Friendship with Jesus

Dr. Michael Gleghorn draws on a work by Dr. Gail R. O’Day, “Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John,”{1} to explore the perspective of Jesus Christ as a Friend.

What a Friend We Have in Jesus{2}

In his book, The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis offers four analogies of God’s love for humanity.{3} These include the love of an artist for a great work of art, the love of a human being for an animal, the love of a father for his son, and the love of a man for a woman. Interestingly, he does not consider the analogy of friendship, or love between friends. In one sense it’s surprising, for Lewis would later write quite perceptively about friendship in his book, The Four Loves.

Of course, at this time in his career, Lewis may not have even thought about the love of friendship in the context of discussing analogies of God’s love for humanity. After all, on the surface, the Bible appears to say little about friendship between God and human beings. But saying little is not the same as saying nothing, and the Bible does speak about the possibility of enjoying friendship with God. In fact, the Gospel of John offers a great illustration of this in the life and teaching of Jesus, whom Christians regard as God the Son incarnate. John presents Jesus as a true friend, one who is willing to speak the truth to those He loves and to lay down His life for their benefit.

Consider Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 15: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (vv. 12-15).

In this brief passage, Jesus surfaces several important elements of friendship which would have been readily recognized by people in the ancient world. We’ll carefully consider each of these elements in this article. For now, however, the key point to notice is that Jesus explicitly refers to His disciples as “friends.” Moreover, He also holds out to them the possibility of deepening their friendship with both Him, and one another.

In what follows, we’ll unpack many of these ideas further. First, however, we must get a better understanding of how friendship was viewed in the ancient world.

Friendship in the Ancient World

Of course, John’s discussion of friendship in his gospel does not occur in a cultural or historical vacuum. Indeed, he seems to have been aware of other such discussions and even enters into a dialogue (of sorts) with some of them. So how was friendship understood in the ancient world?

The most important discussion of friendship in antiquity is probably that found in Aristotle’s Ethics. As one philosopher observes, “Aristotle’s treatise on friendship is comprehensive and confident, as well as undeniably profound.”{4} Aristotle views friendship as something like the glue of a community, binding people together in relations of benevolence and love. Such relations are indispensable for the community’s health and well-being.{5}

Aristotle describes friendship as “reciprocated goodwill” and claims that the highest form of friendship occurs between “good people similar in virtue.” The primary virtue of real friends is “loving” one another. And such love is expressed in practical actions, for the virtuous person “labours for his friends” and is even willing to “die for them” if necessary.

Finally, the ancients also viewed “frank speech” and “openness” as essential elements of friendship. According to Plutarch, “Frankness of speech . . . is the language of friendship . . . and . . . lack of frankness is unfriendly and ignoble.”{6} The language of friendship thus involves something like “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Friendship should allow, and even encourage, frank speech. And yet, such speech should always be characterized by love and a genuine desire for the friend’s best interest.

Putting this all together, we can see how Jesus’ remarks about friendship correlate with the ancient ideals expressed in the writings of men like Aristotle and Plutarch. Just as Aristotle viewed friendship as the glue of a community, so also Jesus seems to envision the formation of a community of friends, who are bound together in love by their shared allegiance to Him. As biblical scholar Dr. Gail O’Day observes, “The language of friendship provided language for talking about the construction of a community of like-minded people informed by a particular set of teachings.”{7}

Below, we’ll consider how Jesus both models and encourages the ancient ideals of friendship in His life and teaching.

The Language of Friendship

One of the ways in which John shows Jesus demonstrating friendship is through his frank and honest speech. We’ve seen that in the ancient world, open and honest speech was regarded as one of the hallmarks of friendship. And there are several occasions in which such speech is attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John (e.g., 7:26; 10:24-30; 11:14; 16:25-33; 18:19-20).{8}

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything Jesus had to say was easy to understand. It wasn’t, and even his disciples often misunderstood Him. Nor does it mean that Jesus never taught truths about God by using parables or figurative language. Indeed, He often did. What it does mean, however, is that throughout his Gospel, John repeatedly portrays Jesus as speaking and teaching the truth about God openly and honestly to all who care to listen.

For example, Jesus is described as “speaking openly” while teaching the people in the temple at the Feast of Booths (John 7:14, 26). Moreover, after His arrest, when Jesus is being questioned by the High Priest, He frankly declares to those present, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret” (John 18:20). Dr. Gail O’Day observes that Jesus here claims that His entire public ministry has “been characterized by freedom of speech throughout its duration.” She writes, “Jesus has not held anything back in His self-revelation but has spoken with the freedom that marks a true friend.”{9}

Finally, we must not forget what Jesus says to His disciples in John 15: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (v. 15). Here Jesus explicitly refers to His disciples as “friends,” claiming that He has “made known” to them everything that He has heard from the Father. Not only does Jesus call His disciples “friends,” He also speaks to them in the language of friendship, openly and honestly revealing to them the heart and mind of the Father.

Judged by the criterion of “frank and honest speech,” Jesus thus reveals Hmself to be a true friend to His disciples. And as we’ll see next, He is willing to do much more than this, for Jesus is willing to lay down His life for the benefit of others.

The Ultimate Demonstration of Friendship

In John 15 Jesus declares, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (v. 13). Earlier we saw that Aristotle, in his writings on friendship, maintained that the true friend, actuated by genuine goodness, would even be willing to “die” (if necessary) for the sake of a friend.{10} Of course, as any reader of the Gospels knows, Jesus soon does this very thing, thus demonstrating the greatest possible love according to the ancient ideals of friendship. As Dr. O’Day observes, “Jesus did what the philosophers only talked about—He lay down his
life for His friends.”{11}

This event is foreshadowed by Jesus in His claim to be the Good Shepherd in John 10. “I am the good shepherd,” He says. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11). This claim is one of the seven “I Am” statements of Jesus in the Gospel of John, and it likely involves an implicit claim to deity, for as Edwin Blum has noted, “In the Old Testament, God is called the Shepherd of His people (Psalm 23:1; 80:1-2; Ecclesiastes 12:11; Isaiah 40:11; Jeremiah 31:10).”{12} One thinks of the way in which David begins Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (v. 1). The Lord Jesus, as the Good Shepherd of His people, is willing to lay down His life for their benefit (John 10:11).

But Jesus goes further than this, for as Paul tells us, Jesus not only gave His life for His “friends,” but even for His “enemies.” “For while we were still weak,” writes Paul, “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). “While we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8), and even “enemies,” “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10). If dying for one’s friends epitomizes the ancient ideal of friendship, dying for one’s enemies far transcends this ideal. It demonstrates the sacrificial love of God for all humanity. While we were spiritually dead, mired in sin and rebellion (Ephesians 2:1-3), God “sent his Son to be the savior of the world” (1 John 4:14).

Aristotle referred to friendship as “reciprocated goodwill.” Jesus demonstrated the greatest possible love and “goodwill” of God by giving His life for the sins of the world (John 1:29). He commands His disciples to reciprocate His goodwill by loving “one another” as He has loved us (John 15:12, 14). By following His command, a community of friends is formed, bound together in love for one another and a shared commitment to Jesus.

A Community of Friends

Jesus calls His disciples “friends” and commands them to “love one another” as He has loved them (John 15:12). Jesus wants His followers to regard themselves not only as His friends, but as friends of one another as well. He intends for them to be a community of friends, bound together in their love for one another because of their shared devotion to Him. The sort of love to which Jesus calls them is a costly love, for He desires that His people’s love for one another be an imitation of the love that He has already demonstrated toward them. And what sort of love is this? It’s the kind of love that is willing to give one’s life for the benefit of others, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).

Now this, I think we can all agree, is a very high calling. Indeed, if we’re honest, I think that we must all admit that, humanly speaking, it is frankly impossible. If some degree of discomfort does not grip our hearts in considering this commandment, then we probably aren’t considering it in all due seriousness. Very few of us will probably ever reach the level of truly loving other believers just as Jesus has loved us, and if any of us do reach it, we probably won’t be able to consistently maintain such love in our daily practice. But Jesus commands us to do it, and we must at least begin trying to do so. But how?

Dr. Gail O’Day, I think, strikes the right tone when she comments: “The disciples begin with the explicit appellation, ‘friend,’ and the challenge for them is to enact and embody friendship as Jesus has done. The disciples know how Jesus has been a friend, and they are called to see what kind of friends they can become. Jesus’ friendship is the model of friendship for the disciples, and it makes any subsequent acts of friendship by them possible because the disciples themselves are already the recipients of Jesus’ acts of friendship.”{13}

We must remember that Jesus is our friend, that He loves us and provides all that we need to live a holy and God-honoring life. Indeed, He has sent the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower His people for just this purpose. As we trust in Jesus, giving ourselves to Him (and one another) in genuine love and friendship, we will find that we are increasingly obeying His commands and bearing fruit that brings Him glory. So let’s commit ourselves to friendship with Jesus, and to those who compose His body, the church (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:24).


1. Much of the content of this article is indebted to the prior work of Gail R. O’Day, “Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John,” Interpretation, 58(2):144-157.
2. The title for this day is indebted to the song, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The words to this song were originally penned by Joseph Scriven in the 19th century; they were set to music by Charles Converse in 1868. For a brief history of Scriven and the hymn, please see Terry, L. (2004, July-August). Joseph Scriven’s: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”: What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! Today’s Christian, 42(4), 16.
3. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1962), 42-48.
4. Michael Pakaluk (Ed.), Other Selves: Philosophers on Friendship (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1991), 28.
5. I am drawing from Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Hackett Publishing, 1985), 1155a23-27.
6. Plutarch, How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend, 61; cited in Gail O’Day, “Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John,” Interpretation 58(2):147.
7. O’Day, 147.
8. See the discussion in O’Day, 152-57.
9. O’Day, 156.
10. See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Hackett Publishing, 1985).
11. O’Day, 150.
12. Edwin A. Blum, “John,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament Edition, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Victor Books, 1989), 310.
13. O’Day, 152.

©2023 Probe Ministries

Dr. Michael Gleghorn is both a research associate with Probe Ministries and an instructor in Christian Worldview at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona.. He earned a B.A. in psychology from Baylor University, a Th.M. in systematic theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Theological Studies (also from Dallas Theological Seminary). Before coming on staff with Probe, Michael taught history and theology at Christway Academy in Duncanville, Texas. Michael and his wife Hannah have two children: Arianna and Josiah. His personal website is

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at

Further information about Probe's materials and ministry may be obtained by contacting us at:

Probe Ministries
2001 W. Plano Parkway, Suite 2000
Plano TX 75075
(972) 941-4565
[email protected]

Copyright/Reproduction Limitations

This document is the sole property of Probe Ministries. It may not be altered or edited in any way. Permission is granted to use in digital or printed form so long as it is circulated without charge, and in its entirety. This document may not be repackaged in any form for sale or resale. All reproductions of this document must contain the copyright notice (i.e., Copyright 2024 Probe Ministries) and this Copyright/Limitations notice.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


©2024 Probe Ministries | Designed and Managed by Adquest Creative


We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.


Discover more from Probe Ministries

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading

Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?