I want to speak to you tonight about the relationship between friendship with Jesus and the aims of higher education — specifically the educational aims of Bethlehem College & Seminary.
The portion of God’s word that has given rise to these thoughts is John 15:12–15.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave 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.
Jesus uses the word “friends” three times, and makes three interrelated statements about them and in every case these friends are his friends, and these statements are about what it means to be his friends.
First, verse 13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” If Jesus had not laid down his life in our place we would remain under the wrath (3:36) and perish (3:16). Therefore, our existence as his friends is owing to the love Christ for us. And, he says, that this love is as great as it can be: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life.” So our friendship with Jesus is created by the greatest act of love that has ever been or ever will be performed — the sacrifice of the life of the Son of God.
That’s the first statement about our friendship with Jesus: It is created by the greatest love.
Second, verse 14, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” In other words, when I say that I lay down my life for my friends, you can know that my death counts for you, if it moves you to become obedient to me. Think carefully with me: He has just said, “I lay down my life for my friends.” Now he says, “You are my friends, if you do what I command.” That’s a big “if.” Eternity hangs in the balance. And I take it to mean: you can know you are my friend and my death counts for you, if my love for you and my death for you has changed you to love each other as I loved you. If you love each other as I loved you, you are showing the effect my death has had on you, and proving to be my friends.
But what is most striking about verse 14 is that ordinary human friends don’t talk this way. I would never say to a friend, “You are my friend if you do what I command you.” Friendship between two humans is symmetrical: we stand side by side, we link arms, shoulder to shoulder with a united vision and allegiance that is greater than both of us and we love the partnership of pulling together toward that common vision above us both. That’s human friendship.
But if you translate that meaning of friendship into your relationship with the Son of God, it will be blasphemy. Jesus and I side by side, linking arms, shoulder to shoulder with a united allegiance to a vision that is greater than both of us? No. In this friendship it is greater than one of us, not both of us. The goal that Jesus and I share as friends is not greater than both of us. It’s only greater than I. It’s not greater than Jesus. It is given by Jesus. In fact, it is Jesus. Friendship with Jesus, the Son of God, is profoundly asymmetrical. If we don’t like that kind of friendship with God incarnate, we don’t like God. Because that is what it means to be God. Friendship with God is radically asymmetrical. Jesus and his friends are moving toward the same vision, indeed arm in arm, but he creates the vision and I obey. That’s what it means to be arm in arm with God. Verse 14: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
Third, verse 15, “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave 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.” The point of this verse is to preempt a misunderstanding of what he had just said, namely, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” He is saying, “You may think that in requiring obedience I am simply treating you as slaves. Slaves do what they are told. But in requiring your obedience, I am not treating as slaves.” How so?
Verse 15: A slave does not know what his master is doing. But friends of the Master do. “I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Part of what your friendship with me means is: You are in the know. In the know about what. What the master is doing. “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing.” The difference between slave-obedience and friend-obedience is that friends know what the master is doing.
How do we know? Jesus tells us in verse 15b: “Because all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Everything we need to know about what God is doing in order for us to obey gladly as a friend, rather than grudgingly as a slave, has been made known to us. “All that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”
What transforms slave-obedience into friend-obedience is first knowing that he lay down his life for us, and second that he has revealed to us what the Father is doing. We do what Jesus commands because we have been taken into his life and taken into his counsel. God never says to his children: “Just do it!” There are always reasons. Understanding why is always available. And it is always enough.
Slaves do not know how the commands fit into what the master is doing. Friends know how the commands fit into what the master is doing. Obedience to the Master makes sense because he has told us what he is doing. Obedience to Christ makes no sense to the world because they don’t know what the Master is doing. Or even if there is a Master.
Therefore Christian living — Christian obedience in this world — is rooted in, and grows up out of, the soil of knowing what God is doing. God is at work doing things on the planet Jupiter as we speak. He is governing every molecule that moves in the rings around Saturn. That’s probably not the main thing Jesus has in mind when he says, Slaves don’t know what God is doing, but friends do what he’s doing. God’s plan for humanity is running its course on planet earth. This is where our obedience to the Master will happen or not.
Christian obedience to the commands of Jesus happens in solitude, in families, in friendships, in the church, in the sphere of our vocation, in the civic and cultural life of the city, in the shaping of our nation, and in the reaching of the world.
Therefore, since this obedience is rooted in, and grows out of, the knowledge of what the Master is doing, we need to know what God is doing in our souls, in families, in our friendships, in the church, in the sphere of our vocation, in the civic and cultural life of our city, in the shaping of our nation, and in the reaching of the world.
Higher education, therefore, at Bethlehem is the endeavor to build habits of mind and heart into the students that will make them competent life-long learners of what God is doing in the world — in their soul, in their family, their friendships, their church, their vocation, their city, their nation, their world, because glad-hearted, free, non-slavish, God-centered, Christ-exalting, friend-like obedience is rooted in and grows out of the soil of knowing what the Master is doing — what God is doing in all the spheres of life where he calls us to live.
And John 15:15 says, Everything we need to know about what God is doing, in order for us to obey gladly as a friend, has been revealed. And we come to know what God is doing through a lifetime of Spirit-anointed observation and understanding of God’s word and Spirit-anointed observation and understanding of God’s world so that when we view the world through the lens of God’s word we can discern what God is doing. And can obey as glad-hearted friends not begrudging slaves.
I close with one illustration, of thousands. When the Master commands you as his friend, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28). “Beloved, never avenge yourselves” (Romans 12:19) — when he gives you, his friend, that commandment, what do you do if there wells up inside of you the protest — but they are getting away with murder. It isn’t right that I should be slandered, and they celebrated? How do you move from that emotionally charged protest, to glad-hearted obedience?
You move by knowing what the Master is doing. He does not say, “Shut up, and just obey.” He says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). He tells us what he is doing. Nobody is getting away with anything. Every wrong will be punished fully, either on the cross for those who repent, or in hell for those who don’t. Your protest is unnecessary. Lay it down. And get on with the your obedience of returning good for evil. Because you know what the Master is doing. You are his friend.
There are ten thousand such connections in every sphere of life between obeying the Master, and knowing what he is doing. Therefore, the aim of education in serious joy is to instill habits of mind and heart that will enjoy for a lifetime friendship of Jesus, the freedom of obedience, and the knowledge of what the Master is doing in all of life.
See also John Piper’s short message from the President’s Reception earlier the same evening, “Education in Serious Joy.”