He would signify his choice by driving an awl through his ear, essentially pinning him to his master’s wall. It was a graphic way of saying, “I want to be your slave for life. I am committing myself and everything I have to you.” I’m not going anywhere.

Again, I want to reiterate this is not cotton-picking slavery. These people were not abducted from their homes. They did not live in inhumane conditions. In most cases, this was not the dehumanizing oppression of the weak, though that did happen in some cases. For the most part, slaves were employees, but more. They worked for their master, lived on his land, ate his food, and did his bidding.

And don’t picture them as just laborers in the field. Slaves filled every conceivable role that employees could. Worker, supervisor, scribe, doctor, manager, cook, purchaser…  This was the case throughout the Roman empire.  Many worked their way to freedom. Sometimes, even those who were doing just fine would become slaves of someone very wealthy so they could move up the social ladder.

Friends of the King

Some slaves naturally became closer to their masters than others. By “closer”, I don’t mean chummy. I mean closer in proximity. Closer in trust. They would end up being business advisers, financial overseers, personnel managers, emissaries, cup bearers, food tasters, and everything else. Naturally, their master (who might even be a king) would grow to trust them and even build friendship with them. The master would have a special bond with some that he did not have with others. Some would be privy to information that others would not be. They were friends of their master, but they were not peers. They were slaves and also friends. By becoming one whom the king loved, or a “friend of the king”, you did not stop being subject to him. You were both at the same time.

In Jesus’ time, this was common knowledge throughout the empire. The slaves closest to the king would know what was important to him. They would know where he would go and where he would not. Who he would do business with and who he would not. They knew his motivations, his thoughts, his desires, and his plans. They were slaves that the king loved.

We can think of a few biblical examples to back this up. Joseph was sold into slavery as a boy, yet he rose to become the second most powerful man in Egypt[5]. Daniel was taken into captivity[6] by a conquering enemy, but eventually rose to a become the king’s trusted advisor[7]. Onesimus had been a slave to Philemon, but through Paul’s intervention he became a slave to the gospel[8].

Jesus was drawing on this common knowledge of how Roman society was built. No commentary was needed, because the disciples understood him to be saying, “You are friends of the king. I am your master, but you are slaves that I love. You are the servants who know me and my will most intimately.”

The American Difficulty

As Americans, this concept can be tough to relate to, but I think we can get close.

First of all, we don’t live in a monarchy. Honestly, I’ve often wished we did. We would certainly have a different understanding of many stories and lessons in scripture if that way of life was engrained in us.

You don’t get to vote for a king. You don’t have the right to disagree with a king. For all the wonderful benefits of American life, growing up in this country means being alienated from the underlying worldview that is present in the storyline of the bible.

Our personal declaration of independence

The American dream tells us we can make it on our own. The idea of independence, self-determination, and freedom led people to start this country on their own terms. It has inspired countless entrepreneurs (myself included) to leave the traditional workforce and start their own businesses. It drove us to shake off oppression and follow our dreams. By shedding the tyranny of kings, we were free to choose the rulers that best represented our ideals. Independence has brought us many benefits, whether perceived or real, and these have been formative in what it is to be American.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all rosy. On a personal level, our private declaration of independence means that no one is the boss of me. At the faintest sign of oppression, we are ready to rise up and fight against the man. Having tasted independence, we can’t get enough of it. Every cycle, we rally around candidates who we think will bring us more freedom – and who will most likely disappoint us as much as the last one.

We know what will happen if children are raised without respect for authority, but we seem to ignore the fact that in all our cries for freedom and independence, we adults easily fall prey to the same thing.

Our personal bill of rights

However, just as independence has a dark side, so does the notion of rights. It’s impossible to miss the abuses of this concept today. Now it seems everyone has the inalienable right to be and to do whatever they want. In effect, we have all decided that we can dictate our own personal bill of rights on our own terms.

Advertisers have encouraged us by telling us to “Just Do It” and to “Have it Your Way”. They say that “You Deserve a Break Today”. Why? "Because I'm worth it."    

We are all narcissists. Time’s person of the year in 2006 was “YOU”. We see everything in terms of how it can serve us or how it affects us. Is it any surprise that we have such a strong entitlement mentality?

I’m not suggesting we ought to return to Britain. I’m pointing out that the drive to be independent is a very close cousin to rebellion. We would do well to recognize that a rebellious streak exists in the American genes.  If we aren’t careful, a healthy sense of independence can become a very unhealthy rebellion. And we would be naïve to presume that it does not affect our theology.

And just like the rebellious streak of independence, the self-centered streak of individual rights affects our theology. We tend to read scripture as if it is about us. We look for promises rather than requirements. All of this has the effect of removing any sense of accountability to God. We end up focusing on grace and ignoring the law. We are quick to say, “Jesus loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life”, and rarely pause to consider that he might require anything of us.

The Perfect Storm

We proclaim, “I’m a friend of God!” This is true, of course, but it’s incomplete. This insufficient and Americanized view of theology leaves us desiring a Savior, but not a Lord. We want someone who will help us, but not someone who will rule over us. This is a narcissistic view of Christianity, and not what Jesus was talking about.

Masters and Slaves in the USA

In our context, the closest we can probably come to this master/servant idea is probably in our vocation. If you have ever had a job, you know that the employer and the employee have a particular relationship. The boss chooses the people he thinks will best fill the positions required. Some workers will naturally have more proximity to the boss than others. Often, the positions closest to the boss are filled by those who rise through the ranks. The people in roles like managers or personal assistant will naturally be closest to the boss. They will have more access to him than the average worker does. This is not because they are entitled to the access. This access is earned in part, and granted in part. You have to be loyal, a good worker, trustworthy, etc. That is what is required to be in a place where you will even be considered to be included in his inner circle. A trustworthy and exceptional worker is not entitled to be the boss’s assistant, but he is in a position where it’s a possibility. Think of it like a prerequisite. Taking pre-med does not get you accepted into med school, but you definitely won’t be if you haven’t done pre-med. Even those in the boss’ inner circle know their place. They know not to treat their boss too casually, because though there is a degree of friendship, he’s still in charge. The bottom line in this flawed analogy is this: there are special roles within companies, but they are still subordinates.

Examining the text

With this historical framework regarding masters and servants in view, let’s look a little deeper at Jesus’ discussion with the apostles.

Hermeneutics

The fancy word for what we’re about to do is “hermeneutics”. That’s the name for how we go about understanding the bible. And it’s usually easy once you know how. We’re going to want to look at things like who were the players, where did it happen, and what happened before and after.

The Players

First of all, the speaker is easy to identify. It was Jesus. The person recording this exchange was John the Apostle. He was there as an eyewitness. Keep in mind that his motivation for writing this book was to let us know that Jesus was God made man, and that this belief ought to transform our lives.

The audience was Jesus’ closest followers, called his apostles. As citizens of Rome, they were well familiar with the idea of “friends of the king” we explored.

Setting: A Big Day

Let’s look at the chronological layout of the book of John. Chapters 1-12 covered approximately three years. Chapters 13-18 cover Thursday. John recorded a whole lot more detail about Jesus’ final day before his crucifixion than he did any other day of his life. So let’s examine the setting of this day a bit more.

Jesus had what we call the “Last Supper” with the disciples. The apostles argued over which one of them was the highest in command. Jesus then washed their feet to show that servanthood was better than greatness. When Jesus explained the practice of communion, he said that Judas was going to betray him. He then told the remaining eleven that he will soon be leaving for good and they can’t follow.

Hold on, Jesus. You’re not done here. What about Israel conquering our oppressors? Their conception of the Messiah and his goals was being upended and they were confused.

Then they left the Upper Room and began walking. It was probably well after dark. They were walking toward the Mount of Olives where Jesus would be arrested that same night. This was not a celebratory march. Jesus knew his death was imminent. This was a somber review of what Jesus wanted them to remember.

After all this teaching, Jesus predicted that every one of them would fall away from him that night. Peter said, “Well, everyone but me, Lord.” Jesus said, “Actually, tonight alone you’ll deny me three times, Pete”.

Jesus continued. He compared them to a branches on a fruit vine. He said that God is in the business of “cutting away” people who claim to be part of the vine (that is Christ) but who bear no fruit. He then admonishes them to love one another, just like he had loved them. In fact, they should love one another to the point of death, just as he was about to do, though they didn’t know it yet. And then he said this:

“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. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” – John 15:14-17

Jesus was about to die. He repeated his summary of the law: love God and love one another. Love God by obeying his commandments[9], and love one another[10] by caring for one another. If you do this, then you are my friend, and the fruit you show in your life will prove it.

Finding the Friends

Jesus’ apostles had been with him. They had learned from him. Their affections were changed. They were changed to the point of giving up their own ambitions and making their lives about spreading the good news of Jesus. Every one of them suffered and died in this pursuit. Not because they merely liked what Jesus had to say, or found him to be a wise man with good advice for living. They put their trust in him as God and believed him to the point of obedience. They were his friends.

So, are we his friends?

That’s something he left up to us. Jesus was not friends with every person in the world. He was not even friends with all who considered themselves to be Christians[11]. Far from it. His friends were those who followed his commands. We can choose to obey him or not, and in that choice we determine whether we are his friends.

Jesus sacrificed his life, and we must sacrifice our lives. Our will must submit to his. In a very real sense, we must “die”. We must give up our autonomy, our independence, our right to set our own path. And to reference last week’s message, this obedience to Christ is one significant way that we glorify God.

I want to clarify something, because I don’t want this to be a discouraging message. Please don’t take from this the idea that we must be perfect in order to be friends of God. That is not the case at all. There is a requirement. Jesus does call us to perfect obedience, but our fallen humanity causes us to stumble in sin repeatedly. Still, however, there is a distinct difference between one who stumbles into sin and one who embraces sin. There is a difference between a transgression of sin and a lifestyle of sin. This is not to excuse our sins, but there is an important distinction: a friend of God is broken and repentant when he sins, a friend of the world is not.

You don’t need to look any farther than the disciples to gain some reassurance. They were hardly role models all the time. Just in the passages we’ve discussed today, we’ve seen them petty, self-centered, vengeful, and cowardly. And yet, they were friends of God because their hearts were turned to Christ. They sought Christ first, and their lives showed it. They also showed some character defects we would call sin, but that did not define them. They sought to put that behavior to death for the sake of Christ.

"[A lot of people] think that Christianity is you doing all the righteous things you hate and avoiding all the wicked things you love in order to go to Heaven. No, that's a lost man with religion. A Christian is a person whose heart has been changed; they have new affections." – Paul Washer

So… Do you have new affections since your conversion to Christ? Do you “bear fruit” that is consistent with being attached to the vine? As time goes on, do you look increasingly more like Christ rather than the world? If so, then you are a friend of God. Still a slave! But a slave who is a friend. A worker with proximity to the master. A bondservant with a special closeness with the king.

Closing

In the whole scope of scripture, I think we can say something like this:  We are all born as slaves to sin. When we submit to Christ, we remain slaves but we serve another master. We are no longer in bondage to sin, but now in bondage to Christ. And if we obey his commands, we are no longer merely slaves, but he friends as well. We are people to whom God’s heart is revealed. We no longer have just rote commands, but we are able to see – however dimly – where and how God is working.

Do you want to be close to God? Then be like the king’s cupbearer or messenger. Do what he says. Know what he wants. Make his business your business, his will your will. What troubles him should trouble you. Obey the king and you will be closer to the king. Obey God and you will be closer to God. It’s as simple as that.

In glory, we will be more than friends. There is an inheritance promised to believers. But that comes in eternity[12]. We will rule with Christ. We will see God more plainly than we do now. I’m not sure exactly what that means because I don’t think it’s something our minds are able to comprehend now. But I know that it must be amazing.

For now, to be a slave is enough. Being a bondservant who is anchored to Christ rather than to sin is amazing. We really have no right to hope for more. And yet, he has called us friends if we follow him. What a profound and unparalleled privilege.

“You are a slave who became a son; He is a son who became a slave. You are a slave who will receive all the glories of heaven when your sonship is realized. He was a son who possessed all the glories of heaven and emptied Himself of them to become a slave.” – John MacArthur

This is favor being granted to us by a God who owes us nothing. In demanding obedience, God is not expecting more than he ought. However, he is giving more than we deserve. His friendship is not to give us something to gloat about. Rather, it is to put us in a position to see as he sees, to love what he loves, to despise what he despises, and through it all to become a little more like him.

Jesus’ disciples were called his friends after spending a significant amount of time with him. And I can pull some application from that. Do I spend time in his word so I can hear what they heard? Am I aware of Jesus when I’m at work? Do I think of his commands when I’m at home? Do I love what he loves when I’m talking with others? Do I hate what he hates when I’m on online or on Netflix?

This message is not intended as a guilt trip. Far from it! Jesus Christ – God himself – wants to be our friend! We are not saved by keeping laws. Salvation is a remarkable act of grace. It’s true that we don’t earn our salvation, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t conditional. To be Jesus’ friend, I must first be his disciple. Properly understood, I must be his slave. For me, this is simultaneously an outstanding honor and a sobering reminder.

Saying “I am a friend of God” should not make us proud or brash. Being a friend of God does not mean we’re on the winning team, so we get to rub everyone’s noses in it. Far too many people say they are “friends of God” as if it entitles them to something. The status of being God’s friend ought to humble us.

 

 


[1] Specifically, Job chapters 38-42

 

[2] Or “slave”, depending upon your translation. For our purposes, these terms may be used interchangeably.

 

[3] John 15:20

 

[4] Romans 6:18

 

[5] Genesis 41:40

 

[6] Daniel 1:1-6

 

[7] Daniel 2:48

 

[8] Philemon v8-16

 

[9] John 14:15; 14:31; 15:10

 

[10] John 15:12; 15:13

 

[11] Matthew 7:21-23

 

[12] Matt 19:28; Luke 22:29-30; Romans 8:17; 2 Tim 2:12; 1 Peter 4:13