In the 15th chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus bestows a great gift to his disciples. He says to them, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends.”
Jesus demonstrated the value of true and faithful friendship. He knit together a small group of friends and then from among those 12 he had three, Peter, James and John, who were his closest friends. Every chance he got he spent time with his good friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
I believe that as Christians we are called to go and do likewise. We are called to engage in and develop deep, loving, true, faithful friendships.
So often the “month of love” involves romantic love and nothing more, but I would like to challenge us to consider the call and commitment of Christians to phileo one another this Valentine’s day. Phileo love is what Romans 12:10 instructs, to “Love one another with brotherly affection.”
In his book “Leap Over a Wall,” Eugene Peterson says that “Friendship is a much underestimated aspect of spirituality. It’s every bit as significant as prayer and fasting. Like the sacramental use of water and bread and wine, friendship takes what’s common in human experience and turns it into something holy.”
How many of us experience this kind of sacramental, holy, true, faithful friendship? Coming out of the pandemic, many researchers have documented the increased loneliness among Americans. In one study, 36% of Americans experienced “serious loneliness.” The number increases to 61% among young adults. The reasons may be myriad, but the prescription is clear— we are in desperate need of friendship. And with that, many of us need a refresher in how to have and be a friend.
The Bible identifies a few marks or characteristics of true and faithful friendship— characteristics which are evidenced by the friendship of David and Jonathan. The three marks of a true and faithful friendship are: Call, Commitment and Cherishing.
To set the stage: Jonathan is the heir apparent to the throne of Israel; his father, Saul, is the reigning king and Jonathan is the crown prince. However, when it came time to fight the Philistine, Goliath, neither King Saul nor Prince Jonathan nor any of the other fighting men of Israel were willing to do battle. Instead, an unknown little shepherd boy named David who felled the great Goliath with one small smooth stone hurled from a slingshot. He was an instant national celebrity and he was invited to the palace for an audience with the King. That’s where we pick up the story in I Samuel 18. Read I Samuel 18:1-9 and then I Samuel 20:1-17.
Jonathan called David to friendship. As he stood in the court of his father, King Saul, and he too met the shepherd boy who had saved Israel from the Philistines, Jonathan’s heart went out to David. He wanted to be David’s friend and he wanted David to be his friend. And so he asked him, “Can we be friends?”
What stops us from calling people to friendship? What stops us from allowing our own hearts to go out to others and to call them into true and faithful friendships? What stops us? For many, the fear of rejection is enough.
Rejection is a terrible thing— to be laughed at, cast off, belittled. There may be scoffers who reject friendship, but they bear the deepest pain in a life of bitterness and loneliness. Because when you call someone into friendship, you are offering the greatest thing they could ever hope to have, and you are offering to become the greatest thing you can ever be. Those who accept know the great worth and are more than worth the risk.
The second characteristic of a true and faithful friendship is the commitment to share your lives with one another.
Before David felled the giant Goliath, Jonathan was the most popular person in Israel. He was handsome and rich and had a future that was filled with hope. But all that changed when the shepherd boy with a rock and sling shot brought down the most powerful man of the day. Jonathan might have been jealous, or put a great distance between himself and David, but he didn’t.
Instead, Jonathan chose to share the spotlight and the glory, he chose to share the future of Israel and the trials and tribulations that would befall them both, he chose to share himself, his armor, his army, his birthright, his throne. Jonathan shared himself with David and their friendship flourished.
The term used in the Bible is that their lives were knit together with one another. They shared a common purpose God’s purpose— they were individually and therefore jointly committed to God’s will being done through the nation of Israel.
The third characteristic of a true and faithful friendship is to cherish one another. Now, there are lots of ways of understanding the word, cherish. But here, let’s consider how phileo calls us to selfless and sacrificial friendship.
Over time, Saul became insanely jealous of David. This put Jonathan in a precarious position for he was Saul’s son and he was David’s friend. On several occasions, Jonathan appealed to Saul to spare David’s life. And each time Jonathan runs a terrible risk. For if Saul ever suspected that Jonathan was working to protect and hide David from Saul’s jealous wrath, Saul would not have hesitated to kill Jonathan on the spot. But Jonathan did it because he cherished his friend.
Selfless, sacrificial love must always be a mark of true and faithful friendship. If the friendship costs you nothing then what is it worth? Jonathan believed that God had ordained David to be king and Jonathan selflessly gave up his right to the throne to see God’s will worked out in the life of his friend.
Call, Commit, Cherish.
There is one last characteristic of faithful friendship: Christ.
At one point along this joint journey, David’s faith falters and the Scriptures tell us that “Jonathan strengthened David’s hand in the Lord.” (1 Samuel 23:16) He led him deeper into his relationship with God and encouraged his faithfulness to Yahweh.
Herein lies the true test of friendship: Does this friendship honor God? Does this friendship draw you closer to God?
You see, no true friend, no faithful friend, will ever ask you to do something which points you away from Christ. You can judge your friendships today and in the future by this test: Is this person leading away from or toward God? For no true and faithful friend will ever seek to replace God in your life and no true and faithful friend will seek to dethrone Christ as your Lord.
Do you have a friend like this? Praise the Lord! Take the time this month to tell your friend what a gift they are. Would you like to have a friend like that? Then be a friend like that.
Call someone into true and faithful friendship; commit your friendship to God and seek out his common purpose for you; and then cherish your friend, selflessly and sacrificially honoring the friendship God has given you— ever pointing them to Christ in every way you can.