Recently, while preparing for a Sunday message, I began searching my heart and the Scriptures, listening and looking for direction. It all seemed to be coming to me a little slower than usual. The first hint of direction came shortly before nine o’clock that evening when I sensed the Holy Spirit leading me to pray over every individual that would be in attendance the next morning. The Sunday-morning service was going to be a uniquely small one, made up only of our staff and ministry apprentices. It would be an intimate group of friends gathered around the Word and in worship, so naming each one in prayer wouldn’t be difficult. I just figured this was some sort of heart-tenderizing exercise that would eventually lead to a scripture that would give way to a sermon. But I was barely three minutes into prayer when I realized that praying over my friends wasn’t leading to a sermon, it was the sermon. The next several hours of prayer and preparation were some of the most unique I’ve ever experienced.
In preparation that Saturday night, I heard the Lord talking to me about our friends and the significance of our place in each other’s lives. I’ll ask you the same two questions I heard Him ask me that night:
How far would you go with a friend?
How far would you go for a friend?
In John 3, the disciples of John the Baptist came to him worried about the rapidly shrinking crowds at their baptism services. Not long before that, John had baptized Jesus of Nazareth who was a relatively unknown person at that time. But out of the waters of the Jordan River came a Man with a mission and a ministry that began drawing people by the thousands. “He is baptizing,” they said, “and all are coming to Him!” (v. 26). I’ve seen preachers and pastors go into deep depression over a few people leaving their ministries in preference to someone else’s. But was John distraught by this? Not in the least. In response he famously said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” He knew all along that his only job was to prepare the way for Jesus. But listen to what he said in John 3:29 in response to his disciples’ concern. “He who has the bride is the bridegroom, but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled.”
We know, of course, that John’s ministry was significant and held its own place on the timeline of biblical prophecy. But I find it interesting that on that day he simply identified himself as “the friend.” He was the best man standing next to the groom on his wedding day, not there for any attention but there only in support of his friend. Yes, John made a way for Jesus because that was his calling to do so. But he also made a way for Jesus because that’s what friends do.
A friend will go with you, and a friend will go for you. And no one has ever had a better friend than Jesus. In John 15:14, Jesus made a statement to His disciples that at first glance is a little difficult to process: “‘You are My friends,’ He said, ‘If you do whatever I command you.’” Those terms of friendship seem slanted decidedly in one direction. Any relationship that depends on one person’s commitment to do whatever they are commanded by another person doesn’t sound like a healthy friendship. But to understand what Jesus meant, we must back up to what He had already said to these guys in John 14:13-14: “And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.” Jesus said they could be His friends if they did whatever He commanded them to do. But He only said this after He had committed to do for them whatever they asked Him to do. “I’ll do whatever if you’ll do whatever” is Jesus’ version of a “friend request.”
The whatever Jesus commanded His guys to do was to love each other like He loved them: “‘Greater love has no one than this,’ He said, ‘than to lay down one’s life for his friends’” (John 15:12,13). We know, of course, that He was preparing at that moment to lay down His life for them and for all of us. Much like John, Jesus was laying down His life because it was His calling and His place in the fulfillment of Scripture. But also like John, Jesus was laying down His life because that’s what friends do.
“No longer do I call you servants,” Jesus said, “for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends” (John 15:15). I suppose that up until that day, Peter, James, John, and the rest of the crew had considered themselves His servants. But now Jesus was preparing for something no one had ever experienced before, something so profoundly intense that in this moment, He didn’t need servants; He needed friends. But how much more did they need His friendship? They had all gone this far with each other, but would they go further still? And little did they know that where Jesus was going, He was going for them because they could not go themselves. The cross would be the great testing ground for the friendship between God and man. This was crucial because friendship that hasn’t been tested is one that can’t yet be trusted.
Our friend Jesus bore the cross for us all, making good on the terms of our agreement. But now it’s upon us to uphold our side of the friendship. He laid down His life for His friends, and He has asked us to do the same. While laying down our lives for each other no longer requires physical death in each other’s place, His command still stands. Love and friendship can be expressed in so many ways, but Jesus showed us one way that, I believe, is often overlooked.
The pages of John 14, 15, and 16 are drenched in red, Jesus speaking to His servants-turned-friends. John 17 is all in red, too, but there is a shift in the conversation. He is no longer talking to His friends about His Father but rather to His Father about His friends: “I pray for them,” He says in verse nine. This is it! This is how we go with our friends when they are walking a hard road, and this is how we go for them when they can’t find the strength to go themselves. We shift the conversation. We pray for them.
It’s easy for Christian friends to have engaging conversations about God and His Word, and these are good conversations for us to have with each other. Through these talks, we can encourage each other, challenge each other, and even help each other change. But good friends don’t just talk to each other about their God; they also talk to their God about each other. Jesus demonstrated this for us, and it’s an example we must be quick to follow.
We know from James 5:16 that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” The Amplified version of that verse says that the earnest, heartfelt, and continued prayer of a righteous man makes tremendous power available. We who believe in the power of prayer often take this scripture and apply it to our time in prayer spent on our own needs being met. Prayer most certainly makes power available to us, but let me remind you that this verse began with the instruction to “pray for one another.” It’s easy to pray earnestly with heartfelt continued prayer over our pressing needs, but when was the last time you went there in prayer for a friend? Prayer does two important things: first, it makes the power of God available to us. Second, it gives God access to us. Simply put, prayer gives power, and asking gives access.
It is an awesome thing to know that the power of God needed in someone else’s life could come through your prayers for them. But why would God need our prayers to gain access into someone else’s situation? Why would He lead Jesus to pray for His friends? In John 16:12, Jesus says to His friends, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” He has just told them He was leaving, and sorrow has filled their hearts. In fact, they were so torn up over this that none of them thought to ask the most obvious question, “Where are You going?” There are times in our lives just like this time in theirs, where God is trying His hardest to get something through to us that we so desperately need. But crazy emotions can be all-consuming and very very distracting. Perhaps it’s because of whatever we are going through or maybe just because we aren’t listening like we should be, but whatever the reason, He can’t seem to get our attention. But that’s when it’s good to have a friend and be a friend who will pray. Because when God can’t get through to them, He can still get to them through you. When Jesus shifted the conversation and began talking to His Father about His friends, He was giving God much-needed access into their lives. There is so much we could say to God in prayer concerning those closest to us, but I see here that Jesus prayed two primary things for His friends.
First, He asked His Father to “keep them.” He prayed, “Holy Father, keep through Your Name those whom You have given Me” (John 17:11). Our friends are gifts to us from God, and we treat those gifts as valuable treasures when we go before the Lord on their behalves, asking Him to keep His watchful, protective eye on them.
A couple of summers ago, Sarah and I were ministering at a weeklong conference. One night while backstage, I looked over and saw Sarah praying with a few of our friends. I assumed they were praying over service that night, so I didn’t think anything else of it. I found out later that the Holy Spirit had impressed on Sarah that she needed to pray right then and there for the protection of our family, and as they prayed, the direction turned specifically toward her dad. She had no reason to think he needed prayer at that moment, but she simply followed the leading of the Holy Spirit. Just as they were saying amen, my phone buzzed in my pocket; Sarah’s mom was calling. The first thing she said was, “We need you guys to pray. Perry (Sarah’s dad) has just been in a motorcycle accident!”
Her dad had parked his bike at the front of their street and put a For-Sale sign on it earlier that day. As evening came, he left the house and began walking up the street to get the motorcycle. While he walked, he kept having the thought to go back and get his helmet. It was only going to be a short ride back home, less than a minute, in fact; so he thought, Do I really need to go back and get my helmet? Finally, he gave in, walked back to the house, got his helmet, and carried it up the street to where the bike was parked. On his ride back to the house, the bike gave way around a curve after losing traction on loose gravel, and he went hard to the concrete wearing shorts, a t-shirt, tennis shoes, and, praise God, his helmet. My wife didn’t lose her dad, and my children didn’t lose their Papa because when God needed immediate access into our family, He was able to get it through a praying daughter. Asking gives access.
Jesus went on praying for His friends, and in John 17:17, He says to His Father, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.” We serve our friends well by praying that not only would God keep them but that He would sanctify them too. Sanctify simply means to set apart, and Jesus was asking His Father not to take His friends out of the world but to sanctify them while they were in it. We know from just a couple verses later that Jesus was praying for His friends that were present with Him and for all of us who would believe in Him. By simply asking God to sanctify us, He was giving God access into our lives, enabling Him to separate us from the broken, failing system of this world. After this example, I also pray for my friends that God would sanctify them, enabling them to prosper apart from this world’s prescribed method of increase. I pray that when a thousand fall at their side and ten thousand at their right hand, they are kept safe and sanctified under the shadow of His wings. I pray for them because I believe I am giving God much-needed access into their lives, their homes, their businesses, and their ministries. I pray for them because that’s what friends do.
Most of my closest friends are in ministry, and I know all too well about the cares and distractions that try desperately to pull a minister off of his or her assignment, making it difficult at times to hear clearly the direction of the Holy Spirit. But I am honored to go before the Lord on their behalves and for their good, going with them and for them into a powerful place of prayer. Likewise, Sarah and I are blessed to have friends that pray for us regularly, going with us and going for us to the throne of grace, and I have no doubt that their prayers have given God access into our lives at just the right time.
Now here’s the real kicker: not only does praying for friends give God access into their lives, I believe it also gives Him access into yours. As I prayed for my friends in preparation for the Sunday message, I found it impossible to simultaneously carry any care for my own life or ministry. In those moments, I entered into a place of real rest concerning my needs, and I prayed earnestly for their lives as though I were praying for my own. And one thing is for certain: grace cannot work on your behalf until you enter that place of rest. If you’re having a hard time casting all your cares, then let me suggest you begin praying for someone else.
And the next time the face of a friend flashes across your heart, don’t pass that off as a random thought. Use it as an opportunity to go before your Father and make a friend request. Even if you don’t know exactly what to pray, you can always follow Jesus’ lead. Pray that God would keep them, and pray that He would sanctify them. Believe that God has others praying for you, too, because that’s what friends do.