You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. (John 15:14-15)
With these words, Jesus makes clear to the apostles the true nature of their relationship with Him. They had called Him “Rabbi”, ”Teacher”, “Lord” and “Master”. While all those things were true, Jesus’ deepest heart for the men with whom he had journeyed and lived for three years was that of “Friend”.
For the apostles, these words must have carried incredible weight. They would have known of the Old Testament figures Yahweh had named as His friends: notably Abraham, Moses, and David. Yet, they lived in a religious culture that was based on adherence to the Law. In contrast, the apostles’ religious experience was rooted in obedience, not a relationship.
The Mind of the Slave
Jesus speaks unequivocally about the difference between the slave and the friend. In first century Palestine, where slavery/servitude was commonplace, Jesus lays out two intertwined traits that separate slavery from friendship – understanding and personal relationship.
While the slave is obedient to the master’s bidding, the slave lacks understanding. The master’s bidding is the what – “Go here,” “Go there,” “Do this,” “Do that.” The slave does not necessarily know why he has been instructed to do something.
The relationship between slave and master is not one of mutuality. The master is superior to the slave. The slave doesn’t have the option to choose whether or not he will do as the master says. He simply follows instructions as they are given.
Jesus’ statement, “If you do what I command,” demonstrates that the path to friendship begins with obedience – being a good slave. The ability to do what God directs us to do, whether that is obeying His teaching through the Church, or His personal direction in our lives, is the foundation of friendship.
The Boldness of Friendship
The scriptures directly name Abraham and Moses as friends of God. Exodus 33:11 states that God spoke to Moses “face to face, as a person speaks to a friend.” Moses and Abraham both had a friendship with Yahweh that was real, personal and intimate. They both had a deep and abiding love for God.
Genesis 18 recounts a conversation between Abraham and God, where God declares his intent to destroy the city of Sodom. For 14 verses Abraham argues and negotiates with God over His plan to destroy the wicked and unholy city. Abraham’s point? “Even if there are only ten righteous people in the entire city, is it right that they should die like the wicked?” (cf. v. 32)
In Exodus 32, Moses comes down from meeting God on the mountain to find that the people are worshipping the infamous golden calf. God’s anger flares, and He threatens to destroy the people that Moses has brought into the desert. Moses reminds God that Yahweh Himself brought the people out of Egypt, not Moses.
As the story unfolds, God relents, telling Moses that He will assign an angel to lead the people into the Promised Land. Moses argues again with God’s instruction (Exodus 33:13-17), saying in verse 15, “If you are not going yourself, do not make us go up from here.” Again, God changes His mind and tells Moses that He will lead the people.
The Privileges of Friendship
The context of friendship provides insight into the thorny issue of God’s sovereignty which occurs when a mere mortal seems to talk God into “changing His mind.” This is not a rarity in the scriptures. Jesus Himself changes the opening of His public ministry based on a simple statement made to Him by His mother – “They have no wine” (Jn 2:3).
While a slave carries out the master’s plan, the friend understands the purpose for the plan. Moses remembered the purpose – God’s intent to rescue His people and to bless them. As any good friend would do, Moses was honestly telling his friend, “I’m not sure that wiping out your people is the best plan for reaching your purpose of rescuing your people!”
Obviously, God did not need to be reminded of this rather obvious contradiction within His own plan. However, the interaction in friendship had the effect of revelation and empowerment. It revealed, perhaps even to Moses himself, the depth of his love for God, and it empowered him to take up his full leadership role.
The Invitation to Friendship
Even in the Old Testament, God had an interest in collaborating with His friends. The constant movement of God’s heart for His people was toward intimacy and friendship. In the New Testament, that same invitation is clearer and even more appealing. St. Paul on four separate occasions states that we are “co-heirs” with Jesus.
God’s invitation to friendship far exceeds the constructs of mere “service” or “cooperation”. God has no desire to use us. Rather, Jesus calls us “friends” while St. Paul exhorts us to “co-labor with Christ.” The clear implication is that of mutual relationship and personal affection.
Just like the apostles, and Abraham and Moses before them, we are invited into friendship with God. Like theirs, our relationship should be “face to face”, where there is freedom to work together, plan together, and dream together. Spend some time with God, be His friend, and He will certainly be yours.