What kind of relationship do we have with Jesus? One familiar, beloved Scripture passage that answers this question is Jesus’s teaching in John 15:13–15:
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his 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.
If we are Jesus’s disciples, we are his friends. Jesus understands us and wants us to be intimate with him (Heb. 4:15; John 15:4). But in our modern Western culture, “friendship” usually refers to a horizontal relationship with an equal. Given that Jesus is also our King (the meaning of the title “Christ”), this kind of friendship is less than adequate to describe our relationship to him.
In John 15, Jesus seems to be using imagery from the Greco-Roman custom of patronage: an unequal, vertical relationship which a first-century audience would have readily understood. For 21st-century readers, becoming familiar with patronage could help us have a more robust view of our relationship to Jesus—and explain some of Jesus’s unusual language in this discourse.
In Jesus’s world, it was difficult for people of low social status to obtain goods and services, so they often approached someone of influence to advocate for their needs. If the high-ranking official or wealthy benefactor agreed to grant their request, they began a lifelong patron-client relationship.
Jesus isn’t teaching that his disciples become his equals.
These relationships were unequal; the person of high status (the patron) was superior to the person of low status (the client). The patron helped the client acquire what he needed. In return, the client pledged loyalty to the patron. He would promote the patron’s reputation and promise to reciprocate with future services. This two-way system of unequal relationships was the glue of Greco-Roman society.
Given the inequality of patrons and clients, the word “client” (Latin: cliens) was considered degrading. Because of this stigma, patrons often sugar-coated their terminology, referring to a client as a “friend” (Latin: amicus, Greek: filos).
5 Reasons ‘Friend’ Means ‘Obedient Subordinate’
At least five things in John 15 support the idea that Jesus is using “friend“ in the sense of an obedient subordinate, just like the patrons of his day.
1. Friends If You Obey
Jesus consistently teaches that his disciples are subordinates throughout his farewell discourse leading up to John 15:13–15. Even after washing his disciples’ feet as an example to them, Jesus says they should call him teacher and Lord (13:13), and that slaves are not greater than their master (13:16).
Even after washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus says they should call him teacher and Lord.
He gives them commands and teaches that they demonstrate love for him through obedience (13:35; 14:15–24). Jesus teaches that they are branches, extensions of him as the vine (15:5).
In John 15:13–15, the role of Jesus’s “friend” is one of subordination: “You are my friends if you do what I command” (15:14). I don’t know about you, but I don’t say this to my friends!
2. Friends and Former Slaves
Jesus’s statement about the disciples no longer being servants but friends (John 15:15) can be explained by a patron-client relationship. The most persistent patron-client relationships existed between former masters and slaves. If a master freed his slave, the former slave would become a client to the former master. The freed slave would pledge lifelong loyalty to the new patron. Likewise, with Jesus’s manumission of his disciples, they become his friends.
3. Friends with Your Broker
Jesus’s declarations of providing access to the Father also indicate that Jesus is using the imagery of patronage. Like a modern-day middleman, an ancient patron would often act as a broker, giving clients access to favors from a more distant patron. The ideal broker would be a person with one foot in both worlds. For example, clients would depend on a male member of the emperor’s family—the emperor’s son, for example—to act as a middleman.
When Jesus, the unique Son of God, tells us to ask the Father in his name (15:16), this is the language of brokerage. But, unlike an earthly broker, Jesus grants his followers full access to a relationship with God (14:6) so we can have complete intimacy with the Father (16:26-27).
4. Friends and Loyal Servants
Coin from Philadelphia showing ΦΙΛΟΚΑΙΣΑΡ. Roman Provincial Coinage, 3031.4
John points to a specific type of patronage: that of a king and his loyal regents. The term “friend” was often used for subservient clients of a royal patron. Biblical examples can be seen in Hushai as a friend of the king (1 Chron. 27:33) and Pilate as a friend of Caesar (John 19:12). Coins of Roman provinces often showed the inscription ΦΙΛΟΚΑΙΣΑΡ (filokaisar, friend of Caesar). Thus, in every purse there were constant reminders that a friend was a loyal servant.
Christ’s sayings about friendship come after his royal entry into the city (John 12:12–15; cf. Zech. 9:9) and his teaching about his departure. By giving commands for his disciples to love one another (13:31–14:17) and bear fruit (15:1–11, 16), Jesus expects their obedience in his absence, just as Caesar expects Pilate’s loyalty in his absence.
5. Dying for His Friends
Finally, the metaphor of patronage makes sense of John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” After all, if friends were equals, wouldn’t their most radical love be for their enemies? But if we remember that Jesus’s use of friends comes in an uneven relationship, it follows that the greatest love is for subordinates. We wouldn’t expect a patron to die for his clients, since he has something to gain from his relationship with them.
We wouldn’t expect a patron to die for his clients, since he has something to gain from his relationship with them.
This is where a relationship with Jesus was radically different. The saying reminds us of another earlier in John: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (10:11). Just like the shepherd is superior to the sheep, the kingly patron is superior to his clients. His act of love revealed Jesus as the greatest patron—there is no greater love than to lay down his life for subordinates. Jesus’s patronage is unparalleled.
Loved by Jesus
As we put these pieces together, we see that in John 15 Jesus was teaching his disciples about a relationship of subordination, using imagery of patronage. With his act of love, he was declaring that he was greater than any patron.
Yes, if you’re a follower of Jesus, you’re his friend. Don’t miss how mind-blowing this is. The King gives us free access—we can have a close relationship with him. And as our patron, he also calls us to loyalty and obedience. It’s jaw-dropping that he laid down his life for us, his friends. Unlike any worldly power-broker, he sacrificed everything, and he is worthy of all allegiance and worship.
The Gospel Coalition