September 2, 1999
What are the hallmarks of true friendship? How do we select close, personal relationships that strengthen our devotion to God as opposed to relationships that cause our devotion to falter? Alistair Begg walks us through the biblical characteristics of a true friend. Loyalty, honesty, consistency, and sensitivity are all essential elements in true friendship and are all embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.
Sermon Transcript: Print
He who finds a wife finds what is good
and receives favor from the Lord.
A poor man pleads for mercy,
but a rich man answers harshly.
A man of many companions may come to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
Or, I think, from memory, as Kenneth Taylor paraphrases it in The Living Bible, “There are ‘friends’ who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
Yesterday we quoted from the lyrics of Paul Simon, and I want to begin there again with words that were penned—staggeringly now—in 1965. It’s hard to realize how ancient these words have become—words that will not be unfamiliar to you, I’m sure:
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.
Now, that, of course, comes out of that same period as he writes about alienation and the angst of his generation, some of it imagined and some of it perhaps experienced. And I would be very surprised if any but the most cynical that are present here today would be prepared to embrace that lyric and take it as something of a credo through life. In contrast, we would recognize how precious and important friendship is to us. And, indeed, if you have one true friend in the world, then you’re actually very rich: someone in whom you’re able to confide, someone who knows the worst about you without making you feel like a fool because of what you’ve shared, the kind of person with whom you can interact without it becoming a matter for the local prayer chain and so on. If you have one decent friend in the world, then you are very rich—the kind of friend who was Jonathan to David, who drew near to David and “helped him to find strength in the Lord.” The kind of friendship that Paul enjoyed with Timothy, who when commending him to the believers says, “I have no one else like him, who [will take] a genuine interest in your welfare.”
There is none of us this morning for whom friendship is not of vital importance. Not one of us likes to feel that we have no friends. And yet loneliness, even in the midst of a crowd—or perhaps we should refer to it as “aloneness”—aloneness, even in the midst of a crowd, is one of the unattractive characteristics of our society. Jung has described the central neurosis of our time as emptiness; and indeed, as our world becomes increasingly depersonalized and increasingly technical, it is not unusual for us to feel that the vast majority of material that is landing in our mailbox—either electronic or wooden or plastic—is really frankly irrelevant, and that nobody really cares. And while it may be a while since we’ve had a letter that begins “Dear 00069153, We want you to know we have a personal interest in your welfare,” nevertheless, we understand what it is to get that kind of mail, and it does not touch our lives.
I recently, in going through old materials of my children, found stuff that probably they didn’t want me to find, but one of my daughters, probably in kindergarten or in first grade, had a very brief communique with a boy called Roger. And I believe that she’d initiated it, it would seem. I must talk to her about it. But the communique went like this: “Roger, I like you. I hope you like me too.” Now, I don’t care whether you’re in kindergarten or whether you’re a graduating senior or whether you’re in your middle years or towards the end of your life looking for someone to talk to in a local coffee shop, friendship is absolutely crucial. And as I said last night, there are friends in whose company it is easy to be good, in whose company we are encouraged to go on with God; there are friends in whose company it is easy to be bad and in whose company we are tempted to allow our devotion to Christ to falter. But friendships are seldom if ever neutral.
What, then, could we build as an Identi-Kit picture of friendship from the book of Proverbs? Well, there are many characteristics to which we could refer, but I want to mention just three.
First of all, in thinking about friendship: a true friend is always loyal. That is actually a statement from Proverbs 17:17. Or if we want to use another word, we would say that friendship is marked by consistency: “A friend loves at all times.” In other words, his friendship or her friendship is not based on success, it’s not based on circumstances, it’s not based on looks or on style, on money or its absence. “A friend loves at all times.”
One of the reasons that bookstores have become such havens in our day is because you can go in a bookstore without feeling fat or old. And people are finding that sitting around on those chairs, they’re beginning to establish at least acquaintances and maybe even finding friendships. So much of our culture alienates us on the basis of certain external characteristics, but genuine friendship, while not unaware of those things, overlooks them—or looks beyond them—and remains consistent.
In other words, it’s the kind of friendship that was the absolute antithesis of the friendship discovered by the young man in the story Jesus told in Luke 15. Because you will remember that it says, “And … there arose a … famine in that land; and he began to be in want,” after he had spent all that he had. You remember that, initially, he had “wasted his substance,” as the King James Version says, “with riotous living … and he began to be in want.” Why was he in want? Because of the nature of the friendships he had established. Surely, if he’d had one decent friend out of the group, he would not have had to live and work in a pigsty. And he certainly would’ve been able to get a square meal from somebody somewhere. But again, in the King James Version, in the most graphic of terminology, it says, “And he [fain would] have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: [but no one] gave unto him.” He didn’t have a decent friend in the world, because friendship is marked by consistency.
Secondly, it is marked by honesty. And in Proverbs 27:6, it says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend”—“the wounds of a friend.” And here we’re immediately introduced to two factors which on first reading may seem to be incompatible: Don’t we receive wounds from enemies and hugs from friends? Don’t friends kiss us, and only those who dislike us seek to harm us in this way? “No,” says Solomon. “You need to realize that genuine friendship is prepared to wound in order that we might become all that God intends for us to be. Because in the pain of the wound there may well be progress on the journey.” Each of us is in need of friendship for this reason, if not for any other; because we have so many blind spots, we don’t like them being pointed out by people who don’t like us.
And incidentally, I don’t particularly like that, either—you know, someone who says, “The only reason I’m telling you about all of these things is because I care about you.” I don’t believe you; I’m sorry. ’Cause I’ve never, ever seen you, I’ve never spoken to you, we’ve never had a conversation, and so on. I’ve got the sneaking suspicion the reason you sent me this lengthy list of my dreadful faults and horrible characteristics is because you wanted the opportunity just to tell me what a pain in the neck I am. I know I’m a pain in the neck. I’ve been trying to deal with it, but I didn’t want to hear from you. Now, from my wife, that’s a different story, because “he who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord.” And every pastor should have a wife, if for no other reason than to keep him humble. And every pastor’s wife should carry around with her a gigantic pin, in order to burst the bubble of her husband’s ego every time it gets beyond a very small diameter. And constantly Sue has to penetrate this gargantuan cranium in order to—sorry—in order to make sure that my head fits on the pillow in the evening. Like a grapefruit on a toothpick!
See, flattery is really the flip side of honesty. Flattery usually is used to try and curry favor with a person, or in actual fact, to inflate the person’s ego to the point where we may bring about their downfall. And Proverbs 28:23 says, “He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue.” “He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue.” The child who is rebuked for their precocious attitude will live to thank their father more than the child who is flattered to conceit.
And without getting off on it here, this is one of the crazy elements of the late twentieth century—mothers driving all over America, with signs on the back of their minivans about how brilliant their students are, you know, their children: “I have a very brilliant child,” parked next to “I have a quite brilliant child,” parked next to “I have an honor student child,” parked to “I have three honor student child,” parked to all these things… That used to be called pride twenty-five years ago! That was obnoxious! Not now. Why? Because humility is such a rare characteristic, and self-assertiveness and egotism is so enthroned that we may choose the wrong people as our friends because we’re looking for people who will like us because they think we’re the best ever, who will say only the best of us, and so on. They will not ultimately be our friends—and I’m not talking about looking at people in order that they might denigrate us. No, simply to recognize the wisdom of the Word: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” and each of us is in great need of that. “The man”—Proverbs 29:5—“the man who flatters his friend spreads a net for his feet.” A rebuke, the Bible tells us, may well transform us. Flattery will only trip us up.
Third thing is that this kind of friendship will not only be honest, but it will also be sensitive. It will be possessed by the appropriate. It’s not good enough to make cutting comments, as we are often tempted to do—the kind of comments that damage—and then to say, following them, “Well, you know, I’m only joking.” Listen again to Solomon: “A man who is caught lying to his friend and says, ‘I was just fooling,’ is like a madman throwing around firebrands, arrows, and death.” And our use, loved ones, of language, especially amongst our peer group and especially amongst our acquaintances and those who are our potential friends, is very, very important. You can break a heart in just a word or two, and you may take a lifetime to try and repair it.
Friendship—this kind of friendship, marked by honesty and consistency and sensitivity—is the standard which the Bible holds up to us and which, when we look at it, we find ourselves so far short of it and saying, you know, “Is there really any friend who embodies such characteristics?”
Now, the man or the woman who takes seriously these principles and seeks to apply them will enjoy friendship and will be the best of friends. But you’ll find yourself asking, as you walk away from this, Is there anyone that I know who is always constant, who never ebbs and flows, isn’t moody, remains the same? Is there anybody that I know who displays that kind of consistency? Is there anyone that I know who rebukes me and chastens me, and I know at the gut level that he or she only does it because they love me passionately and they long for the best in my life? Is there anyone that I know who will show the grace and consideration of genuine sensitivity in all of their dealings with me? And if we are ruthlessly honest, we’re forced to say that even the best of friends in time will never be able to embody all that is contained in those things.
That is why, in the verse with which we began, it points us forward in a kind of enigmatic way, doesn’t it? “A man of many companions may come to ruin”—or “there are ‘friends’ who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” You find yourself reading that and saying, “I wonder who that friend is.” Of course, if you’ve been brought up in Christian circles, you put up your hand, you want to go to the top of the class immediately: “Excuse me, I think I know who that is.” Yes, we think you know who it is as well. Put your hand down; thank you very much.
The whole of the Bible is a book about Jesus, ultimately. If you keep your eyes on Jesus, you will be able to find your way around the Bible. In the Old Testament, he is predicted; in the Gospels, he is revealed; in the Acts, he is preached; in the Epistles, he is explained; and in the Revelation, he is expected. Therefore, it is no surprise to us when we look at wisdom to find that it is all there in Christ; when we look at love, that it is all there in Christ; and obviously, when we look at friendship, that it is all there in Jesus.
Now, let me wrap these final six minutes with a consideration of this ultimate friendship. Where can this friendship be found? In whom is it embodied? The answer is, ultimately, in the person of Christ. The scope of the Lord Jesus’ friendship is fantastic, isn’t it? The scope of his friendship. It was a constant nuisance to the Pharisees. It was even a concern to his closest disciples. Because he kept ending up with the strangest individuals. Stopping under the wrong tree to speak to a little cheat called Zacchaeus: “Zacchaeus, come down; we’re going to have tea at your house this afternoon.” That’s the English version. “Today we’re going to have tea at your house.”
“Excuse me, Madam, do you think that I could have a drink of water?” “Pardon? Isn’t it kind of strange that you, a Jew, would speak to me, a Samaritan? That you, a man, would speak to me, a woman?”—especially since she knows what’s going on in her mind. She’s had five husbands; she has a live-in lover; and she, frankly, has a problem with men.
Who is this kindest of friends? This is Jesus. And the Pharisees said, “You know, the Son of Man has come eating and drinking. And we like to call him a winebibber and a glutton, because he is the friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners.’”
Can I just say this to you? I don’t know a great deal of your outreach programs from Wheaton, but I know that they’re strong, and I hope that every one of you will participate in them. That you will seize every opportunity to manifest the extent of the friendship of Christ to those who are friendless and forlorn amongst your own peer group and beyond. That you will go out and see
All [those] lonely people,
[And] where do they all come from?
All [these] lonely people,
Where do they all belong?
[And] Father McKenzie [is] writing the words
Of a sermon that no one will hear,
[Because] no one comes near.
Established religion is for the birds. So how, then, will they meet this most wonderful friend? In your embrace, in the tenderness of your eyes, in the genuineness of your compassion, in your preparedness to get beyond the comfort zone that is represented in the immense privilege of this time in this place. For surely we could not claim to be the friends of Christ, which is so vast, that friendship that is so vast in its scope, and yet be so limited in our own perspective.
The friendship of Jesus also is a standard. Jesus says, “You know, if you love me, you will obey my commands.” In fact, in John 15:14, he puts it round the other way; he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command [you].” So, in other words, the enjoyment of friendship with Jesus and all of his consistency and his honesty and his sensitivity is directly related in the Christian pilgrimage to the issues of obedience. That is why disobedience, willful sin, and assurance never go hand in hand in the same Christian experience. If you and I are flat out disobeying the law of God, if we’re living in disregard for his Word, if we’re playing fast and loose with his commands, if we’re becoming very skillful hearers and yet not the doers of the Word, we should not wonder at why it is that we feel such a diminished sense of his companionship. Not that we earn it by obedience, but our obedience is on account of love. Do you remember that old Johnny Cash song? “No,” they said, “I don’t know who Johnny Cash was.” Sorry; he’s “The Man in Black,” apparently. But he had a song, dreadful song; he’s never really sung more than three notes in tune all of his life, but…
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I can’t remember the next line. And then it goes,
I walk the line because she’s mine.
That’s why I walk the line. Because Christ’s mine. I love him. I don’t want to offend him. Do you? I called my wife this morning, I called my wife last night. Goodness gracious, I can’t remember how many times I’ve called her since Tuesday. That’s kind of pathétique, isn’t it? Isn’t it? In a kind of “French” way, you know? J'espère que vous avez passé une bonne nuit? And I said to her, you know, “I love you,” just a few moments ago. And I’m trying to keep my eyes forward. It’s friendship. Where do you get this idea that, you know, loving Jesus is a glandular condition or something? So you do it if you feel it, but if you don’t feel it, you don’t do it: “Well, I didn’t feel like praying. I didn’t feel like reading. I didn’t feel like going. I didn’t feel like speaking.” What is this? A glandular condition? Is that Christianity?
There is a standard to his friendship. And finally, there is a security to his friendship. You can spend a significant part of this semester mulling, along with me, what these verses mean, with which I conclude—John 14:21: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them,” says Jesus, “he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father”—and then listen to this—“and I too will love him and show myself to him.” So Jesus has promised to show himself to me. I want to know what that means. And in verse 23, he comes at it again: he says, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Not only will he manifest himself to me, but he will live with me. And this has a reality which is not simply theoretical, it’s not ultimately theological in terms of a cerebral awareness of truth, but it is experiential as well. And you read the writings, for example, of Brother Lawrence in The [Practice of] the Presence of God, and you say, “Now, this is an inkling of what’s involved here.” You read some of Tozer’s stuff, and you say, “Now, I think Tozer’s got his hand on it here.” You read some of Elisabeth Elliot’s work, and you find yourself saying, “I think there’s an inkling of it here.” What a wonderful friendship!
Well, I find a good songbook a great help. You would realize that I do have a dreadful problem with lyrics, and I want to end by just quoting some lyrics to you. All right? We could sing these, but we won’t, because it probably wouldn’t be too good. Well, what should we do first? Well,
You might have a problem that we understand,
You all need somebody to lean on.
Good! That’s the first one. Second one:
When you’re down and troubled
And you need a helping hand
And nothing, no, nothing is going right,
[Then] close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night
You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running...
Hey ain’t it good to know
That you’ve got a friend?
[’Cause] people can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you, desert you,
They’ll take your soul if you let them.
[Whoa now,] don’t you let them.
I’ve found a friend, O such a friend!
[He] loved me ere I knew Him
He drew me with the cords of love,
And thus he bound me to Him;
And round my heart [so] closely [twined]
[These] ties that naught can sever,
For I am His, and [He] is mine,
Forever and forever.
What a friend we have in Jesus.
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
Friendship. You are making friendships that through the corridors of time will be as precious as any gift that God allows you to enjoy. Get away today and say, “O God, help me, with the friends you give me, to be a girl, a fellow, of consistency, honesty, sensitivity. Just make me like Jesus.”
Father, we bless you again for the privilege of these moments, at this point in our day. And we thank you for the love that drew the plan of salvation, for the grace that brings it to us, for the great span that you have come across in redeeming us. Grant, then, that the scope and the standard and the security of the friendship of Christ may be both a challenge and an encouragement to us, not only in the hours of this day and not only through the journey of our college career but through the pilgrimage of life itself. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
Copyright © 2024, 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.