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Servants or Friends: Chapter 6

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FRIENDS TALK PLAINLY WITH EACH OTHER

“Isn’t there a danger that all this emphasis on friendship with a friendly God will undermine proper reverence?”
The question came from a pastor at a church conference I attended recently, and I have heard others express the same concern.

The question surely deserves to be taken seriously, for many seem to find it difficult to revere God as both infinite Creator
and gentle Friend. As the people demonstrated at the foot of Sinai, when the fear is gone, when there is no display of majesty and power,
reverence seems to fade away. So long as the lightning flashed and the ground shook beneath their feet, the Israelites were prepared to
promise God anything. Some might regard such trembling submission as “proper reverence.” But not many days after the thunder had died away,
the people were dancing wildly around a gold image of a calf!1

As long as Jesus miraculously fed the crowds, healed the sick, and raised the dead, the people were ready to worship him and crown him king.
But when he answered his enemies with such gentleness, when he treated sinners with such patience and respect, when he explained that his kingdom
would not be set up by force, when on Calvary he humbly submitted to so much abuse, most of his followers either left or scoffed at his claim to be
the Son of God.

Judas was one of those who mistook graciousness for weakness. When Jesus knelt to wash his feet, Judas despised him for his humility.
The god Judas could respect would never degrade himself in such a manner.

Which inspires you to greater reverence: the terrifying manifestation of God’s power on Mount Sinai or the picture of the great Creator
quietly weeping on the Mount of Olives? If the story of Sinai and the story of Olivet have led us to see God as both majestic King and
gracious Friend, then we have learned how to worship God with the kind of reverence he desires—reverence without fear, the reverence of friends.

Such friends can have a clearer understanding of God’s ways, for he is able to speak to them more plainly. Unlike merely submissive servants,
they are eager to know more about the one they admire. Jealous for God’s reputation—as friends should be—they have shown they can
be trusted with information others might misunderstand or even abuse.

To them God can reveal his gentleness, without danger of their despising it as weakness. He can tell them that he values
nothing higher than their freedom, without danger of lessening their respect for discipline and order. He can show that he is
forgiveness personified, without danger that they will take sin less seriously. He can assure them there is no need to be afraid,
without danger of diminishing their reverence and awe.

Jesus minced no words in warning of the hazards of sharing such precious information with those who are not ready or able to receive it, or who
may even find it offensive. As he neared the end of his marvelous depiction of God in the Sermon on the Mount, he solemnly advised,
“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”2
If this should seem too strongly stated, the treatment Jesus received during the next three years proved the truthfulness of his warning.

No “Dark Speech” Between Friends

Imagine hearing God say that he can talk to you in ways that he cannot speak to other people, because you are his friend.
Moses received this high compliment, and I have wondered how he must have felt as he listened to God explaining to Miriam and
Aaron that he could speak more clearly to their brother than he could even to prophets.

Miriam and Aaron had become jealous of the special relationship Moses enjoyed with God, even though Moses himself is described as
“very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.”3 I can recall thinking as a child that if Moses wrote that verse himself,
it was not very humble of him to boast about his own humility! But later I came to realize that it takes a good deal of humility to
admit to being meek. Meekness is rarely admired or trusted in a leader. During a presidential election, candidates do not extol their
exceptional meekness and humility as especially qualifying them for high office!

One of the first poems my mother taught me began with the words, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon this little child.”
I thought it was very beautiful at the time. I still do. But many of the people Jesus came to tell about his Father despised and
rejected him for his gentleness, just as the prophet Isaiah had predicted they would.4

Centuries before, God had told meek Moses that some day he would raise up a special prophet from among the people of Israel,
“a prophet like you.”5 Jesus recognized this prediction as referring to himself.6 And Moses must have watched with increasing wonder
and admiration as the Son of God dealt with all kinds of people, and especially his enemies, with such humility and grace.

Before Jesus went out to be crucified, Moses came to talk with him on the Mount of Transfiguration. The prophet Elijah joined them,
and all three—two men and their Creator God, though now in human form—talked “face to face,” as friends speak with each other. Luke says
they talked about the cruel rejection and execution Jesus was about to endure.7

Though so many despised Jesus for his meekness, do you suppose Moses was ashamed to stand there with his Lord? What an honor to be
identified with “gentle Jesus, meek and mild!” Moses had not been ashamed to describe himself in the book of Numbers as more meek
and humble “than anyone else on the face of the earth.” To be that kind of a person is to be like God.

It would appear, though, that these qualities in Moses had not commanded the respect of his brother and sister.
God summoned all three of them into his presence. Aaron and Miriam were ordered to step forward. And God said, Hear my words:

When there are prophets among you,

I the Lord make myself known to them in visions;

I speak to them in dreams.

Not so with my servant Moses;

he is entrusted with all my house.

With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles;

and he beholds the form of the Lord.

Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?8

(The King James Version translates the Hebrew word for “riddles” as “dark speeches.”)

Notice that God still addresses his friend Moses as his servant. On an earlier occasion God was described as speaking to Moses
“face to face, as one speaks to a friend.”9 But friendship with God is not the end of service.
Jesus himself set the example of being a serving friend.

Talking Plainly about the Father

Soon after Jesus made the offer of friendship recorded in John 15:15, he told the disciples that soon he would begin talking
to them more clearly about the Father. He explained that up to this time he had been speaking to them in figures of speech, metaphors,
parables—the “dark speech” he had not needed to use with his friend Moses. “The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to
you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father.”10

How soon did that hour arrive? The disciples apparently thought, at once. After Jesus had completed a brief but most significant
statement about the Father, the disciples responded, “Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech!”11
Compare the Lord’s words just a moment later, foretelling how the disciples would desert him, “The hour is coming, indeed it has come . . .”12

Jesus made his plain statement in the Aramaic language. John translated it into Greek. We read it in translations of
John’s translation. But we needn’t worry that in all this translating, something of the original meaning may have become obscured.
The many versions of this passage read essentially the same. Here is the English of the New International Version:

Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language
but will tell you plainly about my Father. In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf.
No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and
entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.13

I especially enjoy Knox’s version of verse 27. “Because the Father himself is your friend, since you have become my friends . . .”
Monsignor Knox translated from the Latin translation of John’s translation Greek. But both in Latin and in Greek, the words for “love”
and “friend” come from the same basic root.

In what Jesus said about the Father, is there anything that seems to be stated more clearly and less figuratively than before? I find only the
simple words, which may be put in simple English, “I do not say to you that I will ask the Father for you, for the Father loves you himself.”

Goodspeed translates this passage, “I do not promise to intercede with the Father for you, for the Father loves you himself.”

As friends of a friendly God, the disciples were encouraged to present their own requests directly to the Father.
It was not necessary for Jesus to do this for them.

They were, however, to “ask in my name,” Jesus said. This was not to suggest that if God did not hear the name of his Son, he would be
less willing to grant requests. The mention of the name of Jesus expresses grateful recognition that if the Son of God had not shown us
the truth about his Father, we would not know how we could approach him. We might not even want to.

In this sense, we have indeed needed someone to “mediate,” to “intercede,” to “intervene,” all Latin-based words meaning
respectively “to be in the middle,” “to go between,” “to come between.” Every time we pray in Jesus’ name, we thank God for
Christ our Mediator, who came to bridge the gap between us and God and bring us the truth about our loving heavenly Father.

Because of Jesus, we know that we can talk with our heavenly Father “as one speaks with a friend.” There is no need for some other friend between,
for God himself is our Friend.

Of all that Jesus might have made plain about his Father, why did he choose this particular information, and why at this moment just before
his crucifixion? Was this something the disciples would especially need to remember as they witnessed the events of the next few hours?
Was it something the disciples needed to know very clearly, lest they misunderstand the meaning of his sacrificial death?

The Mystery of the Disappearing “Not”

Surprisingly, not everyone is pleased to hear this clear statement about the Father recorded in John 16. In fact, I once heard a minister denounce
it as “damnable heresy.” “If Jesus is not pleading for us with the Father,” he went on, “we have no hope of being saved.”

I’m sure this minister did not realize that he was condemning the words of Christ himself. So in all fairness I should
point out that he is accustomed, as are many others, to reading John 16:26 without the all-important word “not.” Jesus said,
“I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf.” But for many readers, the “not” has somehow disappeared.

On numerous public occasions, and sometimes even in print, I have seen this verse quoted—without the “not”—as a promise that
Jesus will indeed plead with the Father for us. Some have expressed great surprise when their attention is called to the missing word.
I have even heard preachers confess that, if the “not” really belongs, they don’t know what to do with this text. Some simply ignore it.

One teacher explained, “Since we all know that Christ actually is interceding with the Father, John 16:26 is a difficult paradox.”
He meant this, of course, with the Lord’s “not” still in place. But Jesus didn’t say this statement was difficult. He said it was plain and clear!

A Chance to Ask Questions

The disciples missed another opportunity to act like friends as they had been invited, and raise questions the way friends do. They could well
have asked Jesus if he really meant what he had just told them.

“Are you saying that there is no need for you to pray the Father for us? Then why was Moses instructed to set up the whole priestly system at Sinai?”

“Wasn’t it the special work of the high priest to intercede with God in behalf of sinners?”14

“Didn’t Moses have to plead with God not to pour out his wrath on the misbehaving people?”

“Didn’t Moses himself report that he succeeded in persuading God to change his mind?”

The disciples could have called Jesus’ attention to the very words of Scripture: “Moses implored the Lord his God, and said . . .
‘Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.’ . . . And the Lord changed his mind about the
disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”15

“Are you telling us, Lord, that even Moses misunderstood?”

In our own time, with the advantage of having read the book of Hebrews, we could raise a further question:
“Jesus, if the work of the high priest represented the very work you came to do—and have continued to do since your
return into the presence of the Father—why would you say that there is actually no need for you to intercede with God in our behalf?
And in spite of this clear statement, why would such good friends of yours as John and Paul still describe you in their New Testament
letters as the Advocate who pleads our cause in the courts of heaven?16 Did even they misunderstand? Was John perhaps puzzled to hear you
go on asking the Father to do things for the disciples, right after you had said that you wouldn’t?”17

I wish John had asked Jesus to help him understand the implications of his plain statement about the Father. Then John would have recorded the
priceless answer, and we could be reading it today. However, from the rest of Scripture, we can have some idea of how the Lord would have explained.

“I Haven’t Come to Contradict Moses”

Jesus might well have begun by repeating what he said to the critics who accused him of contradicting the teachings of the sacred Scriptures.
“Do not suppose that I have come to abolish or do away with the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to complete
and fulfill.”18

Then, as was his custom when answering such questions, Jesus might have traced the history of the whole idea that God’s children
needed someone to stand between them and their heavenly Father. He could have reminded the disciples of how God came down on Sinai to
speak to his people, of the measures he had to take to gain their attention, how in terror the people begged Moses not to let God speak
to them directly any longer lest they be destroyed.

“You speak to us, Moses, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”19

“You see,” Jesus might have continued, “it was the people who wanted someone in between, someone they
understood to be God’s friend, who could stand between them and the God of whom they were so terrified.

“But you disciples know that I am the one who was there on Sinai. Are any of you afraid of me?
I have asked you to be my friends. You know it’s safe for you to sit and talk with me openly like this.”

I Didn’t Want Anyone in Between

Then Jesus might have gone on, sadly, “I would have loved to talk like this with my people there in the wilderness.
I didn’t want anyone to intercede between us, as if I really didn’t love my own children. But they did not know me as you do.
First they were so irreverent. Then they were so scared. I could not order them not to be afraid. As you disciples surely must
understand, trust and friendship cannot be commanded. So until they knew me better, I agreed that Moses could be the mediator.
They were not afraid of him, and he was not afraid of me.

“Of course, there was no one between me and Moses. He really knew me and was my friend. There was no one between me and my
old friend Abraham when he talked so candidly about my plans for the people of Sodom. And there was no one between me and Job
when he felt free to express his feelings so strongly. His counselors thought I’d be angry, but actually I was honored by his trust.

“And now,” Jesus might have concluded, “I have come myself to be the one between—just as I told Moses I would. Many may
misunderstand my purpose in coming. Many may even sincerely thank God for sending me, the gentle one, to stand between them
and their offended heavenly Father—as if I were kinder than he.

“But you know who I really am. You have seen that Isaiah was right when he foretold that the Prince of peace would actually be God.20
Now tell me the truth, my disciples. Do you need anyone to protect you from me? Then you do not need anyone to protect you from the Father.
When you were behaving so badly during supper, was there anyone between you and God when I washed your dirty feet? And I want you to
remember in the future, that when I washed the feet of Judas, there was no one between him and his God.

“I have told you as plainly and clearly as I can that the Father loves you as much as I do. He is just as friendly and forgiving
as I hope you have found me to be. He would even be just as willing to kneel and wash your dirty feet.

“But now I must go to be crucified. I want you to be with me on Calvary. I want you to watch me die.
Perhaps it will help you understand more clearly what I have been trying to tell you about the Father.”

Sadly, of the twelve disciples, John was the only one there. But he recorded what he heard and saw.

Who Loves Us More—Jesus or the Father?

At family worship years ago, when my youngest daughter was only six, we were reading together the children’s story from a
Christian magazine. It told dramatically how Jesus stands before his Father and asks him to forgive—especially little children
who haven’t been good!

“Daddy,” interrupted Alice, with a troubled look on her face, “does this mean that God doesn’t love us as much
as Jesus does?” It seemed clear to her that the one who did the asking must be more loving than the one who had to be begged.

Worship was a bit longer that evening. A little girl had felt free to raise a very important question about God.
And she really wanted to understand.

I told her the story of what Jesus had tried to make so plain and clear to his disciples in the upper room.

Now Alice explains to my grandchildren that God loves them just as much as Jesus does.

Crown with a rose


1. See Exodus 32.

2. Matthew 7:6, NRSV.

3. Numbers 12:3, NRSV.

4. See Isaiah 53:3,7.

5. See Deuteronomy 18:15-18.

6. See Luke 24:27, 44; see also Acts 3:17-26.

7. See Luke 9:28-36; see also Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8.

8. Numbers 12:6-8, NRSV.

9. Exodus 33:11, NRSV.

10. John 16:25, NRSV.

11. John 16:29, NRSV.

12. John 16:32, NRSV.

13. John 16:25-28, NIV.

14. See Leviticus 16.

15. Exodus 32:11-14, NRSV.

16. See 1 John 2:1; Romans 8:34.

17. See John 17:6-26.

18. See Matthew 5:17.

19. See Exodus 20:18,19.

20. See Isaiah 9:6.

 

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