In a world where we can have hundreds of social media friends, knowing how to answer ‘what is a friend’ may be a bit challenging. So how do we determine who our true friends are? And in particular, what does the Bible say about friendship?

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Your top three friends

To understand what a friend is, let’s look at the top three friends mentioned in the Bible.

#1 A friend who sticks closer than a brother

This is perhaps an obvious answer but foundational to answering our question. Jesus is the truest of friends. Closer than our blood relatives, He is the One who brings us into fellowship with God. He also calls us His friends and demonstrated His friendship to us by taking our place on the cross.

“A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” – Proverbs 18:24

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13

#2 And they shall become one flesh

For married couples, our godly spouse ought to be our closest earthly friend. Not only are we “one flesh,” but as husband and wife, our task is to minister Christ to one another. To do that, we have to imitate Jesus … and that means being the kind of friend He is to us.

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” – Genesis 2:24

“However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” – Ephesians 5:33

For singles, it’s a good idea to look for a spouse who can be your friend. For years, I thought I was supposed to be looking for a knight in shining armor, my other half, or some other version of a fairy tale spouse. In time, my husband became all those things to me, but first he was my friend. And still is.

#3 And loved him as his own soul

One of the few positive friendships mentioned in the Bible is the one between Jonathan and David. From what the Bible tells us, their friendship was cemented after David killed Goliath.

“As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” 1 Samuel 18:1

Too often we measure our friends by what they do for us, how much time they spend with us, and how they make us feel. But “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David” after Jonathan heard David speak.

What David said and why Jonathan befriended him

In his first exchange with King Saul, David tells him that he is not afraid to face Goliath because, “The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine.”

And later, after defeating Goliath, David is called on to reveal his identity. Though he had already been anointed by Samuel (ch. 16), David does not boast of this to Saul, but calls himself “the son of your servant.” Jonathan must have recognized David’s humility in this exchange. As Leithart points out, “Jonathan sees clearly what is going on. Following the battle with Goliath, Jonathan strips off his armor and robe and gives them to David. Jonathan knows that David is the crown prince, the true son and heir of Saul’s kingdom.” (A House For My Name, p. 143) Whatever made this impression on him, it’s evident that Jonathan chose David as a friend after:

  1. witnessing his faithfulness to God (evidenced by David’s words and actions),
  2. seeing David’s humility,
  3. and after acknowledging him as God’s chosen king.

Do we choose our friends in the same way? Does their faithfulness to God’s Word matter more than their popularity, their good looks, their witty posts? Do we love them because they are God’s chosen sons and daughters or because they make us feel good about ourselves?

Jonathan’s priorities in friendship prove to be a benefit to David later on. Exposing himself to the displeasure of his father, Jonathan takes measures to ensure David’s safety and keeps him out of Saul’s way. Would our friends do the same for us?

Three people you ought to “unfriend”

These three examples of true friends bring us to some clear points on what a friend is not.

#1 The person who discourages you from walking with the Lord.

Remember, Jesus is our ultimate friend. All other friendships are subordinate to His. So what does Jesus say about His friends?

“You are my friends if you do what I command you.” – John 15:14

James further reminds us: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4) So if we claim friendship with Christ, we need to make sure our friends encourage us to walk according to God’s commands.

Additionally, we need to be careful that we don’t elevate our friendships … or put our friends in place of Jesus. This means we need to be careful of friendships where we look to the other person as a type of savior or someone we want to emulate in everything. In short, we shouldn’t idolize our earthly friends.

#2 The person who talks badly about your spouse.

I know women who love to meet up with their “friends” for the purpose of bashing their husbands. They dig up all the bad things their spouses have done and share/laugh about them. But if you found out your friend’s friends had weekly eye-rolling sessions over the stupid things you said or did, would you consider it very friendly if your friend attended? Similarly, if your “friends” aren’t encouraging you in your friendship with your husband, then they aren’t true friends.

Not everyone will get along with your spouse. But if your friend encourages you in your walk with the Lord (see #1), they’ll understand that to be a friend to Christ, you must love your spouse. And they’ll encourage you in that relationship too.

#3 The person who isn’t who we think they are.

While Jonathan and David are mentioned as a positive example of friendship, the Bible warns more often about “friends” who aren’t really all that friendly. (Note: throughout Scripture, the English uses the word “friend,” however, the original Hebrew words range from “man” or “person” to “companion” and even “imposter“.)

“You would even cast lots over the fatherless, and bargain over your friend.” – Job 6:27

“My relatives have failed me, my close friends have forgotten me.” – Job 19:14

My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my nearest kin stand far off.” – Psalm 38:11

“Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” – Psalm 41:9

“The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.” – Proverbs 14:20

“And if one asks him, ‘What are these wounds on your back?’ he will say, ‘The wounds I received in the house of my friends.’” – Zechariah 13:6

While we may choose our “friends” based on looks, proximity, mutual hobbies, etc. the Bible reminds us that these friends may not have our interests at heart. There will be times in our lives when it becomes clear they were friends only for convenience, their own benefit, etc.

What is a friend?

“And behold, a lawyer stood up to put [Jesus] to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?””

Sometimes when we ask the question, “what is a friend?” we’re really asking, “who are my friends? How do I know if they’re really friends?” Perhaps the best answer can be found in Jesus’ answer to the lawyer’s question, “who is my neighbor?”

Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. And He finishes by asking the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”” (Luke 10:25-37)

Similarly, in asking ourselves, “what is a friend,” we should walk away knowing how to be a friend ourselves. In short, we should be a friend like Jesus, encouraging others to love God and obey Him. We demonstrate love, not by being a savior to our friends, but by pointing them to the True Friend, the One who is better than we could ever be.

Go and do likewise

This brief look at “what is a friend” isn’t exhaustive by any means. The Bible has much more to say on friendship. But these three points (and counterpoints) are a good place to start. Here are a few more verses that give insight on true friendship and how we can grow in godly friendliness toward others.

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” Proverbs 17:17

“Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” – Proverbs 27:6

“He who loves purity of heart, and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as his friend.” – Proverbs 22:11

“Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.” – Proverbs 27:9

As a final word of encouragement, in spite of your efforts to be a godly friend to others, you may not feel like you have many godly friends in return. Don’t be anxious! Remember, “the friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.” (Psalm 25:14) Friendship with God will “lead you beside still waters” and reveal to you the hidden delights of His way. His friendship is truly the only you will ever need.