The author of the Gospel of John has laid out a narrative which seeks to introduce the purpose, ideas and nature of Jesus to a widespread audience made up of Jews and Gentiles. From this understanding we can see how the author uses events such as the Farwell Discourse to demonstrate how one is to follow Christ and how they are to live in this world which is awaiting total redemption. Yet within the Farwell Discourse lies a brief exposition where Jesus equated his faithful disciples as friends. Therefore, what does it mean on both on a practical and a theological level to be considered a friend of God according to John 15:9-17?
It is my intention to demonstrate how the Old Testament, Jewish culture and Greco-Roman philosophy influenced the original understanding of John 15:9-17 and provides insights into how we can apply this text today. John 15:9-17 historically demonstrates how being friend of God is a one-way designation given to obedient disciples who fulfill the mandate of “bearing fruit” through the expansion of the kingdom of God by preaching, discipleship and loving others according to the revelations they have received through a close relationship with Jesus. In a modern context the people who can be considered friends of God are Christians who work obediently and faithfully alongside the Holy Spirit to bring about long lasting spiritual fruit in this world.
John 15:9-17 Within the Narrative of the Gospel of John
The passage in question is found in the second half of what is known as the Farwell discourse which spans from chapter fourteen through to chapter seventeen. The author dedicated such as large part of his gospel to this event as it provides the final instruction of Jesus given to the disciples before his subsequent arrest and crucifixion. In many ways these are “death bed” instructions given in a manner similar to Joseph demanding his bones be brought to the land promised to Abraham in Genesis 50:25.
This exposition then is Jesus’s attempt to prepare the disciples for life after the resurrection and to encourage them to go about continuing the work he began on earth. John 15:15 highlights the discourse on friendship is located between the parable of the vine and the admission to prepare to endure persecution with the help of the Holy Spirit. This section on friendship then is the climax of the disciples pre-Pentecost journey where they are recognized as being no longer the servants or followers of Christ but now have been promoted to a deeper relationship as through “the impact of fresh revelation, ‘servants’ give way to ‘friends’”.
To better understand this section and the overall concept of friendship with God we need to recognize two overarching concepts in the Gospel of John: friendship and love. In relation to the totality of the gospel the author speaks of the concept of friendship in other places such as in 3:29 which speaks of the friends of the bridegroom. Furthermore in 11:11 Jesus referred to Lazarus as “our friend” who has fallen asleep. The final instance is in 19:12 where the Jewish leaders accuse Pilate of not being a true friend of Caesar. These verses speak to a level of interpersonal interaction a familiarity which goes beyond the idea of a passing neighbor and to something of greater significance.
The second key recurring in the Gospel of John is love which is expressed by God to the world (3:16), to Jesus (3:25, 10:17), and to the disciples (13:34). This love from God is expected to be reciprocated by the disciples and followers of Christ towards other people (15:12). Jesus then is the example of love and John 15 love is presented in “the aorist tense, depicting his love as a complete action, denoting perhaps the entire demonstration of Jesus’ love for his disciples.” The emphasis placed on these concepts in the Gospel of John speak of a reciprocal relationship which is not based on feeling but instead on action.
Understanding the Meaning Behind “Friend”
The modern concept of a friend and friendship in general is one which is mostly foreign to the culture leading up to and comprising the original audience of the Gospel of John. To better understand the usage of the term friend sued by Jesus through the author of the gospel we need to understand the way the Greeks understood this work. The Greek word used in John 15:15 is φίλος and it is seen as meaning “a person with whom one has a close bond or friendship or to whom one is under a basic obligation.”  In a broader sense φίλος was also used by the Greeks to demonstrate a personal friend, a loved one in a homo-erotic sense, the lover, the favourite (esp. of the gods), an ally, followers” of a political leader, and clients who cluster around a prominent and wealthy man. 
For the author of the Gospel of John the choice to use the word φίλος was not an arbitrary one as it was commonly used in the Septuagint to translate of the Hebrew word רֵעַ. In Hebrew רֵעַ was used to define both the ideas of friendship and being a neighbor to a person. However there does appear to be a divergence from the Septuagint’s and the Gospels use of friend in relation to the Hebrew connotation. As the “Alexandrian translators, who naturally thought of friendship in Hellenistic categories, arbitrarily introduced φίλος for רֵעַ at many points” rather than the word πλεσιν which is more in line with the Hebrew understanding of being a neighbor. We see then that the Greek overtones of friendship are driving us more towards an understanding which is foreign both to modern understanding and to the ancient Jewish cultural context.
Old Testament Precedents Concerning Friendship
To better understand the concept of friendship which is being advanced by Jesus and the author of the Gospel of John we next need to look back to the Old Testament and see how this idea originates and develops. When we look at the dynamic of being a “friend of God” the first person which fits that description is the patriarch Abraham. In 1 Chronicles 20:7 the author speaks of how God drove the Canaanites from the land in which was given to the “descendants of Abraham your friend.” This title is also attributed to Abraham in Isaiah 41:8 where the prophet speaks of Israel being the “offspring of Abraham, my friend” or in a literal sense “my loving one/who loved me.”  This recognition of this higher status of Abraham continued in the intertestamental period with Jubilee 19:9 and into the New Testament in James 2:23.
With Abraham the Old Testament paints a theological picture of a person who was chosen by God for a purpose and reciprocated that calling through faithfulness and obedience. Paul speaks rightly of Abraham in Galatians 3:6-9 who through obedience and faith received the gift of righteousness, that is the right to stand near to God in relationship. In Genesis Abraham is seen as one who had the privilege to speak with God concerning his plans in the world. In Genesis 18 we see that Abraham’s relationship with God allowed him to elevate past the level of servant and to know what his master was doing and the ability to influence those decisions. Furthermore, Abraham is rewarded with a promise that through his descendants that the entire world will be blessed because of his active relationship with God.
The second key example of a person being a friend of God in the Old Testament is Moses who is described in Exodus 33:11 as the one who spoke with God “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” Much like Abraham this elevated status given to Moses was in response similar factors such as being chosen as an instrument of God, continual faith in God’s plans, in his continual obedience to God. Conversely the “golden calf incident caused a clear rift between God and his people, but Moses was God’s loyal servant and friend. God was distancing himself from Israel, but growing closer to Moses.” Unlike the people Moses was granted access to God’s plans and purposes and allowed to not only listen but to intercede. This relationship then becomes part of the underlying structure of what we see in John 15:15 where Jesus implies “that the mark of the friend (as opposed to the servant) is that he knows the purpose and meaning of the commands given to him.”
Aside from the idea of friendship between God and man the Old Testament also offers insight into the interpersonal concept of friendship between people. One of the strongest examples of interpersonal friendship is the relationship between Jonathan and David which is highlighted in 2 Samuel 1:26. Here David laments the loss of his friend by stating how “your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.” In this simple example of friendship, we see a great deal of trust and active faithfulness which resulted in Jonathan protecting David from the Saul and David later seeking out to bless Mephibosheth on account of his friendship and covenant with Jonathan.
This example factors into the John 15:15 as it demonstrates the long-lasting benefits and blessings a person can receive on account of the covenantal friendship or “the knitting of souls” between others. We can summarize then that according to the Old Testament “friendship implies the sharing of information about oneself. Psalm 25:14 links the friendship of God with the fact that God makes his covenant known to his friends.” From a place of friendship comes access to revelation and promises from God which carries with it a responsibility to contribute to the fulfillment of those promises while maintain hope that those same promises will be fulfilled by God.
Cultural Backgrounds of Friendship
Second Temple era Jewish Cultural Influences
Beyond the bounds of the Old Testament there are several other significant Jewish cultural factors which influence our understanding of the idea of friendship the author of John was conveying to his readers. During the Second Temple era several pseudographical and apocryphal books were created which held a certain amount of respect in the Jewish community. One of those books was the Wisdom of Sirach which followed the narrative style of Jewish wisdom literature. This book addressees the concept of friendship in 6:16-17 and declares:
A loyal friend is like a medicine that keeps you in good health. Only those who fear the Lord can find such a friend. 17 A person who fears the Lord can make real friendships, because he will treat his friends as he does himself. (GNT)
Sirach demonstrates the importance of friendship and makes an interesting connection between the availability of friendship and one’s relationship with God. In the Gospel of John this concept is taken to the next level as the “loyal friend” being described is not a human but God himself.
Other places such as 3 Maccabees 5:19, 44 also speak of the idea of friendship but in this context it follows a more Hellenistic understanding. Here friendship is less about a mutual relationship and has to do more with being an associate or and advisor to a king. This example furthers the idea that one of the more “important aspect of ancient friendship was the sharing of information and confidences.” This sharing of information ranges from relationships between a king and his advisors and even between a Rabbi and his disciples.
One place where Jewish culture differed from Hellenistic influences can be seen in the willingness to die for one’s friend.Antiquity shows examples such as Tigranes the king of Armenia declaring that he would give his own life to rescue his wife from Cyrus the king of Persia in an event which unexpectedly forged a new friendship between both men.  Despite this high moral value Greeks placed upon on such actions Jewish contemporaries of John such as “Rabbi Akiba argued that one’s own life took precedence over another’s.”  This cultural understanding then adds greater significance to Jesus’s words in John 15:13 as to die for the law was noble but it was not so for another person.
Despite the apparent Jewish upbringing of the author of the Gospel of John we must concede that many of the original readers of that gospel would have been Hellenized Gentiles and Diaspora Jews. Therefore to understand Jewish culture in the first century we must consult the writings of Philo of Alexandria (20 BC – AD 50) to better Jews outside of Palestine, and of those in the early church.
When it comes to the concept of friendship Philo stresses “that cleaving to God is a spiritual process that leads to true friendship and love of God, which leads in turn to eternal life next to him.” This cleaving to God is later seen in his comments about Moses’s relationship with God and explains how God’s “frankness of speech is akin to friendship.” In terms of a similar relationship between Abraham and God Philo comments:
He alone is nobly born, for he has registered God as his father and become by adoption His only son, the possessor not of riches, but of all riches, faring sumptuously where there is nought (sic) but good things, unstinted in number and sterling in worth, which alone wax not old through time, but ever renew their youth;
The overarching idea then presented by Philo that “a full union with the transcendent creator is not only possible but in fact the pinnacle of Mosaic Law.” Although this pinnacle was not reached until the incarnation and resurrection of Christ who made this union and friendship truly possible to a wide range of people.
Hellenistic Cultural Influences
Given the spread of Christianity into Hellenized parts of the Roman Empire we must assume that given the universal nature in which the Gospel of John was written there would have been some allowance given that many of its original readers would have been steeped in Hellenistic culture. Therefore, it is important to examine the larger Hellenistic concepts of friendship and determine which if any can have bearing on the larger idea of friendship. As we have already seen the general concept of φίλος was relatively foreign to the Jewish vernacular, so it is necessary to trace this concept back to its source and see how it influenced what was recorded in the gospel. Often this idea of friendship was equated with royal patronage as we see with those allowed into inner circle of Alexander of Macedon; “the king honoured the physician with magnificent gifts and assigned him to the most loyal category of Friends.” While this view of friendship was quite common in Roman culture the Greeks also extended this idea to include people who were social equals and those in a client-patron relationship even if they were part of different social classes.
One common denominator stands out in Greek friendship that no matter “one’s social level, reciprocity stands out as the key feature of friendship. This reciprocity ranged from favors and services and could be seen to include even the death of one to protect the other. Aristotle spoke of this ultimate sacrifice by saying “But it is also true that the virtuous man’s conduct is often guided by the interests of his friends and of his country, and that he will if necessary lay down his life in their behalf.” Aristotle goes on to speak highly of the concept of friendship between people going as far as to say, “it is thought that a good man is a friendly man, and that friendship is a state of the moral character.”  This view on friendship is later coupled with the idea that such friendships are being based on goodness, utility and pleasure.
When it comes to the possibility of a friendship between mankind and the god(s) Aristotle believed that this was no more likely than a man could be a friend to his slave or his tools. The philosopher saw the vast differences between man and the gods and concluded that “but when one becomes very remote from the other, as God is remote from man, it (friendship) can continue no longer.” This viewpoint however was not accepted across all facets of Greek philosophy as Epictetus commented “did not Socrates love his own children? He did; but it was as a free man, as one who remembered that he must first be a friend to the gods.”
For the readers of the Gospel of John they would have been confronted with the understanding of the separation between people and the God’s advanced by Aristotle and the bridging of such a gap by Jesus in his offer of friendship. In the Greek viewpoint Jesus was fulfilling the role of a friend in dying for his followers which are prophetically referred to as a new nation. It can be concluded then that the Greek ideas of friendship are generally compatible with the narrative set in the gospel. Although the limited form of friendship is taken to a higher level the expectation of reciprocity expected from the followers of God will form a core pillar of the idea of being a friend of God.
The Impact of John 15:9-17 on its Original Audience
What the original readers of the Gospel of John may have first noticed is that Jesus in this passage “were addressed to a group that was not going to act very friendly… What sort of thing must Jesus think friendship is if he used it so confidently of these people?” In terms of the narrative of John just a few hours after Jesus granted to title of friends to the disciples they ran away from him and Peter went as far as to deny him three times. Despite the short-term failures of the newly minted friends of God there remains a great deal of theological insight the original audience of the Gospel would of gleaned.
Initiated by Jesus
Jesus states in John 15:16 that he was the one responsible for choosing the disciples to be his students and companions. This language would of evoked the memory of the likes of Abraham and Moses the friends of God who to had been chosen to advance the plan of redemption and to announce a new inauguration of a covenant. This selection of the disciples is not seen in a light of slavery but instead of love and Jesus affirms love for them if they continue to follow his commands, a similar offer made to Israel in the wilderness.
Jesus then is taking responsibility for the initiation of the relationship but places upon the disciples an obligation to fulfill their part of the relationship. Not in a client-patron manner but a progression from teacher-student to a closer relationship which would continue not in face to face encounters but through the coming Holy Spirit. Through this unmerited favor shown through Jesus we see that “God has initiated everything about this friendship, leaving those brought close to him to respond in faithfulness as they draw on the example of the Father and his sent one.” For those reading this section they would be encouraged that they too have been set aside by God and they to through the Holy Spirit can come to a deeper place of knowing Christ.
Friend of God: A One-Way Designation
What stands out from this offer of friendship is that at no point does anyone declare they themselves are a friend of God. Here we see Jesus declare that he is their friend but the disciples (and later followers) do not make the same reciprocal comment. This is because “Jesus the Son is never our peer either! He calls the disciples his ‘friends’ in order that they might know and do the will of his Father.”  The original readers would of recognized that this “friendship is not mutual in the same way as human friendships usually are.” 
Jesus and Jesus alone is the one giving commands while the disciples, although being friends, are the ones expected to fulfill those commands. In this sense even the concept of prayer can fit into this idea as God is not bound to fulfill all of our own desires and he encourages us to pray according to his will. While we can petition God as Abraham did over the fate of Sodom we cannot command God to do things contrary to his will. This left the disciples and the original audience to grasp the idea that while they have greater access to God they are still expected to submit to the King.
Love and Obedience
Leading up to the declaration of friendship made by Jesus he first expounds the necessity for love to be present within his followers. Using first the example of himself first loving them he sets the stage for part of their responsibility as friends of God. In John 15:12 Jesus give the explicit command to “Love each other as I have loved you.”
The type of love and intimate union being modeled in this passage is “ not merely a mystical experience but a relational encounter, for he gives it content with the term ‘love’” For the early followers they would of perceived this being a command to follow in order to demonstrate their faithfulness and allegiance to Jesus. Love is an action which is required to demonstrate the reality of one’s conversion to Christ. We see this demonstrated in John 13:35 where Jesus declares “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Expectation to Go and Bear Fruit
Along with the exception for the disciples to love one another Jesus also placed upon those who are called friends the responsibility to continue his work upon the Earth. Following the declaration of being friends Jesus returns to the language of the parable of the vine and commands the disciples to go out and bear fruit. One of Jesus’s primary goals during his ministry was to bring glory to the Father and now Jesus appoints those he calls friends to continue that very same work.
Much like the test of fruitfulness given to the branches of the vine in John 15:1-6 so to are the friends of God expected to take what they receive from Christ (spiritual sap) the vine and to bring about the expansion of the Kingdom of God upon the earth. Understanding this context, we see why “Father would answer their requests in order to accomplish that mission”
and why Jesus would offer the “the full sharing of confidential information” The goal of a friend of God then is to go about in love and produce spiritual “fruit that will last” in the Earth which results in added friends of God who go about and do likewise.
Possible Applications of John 15:9-17
Traditionally this section from the Gospel of John has been interpreted in a variety of ways. John Chrysostom emphasized the aspect of heavenly revelation: “and since to speak of secrets appears to be the strongest proof of friendship.”  While Augustine focused on the concept of obedience: “that it is the duty of servants to yield obedience to their master’s commands.” Finally Ambrose of Milan spoke of our unity with Christ: “to unfold to him our secrets which we hold in our own hearts… He who is of one mind with Him, he too is His friend.”
In a modern context we can apply this verse through two primary avenues. First of which is in the development of our personal relationships with Christ through the Holy Spirit. By which we receive insights and illumination from the scriptures which aid us in living according to the commands of Christ, as a good friend of God is one who is obedient. We to have the same offer of revelation and relationship available to us today if we are willing to demonstrate obedience and commitment to Christ.
Secondly, we are to continue the work of Jesus upon the earth, through ministry, preaching, teaching, love and a host of other means. We to are bound to the commands to love others and to bear fruit that will last upon this Earth as we draw from the vine. In fulfilling those commands, we to can have assurance that God will hear our prayers which are in line with his will and that he will provide the revelation needed to fulfill that mandate.
To be a friend of God according to not only John 15:9-17 but also the cultural undertones which permeate the Gospel of John is not a matter of mystery but of concrete action. Those who are willing embrace this status of friend of God have hope if they are prepared to live a life of obedience to the commands of Christ. Which includes the mandate of bearing fruit through the expansion of the kingdom of God by preaching, discipleship and loving others according to the revelations they receive through a constant fellowship with the Holy Spirit. While we are never an equal with God in this relationship, we are offered the opportunity to go beyond a distant relationship with a heavenly teacher and instead come into intimate fellowship with him. That is if we are faithful in our commitment to bring about the commands of our King in this world as he goes about bringing glory to God and creating additional friends of God.
 Gustav Stählin, “Φιλέω, Καταφιλέω, Φίλημα, Φίλος, Φίλη, Φιλία,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 146–147.
 Philo, Philo, trans. F. H. Colson, G. H. Whitaker, and J. W. Earp, vol. 4, The Loeb Classical Library (London; England; Cambridge, MA: William Heinemann Ltd; Harvard University Press, 1929–1962), 295, Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres, Book V, verse 21.
 Diodorus, Siculus, 17.31.6, Perseus Digital Library, accessed April 8, 2020, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0084%3Abook%3D17%3Achapter%3D31%3Asection%3D6
 “Epictetus Diatr. 3.24.60, Perseus Digital Library, accessed April 8, 2020, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0236%3Atext%3Ddisc%3Abook%3D3%3Achapter%3D24
 Peter Dula, “The Politics of Friendship in the Gospel of John.” In Reading Scripture as a Political Act: Essays on Theopolitical Interpretation of the Bible, edited by Tapie Matthew A. and McClain Daniel Wade, by Fowl Stephen E. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2015), 43. Accessed April 5, 2020. doi:10.2307/j.ctt155j37g.6.
 John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of St. John,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John and Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. G. T. Stupart, vol. 14, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 282.
 Augustine of Hippo, “Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John,” in St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. John Gibb and James Innes, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 351.
 Ambrose of Milan, “On the Duties of the Clergy,” in St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896), 89.
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