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The picture the Bible presents of God’s love is one in which His love, even in eternity past, even before the creation of anything, is other-oriented. This cannot be said (for instance) of Allah. Yet because the God of the Bible is one, this plurality-in-unity does not destroy His entirely appropriate self-focus as God. Because He is God, He is therefore rightly jealous. To concede He is something other than the center of all, and rightly to be worshiped and adored, would debase His very Godhood. He is the God who, entirely rightly, does not give His glory to another (Isa. 42:8).
If this were all the Bible discloses about God, we would read in its pages of a holy God of impeccable justice. But what of love? The love of Allah is providential, which is one of the ways the Bible speaks of God. But here there is more: in eternity past, the Father loved the Son, and the Son loved the Father. There has always been an other orientation to the love of God. All the manifestations of the love of God emerge out of this deeper, more fundamental reality: love is bound up in the very nature of God. God is love.
We must mark well the distinction between the love of the Father for the Son and the love of the Son for the Father. The Father commands, sends, tells, commissions, and demonstrates His love for the Son by “showing” Him everything, such that the Son does whatever the Father does. The Son obeys, says only what the Father gives Him to say, does only what the Father gives Him to do, comes into the world as the Sent One, and demonstrates His love for the Father precisely by such obedience. Not once is there any hint that the Son commissions the Father. Not once is there a hint that the Father submits to the Son or is dependent on Him for His own words and deeds. Historically, Christians avoiding the trap of Arianism have insisted that the Son is equal with the Father in substance or essence, but that there is an economic or functional subordination of the Son to the Father.
What is of interest to us for our topic is the way the texts distinguish how the love of the Father for the Son is manifested, and how the love of the Son for the Father is manifested — and then how such love further functions as lines are drawn outward to elements of Christian conduct and experience. These function in various ways. There is space to reflect on only one of them.
In John 15, Jesus tells His disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” (15:9). Thus, we move from the intra-Trinitarian love of the Father for the Son to the Son’s love of His people in redemption. Jesus thus becomes the mediator of His Father’s love. Receiving love, so has He loved. Then He adds, “Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:9b–10).
Reflect on the parallelism. The perfection of Jesus’ obedience in the Godhead, which we have just been told is the mark of the Son’s love for His Father (14:31), is precisely what it means for the eternal Son to remain in the love the Father has for Him. This is a relational matter (the Father and the Son are related to each other in this way), but it is also a constitutional matter (that is the way God Almighty is constituted). This pattern of love, both relational and constitutional, in the very being of God becomes, according to Jesus, the model and incentive of our relation to Jesus. If we love Him, we will obey Him (14:15); here, if we obey Him, we remain in His love. Thereby our relation to Jesus mirrors the relation of Jesus to His heavenly Father — which is, of course, a major theme in John 17.
Then the passage explicitly harks back to John 5. Jesus says, “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” (15:14–15).
Observe that Jesus makes a distinction between slaves (douloi; not “servants”) and friends. But the distinction initially surprises us. We are Jesus’ friends if we do what He commands. This sounds rather like a definition of a slave. Certainly such friendship is not reciprocal. I cannot turn around to Jesus and thank Him for His friendship and tell Him He is my friend, too, if He does everything I command Him. Strange to tell, not once is Jesus or God ever described in the Bible as our friend. Abraham is God’s friend; the reverse is never stated.
Of course, in one sense, Jesus is the best friend a poor sinner ever had. Nevertheless, that is not the terminology of Scripture, almost as if the Bible is reluctant to descend into the kind of cheap intimacy that brings God or Jesus down to our level. In this context, what then is the difference that Jesus is drawing between slave and friend? Our culture teaches that the slave obeys, and the friend may or may not; clearly, however, that is not the distinction Jesus has in mind.
He says we are His friends because He has made known to us all that He learned from His Father. An army colonel tells a GI to fetch the Hummer. If the GI says he will do so only if the colonel tells him exactly why and gives him permission to use it as a runabout while the colonel spends his time at HQ, that GI is asking for about six months of KP duty. But suppose the colonel has been a friend of the GI’s family for years and has watched the young man grow up. He may say to the GI: “Jim, fetch the Hummer, please. I need you to drive me to HQ. I’ll be there about two hours. You can use the vehicle in that gap, provided you’re back to pick me up at 1600 hours.” In this case, of course, the GI is required no less to obey the colonel. The difference, the difference of friendship, is that full information has been conveyed. It is an informational difference, a difference of revelation, not a difference of obedience.
God’s people are no longer slaves. At this point in redemptive history, the fullness of God’s revelation has come to us in the Son who was perfectly obedient and thereby perfectly disclosed God. We are no longer slaves (a redemptive-historical marker), but friends. And what has brought this change about is that in the fullness of time, God sent His Son into the world, and the Son obeyed; that the Father, in love for the Son, determined that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father; and that the Father and Son, in perfect harmony of plan and vision, at the time God ordained, played out their roles — the Father sending, commissioning, “showing,” and the Son coming, revealing, disclosing what had been “shown” Him and in obedience going to the cross. And we heirs of the new covenant are unfathomably privileged to be let in on this stupendous plan. We are the friends of God.
We are the friends of God by virtue of the intra-Trinitarian love of God that so worked out in the fullness of time that the plan of redemption, conceived in the mind of God in eternity past, has exploded into our space-time history at exactly the right moment. When the time had fully come, as Paul puts it, God sent His Son (Gal. 4:4). And we have been incalculably privileged not only to be saved by God’s love, but to be shown it, to be informed about it, to be let in on the mind of God. God is love; and we are the friends of God.