The Contours of Biblical Friendship
What is biblical friendship? Drawing inspiration especially from the Proverbs, Paul Beardmore describes the nature, purpose, joys, and pitfalls of friendship. The following material was first presented in a Sunday School class at Grace Baptist Church, Carlisle, PA.
Friendship, let alone biblical friendship, is largely absent from our culture today. The challenge of finding a true, Christian friend is not unique to our day and age, but the lack of a basic understanding of what a friend is does seem to be a unique shortcoming of today’s world.
Facebook was not the first or only culprit to obscure the definition of a friend, but they were certainly the most prominent and influential. When Facebook was founded (to help college students “connect” with members of the opposite sex), it called your group of connections “friends.” It soon became common place to talk about your thousands of friends. Now, newer social media has abandoned the term “friends” and replaced it with “followers.” I am not “friends with so and so,” I “follow so and so” young people say. Subtly, we moved from stripping the meaning from friendship to getting rid of friends altogether. We went from having thousands of friends to none at all. So, it is no surprise that loneliness and isolation have been the counterintuitive result of being more and more connected.
These cultural trends have left even those in the church, especially perhaps the young, without a real sense and experience of friendship as it is referenced in the Scriptures. The Bible talks about friendship with a seriousness and weight that, if not appreciated, leads to a misunderstanding of God’s relationship with His people and His people’s relationship with each other. Adam had friendship with God, but sin separated the friendship. Christ laid down his life for His friends so that they could have eternal life. Friendship with one another is one of God’s sweetest blessings this side of paradise.
Friendship at the Beginning and the End
At creation, Adam was God’s friend. There was perfect communion between God and man. As God and Adam walked together in the garden, there was sweetness in their earnest counsel (Proverbs 27:9). God in his infinite wisdom, however, declared that it was not good for man to be alone. He needed a suitable helper; Adam needed a friend on the horizontal level to better glorify God and enjoy Him.
Adam’s sin resulted in a break in his friendship with God and Eve. He hid from God instead of walking with Him in the cool of the day, and Adam immediately isolated himself from Eve when he said, “The woman you gave me…” No longer was Eve “flesh of my flesh,” but rather “the woman you gave me.” Adam isolated himself from God’s gift of companionship to him. We could put it this way, God had said, “It is not good you are alone, Adam,” and Adam said to God, “No, it is good I am alone.” God had said, “It is not good for you to seek your own interest; Adam had said, “It is good for me to seek my own interest.” Adam proved the folly of the man who isolates himself (Proverbs 18:1).
But God’s purpose for friendship with man was not thwarted by the entrance of sin into the world. It was not good that Adam was alone, even when he wanted to be. God in His sovereignty brought Eve to Adam, knowing this was how the seed of the woman (Christ) would come into the world. God was made flesh to make us friends and children of God. Christ, our friend and brother, brings us back to God even when we are running from Him.
Sweetness of Friendship
God bringing Eve to Adam was a sweet gift. Proverbs 27:9 tells us friendship is like oil and perfume, and its sweetness comes from earnest counsel. Friendship is sweet and valuable. Even children understand the sweetness of friendship. Winnie the Pooh says, “A day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey left inside.”
It is instructive to note that the sweetness of friendship comes from earnest counsel. A true friend is not first and foremost someone with whom we share a common personality, interest, or hobby. Rather, the depth and sweetness of friendship comes from a serious exchange of wisdom.
The Scriptures are filled with examples of friendship. Exodus 33 speaks of Moses speaking with God face to face as a man speaks to his friend, and Abraham is referred to as God’s friend multiple times. Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Elizabeth and Mary, and Paul and Timothy all are relationships that could be characterized as friendships. Christ stands as the ultimate example of a friend. He shared a special friendship with Peter, James, and, especially, John. The death of his friend Lazarus caused the Lord to weep, especially when he saw the grief of Mary and Martha, his other friends. Christ laid down his life for his friends (John 15:13-15).
Characteristics of Friendship
The qualities of friendship are an integral part of the wisdom outlined in the book of Proverbs. Solomon unpacks the wisdom that comes only from the fear of the Lord by profiling true friendship in numerous verses. This wisdom is spiritually discerned and is foolishness to the world. The greater we fear the Lord, the closer we walk with Him, and the wiser friend we become. Our vertical friendship with the Lord deepens our horizontal friendship. To have the qualities of true friendship is to have spiritual insight that only comes through the knowledge and fear of the Lord.
Solomon makes clear that the first quality of friendship is steadfast love and faithfulness.
“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” Proverbs 17:17
Friends stick together, even in adversity. A true friend will not forsake their friend. A “fair weather friend” is an oxymoron. Friends are friends regardless of the circumstances.
“Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find?” Probers 20:6
There is no shortage of people who will express their “love” for you. Especially today, it is so easy to like or love or reshare someone’s post on social media, but how many people can we truly lean on in trouble? How many people are not too busy for us when we need them? A loyal individual is never too busy to be faithful to his friend.
The famous American poet Robert Frost beautifully captures the picture of an individual who stops everything when his friend needs to talk in his poem “A Time to Talk.”
“When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.”
Despite how easy it is to stay connected in today’s world, this faithfulness and “nearness” is rare.
“Do not forsake your friend and your father’s friend, and do not go to your brother’s house in the day of your calamity. Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away.” Proverbs 27:10
Rehoboam, Solomon’s own son, stands as an example of the foolishness of forsaking old friends. Solomon had told him, “do not forsake your father’s friend” (Proverbs 27:10), but Rehoboam did just that when he would not listen to the counsel of his father’s advisors. Friends who are older can be counselors to us. It is foolish to block your ears from the advice of the generation that has gone before you. Lost friendship cost Rehoboam a kingdom.
Besides steadfast love and faithfulness, Proverbs teaches that candor is also a quality of true friendship.
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” Proverbs 27:6
“Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue.” Proverbs 28:23
True friends confront one another when necessary. How open we are with someone, especially when it comes to correcting them, is in many ways a measure of how close we are with them. Rebuking a friend is never easy, but if done with the intention of correcting sin or foolishness, the wound is faithful. Biblical friendship prioritizes holiness and godliness above the friendship itself. Individuals who share in biblical friendship never jeopardize their friendship with God to stay friends with each other.
“A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet.” Proverbs 29:5
In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful are warned of the Flatterer, but they do not heed the warning and follow him into a net. Flattery is a trap- it leads you to believe you have true friendship, but it is built on a false foundation. This type of relationship is shallow. Men and women who surround themselves with people who flatter them may feel better in the short term, but God makes it clear that friendship built on flattery will ultimately trip you up.
Finally, Solomon argues that sound counsel or advice is a characteristic of true friendship.
“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17
“…for by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.” Proverbs 24:6
“Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” Proverbs 15:22
As Solomon lays out the path of wisdom throughout the book of Proverbs, friends are an important means God uses to transmit wisdom from one person to another. Earnest counsel between friends makes the relationship dynamic- sparks are flying as iron sharpens iron. Wars have been avoided and won through wise counsel.
Warnings Regarding Friendship; Dangers in Friendship
Because friendship is such a powerful means of God for sanctification and blessing, Satan loves to twist this good gift for his own purposes. Friendship is often the means Satan uses to entice individuals into deeper and deeper sin. In Solomon’s opening words to his son, he warns against the danger of bad friends. “My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us ambush the innocent without reason; like Sheol let us swallow them alive, and whole, like those who go down to the pit; we shall find all precious goods, we shall fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purse”—my son, do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths, for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood.” (Proverbs 1:10-16)
The warning is clear- choose your friends carefully! Friends influence you. On these verses, Charles Bridges says, “Sin is contagious.” Bridges echoes the Apostle Paul from I Corinthians 15:33, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” Sin is contagious. Not sometimes, not partially. Bad friends will corrupt you.
Solomon outlines precisely how bad friends influence us.
Bad friends lead us into harm.
“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” Proverbs 13:20
How many young people have physically (let alone spiritually!) suffered harm because they were influenced by bad friends? Many a grieving parent would do anything to undo the bad influence of their child’s bad friends.
“Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge.” Proverbs 14:7
Bad friends influence our thinking. Throughout the Psalms and Proverbs the fool is described as someone who does not believe in God. Many atheists became sceptics through the influence of friends. Friends influence our worldview.
“Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” Proverbs 22:24-25
Friends influence our speech and attitude, especially as it relates to what causes us anger. Anger is natural to our sinful hearts, but it is also learned from others. How many sons possess the same tendency to anger as their fathers? These ways were learned.
“Be not envious of evil men, nor desire to be with them, for their hearts devise violence, and their lips talk of trouble.” Proverbs 24:1-2
Friendship with evil individuals can be tempting. Solomon cautions us to evaluate our potential friend’s heart. Is their heart pointed toward evil? Does troublesome and evil talk characterize their conversation? Stay away from them and do not desire them as friends.
“The one who keeps the law is a son with understanding, but a companion of gluttons shames his father.” Proverbs 28:7
Friends who run after excesses of entertainment, sex, food, and drink will lead individuals to shame their godly parents. Parents in our day and age are so obsessed with safety of our children. Parents need to make sure they have the safest car seats, safest food, safest playgrounds, safest schools, and safest houses, but how much concern do we take with our children’s choice of friends? Do we warn them about the influence of bad friends? Do we look to surround them with good companions from a young age? Bad friends will bring physical and spiritual harm to our children. Our child’s friends will (not may) influence their spirit and attitude. Their friends will influence their appetites.
Ray Bradbury, the famous American author, captures the influence of friends in his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. In the book, Bradbury tells the story of two young boys, Jim and Will, on the cusp of adolescence. Jim was a devious boy while his friend Will was a straight shooter who was heavily influenced by his good father. Bradbury writes, “So there they go, Jim running slower to stay with Will, Will running faster to stay with Jim, Jim breaking two windows in a haunted house because Will’s along, Will breaking one window instead of none, because Jim’s watching. [Oh] how we get our fingers in each other’s clay. That’s friendship, each playing the potter to see what shape we can make of the other.” Friends shape us like the potter and the clay.
Luke provides us with a fascinating aspect of Christ’s crucifixion. Almost in passing, he mentions the forming of a new friendship between two former enemies. “And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other.” (Luke 23:12) Psalm 2 was played out in real time. The kings of earth took their stand against the Lord’s Anointed One. Was Pilate or Herod goaded into further wickedness when they realized they were not the only person who hated Christ?
Referencing this friendship, J.C. Ryle writes, “The incident before us is a striking [example] of a state of things, which may always be seen in the world. Men of the most [different] opinions can unite in opposing truth…Whatever else they disagreed about, Pilate and Herod could agree to despise and persecute Christ…One common hatred binds them together. They hate the cross of Christ…All hate each other very much, but all hate Christ much more.” Friends are united by Christ, but friends are united in opposition to Christ too.
The second warning related to friendship is to carefully consider the quantity of your friends. The quality of your friends is much more important than the quantity of your friends. This is God’s wisdom and not the world’s wisdom.
“A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Proverbs 18:24
Our society is telling us to gain as many companions as possible which equates to power, influence, and popularity. “Gain more followers on social media, gain more popularity, gain more likes!” is the constant refrain in young people’s ears. The world’s proverb is, “A person with many followers and associates is happy and does not come to ruin.” Solomon tells us there is ruin in having too many companions; instead, seek a (one!) friend that sticks closer than a brother.
But, how does the person with many companions come to ruin? Surely, the greater amount of your associates, the greater your safety. Christ while on earth provides the answer to this question. John tells us, “Now when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” John 2:23-25
Christ did not entrust himself to the crowd. He did not make it his goal to have many companions. He understood the fickleness of the crowd because He understood the nature of man. He had only twelve disciples, and even among them, he entrusted himself in a greater way to only three- Peter, James, and John. We entrust ourselves to our friends and companions, but they are human. The more people you are intimate with, the more harm you open yourself up to.
Philip Melancthon, Martin Luther’s close friend, wrote, “It is a melancholy fact, which the experience of years always confirms, that we must not trust implicitly to appearances of kindness, or be ready to open our hearts to every one as a friend, upon short acquaintance. The man who does not hastily contract intimacies, may be thought cold and distant by some; but in the long run of life he will escape many sorrows. It is a wise saying that a man ought to be friendly with all, but intimate with few.” What wisdom for our present day of publicizing anything and everything about our private lives for hundreds of people to see.
Practical Guidance for Relationships/Friendships
Proverbs has practical guidance for individuals looking to foster biblical friendship. Solomon’s wisdom is remarkably simple, but today this guidance cuts across so much that has become common in our communications and relationships.
“A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends.” Proverbs 16:28
Do not gossip. Gossip destroys friendship. There is an intimacy in biblical friendship that demands integrity and confidentiality. If an individual gossips to you, it is predictable they will gossip about you to others. If an individual shares someone else’s confidences with you, they are most likely sharing your confidences with others.
“Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.” Proverbs 17:9
Do not be easily offended. Do not think your friend is perfect. Friends know each other (warts and all), so be quick to cover offense, knowing they must often do the same with you. Solomon elsewhere wrote, “Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servants cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.” (Ecclesiastes 7:21-22) Individuals who are easily offended rarely have close friends. Iron sharpening iron will sometimes be mixed with offense, but better to be sharpened even if a few sparks fly than have everyone afraid to confront you because you are too easily offended.
“He who loves purity of heart, and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as his friend.” Proverbs 22:11
Have gracious speech. Even in Solomon’s day gracious speech was hard to find. Individuals who are marked by gracious speech will have true friends. Kings (bosses, government officials) will recognize those with gracious speech.
“Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house, lest he have his fill of you and hate you.” Proverbs 25:17
Understand the limits to friendship. Solomon wisely points out that even neighbors can come over too often and overstay their welcome. We probably all could humorously recount stories of those guests who kept us up well past our bedtime with no awareness they were overstaying their welcome.
I heard of someone who ate a banana every night before he went to bed. One evening, he and his wife were hosting guests, and these guests were overstaying their welcome. The man and his wife were both attempting to graciously signal to their guests it was time to say goodbye, but they were missing every cue. Finally, the man said, “Every night before bed, I eat a banana. It is time for my banana now.” The guests finally got the hint and left. Friends are not relatives. There is an intimacy in friendship, but sometimes things are best left inside your own house. It is important to recognize when you are taxing your friends to the point of frustration.
“Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘I am only joking!’” Proverbs 26:18-19
“Whoever blesses his neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing.” Proverbs 27:14
Know when to be serious and when to joke. Humor can be helpful in friendship, but individuals given to practical jokes are often just that- they are jokers. People who live and die by humor struggle to have meaningful relationships. Christians should be happy and enjoy a good laugh, but the tenor and aim of their life should be serious. There is a right and wrong time to loudly greet your friend. Friends are tactful.
Purpose of Friendship- Glorify God and Enjoy Him
We started out seeing that the foundation of horizontal friendship is our vertical relationship with God. Referencing Isaiah 41, James tells us Abraham was a friend of God (James 2:21-23). When God justifies us, he accomplishes what He always intended from the beginning- He makes man his friend.
With remarkable beauty, Christ explained God’s grand intention to the twelve disciples. “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.” (John 15:13-15) Christ reveals the extent of His love for His friends- He will lay down His life for them. Christ seems to see some disbelief in His disciples’ eyes when he repeats this by saying, “but I have called you friends.” Yes, we are God’s friends if we are in Christ.
If we do what Christ commands, we are his friends. We know Christ and we know His business- “for all I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Elsewhere, Christ told his disciples, “This is eternal life- that [you] know [me], the only true God.”
God makes us His friends. Christ is the revealed mystery of God’s friendship with man. It was not good that Adam was alone. God in His sovereignty brought Eve to Adam, knowing this was the means by which sin would be passed through generation by generation; however, it would also be the seed of the woman (Christ) who would come as God made flesh, God-man, to make us friends and children of God. God accomplished what he intended at the beginning- we are his friends if Christ is our Savior. Christ is our friend and brother.
J.C. Ryle captures this mystery when he writes, “Our Lord Jesus Christ is a most gracious and condescending Savior. He is not an ‘austere man,’ repelling sinners, and keeping them at a distance; He is not a being so different from us in nature, that we must regard Him with awe rather than affection: He would have us rather regard Him as an elder Brother, and a beloved Friend. His heart in heaven is still the same that it was upon earth: He is ever meek, merciful, and condescending to men of low estate. Let us trust Him, and not be afraid.”
There are so many hymns that speak of Christ’s friendship toward us. John Newton’s hymn aptly captures both our thankfulness for Christ’s friendship and our longing to be a better friend to him.
One there is, above all others,
Well deserves the name of Friend;
His is love beyond a brother’s,
Costly, free, and knows no end:
They who once his kindness prove
Find it everlasting love.
Which of all our friends, to save us,
Could or would have shed his blood?
But our Jesus died to have us
Reconciled in him to God.
This was boundless love indeed;
Jesus is a Friend in need.
When he lived on earth abased,
“Friend of sinners” was his name,
Now above all glory raised,
He rejoices in the same;
Still he calls them brethren, friends,
And to all their wants attends.
Could we bear from one another
What he daily bears from us?
Yet this glorious Friend and Brother
Loves us though we treat him thus:
Though for good we render ill,
He accounts us brethren still.
O for grace our hearts to soften!
Teach us, Lord, at length to love,
We, alas! forget too often
What a Friend we have above.
But when home our souls are brought,
We will love thee as we ought.
Paul Beardmore is an elder at Grace Baptist Church, Carlisle, PA.
For further reading:
A Father’s Gift: Lessons from Proverbs, by Kenneth Wingate
Ecclesiastes, by Charles Bridges (Geneva Series of Commentaries)
Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Volume 4, Luke, Part II: Chapters 11-24, by J. C. Ryle
Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Volume 5, John, Part I: Chapters 1-6, by J. C. Ryle
Proverbs, by Charles Bridges (Geneva Series of Commentaries)
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