In these three verses are the only instances recorded in the New Testament where Jesus tells his apostles that they are his friends. He ties the conditions of that friendship to love, joy, sacrifice, integrity, and trust.
LOVE — “As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. … This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.”
JOY — “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.”
SACRIFICE — “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
INTEGRITY — “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. … Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.”
TRUST — “I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.”
The context is the private conversation between Jesus and his apostles that begins in chapter 13 and concludes with his prayer in their behalf in chapter 17. These chapters are the focal point of John’s gospel. (Perhaps it is to not detract from the importance of this conversation that John does not mention two of the most important experience is the Savior’s life: the Mount of Transfiguration and Gethsemane.) He explains his relationship with them, theirs with him, and both his and theirs with his Father. He said they must understand their reciprocal love, hesed, “that your joy might be full.” In its larger context this is what the Savior said.
7 If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.
8 Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.
9 As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love.
10 If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.
11 These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.
12 This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.
13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
14 Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.
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.
16 Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.
17 These things I command you, that ye love one another (John 15:7 – 17).
As always, he uses his love for them to illustrate how they must love each other. The best commentary on those chapters is also written by the Beloved Apostle himself in “The First Epistle General of John.”
There is one part that gives us pause, because the word Jesus uses clearly has a double meaning. That is: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Even though there may be some ambiguity because of the multiple possibilities of the meanings of the Greek word that is translated by the phrase “lay down,” the Savior makes one of those meanings perfectly clear. “To die” is not one of those meanings, so to lay down one’s life does not mean to die happily in one’s bed. He also used that same Greek word much earlier when he prophesied of his death, and there is no question about his intention here.
14 I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.
15 As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.
16 And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
17 Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again.
18 No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father (John 10:14-18).
The way the Savior uses the verb here means exactly what it says, “to willingly lay down one’s life with death as a consequence.” It has the same meaning as Joseph Smith’s words as he and his friends rode to Carthage for the last time.
I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning; I have a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men. I shall die innocent, and it shall yet be said of me— He was murdered in cold blood. (D&C 135:4)
We almost always read his words, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” in the context of the Savior’s impending death and ultimate sacrifice. One can also find there a prophecy that each of the apostles will seal their testimonies with their own blood. For many of the rest of us, that may also be true in theory. Even though there are some true heroes who have and will yet die in place of a friend, there are actually very few of us who will ever be called upon to stand between our loved ones and an incoming bullet.
It is that second possible meaning that still fits within the context of the Savior’s words, which is much more relevant to our own lives.
I remember my delight when I first heard The Battle Hymn of the Republic sung differently. The words originally were: “As he died to make men holy let us die to make them free.” It now reads, “let us live to make them free.” It is no longer a war cry but a hymn to peace. The different meanings of the Savior’s words are like that. Few of us are called on to die for our friends, but all of are required to live to their salvation and God’s glory.
Years ago I knew a remarkable young woman. She and her husband had both been my students. They had both recently graduated from BYU, she with a double major in philosophy and economics, he in business. Now she was now a stay-at-home mom with two small children and her husband was scoutmaster and was working to establish a business that would eventually become quite successful. They lived in a small, rented house not far from campus. One summer morning, after a rainy night, she was in the back yard washing the mud off the outside toys, watching her children jumping and splashing each other with the muddy water from the puddles. She thought, “What am I doing with my life and my education? I haven’t had an intelligent, academic discussion with an adult for days. What ever good am I?” The Holy Ghost answered her question by reminded her of this scripture and instructed her to go to Strong and discover its meaning. She did and learned it is a complex verb that means many things. “To commit oneself” and to “set forth” are among them—but “to die” is not there. She now read the verse differently, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man expend his life for his friends.” She put the book down, and with soft tears rolling down her cheeks, she stood at the kitchen window and watched her beautiful children laughing, singing, and dancing in the mud.
In that second meaning we hear the reverberation of something else the Savior said to his apostles.
25 He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth [“to love less”] his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal (John 12:25. Strong #3404)
21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (3 Nephi 13:21).