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What Does “Friend” Mean?

by Rebecca McLaughlin

In the New Testament, the Greek word most frequently translated as “friend” is philos. Jesus’ words account for eighteen of its twenty-nine instances. But Jesus also uses philos to describe His own relationships: calling His disciples “my friends” (Luke 12:4; John 15:14) and quoting critics calling Him “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34).

In the Gospels, philos usually describes the connection between peers: for instance, when King Herod and the Roman governor Pilate become friends in the process of condemning Jesus (Luke 23:12). But against our modern expectations, philos could also be used to describe hierarchical relationships: for instance, when those trying to get Jesus crucified tell Pilate he’s no friend of Caesar’s if he doesn’t find Jesus guilty (John 19:12).

This context helps illuminate the next words out of Jesus’ mouth after He says that there’s no greater love than laying down one’s life for one’s 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 15:14–15).

In Jesus’ sacrificial love, we see a radical reversal. The one who is our rightful master lays His life down for those who by all rights should be His servants. Jesus is the master, patron, and teacher—and yet He came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Jesus’ linking of deep friendship love to His own sacrifice for us means friendship is a vehicle of the gospel, not just because in friendship we speak gospel truth to one another (though we should), nor even just because we seek to speak the truth of the gospel to friends who don’t yet follow Jesus (though we must). Friendship is a vehicle for the gospel in the sense that its cross-shaped: formed for life laid down in love for others, just as Jesus laid down His own life for us.

While Christian friendship can encompass more occasional connections, and the regular encouragement of seeing friends we mostly only see at church, it must not be confined to such relationships. We must be ready for the blood and sweat and tears that come with every heart-arresting love. But friendship is not designed to replicate the other kinds of human bonds, but to complement them.

Before He left the table, Jesus rammed the point home one last time: “These things I command you, so that you will love one another” (John 15:17). Jesus’ disciples were sent out with the message of His great, self-sacrificing love for sinners. They were to shout it from the rooftops. But they were also to embody it in how they loved each other. If we are followers of Jesus, one way we will demonstrate our love for Him is by our love for one another. But Jesus never said this would be easy.

Adapted from No Greater Love: A Biblical Vision for Friendship by Rebecca McLaughlin. (© September 2023). Published by Moody Publishers. Used with permission.


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