A Theology of Friendship

By | January 1, 2024

Who does the Bible identify as a friend? What is friendship?

Words like friend, friendship, or friendly in our English Bible stem from multiple words in the Hebrew and Greek. Below is a survey of these words, leading to a definition of friendship. Though this survey does not include every angle from which to view friendship (e.g., the “one another” passages), this survey does provide a fairly good idea of the Bible’s theology of friendship.1

Old Testament

  • rēaʿ, used 185x, most often translated as “one another,” “each other,” or “neighbor” ; also translated as “comrade” (Judg 7:13, 14, 22), “companion” (Exod 2:13; 30:29; Ps 122:8), “opponent” (2 Sam 2:16), “fellow” (1 Kings 20:35; Isa 34:14), and “lover,” “husband,” “man” (Jer 3:1, 20; Hos 3:1); often translated “friend” (Gen 38:12, 20; Exod 33:11; Deut 13:6; 1 Sam 30:26; 2 Sam 13:3; 16:17; 1 Kings 16:11; 1 Chron 27:33; Job 2:11; 6:27; 12:4; 16:20; 17:5; 19:21; 32:3; 35:4; 42:7, 10; Ps 35:14; Prov 17:17; 19:4, 6; 22:11; 27:9, 10; SoS 5:1, 16; Jer 6:21; Lam 1:2; Zech 3:8).
  • mat, used 22x, with 1x as “intimate friend” (Job 19:19).
  • sôd, used 21x, sometimes as “intimate friend” (Job 19:19) or “friendship” (Job 29:4; Ps 25:14), but also “council,” “counsel,” “plans,” “gatherings,” and “company.”
  • nkr, used 53x, 1x as “friend” (Job 24:17).
  • Variants of the common root šlm, “close friends” (Jer 20:10); “trusted friends” (Jer 38:22), “friend” (Ps 7:4); “friendly” (Gen 34:21); and “friendship” (1 Chron 12:17).
  • ʾallûp, used 9x, sometimes “companion” (Ps 55:13; Prov 2:17) or “friend” (Prov 16:28; 17:9; Jer 3:4; 13:21; Mic 7:5).

New Testament

  • philos, 29x, always “friend.”
  • idios, 114x, only 2x referring to “friend”; a reflexive pronoun, literally, “one’s own,” referring to people (Acts 4:23; 24:23).
  • sos, 25x, 1x as “friend”; a second-person pronoun, literally, “yours,” referring to people (Mark 5:19).
  • eirēnē, “friendly” (Heb 11:31).
  • hetairos, “friend” (Matt 20:13; 22:12; 26:50); “a person who has someth. in common with others and enjoys association, but not necessarily at the level of a φίλος [philos] or φίλη [philē], comrade, companion.”2.

After his own word survey, Lee notes that the chief Old Testament characteristics of friendship are loyalty (e.g., David and Jonathan) and sharing, sometimes both expressed in a covenant (e.g., Ps 25:14; 55:20; Prov 2:17; Mal 2:14). Keener likewise identifies loyalty and sharing characteristics in the New Testament era. He explains sharing in terms of confidence and all resources, that is, sharing information and secrets with trusted friends and freely giving of one’s resources, even one’s life, for one’s friends.3 Christ is the best of friends who discloses (or promises to disclose) all things to his disciples, sharing with them all things, including himself and his very life (John 15:13–15; 16:12–15).

Gathering this data together, our initial survey of friendship includes notions of…

  • Loyalty to one another
  • Sharing with one another, even one’s own life for the sake of the other
  • Confidence in mutual commitment (covenant)
  • Love for one another
  • Peace with one another

So, here’s a rough definition for friendship: a loving relationship between two people in which they selflessly share with one another, remaining loyal to one another in the midst of conflict or suffering, striving for peace in all circumstances.

With this definition in hand, let’s consider friendship within the framework of the redemptive story.

Friendship Before and After Creation

Before the world came into being, the Father, Son, and Spirit enjoyed one another’s perfect glory in eternity before the world existed (John 17:5; cf. Heb 9:14). They were harmonious in love, thought, and will (Rom 8:9, 27; 1 Cor 2:11).

When God made man in his image, He made him a communal being—never meant to be alone, filling the world with people, and living in harmony together (Gen 1:26–28; 2:18). Man’s chief end is inherently relational—glorifying God and enjoying Him forever (Rom 11:36; Rev 21:3–4; 22:4–5).

Friendship After the Curse

Unfortunately, Adam sinned, breaking man’s friendship with God and putting himself under God’s wrath (Rom 1:18; 3:9, 23; Eph 2:3; 4:18).

Adam’s sin broke friendship among mankind as well. Apart from saving and common grace, mankind’s relationships can degenerate into every form of perversity and abuse possible, breaking down friendships within the family and society at large (Gen 3:16b; cf. Eph 4:29, 31; Col 3:5–8; Gal 5:19–21).

Friendship and the Cross

Thankfully, we can have friendship with God again by loving and obeying Him due to the sacrifice and resurrection of his Son and the work of the Holy Spirit (Ps 25:14; John 15:14–15). Abraham and Moses were called the friends of God (Exod 33:11; 2 Chron 20:7; Isa 41:8; James 2:23), and Job knew God’s friendship as well (Job 29:4). Jesus called his disciples his friends (John 15:13–15). He loved his friend Lazarus and wept when he died (John 11:3, 5, 11, 35–36).Our Lord Jesus showed himself to be the greatest Friend of all through His death. This death is our means of friendship with God and an example of friendship for all (John 15:13; cf. Rom 5:6–8).

Though salvation in Christ begins to restore our relationships with our fellow man and among one another as Christians (3 John 15), indwelling sin keeps these friendships from perfection. We must mortify every vice that destroys our relationships with others and put on the Lord Jesus Christ, loving others like Him (Col 3:1–17; Eph 4:17–32).

Until the return of our Lord, wisdom is necessary to discern what genuine friendship with others truly means. Friendship is not based on riches, befriending one another for benefit in return (Prov 14:20; 19:4, 6, 7). Friendship falters from dishonesty and disloyalty (Prov 16:28; Ps 7:4; 15:3; 38:11; 41:9; 55:13), especially if the offense occurs again and again (Prov 17:9). One friend does not mock, scorn, forget, or forsake the other, especially in trial (Job 12:4; 16:20; 19:14, 19). Rather, friendship is marked by pure motives and gracious speech (Prov 22:11). True friendship sticks close in adversity (Prov 17:17; 18:24; 27:10), finds strength in mutual admonition (Prov 27:6, 9), and enjoys fellowship when worshiping God together (Ps 55:13–14).

Biblical examples of friendship abound. Here are just a few.

  • Ruth selflessly shared with and committed herself to Noami: “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
  • David and Jonathan were one: “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam 18:1). Their love was “extraordinary” (2 Sam 1:26).
  • Daniel and his three friends shared in suffering, prayer, and leadership, and seeing the miracles of God (Dan 2:13, 17, 18).
  • The friends of Paul urged his protection and tended to his needs (Acts 19:31; 24:23; 27:3).
  • Though distanced by age, Paul and Timothy knew friendship as a spiritual father and son (1 Tim 1:2, 18; 2 Tim 1:2; 2:1; 1 Cor 4:17; Phil 2:22).
  • Paul befriended the wayward Onesimus, leading him to Christ and restoring his friendship with Philemon (Phm 17–19).

Friendship in the Consummation

Christ will return and reunite us with all who died in him (1 Thess 4:17). Our friendship with God and one another will be perfect: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev 21:3; cf. 21:8, 24, 26–27; 22:3–5). We will see our Savior’s face and fellowship together with him forever (Rev 22:4–5).


God, eternally communal among himself, created us to serve him and be friends with him and one another forever. Even though Adam sinned and broke man’s friendship with God, his covenant loyalty moved him to give and share the life of his Son so that we might yet fellowship with him in peace forever. As we know him by faith, He is our King and also our Friend, and our friendships among man should improve, especially with those in the church. As we hope for Christ’s return, we know that our friendship with him and all who love him will be perfect one day. May God hasten the day when He will dwell among us and when we will perfectly worship him together forever!

Photo by Allen Taylor on Unsplash

  1. See especially G. A. Lee’s own word survey in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, s.v., “Friend.” []
  2. BDAG, s.v., ἑταῖρος []
  3. C. S. Keener, Dictionary of New Testament Background, s.v., “Friendship.” See previous footnote for Lee’s article. []

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