John Stocker’s hymn, ‘Thy mercy, my God, is the theme of my song’, is a simple yet profound testimony to a believer’s experience of the grace of God in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The fourth verse includes the phrase, ‘Jesus, my friend’. If ever a few words contained deep truth, these do. That Jesus, the man, God incarnate, the sovereign ruler of the universe, should be called ‘my friend’ by one who is a sinner, is a staggering concept.
The Bible reveals Christ’s holy person, his divine nature and his universal kingship. But among these and many more glorious attributes, it also reveals that he is the friend of sinners. This was the testimony even of those who sought his downfall (Luke 7:34).
The meaning of friendship
A friend is a person with whom we enjoy mutual affection and regard. A true and intimate friend is one whose soul is knit with ours, as was David’s with Jonathan’s (1 Samuel 18:1). Whether in conversation or silence, we are comfortable in the other’s company; of like mind, supportive, reliable, always seeking the other’s good. Is God, in Jesus Christ, our friend?
Many view God as a distant benefactor, one who has paid their eternal debts to redeem their souls, but who then remains remote. We occasionally read of a millionaire paying for the medical treatment of a sick child, whose predicament has been made public in the media. The compassion is real, but the link is tenuous. But to know the benefaction of God in Christ is to become his friend and have our soul knit to his. Mephibosheth sat at David’s table, beloved and accepted for Jonathan’s sake, and was made comfortable in the presence of this powerful, yet gracious and compassionate king (2 Samuel 9). So, what does it mean to have the friendship of Jesus Christ?
Think back to your school-days. You might have bragged openly about some things, but your secrets were shared only with your closest friend. Again, if you are in employment, how much are you told about the company’s plans? Probably, just enough for you to do the job for which you are paid. As a servant of the company you are not privy to its strategic plans. This is exactly what Jesus means in John 15:15: ‘A servant does not know what his master is doing’. But things were about to change. No longer would his disciples be called servants but friends. The proof of his friendship? ‘All things that I heard from my Father I have made known to you’. Believers are friends of Christ, firstly, because he has shared with them the secret of his gospel.
The church in the Old Testament was, in a sense, servile towards God. It was under disciplinarian authority. Vivid manifestations of divine power, like smoking mountains, thunder and the Shekinah glory; the law and its penalties; the demand for strict religious observance; all these evoked a sense of dreadful fear. Israel of old saw the gospel enacted in types and ceremonies, but its meaning remained a mystery for most of them.
There were some exceptions: Abraham is described as the friend of God (James 2:23), while the Lord spoke face to face with Moses ‘as a man speaks to his friend’ (Exodus 33:11). But in general, to quote John Gill on this verse, ‘though they were children, yet they differed nothing from servants; and were very much influenced and impressed with a servile spirit, a spirit of bondage unto fear, being kept under tutors and governors by a severe discipline’. The secret (or ‘mystery’) of the gospel had not then been revealed ‘as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to his holy apostles and prophets’ (Ephesians 3:5).
The gospel revealed
The disciples on the Emmaus Road met the risen Christ. Their hearts were heavy and their minds confused. But Christ drew near and revealed the ‘secrets’ of the gospel to them. How did he do that? He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27), and their hearts burned within them. They were ‘no longer servants, but friends’, because he had revealed to them God’s eternal plan of salvation. He had shown them ‘the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory’ (1 Corinthians 2:7). Christ had come in the flesh, fulfilling the types, ceremonies and demands of the law. In unsurpassed love, he had laid down his life for his friends and poured out his life-blood to redeem his people from ‘the curse of the law’, that is, its bondage and condemnation (John 15:13; Galatians 3:13).
Are we ‘in on the secret’? Has the Holy Spirit opened our eyes (1 Corinthians 2:14-15)? Has the God of creation ‘shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6)? Have we understood that God, in sovereign grace, chose an innumerable multitude of people, from every race of man, before the beginning of time? Have we seen that Christ covenanted with his Father to become a man so that he might be our legal substitute, shedding blood as a man to atone for our sin, and earning righteousness as a man, that he might impute it to his elect?
When friends get together they love to talk! They share their problems and experiences, they discuss their plans, their jobs, their children and their homes. Is it conceivable that people could cease to communicate and still remain close friends?
In the same way, the friends of God love to commune with him. He is a God who hears prayer, who never slumbers, and is never deaf to the petitions of his people (Psalm 65:2; 121:3; 1 John 5:14). ‘What a privilege it is to carry everything to God in prayer!’ We must never draw back from prayer because we fear we might pray for the wrong thing. A child may ask a parent for that which cannot, and should not, be granted, but the parent still enjoys the communion with the child. Those who are friends are not slow to express their burdens and thoughts to one another.
Effective prayer is that which accords with God’s revealed will (John 14:13; 1 John 5:14). It is an expression of the friendship between the believer and his Lord that we are acquainted with that will. The ‘mind of Christ’ becomes ours as we steep our minds in Scripture, reading and meditating on it. We lay firmer hold upon it as we attend faithful, Christ-centred preaching, and as the Holy Spirit takes of the things of Christ and makes them known to us (John 16:13-15).
Friendship brings the blessings of communion and like-mindedness, but it also involves commitment and responsibility. In John 15:14 Jesus says, ‘You are my friends if you do whatever I command you’. John repeats this criterion in his first epistle (1 John 2:3-6). We cannot claim to be the friends of Jesus Christ if we do not seek to obey him. What he requires of us is written clearly in the pages of Scripture. When the apostle Paul calls himself a ‘bond-servant of Jesus Christ’ he is not negating the words of Jesus in John 15:15, but rather is speaking of the willing service of one who loved his master and wished to remain in his service.
The question is, how can obedience be achieved? Paul gives abundant guidance in his epistles. In 1 Corinthians 11:1 he encourages believers to ‘imitate him, insofar as he imitates Christ’. Christ himself, then, is to be our pattern. Paul further exhorts his readers to a life characterised by the fruit of the Spirit, against which there is no law, a life made possible by the power of the indwelling Spirit and which gives no offence other than that of the cross (Galatians 5:11, 22-23). It is a life like that described in Romans 12-14, peaceable, gentle, humble, loving, generous, and kind.
Called to holiness
We will never, in this life, achieve sinless perfection (1 John 1:8). Nor will our obedience to Christ make us one jot more holy in the sight of God. Believers are now, and always will be, ‘accepted in the beloved’, that is, on the grounds of Christ’s obedience, not their own. When we have obediently done everything required of us, we remain ‘unprofitable servants’, said the Lord (Luke 17:10). Nevertheless, we are called to obedience and thus to holiness, for he has said, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’ (1 Peter 1:15).
This is a high calling, and we need help to follow it. ‘From whence comes my help?’ asks the psalmist, who then proceeds to answer his own question. ‘My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth’ (Psalm 121:2). This confidence is echoed by Paul in Galatians 2:20 where he declares: ‘I … died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me [by his Holy Spirit]; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’.
If Christ does indeed live in us, revealing the sweet secrets of his everlasting gospel and communing with us; and if as a result our lives are conformed to his in willing obedience; then we truly have a friend who ‘sticks closer than a brother’ (Proverbs 18:24).