Jesus Christ was known for saying some very striking and paradoxical things, but on the last night of his physical life, just before heading off to the Garden of Gethsemane where he would be arrested and suffer through the various unjust trials that would lead to his crucifixion, He said something that people seem to read over and not pay attention to its shocking nature. We find this verse, a short sentence, in John 15:14: “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.” I have heard this particular verse stated many times at Passover services both before baptism (when I was a teenager watching the Passover in 1995 in Lakeland, Florida, and in 1998 and 1999 in Tampa, Florida), and in the nearly twenty years since I was baptized. Never have I heard anyone give a message where they stopped and explained this verse, or even drew attention to it, but rather it has generally been read rather quickly towards the end of the Passover ceremony after the unleavened bread and wine have been thoughtfully taken by the members present.
It is easy to see why this verse would not draw a great deal of attention despite being in a place where our attention is often directed in what is undoubtedly an important time and place within the earthly ministry of the Messiah. For one, this particular verse is surrounded by other verses that draw the attention more. And for another, this verse is extremely odd, at least to our egalitarian sentiments, and it prompts questions that we do not want to ask, much less do we want to answer with the Bible. For while it is not difficult at all to find songs and messages that talk about the friend that we have in Jesus or the desire on the part of the Father and Son to have a relationship with us, the terms of that relationship are not often explored in contemporary Christianity. What does it mean to be a friend of Jesus Christ? We seem to assume that it is like being a friend with other people, a relationship based on fond mutual feelings and the shared enjoyment of pleasant time spent in activities of mutual interest. We see Jesus Christ eating and drinking and engaging in witty and winsome dinner conversation, and we say to ourselves that we want a friend like that. I know these qualities are things that I appreciate in a friend and that I seek to enjoy engaging in myself with my friends–an enjoyment of good food and good conversation, mutual fond feelings, and all that.
Yet despite the fact that Jesus Christ did enjoy good food and drink and witty dinner conversation spent with others, these are not what made someone a friend to Him. Instead, He states that He values friends who do what He tells them to do, or to put it another way, who obey His commandments. This is not the sort of friend we normally have, and if someone behaved that way towards us, we would tend to think of such a friend as being extremely bossy and unpleasant, and most of us would not like to be around that kind of person, that is, if they were a person like ourselves where we did not recognize any sort of natural sort of superiority in them. Even if such a person was unusually bright, we would likely find such an authoritarian “friend” to be deeply unpleasant, and even if such a friend was very wealthy and very generous with one’s wealth, we would likely have some degree of resentment about the superior errors the friend acted with. This presents us with a bit of a problem, obviously, and it is a problem that contemporary Christianity is particularly poorly placed to deal with, given the focus of so many on Jesus Christ as a friend in the form we are used to in our normal lives, and in the lack of focus mainstream Christianity places on obeying God’s commandments.
That this statement is not an isolated one-off fluke verse can be readily understood from reading the context of the verse, most directly in John 15:9-17: ““As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I 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 remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. These things I command you, that you love one another.”
Again, this passage is a consistent one from beginning to end. Multiple times Jesus Christ commands believers to love each other–all the more necessary to command since we do not tend to do it naturally or well. Multiple times as well He mentions the importance of obeying the commandments of God just as Jesus Christ proved Himself obedience to His Father’s commands. In this context of love and loyalty and obedience Jesus Christ comments on believers as friends as opposed to mere servants. In the friendship model Jesus Christ is speaking of here, servants obey but do not understand; friends obey but understand. Being the friend of God (or Jesus Christ) does not negate one’s obedience, but rather it brings with it a particular involvement in and knowledge of God’s plans and an ability to influence God. It is not the sort of friendship that we tend to think of ourselves as involved in, but at the same time it is not a model that we should be unfamiliar with, since it is the model that is being offered to us if we desire to be friends with Jesus Christ at all. There is no boon companionship with Jesus Christ, no unreliable friendship that does not include obedience.
Before we close this particular part of our discussion, it is worthwhile to ask whether the friendship model that Jesus discusses here is something that we see elsewhere in the Bible. And the answer is that we do indeed see this model elsewhere. Most notably, for example, we find this model of friendship explicitly defined when it comes to Abraham. James 2:23 tells us: “And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God.” And the Bible clearly connects the friendship of Abraham with God to Abraham’s obedience. God tells Isaac in Genesis 26:3-5: “Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.”” And thirdly, we see that the friendship of Abraham and God, being founded on Abraham’s obedience to God, did lead Abraham to have considerable influence with God. As it is written in Genesis 18:17-19: “And the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.”” What we see in Abraham’s friendship with God are precisely the same elements that Jesus Christ offers to all who would be His friend–first, establish a track record of obedience to God’s commandments based out of love, and then enjoy the influence that results from that friendship and that track record of loyalty and obedience to God. If you wish to have a relationship with God and Jesus Christ, there is no other basis on which it can be formed other than our obedience to Him out of love, an obedience that moreover leads us to show lovingkindness to others as well.