Welcome to MOTIFS, where I follow cultural and literary images found in the Bible in an attempt to unearth God's meaning in His pattern of usage.

18. FRIEND          FRIEND

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather, it is one of those things which give value to survival.                               —C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves                                                                                                          

In Lewis’s enduring text on the natural and supernatural loves, he explores the place of interpersonal, flesh-and-blood, human friendship that is a noble theme to consider:

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up! (Eccl. 4:9-10 NASB)

Several words in the original Bible languages are translated as “friend” and represent a spectrum from relative facelessness to intimacy, depending on context. A friend might be simply a fellow mortal or neighbour, a colleague, perhaps a kinsman, or even someone dear, highly favoured, and loved within a covenant of peace, communion, and fellowship.

The motif becomes complex when considering the whole scope of relationships—including, in New Testament words, both philia (friendship of a primarily reciprocal nature, the idea of loving as well as being loved) and agape (love not arising from the impulse of feelings and not primarily relational, but with resulting side benefits; this is the all-surmounting, holy love essential to God’s being).

We begin our study by looking at horizontal, human friendships.

The traits of a friend include fidelity, confidentiality, and a sense of loyalty that overlooks offense (Prov. 11:13; 1 Chron. 12:17; Prov. 17:9). There’s no room for treachery in friendship; instead, good friends stick together even in the bad times (Prov. 27:10; Prov. 18:24; Prov. 17:17). They are emotionally invested; for example, Jonathan and David had a strong bond that outlived death to be expressed to the next generation (1 Sam. 20:11-17; 2 Sam. 9:6-7):

The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. (1 Sam. 18:1)

Friends care for one another and enjoy giving gifts in meeting needs (1 Sam. 18:4; Acts 27:3). Purity of heart and words of graciousness will win even a king’s devotion (Prov. 22:11). Consider Ruth’s readiness to sacrifice, as she declared solidarity with her mother-in-law, Naomi, in their exile:

“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

Friends talk face-to-face and rejoice in each other’s successes—lost money found, a wedding in the community (3 John 1:13-15; Luke 15:8-9; John 2:1-2). They are deeply familiar with one another, and spend time and “take sweet counsel” together (Ps. 55:13-14; Prov. 27:9)—although not at the expense of honesty, for,

Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend . . . Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another. (Prov. 27:5-6, 17)

We often read of Bible companions sharing meals as David feasted with his mighty men, and physically embracing as Esau hugged Jacob (1 Chron. 12:38-40; Gen. 33:4). But not all who share a table are trustworthy, not all who embrace truly love (Ps. 41:9; Jer. 41:1-2; Deut. 28:54). Discernment in choosing companions is of paramount importance:

A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends . . . Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare. (Prov. 16:28; Prov. 22:24)

Indeed, bad company ruins good morals; Amnon followed the plot of his crafty friend Jonadab and raped his own sister Tamar (1 Cor. 15:33; Deut. 13:6-8; 2 Sam. 13:3-14). Sometimes one’s enemies band together in alliance against the godly, like Job’s three fair-weather friends, or Pilate and Herod on the day of the Crucifixion (Job 2:11; 16:20; 19:19; Luke 23:12).

The Bible sets the world’s definition of friendship in juxtaposition against God’s:

It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans . . . Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh, and whose heart turns away from the Lord . . . Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. (Ps. 118:8; Jer. 17:5, 7 NIV)

Indeed, God’s friendship (agape) is on a different plane altogether than the world’s friendship (James 4:4; John 15:19). When Adam and Eve lost their relationship with God, death entered to become our final enemy (Gen. 3:8; 1 Cor. 15:26). Ever since our separation from God in the Garden, He has been calling us back into relationship with Him (Isa. 45:22; Matt. 11:28). Consider His overtures of friendship when, early on, He interrupted the cycle of death by taking Cain’s son Enoch (who “walked” or fellowshipped with Him) alive to Heaven, as He did again later with Elijah (Gen. 5:22-24; 2 Kings 2:11). Consider His agape love when He chose Israel and called Abraham His friend (philos) because of his faith, or when He spoke intimately with Moses—forging covenants of great friendship with His people (Isa. 41:8; James 2:23; Exod. 33:11), for,

The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear Him, and He makes known to him His covenant. (Ps. 25:14)

God’s ultimate act of friendship was sending His gift of Jesus Christ to the world as a unique friend we could relate to in a physical, visceral sense—deity in flesh, God we could touch (Heb. 1:1-2; Phil. 2:6-8; 1 John 1:1).

For God so loved [agapao] the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

With the coming of Jesus, friendship took on a whole new significance. Of course, He had “friends” in the sense of human companions (Matt. 11:19; John 15:14-15). He wept together with Mary in philia-type friendship over Lazarus’ death, and He considered His disciples to be dear (philos) friends (John 11:32-36; Luke 12:4). At the Last Supper, He even addressed Judas as friend, but note that He used a different word here; hetaire would be better translated as “friendly opportunist” or “imposter,” for Jesus knew the dark heart of his betrayer (Matt. 26:48-50; John 2:23-25).

In a further differentiation of Jesus’ human relationships, John the Apostle was known as the disciple He loved (agapao) (John 13:23; 19:26). It is only on the basis of God’s friendship with us in Christ that we can know agape, for Jesus came to reconcile us to Himself, to change our status of enmity and bring us close to God again (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:19-20; Eph. 2:12-13).

Greater love [agape] has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends [philos]. (John 15:13)

This in turn allows us to truly love others as siblings within the Body of Christ (Heb. 13:1). We now greet each other with agape, break bread together, season our speech with the bite of salt, and speak the truth in love—not just in word but also in deed (1 Pet. 5:14; Acts 2:46; Col. 4:6; Eph. 4:15; 1 John 3:18). We are no longer enemies of one another but, like Jesus, become kind, compassionate, and forgiving—as God has forgiven our enmity towards Him (Titus 3:3-7; Eph. 4:32; Matt. 5:43-44). We then offer the Good News of Christ’s friendship to the world, who will know us by our love—seeing us as united as partners, affectionate, sympathetic, comforting, and selfless (Matt. 28:19; John 13:35; Phil. 1:3-5; Phil. 2:1-5).

This is true friendship, indeed!


To comment on this reading, or to subscribe or unsubscribe to a monthly email reminder of new postings, please write me: deb@rolledscroll.com.

These short literary articles tied to the Bible explore what God might have been saying in His pattern of usage for each symbol. English rendition of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek varies with translations (e.g., “scroll” is sometimes interchangeable with “book”); however, the quality and underlying meaning of the selected emblem remain consistent across versions. Sketches are by Lorenda Harder. I recommend the website of Dr. Grant C. Richison for thorough expository Bible study: www.versebyversecommentary.com.

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