By Mike Leake, Crosswalk.com
The choir passionately sings, “What a friend we have in Jesus…” But is that true? Is Jesus really our friend? He is our Lord. He is our King. Isn’t it improper for me to call Him a friend? Aren’t we servants?
John 15:15 address these questions:
“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
What Is the Context of This Verse?
Imagine that the year is 25 AD. The world really hasn’t heard of Jesus of Nazareth. You interview a fisherman named John about all things religious. You ask him, “John, what does it take for someone to enjoy all the blessings of Abraham?”
John’s answer will be centered around fidelity to the Law and to the things of the Old Covenant. There will likely be some elements of faith and trust in his answer, but at the end of the day, the idea is that they inherit the blessings of Abraham (rest, rule, and relationship) by their identity as God’s people. God blesses His vine (Israel) through their covenant obedience.
Consider, then, how revolutionary John 15 would be to those like John. In John 15, Jesus is teaching his closest disciples (this same John being one of them). He tells them that what really matters — what will be the means to the Abrahamic blessings — is fidelity to Himself. In John 15, Jesus makes Himself central to their faith. “I am the true vine…” says Jesus. “Abide in me, and I in you.”
The whole chapter is really an extended metaphor of the vine and the branches. Christ is the source of life for believers. Through our union with Christ, all the blessings of Israel become ours. But this new covenant obedience is different than that of the Old Testament. It is not a servile obedience, but a friendship obedience. Those who are Jesus’ friends obey His commands; it is what characterizes them.
What Does This Verse Mean?
This verse is far more than Jesus calling His disciples “friends.” The whole of John 15 is filled with salvation-historical meaning. In other words, John 15 is Jesus telling His disciples that they are recipients of the blessings of Abraham, through the new covenant. To see this, we must explore what is meant by “friend of God” as well as “servant,” then we can come to understand more fully Jesus’ meaning here.
What does it mean to be a “friend of God”?
In the Old Testament there is only one person referred to as a “friend of God.” That is Abraham. (It could also be argued that Moses had this title (Exodus 33:11). But Moses is one who talks to God as a friend, it does not explicitly say that he is a friend of God.) But Abraham is actually not referred to as a friend in the Abrahamic story of Genesis. Rather this title is picked up by the author of 2 Chronicles (20:7) as well as in Isaiah 41:8. And in the New Testament James calls Abraham a friend of God (James 2:23). What does this mean?
Isaiah 41:8 is particularly informative. In Isaiah 41, God, through the prophet Isaiah, is reassuring His people that He is the one governing history. In Isaiah 41:5-7 the prophet looks at the relationship between the idol and the one who made the idol. The maker of the idol is needed to prop up the non-existent idol. In this way they “serve” the idol. But this is not the case with God’s relationship with Israel:
“But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend…”
The relationship is not one where God is dependent upon the Israelites, but their relationship functions the other way around. In fact, they are descendants of God’s friend, Abraham. And because of this God says, “I will strength you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Therefore, to be considered a “friend of God” is different than something like the relationship between David and Jonathan. The intimate aspect is there, but being a friend of God means that He has dedicated Himself to securing your redemption.
When Jesus tells his disciples that they are “his friends,” he doesn’t mean those with whom he drinks a beer and watches Monday Night Football. Though there is definitely an element of companionship within friendship with Jesus, that is not the primary emphasis here in this text. This is still connected with everything Jesus said about their need to “abide in the vine.”
I remember as a child having a “spit brother.” (I guess we were not quite dedicated enough to become blood brothers). The ritual was that you would spit on your hand and then shake hands with your buddy. This made you a “spit brother.” You were covenanting with the other person. Something similar is happening here in John 15. He is dedicating Himself to our redemption.
So, why does he say, “I no longer call you servants?”
What does it mean, in this context to be called “a servant”?
There are several places in the New Testament where Jesus’ disciples call themselves His servants. In fact, this was one of the favorite words that Paul used to describe himself. So why do they call themselves a “servant” (literally “slave”) if Jesus calls them friends instead?
Consider what Jesus says in John 13:16. There, only a couple chapters prior, he refers to his disciples as servants. And in Luke 17:10 he tells the disciples that they ought to consider themselves as “unworthy servants” who have only done their duty. So, what gives? Are we servants of Jesus or friends?
The answer has to do with the salvation-historical argument that Jesus is making here. What Jesus is saying here is the seed form of what the apostle Paul will say later in Galatians 4. Paul picks up this language and relates “slavery” to “the elemental forces of the world” such as the law. He then notes how we have been set free:
“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Galatians 4:4-5).
This is an expansion of what Jesus is saying in John 15. When he says, “I no longer call you servants” he is speaking about the change of relationship. This is a reference to what new covenant obedience looks like.
What, Then, Does This Verse Really Mean?
When we put these together, we see that what Jesus is saying is that the disciples (and all new covenant believers by extension) relate to God not in servile fear but in friendship. He has dedicated Himself to their redemption.
This is what he means when he says that a “servant does not know what his master is doing.” D.A. Carson says it well:
“The words no longer inject a salvation-historical note (entirely appropriate, given the replacement theme bound up with the true vine; cf. notes on vv. 1–2). In times past God’s covenant people were not informed of God’s saving plan in the full measure now accorded Jesus’ disciples. Although there is much they cannot grasp (16:12), within that constraint Jesus has told them everything he has learned from his Father.
All of this is connected to Jesus’ teaching on the vine and the branches. He is the source of our life and the source of our love. The fruit that we bear comes from Him. And that fruit will be shown as his friends “love one another as I have loved you.” New covenant love lays down life for the sake of friends. And the disciples are Jesus’ friends, so he will be laying down his life for them.
How Do We Apply This Verse Today?
If we are looking for something to “do” in this verse, it’s not there. There are no imperatives in John 15:15. We are the recipients of the friendship of Christ and all the blessing which He bestows. We are the ones who have been brought into Jesus’ “all that I have heard from my Father.”
But as we look at the surrounding verses, we do see a few imperatives; namely, abide and love. We remain in Christ and as we do this, we find that we are motivated to love one another. We bear fruit as we abide in Christ.
This, of course, begs the question about professing believers who are not bearing fruit. But this is not Jesus’ main concern here. His main concern is encouragement. It is a reminder that He is the life source, He is the one where love originates, and He is the fount from which the new covenant flows.
What we are supposed to take from this passage is that Jesus is absolutely dedicated to those who are His friends. He is dedicated to those whom He has called and those for whom He has laid down His life. Therefore, we apply this verse today by being deeply encouraged.
We should rest in a verse like John 15:15. Jesus calls you friend. And by that he means one who is dedicated to bringing you eternal joy.
D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 523.
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