We’re continuing in our series through Jesus’ farewell speech in John 14-17. Having spoken of himself as God’s authorised agent (14:1-14) and introduced the Holy Spirit who would continue his role (14:15-26), Jesus now talks about what it means to be his “friend” – which is our focus this week.
Friends with Jesus
We were made for friendship. God obviously thought it was a good idea, telling us back in Genesis ‘it is not good for the man to be alone.’ As we’ll see later, those in ancient societies spent much time writing about friendship in lofty terms: the Greek philosopher Aristotle described friendship as ‘a single soul dwelling in two bodies… Without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods.’ Two thousand years later, ‘mateship’ is still central not just to our identity as Australians, but, more fundamentally, to our identity as humans.
Given the way God made us, it’s not surprising that Jesus holds out to us the offer of friendship. And that’s what this week’s passage from John 15 is all about: being friends with Jesus; having a relationship with the one who created us. But what does it mean to be Jesus’ friend?
The image of the vine
Although this week’s passage is indeed about friendship, it starts off with an intriguing image about a grapevine and its branches. This metaphor is all about the friendship we have with Jesus, and with God his Father. Let’s have a listen:
John 15:1-8 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
Now this is a nice picture Jesus has painted – particularly in a culture where vineyards were everywhere, not just in fashionable Hunter Valley resorts featured on Getaway. But what does it tell us about our friendship with Jesus?
Clearly being branches of his vine we are connected with him – and dependent on him if we are to ‘bear fruit’. After all a branch is only alive if it is connected to the source of food – the vine. And so there is a call to remain connected to Jesus. But what does this mean in concrete terms? The vine word-picture Jesus used clearly communicates the idea that we are to ‘remain in Jesus’ like branches of a vine; but what does that actually entail?
After all, this is only an agricultural image. But we are people, not crops. We are relational beings, not plants. How, then, should we understand this in practical, relational terms?
Thankfully, Jesus provides us with a more explicit explanation of the vine image in the next few verses. So this week I’m going to spend our time looking mainly at verses 9-16; at how Jesus explained this idea of ‘remaining in him’ in terms of friendship. And to do that properly, we’ll have to engage with some of the ideas about friendship found in C1 society.
Friendship with Jesus is friendship of the highest order
Aristotle spoke of three grades of friendship. The lowest he termed ‘useful,’ in which both parties were only in the relationship for what they could get out of it. The second he called ‘pleasant,’ where the relationship existed because both parties found each other’s company pleasing. But the highest – and most virtuous – degree of friendship was termed the ‘good’. Both parties were in the relationship for the benefit of the other person – they wished and worked for the good of the other.
In verse 13, Jesus says that the friendship he extends to his followers is of this highest order:
John 15:13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
We read this and immediately think of the cross: Jesus laying down his life for us. And Jesus – knowing what was about to happen – clearly had this in mind when he said it. But what about the disciples? They didn’t know what was going to happen; surely they would have been a bit confused!
Except they weren’t. Because in first century society this idea wasn’t new. The supreme example of this friendship of the highest order was to lay down your life for your friend.
Historian Diodorus Siculus (10.4.6) records an incident where a man called Phintias needed someone else to take his place in prison on death row, while he set his affairs in order. It was kind of like human bail. He called upon his friend Damon, who without hesitation took his place. He comments: ‘Such a friendship was in the eyes of all men a thing of wonder.’
Valerius Maximus (Memorable doings and sayings 4.7.6) tells of a man who pretended to be a friend who was condemned to death, so he could take his place and die on his behalf. (The plan didn’t end up working, but surely it’s the thought that counts?)
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (On benefits 1.10.5) famously said, ‘If a man be worthy I would defend him even with my blood, and would share his perils.’
This was commonly held as the high-water mark of ancient friendship – to lay down your life on behalf of your friend. So when Jesus says: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’, he’s telling his disciples that his friendship with them is of the highest possible order. Little do they know that in a few short hours he’s about to demonstrate that for real. Jesus’ walk matched his talk.
In the two thousand years since Jesus laid down his life for us, countless Christians have followed Jesus’ example. They have been willing to lay down their lives for Jesus and for others. Friendship with Jesus is of the highest order. If we are Jesus’ friend, we ought to be willing to lay down our lives for him.