What qualities make someone a truly great friend? The writer of Proverbs identifies loyalty, honesty, and sensitivity as three characteristics of genuine, godly friendship. In this message, Alistair Begg describes each of these attributes, explaining how they are perfectly embodied in the Lord Jesus Christ. Just as we exercise great care in choosing and maintaining our closest friends, so we must prioritize our friendship with Jesus, who is consistent, eternal, and trustworthy.
I’d like us to read together from John chapter 15 this evening. And I’m going to read from verse 9 through to verse 17.
But first we pray:
God our Father, we ask now that with our Bibles open before us, here in the evening hour, that we might hear your voice, that you will teach us, and that in learning we may not simply be those who store up knowledge in our heads but that this may actually transform the way we live our lives. We ask this for your glory and for our good. In Christ’s name. Amen.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I[’ve] told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know [what] his master’s business [is]. … I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.”
In keeping with the summertime and the varied comings and goings of one and another, I determined that we would do just one or two studies in the book of Proverbs. This allows them to be self-contained, almost topical in part, and so that no one feels that they’re missing any continuity in what’s going on. And tonight, just briefly, I want to think with you about the nature and importance of friendship. Of friendship.
Friendship is, of course, I think, vitally important to everybody who lives. Somebody who says that they have no interest in friendship is a poor soul and probably has something wrong with him. A friend is a person, says the Oxford English Dictionary—and we should trust it—is a person joined by intimacy and affection to another. What is a friend? A friend is a person joined by intimacy and affection to another.
Now, growing up in the ’60s, it was very, very common for folk musicians and pop songwriters to write songs about alienation. Nobody was better at cashing in on this than Paul Simon, and he wrote a number of songs that expressed that sense of alienation. Those of you who listen to his material will be able to identify them easily. I’m not going to go through them; I’ll simply highlight it by pointing out the most notorious of all. It was a song entitled, “[I Am a Rock].” And it went along these lines:
I’ve built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship,
Friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
I don’t think many people would want to take that as their epitaph. Jung said that loneliness, or alienation, or emptiness, was the central neurosis of our time.
And the fact of the matter is that in the book of Proverbs you will find a tremendous amount concerning friendship. And my purpose this evening is simply to deal with it on three fronts: first of all, to notice a couple of characteristics of true friendship; and then, secondly, to see how those characteristics are ultimately embodied in Jesus; and finally, to ask us to ask ourselves whether we are enjoying this kind of friendship.
Now, again, we don’t have to try too hard to realize that people are greatly in need of friendship. In the old days, before the internet, there were people who were ham radio operators. You may even have been one. I always was intrigued by those people. They had gigantic aerials down at the bottom of their garden, and usually a little shed. And if you dropped by on your bicycle late in the evening, you could hear them shouting out into the night, “Hello? Hello? Anybody out there? Anybody out there?” And apparently, they stayed up deep in the night hoping that somebody somewhere in the hemisphere would actually come back and say, “Hello, I’m in Anchorage, and I’m reading you loud and clear.”
Now, I don’t know whether the man wasn’t speaking to his wife or whether he was annoyed with his children or whatever was going on, or if he had no friends around, but it seemed to me to be an interesting exercise and almost epitomized the great cry for friendship—this person sitting in a shed, shouting out, “Anybody out there? Anybody out there? Talk to me. Talk to me.”
But of course, now with the internet, apparently everybody’s doing it. And I don’t think I’ve ever been in one of these chat rooms; chatting involves audio for me, so the idea of tikki-tikka typing to talk to somebody is a weird experience. But I read and I observe, and it is apparent that people are meeting their wives and meeting their long-lost sweethearts, they’re meeting everybody as a result of sitting in isolation and getting on this thing and saying, “Is there anybody out there who would talk to me? I’m looking for a friend. I’m looking for a person with whom I may be joined in intimacy and affection.”
Poor is the friendless master of a universe. Rich is the individual who has one friend in the whole world. One genuine friend. We have many acquaintances—people with whom we spend time—lots of interaction, plenty of coming and going. But so much of that is superficial. So much of that is built on things that are very ephemeral. They’re not really of significance at all. And when we think in terms of the friendship, the kind that sticks closer than a brother, to which Solomon refers, we’re dealing with something at a far deeper level.
Well, what then are some of the characteristics of true friendship? Let me just mention one or two.
First of all, a true friend is always loyal. True friends are marked by loyalty. Proverbs 17:17: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” In other words, this friendship that exists between these individuals is not based on things that are passing away. It’s not the kind of friendship that was known by the Prodigal. You remember in Luke chapter 15, where, apparently, when everything was going swell, he had plenty of folks who were around him, and when his fortunes turned bad and he ended up working feeding pigs, then all of his friends deserted him. Well, of course, they weren’t friends at all!
And the real question about friendship has to do with loyalty. With loyalty. Being prepared to stay with the person through thick and through thin, whether they’re successful or unsuccessful, whether they are still to our liking or not to our liking, irrespective of whether they have offended us or not. Friendship establishes loyalty at all times. When you’ve made a fool of yourself and a royal hash of things, you need at least one friend to whom you will go and will say to you, “But you haven’t done a permanent job of it. There is still hope.”
Secondly, genuine friendship is marked not only by loyalty but also by honesty. By honesty. It is impossible to enjoy friendship or to establish friendship if dishonesty is part of what is going on. And dishonesty, of course, appears in a number of ways; I’m going to mention them.
In Proverbs 27:6, we read the “wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” The “wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” Now, doesn’t this just seem very paradoxical? Of course, it is. You say—if we’d come upon this manuscript, we might have said, “Oh, it’s got all jumbled up! It should read that a friend multiplies kisses and you get wounds from an enemy.” Well, of course, you do. But the point that Solomon is making is that when you receive a wound from a friend, you can trust it. But you shouldn’t trust the multiplications of kisses.
Now, of course, this is very, very important, isn’t it? And we don’t want to overstress it one way or another; otherwise, we may become very, very skeptical and be afraid of anybody who would show affection to us at all. But the warning is very, very clear. And indeed, the challenge is there: Am I the kind of person who is able, because of the well-being of my friend, to wound them, not in a way to discourage them or dispirit them or bring them down—but on the few occasions, if you like, that I take out my sword, do I wound because I long for their best? Do I inflict pain for their progress? Or do I inflict pain just because I’m bad?
Last week I played golf on two occasions at a tiny golf course up in the Adirondacks that is owned by the International Paper Company. And a gentleman in our precinct was able to get us access to this course, so we had a complete golf course to ourselves—just the five of us who were playing. It’s a quite remarkable experience, and very enjoyable. And I was playing in the company with a number of people, one a friend. And as we came to a particular tee, I said to him, I said, “You know, once we’ve hit our balls here, I want to tell you about this tee and what happened to me on this tee.” And he said, “Okay, fine.” And on this insignificant little piece of real estate, buried in the middle of the Adirondacks, it is etched indelibly in my memory. Why? Because there I sustained the wound of a friend, and I haven’t forgotten it. And I hate him! No, no. And I haven’t forgotten it. And I love him for it!
“Well,” you say, “well, what did he say? We wanna know! Tell us the good stuff.” Now, let’s just leave it there. No, it’s okay. I can tell you what he said, because it will be no surprise to any of you—sadly.
He’s an Irishman; I won’t disclose his name. But on this particular occasion—it goes back about five years now, maybe four—after we’d teed off, he said to me, he said, “Alistair, could I say something to you?”
And I said, “Yes. I mean, sure.” But I didn’t like the introduction. It sounded like, you know, this was going to be bad.
So he said, “No, I just… I just want to say something to you that I’ve been meaning to say to you.”
I said, “Okay, shoot.”
He said, “When you and Sue are in a room”—I’ll drop the accent now, but I’ve got it so indelibly in my mind I can hear his voice—he said, “When you and Sue are in a room, you talk so much that nobody ever finds out how she feels or what she thinks. When you go out of the room, everybody enjoys her company, realizes that she has things to say.” And he said, “You’re gonna have to cut it out. Because you’re squashing her. You’re overwhelming her. You’re not allowing her to flourish as your wife.”
So I took my three iron, I hacked the sucker right on the shins! No, I didn’t. He made me cry, ticked me off. I don’t want to be crying on the golf course; not for that reason. I’m crying for so many reasons on the golf course, but not for that! But he wasn’t trying to do anything unkind. He’s my friend. You can take wounds from friends. Are you that kind of friend? Do you have a friend like that?
Chapter 28 and verse 23 says that “he who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue.” Twenty-eight twenty-three: “He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue.” Our whole society is put together in such a way that if you go and say nice things to people and butter them up and say all those things, that somehow endears you to them, that’s what makes the world go round. Most of it is fatuous. It is irrelevant. It is spurious. It is often unhelpful. “The man who flatters his friend,” says Solomon—29:5—“The man who flatters his friend spreads a net for his feet.” “The man who flatters his friend spreads a net for his feet.”
So a rebuke, the Bible tells us, may well transform us. Flattery will only trip us up. If you reflect on those who have been the best of friends to you, I think you will probably find that this truth and this principle is borne out.
Now, in this respect, it is very, very important that you choose the right kinds of friends. That’s why we teach our children that they should be careful in making friendships, don’t we? That they shouldn’t just be friends with everyone and anyone. They should be kind to everyone and anyone, but to establish a relationship which is based on intimacy and affection needs to be done with great care and attention. Because not everybody who wants to come alongside you, not everyone who wants to get into your space, not everyone who is interested in establishing some kind of interest in you necessarily is motivated by any genuine sense of friendship.
The Puritans were very clear on this. Let me give you one of them. He says, “In the choice of a bosom friend… ” Now, you understand the importance of that adjective. We’re not just talking about general interaction with people.
In the choice of a bosom friend [some respect] ought to be had to his prudence. Some men, though holy, are indiscreet, and in point of secrets are like sieves—[they] can keep nothing committed to them, but let all run through. A blab of secrets is a traitor to society, as one that causeth much dissention. It is good to try him [test him] whom we intend for a bosom friend before we trust him.
Many complain of the treachery of their friends, and say, as Queen Elizabeth, that in trust they have found treason.
That’s very, very important. Because how in the world can you ever share your heart, your life, your mind, your hopes, your dreams, your fears, your aspirations with somebody who’s like a sieve? And that is, of course, one of the great challenges for those of us who are in any partnership and leadership. Why is it so difficult for someone in pastoral ministry to form really deep and meaningful friendships? Part of it is right there.
The third characteristic that I want to mention—and we could go through many—is sensitivity. Sensitivity. Not simply honesty and loyalty, but sensitivity. Friendship must always carry with it a sense of the appropriate. Chapter 26, verses 18–19: “A man who is caught lying to his friend and says, ‘I was just joking!’ is like a madman throwing around firebrands, arrows, and death.”And those of us who talk more than we ought cannot get ourselves extricated from a lot of the chaos that we cause by simply seeking to dismiss it with a cursory statement: “Ah, but I was only kidding!” or “Oh, it was just a joke!” or “I didn’t really mean it!” ’Cause once the word is out, it’s out, whether you meant it or not.
So a sensitive heart in friendship will say no to gossiping—say no to gossiping. Because gossip separates friends. Proverbs 16:28: “A gossip separates … friends.” You can take it to the bank. Is it really a friend who comes to you and says, “Do you know that when you went out of the room the other day, Joe and Bill, who were left in the room, said this about you? And I’m only telling you because I think it’s something you need to know.” I’ve always had difficulty with that. And the person who conveys the information to me most usually goes significantly down in my estimation. ’Cause I can’t understand what the motivation is. Does it help anybody to pass along this information? After all, they may have had a moment when they said something they wish they could have back. Oh, it may be a fixed view on their part. But what possible end is served by you being the bearer, or me being the bearer, of this information? Gossip separates friends.
And also, in 17:9, another staggering statement: “He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.” Do you see what he’s saying? Not somebody who says, “We’re not going to call sin, sin,” or “We’re not going to call wrong, wrong,” but somebody who is obeying the New Testament injunction, understanding that love covers over a multitude of sins: “Yes, I know you did that. Yes, I understand that that was a disaster. Yes, of course I do. But let us cast over it a veil of silence. Let us seek, by God’s enabling, to remember it no more. For surely that is how God keeps a record—no record at all! Written clear. So you can look me in the eye, and I will tell you, ‘It will never pass from here, this moment.’” With that individual you may have confidence. But the person who “repeats the matter separates close friends.”
My dear friends, let me tell you this: that when you trace a loss of friends in the journey of your life and you cannot understand what happened, I can guarantee you that a significant amount of the time, what happened in separating you from her or him from him is gossip and the repetition of matters that should have been buried immediately they came to light.
That is the loyalty, the sensitivity, the honesty that marks genuine friendship. That’s the kind of friendship that sticks closer than a brother.
“Well,” you say, “I’m not sure that I have found that. I’m sure that I am that. Where could we find this embodied?” Well, the answer is, of course, in the Lord Jesus. We often sing, don’t we,
Earthly friends may fail or leave us,
One day soothe, the next day grieve us,
But this Friend will [never] deceive us,
Oh, how he loves!
This friend is the same yesterday and today and forever. Never in a mood. Never lets us down. Never treats us capriciously.
I’ve found a friend in Jesus,
He’s everything to me,
He’s the fairest of ten thousand to my soul.
He’s the Lily of the Valley
And the Bright and Morning Star.
And the chorus says,
In sorrow he’s my comfort,
In trouble he’s my stay;
And he tells me every care on him to roll.
Here’s friendship. Where can I find absolute honesty, complete sensitivity, genuine consistency? In the Lord Jesus.
One of the reasons that some find friendship so difficult is because it demands vulnerability, it demands openness. Every friendship makes demands. So does friendship with Jesus. That’s why we read from John 15, as I draw this to a close: “You are my friends,” he says, “if you do what I command [you].” What does he command us to do? To repent. In the first instance, “repent and believe the good news.” Turn away from our sin and turn to the Lord Jesus and embrace his friendship. Receive him as a friend. For his friendship extends far and beyond the bounds of, often, our human friendship. They said of Jesus that he was the “friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners.’”
Somebody asked me just a few weeks ago, “And how do you ‘do’ evangelism at Parkside Church?” And I had to think for a minute, and I said, “I don’t know.” I said, “I don’t know that we have a way of ‘doing’ evangelism at Parkside Church.” I said, “I think the way that people are becoming Christians at Parkside Church is as a result of the friendship of the people in Parkside Church.” That when your friends and neighbors look at you and they say, “There’s consistency. There’s loyalty. There’s honesty. There’s sensitivity. There’s someone I think I can go to and ask. There’s someone I can go to and unburden my soul.” And when they ask, “What’s the source of this friendship in you?” and you tell them, “Well,
“I’ve found a friend, such a friend!
He loved me before I ever knew him.
He drew me with the cords of love
And as he bound me to him.
And round my heart so closely twined,
These ties that nothing can sever,
Because I’m his, and he’s mine,
Forever and forever.”
Human friendships are passing. If for no other reason, death will separate us. Geography may remove us from the intimacy of day-to-day affection. Time may diminish some. But it’s never true with Jesus. If you make friendship with him the first choice of your youth, if we sustain friendship with Jesus in the maturing years of our lives, if we look forward to his friendship for all of eternity, then no matter what we face, we can rest in him.
“What kind of friend,” that wee girl Evie used to sing—“What kind of friend [is here] on a clear day and leaves at the first sign of rain? Not this kind of friend,” she says. And then she sings of Jesus.
I started here this evening with friendship. I could have gone to some of the others. They get worse. The series gets worse. We’re gonna do one on slander, one on laziness. And those are the two high spots; I don’t know ’bout the rest. But I think I started here because as I walked away from a friend on Friday morning, who doesn’t waste words and isn’t flip at all—he is gravitas on two legs—he turned to me—I was Continental, and he was American—and he turned to me, and he looked me in the eye, and he said, “Farewell, my friend.” And I walked away, and I said, “That was a kind of archaic way to say goodbye.” And then I thought again, I said, “He wasn’t trying Victoriana. He did that purposefully. Every single word he chose with purpose: ‘Farewell, my friend.’” That means the world to me. It means the world to you too, to have a friend like that, doesn’t it?
Will you commit yourself? Will we commit ourselves to being good friends? To see Parkside as a place that creates friendships that last for eternity? We can’t all be the bosom buddies of everybody else. That is a forlorn notion. We tyrannize ourselves if we say, “Well, I don’t know him or her as well as I might or may” or whatever. Don’t worry about that at all. But in the sphere of your influence, in the realm of your contact, say, “Lord Jesus, you who are the perfect friend, make me a friend. Make me a friend.”
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!
Lord Jesus, thank you for your honesty in touching us where we need to turn from sin. Thank you that your wounds always come in order that you might pour in your healing balm. Lord Jesus, thank you that you treat us with such sensitivity, that you are tender in your care. Lord Jesus, thank you for your loyalty to us—standing with us through thick and thin, being there when we fall down, being there even when we turn our back on you and when we run away, when, like Peter, we deny you, and we find you in the morning time on the shore, making breakfast. And then, Lord Jesus, fill us with your love that we may in turn extend friendship in an increasingly self-centered, self-satisfied, dislocated culture. Bring people to become committed followers of Jesus Christ as a result of genuine friendship discovered in this place. To your glory we ask this. Amen.
 Paul Simon, “I Am a Rock” (1965).
 See Proverbs 18:24.
 Proverbs 28:23 (RSV).
 Proverbs 29:5 (paraphrased).
 George Swinnock, The Christian Man’s Calling, in The Works of George Swinnock. (Edinburgh, 1868), 2:259.
 Swinnock, 2:254.
 Proverbs 26:18–19 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Peter 4:8.
 Marianne Nunn, “One There Is above All Others.”
 See Hebrews 13:8.
 Charles W. Fry, “The Lily of the Valley” (1881). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Mark 1:15 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 11:19 (NIV 1984).
 James Small, “I’ve Found a Friend” (1863). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Evie Tornquist, “All the Time in the World” (1975).
 Joseph Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (1855).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.