In the last editorial we examined the idea of being alone on our sojourn through life. We saw that for the most part it is not good to be alone on life’s journey. In this article we will look at the flip side of being alone: We are strangers and sojourners together.
There are a couple of different ways to look at being pilgrims together. One is from the viewpoint of the communion of the saints, which has two main aspects: unity and diversity.
The unity of the saints, according to the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 21), is that all who believe are members of Christ and in common are partakers of him and of all his riches and gifts. We are one in our head, Christ Jesus, and are members of his body. The church is one in faith, one in doctrine, and one in practice and walk of life. All are in common strangers and sojourners who came from the same place, who travel the same road, who have the same purpose and goal, and who enter in through the same narrow gate. They have in common their salvation in all of its riches and gifts.
The other aspect of the communion of the saints is diversity. Each one is an individual, as we have implied in the last couple of articles. Each one of us is unique. The Catechism expresses this in terms of gifts, which implies that we have varying gifts: “Everyone must know it to be his duty readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts for the advantage and salvation of other members.” Paul writes of this diversity in unity in 1 Corinthians 12, perhaps the clearest and most detailed explanation of the truth of the communion of the saints. This diversity is necessary because we are different in many ways. Each one of us has his own abilities or lack of them, his own strengths and weaknesses, his own personality and character, his own nature and temperament, and his own disposition and makeup. If we were all the same, there could be no variety of gifts. Not everyone can be an officebearer; not everyone has musical talents to use in the worship of the church; not everyone can lead Bible societies. Each must find his own niche in the life of the sojourning church, and then use his talents for the advantage and salvation of the other members.
There is unity in diversity, and diversity in unity.
Another way of describing the communion of the saints is in terms of friends and friendship. Like the two aspects of the communion of the saints, friendship has two aspects: likeness and difference. We will look at the concept of friendship, used often in scripture, in order to understand this idea. But first, a literary side trip of a practical nature.
Young people, most of you have probably not yet had the opportunity to travel very much, especially to countries other than our own. I’m just a tad older than you, and along with my wife Ruthellen, I have been able to go to a few overseas countries. This has been a wonderful experience, and we hope to travel more. We have been to Singapore twice. This gave us a personal meaning of the term culture shock. We landed from the skies onto an island populated by Chinese people, who fortunately spoke English. Actually, it was Singlish, but we learned to understand them. We could hardly have been more different from them, but upon being greeted at the airport by a good-sized crowd at midnight, it took us only a short time to make friends and to feel comfortable with them.
On another trip to Southeast Asia we went to Myanmar to teach Old Testament history. We landed in a nation populated by short, brown-skinned, pleasant-natured people who spoke Burmese. My Burmese was a little weak, so I spoke in English to the class, with Pastor Titus translating into Burmese, and another pastor translating into the Karen language. It is hard to imagine something so foreign as to be virtually impossible. But it took only a few minutes to realize that we all were one in the faith, and their receptivity to what was taught was amazing.
More recently we visited folks (now friends) in Namibia who are one with us in the faith. After driving 250 miles through the desolation (and the beauty) of the Kalahari Desert to the end of the road and the end of civilization, we met the Duvenhage family. We did not know them and had never seen them; we knew very little about them. After the initial introductions, it took about five minutes to become friends with them, and we enjoyed a totally wonderful time with them for a week. They spoke Afrikaans and English; I spoke Dutch (to which Afrikaans is related) and English, and we understood each other quite well.
On a more personal level, I have a friend who is quite different from me. I must be careful here in what I write, lest I reveal his identity. Nor are my words intended to be in any way insulting or self-serving. But facts are facts. He is not educated; I am. He is not aggressive and self-motivated; I am not entirely laid back. He has certain interests; I do not share them. We are about as different as possible from one another. How in the world can we be friends? Because we share a common faith and hope of eternal life. We may agree to disagree on almost everything else, but the unity of friends overrides our differences.
Perhaps some of you young people have had similar experiences when attending conventions and making friends with other young people from other places. Some of these friendships even develop into marriages. Your lives may be different, but you quickly make friends.
How are these instant friendships to be explained? How is it possible to establish fast friendship with the people in Singapore, to teach the Burmese and Karen people the gospel of the Old Testament, and to agree with people in Africa on all the essentials of the Reformed faith, both in doctrine and practice? The answer is the communion of the saints, which forms a basis of the unity of all God’s people, regardless of place and race. This is true friendship as scripture uses the term.
After this excursion, we return our attention to the biblical idea of friends. As strangers and sojourners we need friends: those who are identical with us, but who are yet different from us. We need them because the road we travel is difficult and dangerous, and we are likely to stumble and fall. When that happens, we need someone to help us. As Ecclesiastes 4:10 says concerning two friends, “For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.”
As fellow sojourners we need good friends, and that starts with God, our divine friend. He is our covenant God, which means that through Christ and his work of salvation we enjoy fellowship with him. Friendship is the essence of our relationship to God. He is the sovereign God, and we are creatures, which means that we are essentially different. Yet we look like him spiritually. Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to anyone is what scripture says about Abraham (Isa. 41:8, James 2:23): he was called the friend of God.
As children of Abraham, we are blessed to be the friends of God in Christ. In Luke 12:4 Jesus calls us, “my friends.” We read in John 15:15: “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” The Lord says in John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” which was exactly what he did. We are his friends in the way of obedience: “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you” (John 15:3). This implies that true friendship is always antithetical, as James 4:4 instructs us: “Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.”
This friendship is in sharp contrast to Job’s three supposed friends. Instead of helping and comforting him, they were critical and condemnatory, until finally Job lamented, “My kinsfolk have failed, and my familiar friends have forgotten me” (Job 19:14). In verse 19 (NIV) he complains, “All my intimate friends detest me; those I love have turned against me.” With friends like that, who needs enemies?
Not everything the Bible says about friends and friendship is positive. Scripture speaks of what may best be called questionable friendships, especially with regard to the rich, who always seem to have plenty of friends: “The poor is hated even of his own neighbour: but the rich hath many friends” (Prov. 14:20). “Wealth maketh many friends; but the poor is separated from his neighbor” (Prov. 19:4). “Many will intreat the favour of the prince: and every man is a friend to him that giveth gifts” (Prov. 19:6). Such language makes one question whether ulterior motives are involved, most of them self-serving.
There is also friendship that is outright false and fake. Psalm 41:9 speaks of this: “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me.” Speaking of the end times, Jesus says this: “And ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolks, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. (Luke 21:16). Who can forget the ultimate example of false friendship? Judas Iscariot was one of the twelve; for three years he was apparently one of Jesus’ closest friends. Yet he betrayed the Lord for thirty pieces of silver. When Jesus met him in the garden of Gethsemane, he addressed Judas as “friend,” which is more correctly “comrade, mate, fellow.” In a sense Judas was the friend of Jesus, although a false one. But ultimately he is anything but a friend, and Jesus did not dignify him with the gentle “friend.”
In contrast, true friends “love at all times” (Prov. 17:17). Never do they betray one another’s friendship by gossip, which inevitably ruins it, according to Proverbs 16:28 (NIV): “A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends.” The same thought is expressed in Proverbs 17:9 (NIV): “He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.” A true friend “sticketh closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:4). Since brothers usually stick together, such a friendship must be very strong and lasting. On such a friend we can safely rely.
How do friends help one another? By supporting and encouraging one another by good advice. We read in Proverbs 27:9, “Ointment and perfume rejoice the heart: so doth the sweetness of a man’s friend by hearty counsel.” Because of the value of such friendship, Solomon goes on to admonish us to preserve our friendship in our generations, and never to break it: “Thine own friend, and thy father’s friend, forsake not; neither go into thy brother’s house in the day of thy calamity: for better is a neighbour that is near than a brother far off” (Prov. 27:10). Part of friendship involves rebuking one another when necessary. Rather than becoming angry and breaking the friendship, true friends can accept criticism exactly because they are friends. Proverbs 27:6 expresses it this way: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” This is the reason never to be friends with an angry man, because he is rash and stupid in his decision-making: “Make no friendship with an angry man; and with a furious man thou shalt not go” (Prov. 22:24). Friends help friends think things through and make good decisions (Prov. 27:17): “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.”
Listen, young people, to the words of the wisest man of all time, Many things will come and go in your lives, but true friendship is forever.
“I am a companion of all them that fear thee, and of them that keep thy precepts” (Ps. 119:63).