What Is Gospel Friendship?

“I have called you friends.” John 15:15

Friendship began within God. This beautiful reality we call friendship and companionship and devoted loyalty and so forth – this was not our invention. It came from God. Jesus stepped out from within the blazing love of the Triune God, came down into this world and said to us, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15). We made ourselves his enemies, but he redefined us as his friends.

Friendship is not a clique. A clique exists for the poisonous purpose of excluding other people. Real friendship rejoices to include more people. Jesus proved that.

Look at the human cultures where the gospel has had no influence. Here’s an ancient culture. Adad-Nirari II, king of Assyria in the ninth century BC, left this legacy:

I am royal, I am lordly, I am mighty, I am honored, I am exalted, I am glorified, I am powerful, I am all-powerful, I am brilliant, I am lion-brave, I am manly, I am supreme, I am noble.

I am guessing he didn’t have many friends. Self-important people never do. Here’s a modern culture. Rosaria Butterfield looks back on her former life:

Outside of Christ, I am a manipulator, liar, power-monger and controller. In my relationships with men and with women, I had to be in charge. I killed with kindness and slayed with gifts. I bought people’s loyalties and affections. . . . My sexuality was sinful not because it was lesbian per se but because it wasn’t Christ-controlled. . . . Sexuality that did not devour the other person seemed unimaginable to me.

That is insightful. Without Jesus, none of us even has the categories to grasp how beautiful and life-giving real friendship is.

Several weeks ago I deleted my Facebook account. I was seeing things that just upset me. Facebook wasn’t helping me. So I’m out. But I had thousands of Facebook “friends.” And I have to put quotes around the word “friends,” because Facebook cheapens the word “friend.” They were all wonderful people. Some of them are real friends. But many of them I didn’t even know. Here’s my point. Our modern world cannot make us profound people with profound friendships. We need the gospel. But even Christian culture – how many sermons have you ever heard about friendship? Churches talk about fellowship and community, but what about friendship? There is a barrier to Christ in our city today. And this barrier is not secularism. The primary barrier to Christ in our city today is an unbiblical Christianity without commitment, without risk. That kind of Christianity has the appearance of godliness, but it denies the power. What we must understand is that our history of broken Christian friendships is more than a failure of niceness; it discredits Jesus in the eyes of the watching world. Later in our service we’re going to sing, “What a friend we have in Jesus.” Good! And what we’re saying at Immanuel is that that gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture where people can find themselves saying, “What friends I have in you!”

There is a deep willingness in the heart of this church to build relationships that last. I remember visiting one of the museums in Edinburgh, Scotland, years ago. There on the wall, under glass, were some of the great covenanting documents, when Christian friends were standing together for him in hard times. They signed those great covenants. And some of those signatures have been analyzed chemically and found to be written in blood.

What is a friend? Look at Jesus. He befriended us. He accepted us as we are. And his warmth toward people like us was used as evidence against him! The religious people pointed the finger at Jesus and said, “A friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34). That’s what religion does. The purpose of religion is to divide everyone up into two neat categories: the good people, and the bad people. But the good people aren’t really friends. They keep one another on trial all the time, because religion has power by holding the threat of rejection over people’s heads. But the Bible says, “A friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17). The Bible says, “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). Religious people will betray you, and they will feel right about it, and they will think they are doing you a favor. Jesus is the opposite. He loves at all times. He sticks closer than a brother. And all true friendship follows in the footsteps of Jesus. That means churches, of all places, should never stop talking about friendship. Real friendship is a glorious gospel reality bringing the beauty of Jesus into a broken world. In the early days of Christianity, the apostle John sent greetings from one church to another like this: “Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends, every one of them” (3 John 15). And that leads us to our subject today – gospel friendship.

My sermon today will echo a great sermon my dear dad preached about forty years ago. That sermon showed up later in one of his books. So this past week, as part of my preparation, I re-read dad’s chapter on friendship. I had read it five or six years ago, in the early days of Immanuel. So as I re-read his chapter this week, I was struck by the marginal comments I had jotted down years ago. Here’s what I wrote:

“I have been shaken, to the core of my being, by Christian people’s capacity to break faith and break promises and turn into enemies.”

“I desire profoundly to be loved. But I feel deeply shamed and uncertain. There is such risk in giving my heart away.”

“A painful chapter to me. Once my favorite. Now confusing, disorienting.”

I was not in good shape. In my pre-Immanuel life, something happened. And Immanuel has helped me wonderfully. But I share that with you, because others of us here today can also say, “Something happened.” We know what it means for our hearts to be broken, and we long to be loved but we’re not sure it’s possible. I just want to say two things. One, I get it. Two, the Bible says, “He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:3). If this sermon today is, for you, confusing and disorienting, because you’ve been betrayed and you’re still in restoration, I just want you to know that this church is a good place for people in bad shape. If you need time just to sit and listen and do nothing while the Lord restores your soul, Immanuel is here for you. Others of us have experienced substantial healing. We are ready to follow the Lord to a level of friendship maybe we’ve never known before.

Gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture. Last week I preached on gospel culture at the macro-level – all of us together embodying the grace of Jesus. Today I’m preaching on gospel culture at the micro-level – each of us having a true friend in the Lord. Let me show you from the Bible how beautiful it can be.

The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. . . . Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt. And David went out and was successful. 1 Samuel 18:1-5

David has just killed Goliath. We can easily imagine David walking up out of that valley dragging the big head of Goliath by the hair. The whole army is celebrating like Super Bowl champions. And Jonathan, the king’s son, no mean warrior himself, is standing there watching David. He sees in David a courageous faith in God, an all-out faith in God, an exciting faith that takes risks. Jonathan sees in David what we at Immanuel call “a gospel monster.” And his heart leaps. C. S. Lewis said that friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” If you’re looking for a friend, maybe the first step for you is to become someone who makes other people think, “If that’s what living for Christ is like, I want it!” I need men in my life with that bold faith, inspiring men who enjoy taking risks for the greater glory of Christ in our time. Who doesn’t love being around people who have a great sense of Christ, and it shows.

Gospel-driven friendship is exciting. But it isn’t shallow. It goes deep. The Bible says here that the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David. Jonathan so identified with David, he so committed to David, he so gave himself to David, that his heart was bound, it was knit, it held fast to David. Shakespeare said about true friends, “Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel!” Have you knit your soul with others? The New Testament speaks of it: “. . . that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love” (Colossians 2:2). That takes us way beyond friendliness. Being knit together with a friend in Christ is when I don’t feel complete by myself any more, and if my friend isn’t here at church I feel it, and if I don’t connect with my friend often enough I feel it, because my heart is knit to another.

Jesus feels that way about us all. The New Testament says that he and we are joined together, bound up together, knit together, as he is the head of the Christian body of believers. The New Testament says of Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, “Having loved his own, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). He wasn’t thinking, “This relationship is starting to cost me. I’m so outta here!” He said to us that night, “I’m going to heaven, to prepare a place for you” (John 14:3). He is there in heaven right now, but he is not so dazzled by heaven that he’s forgotten about us down here. He said, “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). In other words, “Even heaven will not be heaven to me until you are there too.” He has grappled us to his soul with hoops of steel. This is the glorious friendship we’ve all been caught up into, by his grace. And the gospel doctrine of divine friendship creates a gospel culture of human friendships that make Jesus more real to us.

You see what Jonathan did. He wasn’t content to have these thoughts about David. He expressed his admiration. He gave David his robe and armor and sword and belt. That is amazing, because Jonathan was the next in the line to the throne. He was saying to David, “I respect you so much, I believe you’re a better man for the job of king.” That humility is unknown in our world today. It was unknown in the ancient world. Back then, if a successful young warrior appeared on the scene, he was not promoted; he was eliminated. And that is in fact what Saul, Jonathan’s father, tried to do to David. But Jonathan was a friend, for the Lord’s sake. He so revered the cause of God in his generation that he was willing to take the lesser place. And the Bible says here that he sealed it by a covenant with David. They formalized their commitment to one another. They talked it over and defined it. They knew they could count on each other. And their covenant did cost them. Jonathan stuck up for David when Saul his father turned against David. Advocacy is a part of real friendship. And David had his heart broken when Jonathan was killed in battle. Grief is also a part of real friendship. It costs. But these two men never regretted the commitment they made. They rejoiced to live up to it. No one has ever loved too much. It’s certainly not my danger. Are you in danger of loving too much?

So we see here two friends in the Lord declaring their loyalty to each other, for his sake. I remember hearing my dad say once that, in his opinion, unexpressed love was the sin of the Christian church in his time. I wonder what you think of that. Dad wasn’t talking about not loving one another in our hearts; he was talking about leaving that love locked up inside, not bringing it out, to help and comfort and inspire one another. He was talking about Christians who do love another, but all they talk about is the NFL. They can tease one another, which is okay, but they never say, “I love you.” If what we see here between Jonathan and David is what God has for us too – and it sure looks like the gospel – then maybe my dad was right. Maybe unexpressed love is a sin. Maybe we need to repent of it today and by faith in God bring that love right out and give it away. The people you so dearly love – have you told them? You need to tell them, not only for their sake but also for your own sake – for your heart to break free into joy. Biblical Christianity is so full, so beautiful, so daring, that we cannot live it out except by faith in God. Jonathan did. He gave his life away, for the Lord’s sake. And God made sure that story ended up in the Bible. It makes me think, even here at Immanuel, where we are so enjoying one another, we are so enjoying gospel + safety + time, we are so enjoying this gospel culture the Lord has given us – still, I think we’ve only begun! God has so much more for us! And that better future includes solid friendships, sacred covenants, throughout this church – gospel culture not only at the macro-level but also at the micro-level. Here is what it can look like:

And Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God. 1 Samuel 23:16

1 Samuel 18 shows us how gospel friendship gets traction. Here in chapter 23 we see how gospel friendship thrives. It is more than empathy, wonderful as that is. Jonathan strengthened David’s hand in God. There was David out in the wilderness, humiliated and rejected and opposed. He was discouraged. He was afraid. He was not doing well. But God gave David an oasis out there – a human oasis in his friend Jonathan, who took a risk to identify with David, who found a way to locate David where even the spies of Saul couldn’t find him. But Jonathan went out of his way to get to his friend. And he put David’s hand into the hand of God.

Not a single one of us is always at 100%. Even David, the hero who went up against Goliath, was now afraid and weak. So what did Jonathan do? He spoke to David of the promises of God. He reminded David of the faithfulness of God. And, of course, Jonathan’s very presence in that terrible place would have meant so much to David. But this is the last time Jonathan and David ever saw each other in this world. What did they speak of? The glorious purposes of God.

I wonder how many of the psalms of David echo the words of Jonathan from conversations like this one here in 1 Samuel 23. David wrote, “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me” (Psalm 138:8). Maybe he was remembering Jonathan: “David, the Lord will fulfill his purpose for you. You’re not going to fall through the cracks.” David also wrote, “I call to God, and the Lord will save me” (Psalm 55:16). Maybe Jonathan said to David, “Let’s call to God, and the Lord will save you. Let’s pray right now.” David also wrote, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6). Maybe Jonathan said to David, “You’re facing uncertainty. This is hard. But one thing’s for sure – God’s goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life. Trust him, and hold steady.”

You husbands, do you strengthen your wife’s hand in God? And you wives? And you friends? Are we saying to one another, “Oh, let’s look to God right now, with so much on the line”? The New Testament says that the apostle Paul “strengthened the souls of the disciples, encouraging them” (Acts 14:22). The New Testament says that the very purpose of our gathering together is to encourage one another (Hebrew 10:25). The whole tone of the New Testament is encouragement. We all need to give and to receive encouragement in God, one on one, as real friends. What has driven Immanuel Church from the beginning is a longing to bring encouragement into people’s hearts, in the power of Christ. Living for him in this world is not easy. We are all weak. We need strength. And there is great strength to be found in a God-centered friend. You need a friend like that. You can be a friend like that.

I am calling you today to pledge yourself as a friend to another person in this church. I am calling you to live a little dangerously and give your heart away, for Jesus’ sake.

In 1904 Chile and Argentina were on the brink of war. But they finally came to peace. So they erected a statue on their border, The Christ of the Andes, inscribed with these words:

Sooner shall these mountains crumble to dust than Chile and Argentina shall break the peace they have sworn at the feet of Christ the Redeemer.

Will you swear friendship with another, maybe with several others, at the feet of Christ the Redeemer?