Sunday, September 21, 2008

Friends of Christ (John 15:11-17)

"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down one's life for his friends."

“11 These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. 12 This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do whatever I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing, but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.

16 “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name, He may give you. 17 These things I command you that you love one another.”

Now Jesus gives the disciples another reason why he is giving them this long discourse, namely, that their joy may be full. “Joy” is a concept (like many biblical ideas) that is much misunderstood by the world at large. Most people think that joy is an emotion, a feeling of happiness or even giddiness. But that’s not what true joy is. Joy can certainly include feelings of happiness, but we can be joyful even when we don’t feel happy.

True joy, according to the Scriptures, is an inner satisfaction. It is contentedness. It is knowing that we are loved by God and that God has made a way for us to avoid spiritual death and Hell, instead spending eternity with him. As Fr. Farley writes, “Joy does not depend on outward circumstances, but on keeping one’s focus on Jesus.” He also states that “The world may rage against [us], but it cannot conquer or take away [our] joy. To remain in Christ is to remain in joy…The Lord’s own joy that comes from his union with the Father, that same joy will be in the disciples and be made full” (273).

But having this joy depends on keeping Christ’s commandments. If we will not keep Jesus’ commandments, we will not have true joy. And, as St. John writes in his first epistle, “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Rather, they bring us freedom. The joy of the Lord comes through our union with him, and as we have already seen, this union comes at least partially through keeping Christ’s commandments.

In verse 12, Jesus repeats the commandment that he had given previously “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Remember that this commandment is an upgrade over the second of the two great commandments that Jesus had quoted earlier, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In verse 13, we see the greatest illustration of just HOW Jesus loves the disciples (and us): by laying down his life. We must love others with the same self-denying, sacrificial love that Jesus loves us with, including laying down our lives (both figuratively and even literally, if called to do so). St. Paul further comments on Christ’s love for us in the Epistle to the Romans: “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7-8).

Jesus tells us of another benefit of following his commandments in verses 14-15: being his friends. As he told the disciples, “No longer do I call you slaves…but you I have called friends.” He had revealed, or would soon reveal, “all things that I have heard from my father.” As Fr. Farley states, “The slave simply follows orders, happily oblivious to the big picture. The slave does not know; the intimate friend does know…[Jesus] has treated them like colleagues; He has held nothing back, kept no teaching secret…But though He loves them as friends, He is still their Lord, and His orders are to be obeyed” (273).

What a blessing that even though we are Christ’s royal subjects and his disciples, he also views us as his friends!

Verse 16 has been misinterpreted by many Christians, especially over the last 500 years. In the Israel of Jesus’ day, “most people who wanted to be specially taught chose their own rabbis and teachers, and attached themselves to whomever they wished” (Farley, 273). But not so with Jesus’ disciples. As we see in the early chapters of each of the Gospels, Jesus specifically chose his disciples.

In applying this saying of Jesus to modern times, many Calvinists use it to buttress their belief that all Christians are specifically chosen by God for salvation (while others are not so chosen!). I have never felt that this application of verse 16 can be maintained. We must keep in mind that Jesus is speaking specifically to the twelve disciples, and not to us. Certainly, much (if not most) of what he says to the disciples applies to us by extension. But this verse is an exception. The overall teaching of the Scriptures is that God chooses (or “predestines”) us for salvation based upon his foreknowledge of our response to his grace—not on any other factor.

The part of verse 16 that undoubtedly applies to us is the purpose of our being chosen: “that you should go and bear fruit, and your fruit should remain.” As we saw at the beginning of this chapter, God expects all of us to bear fruit, and not just once or twice. Our fruit should not be short-lived; rather, it should remain.

On asking something in Jesus’ name, let me once again quote Fr. Stephen Freeman’s words:

“In some American circles, Christ’s promises such as, ‘If you ask anything in my name it will be given you,’ are extremely popular. This is a dangerous promise to put in the hands of a consumer-driven culture. The understanding of the statement will almost invariably be focused on the result (‘If I do this, then I get this’) and the ‘in my name’ will likely be misunderstood as the operating principle (like a magic formula). Of course, “in my name’ is not a magic formula but an invitation to communion. To be ‘in the name of Jesus’ is to be ‘in Jesus’ Himself” (emphasis added). (Glory to God in All Things blog, August 11, 2008).

Finally, in verse 17, Jesus again repeats his commandment to love one another. This is now three times that he has said this. This threefold giving of the commandment stresses its importance.

Application: Do you have the joy of the Lord within you? Is it obvious to all? Orthodox Christians should be known as people who love each other (and the world), but also as people of joy. When people see your face, do they see a smile (or at least a pleasant expression) or do they see a frown? Reflect upon Christ’s love for you and all the blessings that he has given you. Ask him for help in being joyful, despite your circumstances, and in radiating that joy to others, all of whom could use some joy in their lives. Be a blessing to others.


Anonymous said...

Father James,
May God bless you for giving us the opportunity to study the scriptures under your guidance here online.
Please help me understand your explanation of verse 15specifically the sentance where you speak about "the overall teaching of the scriptures..." What I think you are saying is this: God gives us free will to choose or not to choose to follow him in our lives. Those of us who choose to keep Jesus' commandments and abide in His love wil receive salvation. Even though ANY person is ABLE to be saved, God knows ahead of time who will and who will NOT seek the gift of salvation that is offered to us. It is God's foreknowledge of that decision we will freely make spurs God to determines in advance (predestine or choose) those for salvation. You did not specifically mention free will here, but I think it was implied by the topic , if not the specific verse. If I am over my head in water here, please throw me a line.

Fr. James Early said...


It's great to have you back on board! Since you are posting a comment, I presume that you have power back, right?

Yes, what you have said is a fair paraphrase of what I was also trying to say. What you have said is also a good summary of the teaching of the Church (even in the West, Augustine excepted) for the first 1500 years of its existence (at least as I understand it).

May the Lord bless you.