What does it mean to be a friend of God? To fully explore the implications of that question would take far more time than I have, but I would like to look at a fundamental aspect of this question. What does being a friend, with all of the baggage and connotations that has in our present age, have to do with the relationship between God and ourselves? If we are remotely self-aware, we will all agree that it is ridiculously inappropriate and ludicrously presumptuous to think that we are anything close to equal with God. How can one think of the question of friendship between beings as unequal as God and ourselves? When we look to the dictionary for definitions of friendship, we find meanings like: “a person attached to another through feelings of personal affection and regard,” “a person whom you know well and like a lot but who you are not related to,” or “a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of romantic or family relations.” Within these definitions we can get a sense of what the world means when it refers to people as friends. On the one hand, we have fondness. First, a friend has to be someone we like, whose company we enjoy, whom we feel fond of and enjoy spending time with. Second, a friend is someone whom we know well. They are not someone we have a superficial relationship with, but someone whose interests and habits we are aware about, who share a certain depth of their life and their personality with us. And third, the world tends to seek to distinguish friendship from other sorts of relationships, namely those of a familial or romantic nature. Is this the sort of friendship that we have with God? Is this the sort of friendship between God and human beings that the Bible describes?
I speak today about the question of friendship in the Bible between God and human beings because the Bible speaks about this subject. Let us turn to James 2:20-24. Here, at the end of a lengthy discussion of the relationship between faith and works, James has something to say about Abraham being the friend of God. James 2:20-24 reads as follows: “But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 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. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” In our reading about the importance of having godly works in our lives, of having a living faith according to works and not a dead faith by profession only, we can easily skip over the startling implications of what James is saying about Abraham being a friend of God.
This statement of James, though, is a reference to Isaiah 41. This is a somewhat obscure passage, so let us turn to it. Isaiah 41:8-10 gives us some of the implications of Abraham being the friend of God. It reads: ““But you, Israel, are My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the descendants of Abraham My friend. You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth,
And called from its farthest regions, and said to you, ‘You are My servant, I have chosen you and have not cast you away: Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’” Israel is called by God to be His people because they are descended from Abraham, whom God calls His friend. It is a truly great and precious thing to be called the friend of God. As a result of that friendship, God promises to help Israel and not to cast them away, and he tells them to be courageous and to believe in Him as Abraham our Father has. Here, as is the case with the passage in James, righteousness and obedience and faith are connected to the question of friendship. Abraham was the friend of God because he obeyed God. Because of Abraham’s faithfulness, God was happy to call him His friend.
Does this seem like an obvious meaning of friend for us? If there was a mere human being in our lives who only wanted to be our friend if we obeyed him or her and whatever they said, how many of us would have fond feelings of such a bossy and demanding person? How many of us would enjoy spending time with them? To the extent that we view the friendship between God and man as a friendship between equals, the demand that God has for obedience will seem to interfere with our fond feelings towards Him as a friend. We feel resentful of those who are bossy and intensely critical to us and who are only interested in us to the extent that we are obedient to them. In many ways this is a cultural matter. Our nation was founded in rebellion, and has frequently in its relatively short history of around 250 years experienced a strong and marked hostility towards the respect for and obedience towards government and authority that the Bible views as a given. For us to understand what it means to be a friend of God we have to overcome a native culture and mindset that is hostile towards the just claims of authority.
Some people try to pit the Old Testament against the New Testament and show that while it may have been expected for Abraham to have to obey God to be his friend in the Old Testament, that things are different in the New Testament with Jesus Christ and the supposed New Covenant. But things are not at all different in the New Testament. During the evening before Jesus Christ was crucified, Jesus called his disciples friends in John 15:12-17. But he called them friends in a way that exactly parallels how Abraham was God’s friend and not the way that we would typically think of people as our friends. As it is written in John 15:12-17: “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.” There is a lot to unpackage here, and let us do our best to do so efficiently. Jesus Christ begins this passage by saying that the greatest love of us all is to sacrifice oneself for one’s friends, which He was about to do at that moment, and commanding us to have that sort of self-sacrificial love for each other. After that Jesus Christ calls his disciples friends, contingent on their being obedient to Him. He then contrasts what it means to be a servant, who obeys His master’s will but does not know His master’s plans, to being a friend who is privileged to have God communicate His plans. He then comments that the disciples did not choose Jesus Christ as a friend, but He, as the higher authority, chose them (and presumably ourselves as well) to be His friends. He then gives further commands about how we are to bear fruit through our obedience and reiterates His commandment to them, and to us, that we should love each other.
Having seen, then, that the biblical approach to being a friend to God is consistent throughout scripture, with God and Jesus Christ choosing us, and our friendship with God being dependent on our obedience to them and their own desire to have us as friends, something that we cannot earn or deserve, how is it that friendship was so differently understood by the people of the Bible than it is by we ourselves in our egalitarian contemporary times? Why does the biblical definition of friendship between God and believers, something we enjoy in faith and obedience, not part of the dictionary definitions of friendship that we consult? In the recent United Church of God booklet, “What Does The Bible Teach About Grace?,” there is a section about what it means to be a friend of God. Here is a quotation from that section of that booklet that discusses the subject of friendship with God: “What does it mean to be a friend of God? To be called a friend of God means to be in good graces with God. Jesus said that He had delivered truth and understanding to His disciples (John 15:15), and they had not only accepted it but fully embraced it. They embodied what the prophet Amos taught: “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3). The apostles and disciples were prepared and committed to obey and do what Jesus taught them.” Are we so committed today?