What is a friend? All of us understand the importance of friendship in our lives, but what does the Bible say a friend actually is?
The Greek word consistently translated “friend” is philos. Particularly interesting is the fact that this word is derived from the verb phileo, which is synonymous with agapao, which means “to love.” Strictly speaking, then, a friend is one who loves or is loved. This stands in contrast with enemies, who hate or have an aversion to another. A great example of this is found in Matt. 11:19, where Jesus is called a “friend” of tax-collectors and other outcasts of Jewish society. Far from wanting to stay away from them as the Pharisees did, Jesus willingly spent His time with them and demonstrated His love in very practical ways.
By extension, a friend is one who is devoted to another. Because of this, Abraham is called a “friend of God” in James 2:23. Likewise, those who devote themselves to Jesus are His friends (John 15:14ff). A good secular example of this is found in John 19:12, where Pilate is threatened with the charge of not being a “friend” of Caesar if he didn’t have Jesus crucified. This, then, helps us understand why James said that friendship with the world is enmity with God, for we cannot be devoted to both.
The word also refers to general companionship in passages like Luke 7:6, etc.
We see the word itself has a fairly broad meaning. Like any word, context helps decide the specific view in meaning. The same is true in OT usage. The main word there is rea’ and includes close, intimate friendships all the way to mere companions. In Ex. 33:11, for instance, God speaks to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend,” but 1 Sam. 14:20 finds the Philistines turning their swords on one another (on their “friends”). Sometimes, this vagueness can create interesting theological discussions. For instance, are Job’s three friends actually true friends? Though not explicit, the question of true friendship may well be a sub-theme in the book as it helps us understand how to counsel friends who are suffering.
The bottom line we can take away is that a friend, in the biblical sense, is one who loves and is devoted to another. Our friends, then, are the ones who are there for us no matter what, which is what we should be willing to do for others. That also means that a lot of people whom we think of as our friends aren’t our friends at all. Worse, it may be that we aren’t the friends we think we are to others! Most significantly, it is an amazing thing that we can be not merely God’s followers, but even His friends, and He can be ours. He is already devoted to us. The question is, are we devoted to Him? True friends always are.