The enduring significance of Christmas is that it represents perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Christian faith — the concept of the incarnation, the belief that God took human form in Jesus. Theologians refer to the “hypostatic union” of Jesus, meaning the mysterious fusion of his divinity and his humanity.
The humanity of Jesus manifests itself in his moments of grief, agony, anger, frustration, joy and compassion. But one particular aspect of that humanity that has long intrigued me is his professed friendship with the rest of us.
In the New Testament, this point is made emphatically in the 15th chapter of the Gospel of John. The context is Jesus’ discourse with his disciples, in which he tells them that as God the father has loved him, so he loves them. His command to his disciples is that they love one another. Jesus then says this: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my father I have made known to you.”
John Swinton, an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland and a professor at the University of Aberdeen, calls this shift from servant to friend a “profound act of renaming.”
I understand why the relationship between an all-powerful deity and less than all-powerful human beings — between the creator and the created, the perfect and the imperfect — would be defined by the latter’s awe, reverence and obedience. But a relationship between God and us — between God and me, between God and you — that is defined by true friendship is startling. Why would a divine, transcendent entity, referred to in the Scriptures as the everlasting God, the Lord Most High, not only condescend to become human but also initiate a relationship with us that is defined by mutual affection, intimacy and self-revelation? So I reached out to ministers and theologians to ask: What does it mean for Jesus to call us his friends?
The thread of friendship can be traced back to the Old Testament, to the book of Isaiah, where the prophet conveys God’s description of Abraham as “my friend.” The concept of God as a friend is not foreign to the Hebrew Scripture, then, though it seems to have been limited to Abraham and, in a somewhat different way, to Moses, “as if they have an especially intimate relationship with God in distinction from others,” in the words of the Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III. “But there is an intensification and expansion of intimacy as we move to John 15.”
Several people I heard from mentioned how revolutionary this concept of friendship was, pointing out that it would have been almost unheard-of for an ancient king, let alone God, to refer to his subjects as friends in the way Jesus did. An earthly king would certainly not have walked and lived among them in the way Jesus did. In ancient times people of unequal wealth and status were very unlikely to be friends. But Jesus shattered those expectations and the hierarchical relationship between God and human beings.
“Jesus is elevating his listeners,” the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff told me, “treating them as on a level with him.” Jesus is recognizing the intrinsic worth of human beings, who are not only made in the divine image but also are his confidants and companions.
Scott Dudley, senior pastor at Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Wash., pointed out to me that the exchange in John revealed God’s radical love and grace. “You would expect God to befriend worthy people, educated people, brave people, or, at bare minimum, moral people,” he told me. But instead, Jesus chose to be his followers the uneducated (several fishermen), the reviled (Matthew, a tax collector for the hated Roman regime), a person who would deny him (Peter) and even betray him (Judas). Access to the divine is no longer the province of a special caste of influential, privileged people. And what Jesus did in the process is profoundly alter the understanding of the power dynamic between God and mortals.
“Power cannot generate love,” Pastor Dudley told me. “Power can generate obedience, fear, awe, grudging submission — but not love. The God who comes to us in Jesus doesn’t want grudging submission; he wants us to love him and be loved by him. He wants relationship, including friendship, and so he came in vulnerability, not in power.”
The concept of a vulnerable God, meek and lowly in heart, was almost unfathomable to many at the time, and for many people it still is. But a vulnerable God is an essential part of the Christian story. We see it in Jesus’ life, from his birth in a manger to his weeping over the death of his friend Lazarus to the anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he was betrayed on the night before his crucifixion. Jesus was accompanied by three of his closest friends — Peter, John and James — whom he asked to stay awake and pray with him. (They failed, with Jesus finding them sleeping, “exhausted from sorrow.”)
Renée Notkin, a co-pastor of Union Church in Seattle, in explaining the friendship verses in John, told me that Jesus’ words “Love one another as I have loved you” are essential to understanding what Jesus meant. Among other things, a proper understanding of friendship radically changes our perspective on how we are to live in community.
“Our witness is not right doctrine; it is our relational orientation,” Pastor Notkin told me. “As friends of Jesus, we love one another — and that includes people different from us. In fact, no one can be an ‘other’, because in Christ we belong to one another.” We are called to love one another, honor one another, welcome one another, encourage one another and bear one another’s burdens. “Instead of being people who stink with judgment and criticism,” she told me, “we are to be an aroma of blessing, hope, joy, peace and love.”
John Swinton contrasts friendship as understood in contemporary Western society with what Jesus had in mind: “The friendship modeled by Jesus is for ‘the outsider,’ the socially marginalized, the stigmatized, the outcast, the prostitute, the sinner.”
“If the church claims to be the community of the friends of Jesus,” he adds, “it must engage in Christ-like friendships toward all people, particularly those who have been and are marginalized. The gift of friendship shows and reminds people that they are valued and indeed valuable individuals. That is a gift the church must offer all people.”
The theologian Curtis Chang told me that in the lives of Christians, friendship with Jesus doesn’t replace the call to be obedient to him or his authority. Mr. Chang compared it to an employer-employee relationship that has moved to a deeper level of trust and shared knowledge. In this reading, we must still submit to the authority of our employer, but the relationship has expanded to include much more than just that. Jesus does not relinquish his role as Lord and teacher; he has added new dimensions to it.
“In true friendship, there is mutuality,” Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, told me. “When Jesus called his disciples his friends, he both elevated them and brought them closer.” Their worlds merged.
When Jesus told his disciples he would call them friends rather than servants, he was expressing in words what he showed during his life, which is that God is seeking above all else to be in a meaningful relationship with us. Jesus modeled what it means to take us into his confidence, to self-disclose, to encourage and correct us, to weep with us, to love us, even to die for us.
Those are the qualities — more than God’s power, more than his perfection — that ultimately won the affections of my heart as a person of the Christian faith. It is the knowledge that we can be seen and known by God, and that we can see and know God. That we need him, but that also, in some essential way, he needs us.
But the friendship Jesus speaks of comes with a condition attached. In articulating what Gail R. O’Day calls his “theology of friendship,” Jesus says if we are his friends, we will do what he commands, and several times in John 15 he is specific about what that means: Love each other as I have loved you. There are countless ways to love others, based on our talents and life circumstances, but the command is clear enough. We are not only to experience love; we are to extend it to others.
So often throughout history, and certainly in the present day, Christians have fallen short, far short, of Jesus’ command; in so many cases the Christian faith has been shorn of love. When that happens, Christianity becomes a religion characterized by hard edges and judgmentalism, by brittleness and moral arrogance, by mercilessness and gracelessness. Those who claim to be followers of Jesus but behave in this way become not his friends but his enemies.
For 2,000 years, despite the failures, there has always been at least a remnant who patterned their lives in the way Jesus asked them to — men and women whose lives have been touched and transformed by the grace and love of God. I know such people. For me, when my own faith was jumbled, uncertain and abstract, when I had more questions than answers, when God seemed a million miles away, they have been reflections of the divine.
These people have shared in the joys of my life and helped sustain me through times of grief and loss. They have loved me, as Jesus loved them. They are friends of Jesus; they are also friends of mine. And that has made all the difference.
Peter Wehner (@Peter_Wehner) — a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum who served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — is a contributing Opinion writer and the author of “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.”
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.