Jesus says farewell – Part Eleven (John 15)

We’re continuing in our series through Jesus’ farewell speech in John 14-17. This week is all about friendship with Jesus. We’ve seen how friendship with Jesus was friendship of the highest order, in that he was prepared to lay down his life for us, his friends. The response to this act of friendship ought to be loyal obedience. Today, we see how friendship with Jesus involves intimacy. 

Friendship with Jesus involves intimacy

We saw yesterday that a friend of Jesus is obedient. But this doesn’t mean mindlessly obeying orders. There is an intimacy on offer whereby we are let into Jesus ‘inner circle’:

John 15:15 I no longer call you slaves [the NIV softens it to ‘servants’ but the word refers to a slave], because a slave 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.

In Aristotle’s opinion, you could only be a true ‘friend’ with a fellow free-person. A slave could not be a friend, because in those days slaves were essentially possessions. So if we are to be truly Jesus’ friends, we can no longer be considered mere slaves.

Greek philosophers believed that between true friends there was no ‘ownership’: they shared everything in common. They had a saying:

Diogenes (6.37): ‘All things belong to the gods. The wise are friends of the gods, and friends hold all things in common. Therefore all things belong to the wise.’

To me this just seems like a clever excuse for never returning your next door neighbour’s lawnmower. But this was how friendship was viewed in the ancient world. So when Jesus elevates our status from slaves to friends, it means that whatever is his, we share. That’s why Jesus could say:

John 15:16 “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you… so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.”

And importantly, that’s not just possessions, but also knowledge. Friends kept no secrets from each other. As Jesus says in verse 15:

John 15:15b Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.

This is important. Being friends, not slaves, doesn’t mean we don’t have to be obedient. We are still in debt to our great benefactor; this is no friendship of equals. The difference between slaves and friends is not the difference between obeying and not obeying. The difference is between not understanding as slaves and understanding as friends.

If you order a taxi, you tell the driver where to drive you. Unless you’re in the mood for a chat, you don’t normally tell him what you’re going to do there, nor why you’re going. The taxi driver is not a slave, but he’s still ‘hired help.’ However, if you asked a friend to drive you somewhere, you’re going to tell them why. You keep them ‘in the loop’ about what you’re doing, at the very least as a courtesy because they’re doing you a favour – and because, after all, they’re your friend. Friends share their lives and thoughts with each other.

That’s how it is with Jesus. We’re his friends now. That means when he tells us what to do, he also tells us why. As friends, we’ve been given the big picture of what Jesus and his Father are up to in the world.

That’s why Jesus said the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist – because we are friends; we have seen God’s plan of salvation fully revealed. The apostle Peter talks of the Old Testament prophets who ‘searched with great care’ in eager anticipation of what has now been plainly revealed to us – things which even angels longed to see (1 Pet 1:10-12).

That’s the difference between Old and New Testament believers. In terms of this metaphor, the former were ‘slaves’ in that they didn’t really know what God was up to.

I don’t know if you’ve found this, but sometimes bible study questions on Old Testament passages can seem a little forced. The study writer tries to get us inside the head of the people in the story and asks ‘do you think God will fulfil his promises?’, or ‘will they ever return to the promised land?’, or ‘is there any hope for Israel?’ Like watching those I Should’t Be Alive TV documentaries (with their spoiler-alert titles) it’s hard to suspend our knowledge of the future – of what God did in history and how Jesus is the solution to the dilemmas of the Old Testament. But to those actually living in Old Testament times – they didn’t know the end of the story. They were operating in the dark. They had some revelation of God; they knew enough of God to trust that he was in control; but they didn’t know the full story like we do!

This makes a great difference to how we live our lives – not as slaves who are kept in the dark, but as intimate friends who have been let into Jesus’ inner circle! Of course, we don’t know what God is doing in every situation. The Lord still moves in mysterious ways! But we do know a lot. We know how he has intervened in human history to make salvation available. And we know the end to which he is working. (We know that as Romans 8:28 says, he is working in all things for our good.) Just like friends of the highest order do.

Years ago, I was visiting with one of our church’s long-term members who was in her 80s, and was preparing to move from a self-contained unit into a nursing home as her cancer had returned. Was she scared? No. Was she angry at God, not only at the cancer, but about many of the hardships she has faced in life? No. She was friends with Jesus and had been since her teens. She knew that whenever death came she’d be with her Lord and saviour. Although she enjoyed speculating on the many details of the afterlife we’re not told about, she said she knew enough to be at peace.

The conversation reminded me of a song by Sara Groves, written after she’d met with an 88 year old Christian woman who – unlike my friend – was very much afraid of dying. In the song Sarah asks ‘I sit here years from her experience and try to bring her comfort. But what do I know? What do I know?’ But at the end of the song, she concludes with this:

‘I don’t know that there are harps in heaven, or the process for earning your wings. I don’t know of bright lights at the ends of tunnels, or any of those things. But I know to be absent from this body is to be present with the Lord, and from what I know of him, that must be pretty good.’ (Sara Groves, What do I know.)

Friendship with Jesus involves intimacy. We’re no longer the ‘hired help’ who don’t know the master’s thoughts. We’re friends. God’s plan for the world has been revealed to us in its entirety. We know what he’s up to.

And that means when Jesus tells us what to do, we know why. When we’re given a task, we understand how it fits into the big picture. That leads to the next verse, which tells us that friendship with Jesus means we have a job to do. But that’s for tomorrow…

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