I’D RATHER YOU BE MY FRIENDS
The actual words Jesus spoke to his disciples that night
in the upper room1 were in the Aramaic language. John recorded them in Greek, and here is a precise translation into English: “No longer do I call you servants. . .” The Greek word really means “slaves,” but somehow we shrink from that harsher term. “No longer do I call you servants [or, slaves], for the servant does not know what his master [or, lord] is doing. But I have called you friends, because everything I have heard from the Father I have made known to you.”
Notice the distinction Jesus drew between being a servant and being a friend. It’s not the privilege of the servant to understand his master’s business. It’s just for him to do what he’s told. No questions. No reasons. Just “Very good, sir. If you say so, sir.”
To make it plain that he did not want such blind obedience, Jesus reminded the disciples that he had told them all he could about his Father’s business. This would make it possible for them to give him what he really wanted—the free cooperation of understanding friends.
But wouldn’t it seem more appropriate for us weak, sinful mortals to settle for being unquestioning servants? In fact, a passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans is used by some to support the idea that faithful servants would never presume to question God’s inscrutable ways. In Romans 9:20 the apostle is responding to an evidently puzzled and somewhat indignant inquirer:
“Who are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what has been molded say to the one who molded it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’”
Such an abrupt rebuff would seem to put an end to all attempts at understanding. And admittedly this would seem entirely proper for mere human beings. “Just tell us what you want us to believe, and we’ll believe it. Just tell us what you want us to do, and we’ll do it.” But this is servant talk and not in harmony with the offer of friendship and understanding in John 15:15. Yet how many times I have heard Romans 9:20 cited during theological discussion—which is supposed to bring the argument to a close!
It is important—more than that, essential—always
to read this passage in its larger setting. In the first eight chapters of his epistle2 to the Romans Paul has explained that God offers the freedom of friendship and salvation to all who choose to trust him. All are equally eligible, regardless of race, nationality, sex, or social standing—for God is the Father of us all.
“But that’s not fair,” object some in Paul’s audience. “God made this offer to our father, Abraham, and only the descendants of Abraham are entitled to such high privilege.”
Paul agrees. But he goes on to suggest that not all of Abraham’s physical descendants have accepted God’s gracious offer. The real descendants of Father Abraham are all those who, like Abraham, have chosen to be God’s trusting friends.
“That’s neither right nor fair!” comes the objection.
“Are you mere humans presuming to tell God how he may
or may not run his universe?” is Paul’s response in Romans 9:20. God, as Creator
of the universe and all of us who live in it, obviously has the sovereign right to run it
any way he pleases. The good news is that he is unchangeably committed to governing it in
an atmosphere of freedom and friendship, and all his children are invited to participate.
Romans 9:20 is not designed to discourage or prohibit reverent inquiry and friendly understanding. It is rather an expression of amazement that anyone could be so utterly impertinent—not to mention irrational—as to challenge God’s right to run his universe in this wonderful way.
Of course, when you stop to think of it, how could we mere
humans actually be on genuinely friendly terms with Someone who is so infinitely far above
us, so awesome in power and majesty that the Bible describes mighty angels as bowing
humbly in his presence?3 How can we be close and friendly with such a powerful Being?
Or is Jesus just speaking in John 15:15 about his own very humble, approachable self, as he lived among us as a man? Could he also be including the one we call the Father? A favorite hymn is “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” But have you ever heard, “What a Friend We Have in the Father”?
Jesus had already prepared the disciples for this.
“If you have seen me, you have seen the Father. If you trust me, you trust the
Father.” He had told them this just before he made the offer of friendship.4 Then he added a little later, “the Father himself
Besides, who is Jesus anyway? In many places in the Bible, Jesus is described as God, the Creator himself. But never is it stated more clearly than in the passage we sing every Christmas in Handel’s “The Messiah.”
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given
. . . and his name shall be called . . . The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The
Prince of Peace.”6 We know who the Prince of Peace is. He is also mighty God, everlasting Father! This is the one who would rather call us, not his servants, but his friends.
“God Said It!” That Settles It?
But doesn’t the Bible seem to say a great deal more about being obedient servants—with accompanying lists of rewards and punishments? That’s true. And it’s my observation that many devout saints seem to prefer the servant passages. So they try to act as they believe faithful servants should. They don’t ask questions. They don’t look for reasons.
They’ll even say, “Faith needs no reasons.” They just put on that famous bumper sticker, “God said it! I believe it! That settles it!”
Through the years there have been religious leaders who have much preferred the servant model of a believer’s relationship with God. Claiming to be God’s representatives, they have derived much of their own authority from this understanding and have expected their own followers to behave like loyal servants. And remember, servants don’t ask, “Why?” Servants don’t need reasons. Servants just obey.
Jim Jones7 persuaded his followers of this, and in obedience nine hundred of them drank cyanide and nine hundred of them died. If only they had asked some questions, many members of the People’s Temple might still be alive. But in blind faith they submitted to the demands of their demented leader and sacrificed themselves in that 1978 mass religious suicide in the jungles of Guyana.
“Be My Friends, or I’ll Destroy You”?
For those who have read the many Bible warnings of destruction, the question naturally arises: How can we be friendly with someone who threatens to burn us to death if we disobey? Is God saying, “Be my friends, or I’ll destroy you”?
When Nebuchadnezzar said, “On your knees, or
I’ll throw you into the burning fiery furnace,”8
he knew better than to say, “Tell me how much you love me, or I’ll throw you
into the fire.” You can force people to their knees, but you cannot force them to be your friends.
“Love Me or Leave Me!”
A while ago I received a Valentine card featuring that famous cartoon cat, Garfield. The usually irascible Garfield is holding his heart in his hand and appealing so persuasively, “It’s your choice . . . love me or leave me!” Now that’s the way to win a friend, isn’t it? But open up the card and inside he threatens, “Make the wrong choice and I’ll break your arm!”
Be my Valentine, or I’ll break your arm? That is supposed to sound absurd. But how, then, do you explain the fearsome warning of the third angel in Revelation 14 in the light of the appeal to friendship in John 15:15? Is God saying, “What I want most is your love and friendship, but if I don’t get it, I’ll torture you for eternity”? Do you find that winsome or convincing? Or is it all right to ask about the meaning? Servants don’t ask questions. Friends do. Friends respectfully and reverently ask, “Why?”
“Ask at Your Own Risk!”
I have another Garfield card that pictures him holding a
hammer in his upraised paw, while he ominously warns, “Ask at your own risk!”
Sadly, some seem to hear God uttering the same warning. I think it’s much more
hazardous not to ask, or we might wind up drinking cyanide with Jim Jones.
The way of the Bible is to provide evidence upon which inquiring friends can base their understanding. So you would expect the Scriptures to offer examples that demonstrate how our heavenly Father regards the serious questions of his children.
Abraham Was Called God’s Friend
Think of Abraham. When God came down to destroy Sodom and
Gomorrah, he first turned aside to tell his old friend what he was going to do.9 Did Abraham respond, “Well, who am I to question your inscrutable ways? Very good, Sir. I’ll be out on the hillside to watch them burn”?
“God, as I know you, you couldn’t do it if there
were fifty decent people there, even forty, thirty, twenty, even less. Forgive me, Lord,
if I seem irreverent, but should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?”10
Did God reply in anger, “That’s the end of our friendship. I’ve never heard such impertinence”?
On the contrary!
“You would have to be my understanding friend to talk to me like that. And I shall make you the model of trusting friendship throughout the rest of Scripture.” And so, in both the Old and New Testaments, Abraham is mentioned as God’s best friend, the one who dared to ask him, “Why?”
God Could Talk to Moses as a Man Speaks with a Friend
Later God said to Moses, “I’m sick and tired of
these people. Step aside and let me destroy them. And I’ll make a great nation of
you.”11 Did Moses reply, “Very good, Sir. If you say so, Sir. Who am I to question your inscrutable ways? And I appreciate your offer to make me a great nation”?
He did nothing of the sort.
“God, as I know you, you wouldn’t do it. Besides, if you did, it would ruin your reputation. The Egyptians would hear about it and assume you were too weak to take your people all the way to the promised land. God, as I know you, you simply couldn’t!”
“Who else knows me as well as you do, Moses? You
really are my friend. That’s why I can talk plainly with you, face to face, as a man
speaks to his friend.”12
“Thank You, Job, for Being My Friend”
And then there was Job. In his apparent abandonment by
God, he cried out, “God, you and I used to be such good friends. We talked together
all the time. Why won’t you talk to me now? Please tell me what’s gone
Elihu and three other well-intentioned but “miserable
comforters”14 came to counsel Job. Elihu said,
“I wouldn’t ask to speak to God. I wouldn’t give him a chance to kill
me.”15 You see, Elihu at best was only a trembling servant.
But Job continued, “I want God to speak to me.
Please speak to me, God, because I know if we could only talk together, I could come to an
understanding of why all this is happening to me.”16
In the end God intervened. “You’re right, Job.
Your counsellors do not know me as you do. Thank you, Job, for being my friend. Thank you
for telling the truth.”17
If only the disciples had accepted Jesus’ offer of friendship, they would have felt free to ask questions right there in the upper room. Questions such as, “If you want us to be your friends, why is there so much servant talk in the Bible? Since love and friendship cannot be commanded, why is there so much use of law?”
“Tell Your Brother that You Love Him!”
Can you perhaps remember an occasion long ago when you punched your little brother in the eye? With her usual insight, Mother soon determines who’s to blame.
“Tell your brother that you’re sorry.”
But you don’t feel sorry at all. To tell the truth, you’d like to punch him in the other eye. But there’s Mother standing by, and Mother’s much bigger than you are. So you say, “I’m sorry.” And what an empty sound it had!
Then your mother makes it worse. “Tell your brother that you love him.” Do you remember how that sounded?
Then it gets even worse. “Kiss your dear brother.”
“I said, ‘Kiss your brother,’ or you’ll be in serious trouble.” Can you remember the quality of that kiss?
How sad God must have been to have to gather his children
at the foot of Mount Sinai18 and order them to love him and each other, and to stop murdering and hating each other, and stop being immoral and stealing and telling lies. When a father has to do that to his children, the situation in his family must be very serious.
Love Cannot Be Commanded
As the apostle Paul explains, law was added because of
wrongdoing and transgression.19 Actually, what God wants
most for his children—peace, love, happiness and trusting friendship—cannot be
produced by legislation, much less by force or fear. “Not by might, nor by power, but
by my Spirit,” says the Lord.20 Only by the way the Spirit works—the Spirit of love and truth—can people be persuaded of their own free will to give God what he wants.
You can force people to be your servants. But you cannot compel them to be your friends.
I wish the disciples had asked Jesus there in the upper
room to explain his extensive use of law. It seems such a contradiction of experience and
common sense to command people to love God and to love each other. Yet just before and
just after his offer of friendship in John 15:15, he repeated the command to love.
“This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you.” “This is
my commandment to you: love one another.”21
Then Jesus added on that same occasion, “You are my
friends if you do what I command you.”22 Did you ever try that on someone you wanted to be your friend?
What would have happened when you were a child in school, if you had walked up to a fellow student and said, “You can be my friend, as long as you do what I say”? If this is your idea of friendship, I’d be surprised if you have many friends.
It’s an Honor to Be God’s Servant
Which one of us would have dared to approach God with the incredible idea of John 15:15? “We are no longer willing to be called your servants. We insist that from now on we be addressed as friends!”
Actually, it’s an honor to be God’s servant. And how wonderful it would be to hear God say in the end, “Well done, you good and faithful servant.” But it’s God himself who offers us something better, far better—to be his understanding friends.
Nor should we make light of that bumper sticker, “God said it! I believe it! That settles it!” God has said, “I call you no longer my servants, because servants just do what they’re told. I call you rather my friends, for I want you to understand.” A truly good and faithful servant will live up to the meaning of that bumper sticker and take very seriously what God has said about his preference for friends.
I Would Rather Be God’s Friend
Do you consider yourself God’s servant or God’s friend?
“Oh,” you might say, “I consider myself something even better. I consider myself God’s child.”
Why is it better to be God’s child?
“Ah, because children have rights, and I prize the rights Jesus bought for me at such price.”
As I heard a man say in the pulpit the other day, “When I get to heaven and meet God, and he should wonder how a person such as I could possibly be there, all I’ll have to do is show him my rights. He doesn’t have to like me. All he has to do is see my right to be there.”
To me, that’s servant talk. And it’s certainly
not very friendly. Besides, I know many children who are not their father’s friends.
Absalom was David’s son, and he was his father’s worst enemy.23
So I would have to say for myself, I would rather be God’s friend than just his child. But fortunately we can be all three. We don’t have to choose.
I believe it is a great honor to be God’s servant, and especially to be regarded as a faithful one.
It is also a high privilege to be called God’s child.
But most of all, I’d rather be his friend. A trusting and trusted friend.