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Levels of Relationships

At the great ecumenical council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. the church fathers issued a Definition, based on the Creed of Nicaea (325 C.E.) and the Creed of Constantinople (381 C.E.), aimed at resolving, once and for all, centuries of controversy over the so-called ‘two natures’ of Christ. The statement reads in part:

“We all with one voice confess our Lord Jesus Christ one and the same Son, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, of one substance with us as regards his manhood …. to be acknowledged in two natures … the distinction of natures being in no way abolished because of the union, but rather the characteristic property of each nature being preserved, and coming together to form one person and one entity ….”

The Council of Chalcedon addressed the mystery of the incarnation — the Word becoming flesh; God becoming man — in terms that are still accepted to this day by most Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches. And it is the human nature of Jesus — the ‘reasonable soul and body’ — and the ‘characteristic property’ of that nature, particularly the need for friendship and companionship, that constitutes the focus of this article.

Jesus surrounded himself with people

From the commencement of his ministry in Galilee until its dramatic climax on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem, Jesus surrounded himself with people. Although he spent time alone in the desert communing with his Heavenly Father, Jesus was not an isolated mystic or a monastic recluse.

The four gospel writers paint a picture of a man who was both spiritually centred and socially integrated. Indeed, the religious elite accused him of being a ‘friend’ of tax collectors and sinners (Matt 11.19). The Greek word philos, translated ‘friend’, connotes emotion and affection — in other words, a warm congenial human being. Clearly, this was no austere prophet, dispensing judgment from a remote tower in the wilderness, with little or no social interaction with his audience. Jesus was in every way God with us, pitching his tent right alongside ours (John 1.14).

However, as we look closer at Jesus’ life and ministry, we see varying levels of relationship and interaction with people. Matthew tells us that great multitudes followed him wherever he went, attracted no doubt by the remarkable miracles and healings that attended his preaching (Matt 4.23-25; 8.1).

This level of relationship, if you can call it that, is very superficial, similar to the relationship between celebrity sports stars, actors, musicians, or (God forbid!) TV evangelists, and their fans. Jesus accused the multitudes of following him simply because of the benefits they were receiving (John 6.26). And sure enough, when he upped the ante and started talking about the cost of true commitment, many people lost interest in his ministry and went home (John 6.60, 66).

From the great multitudes that thronged him largely out of curiosity and self-interest, Jesus attracted many disciples — people with a deeper spiritual hunger who were interested in listening to and living by his words; people who wanted to embrace the new way of life he was espousing called ‘the kingdom’ (Matt 5.1-2). But as we have seen, many of ‘the many’ drew a line in the sand when it came to identifying with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (John 6.60-68).

From the many disciples that listened to his words and lived by his teachings, Jesus appointed seventy envoys to go before his face into every town and village that he planned to visit (Luke 10.1). These seventy were authorized to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the imminence of God’s reign.

From the many disciples Jesus also selected twelve apostles or special messengers, commissioned for a particular task or role. Mark describes them as being the ones whom “Jesus himself wanted”, which suggests both careful consideration and personal preference. Mark also says that Jesus appointed the twelve first and foremost “that they might be with him”, which suggests companionship and friendship as well as mentoring and training. On the basis of this companionship and friendship and mentoring and training, they were then ‘sent out’ to preach the gospel, heal the sick, and cast out demons (Mark 3.13-15).

Moreover, Jesus enlarged the apostolic team to include certain women such as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and ‘many others’ who provided critical financial support (Luke 8.1-3). These women also played a crucial role in the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 24.1-12).

From the twelve apostles, Jesus chose three close associates to be with him at some of the most poignant and pivotal moments of his life. Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain “by themselves” Matthew says, and was transfigured before them (Matt 17.1-2).

Years later Peter would recall the experience of being with Jesus on the holy mountain and of seeing Jesus’ majesty with his very own eyes (2 Pet 1.16-18). Yet for some reason it was a privilege that was not extended to the other nine apostles.

Similarly, when Jesus heard about the death of Jairus’ daughter, “he permitted no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John” (Mark 5.37). Taking the father and mother of the child and “those who were with him”, he entered the room and in an extraordinary display of grace and power, brought the little girl back to life. I wonder what the other nine apostles thought of the special treatment afforded Peter, James, and John? After all, the twelve were not above comparing themselves with one another or jostling for positions in the heavenly kingdom (Mark 10.35-41; John 21.18-22).

And in the hour of Jesus’ greatest trial as he contemplated bearing the sins of the whole world and being separated from his Father in heaven, he led his disciples to an olive orchard called Gethsemane, and said, “Sit here while I go and pray over there.” Then, taking Peter, James, and John, he went further into the orchard and implored them to keep watch with him as he agonized in prayer (Matt 26.36-38).

Yet for all this, Jesus had one intimate friend, the person who leaned on his breast at Pesach and is called “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13.23-25). Many scholars believe that John, the writer of the gospel, is referring to himself in the third person in an oblique, self-effacing way. In the painting of The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci depicts Jesus and the disciples sitting at a long table like sophisticated sixteenth century Europeans. However, as J. B. Lightfoot points out, the prevailing custom at the time of Christ was for guests to recline on divans around a low elongated table in a horseshoe configuration, with one reaching with his head to “the sinus of the girdle” of the first, and with the feet of the first at his back.

John thus occupied a position of honour next to Jesus, his body cradled or cocooned, as it were, inside of Jesus. Such a position bespeaks trust and intimacy. As the scripture indicates, John simply had to lean back towards the breast of Jesus in order to speak directly to him and to be heard only by him. But this begs the question: “Didn’t Jesus love each and every one of his disciples?” “Doesn’t the scripture teach us that God does not show partiality or favour one person above another?” “How could there be one disciple whom Jesus loved, the implication being, more than the others?”

Several hours later, as Jesus hung dying on the cross, he was surrounded by the people closest to him — his immediate family and most intimate friends. John lists them in this order: His mother (Mary), His mother’s sister (whom Mark calls ‘Salome’, and Matthew describes as ‘the mother of Zebedee’s sons’), Mary, the wife of Clopas (whom Eusebius, quoting Hegesippus, describes as the brother of Joseph, Jesus’ step-father), Mary Magdalene, and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 19.25-27).

Yet in his distress, Jesus’ chief thought was not for himself but for the welfare of his loved ones, and in particular his mother. Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved, Jesus said to Mary, “Woman, behold your son”, and to John, “Behold your mother!” As Alfred Edersheim observes, “He committed his mother to the disciple whom he loved, and established a new human relationship between him and her who was nearest to himself.” And in so doing, he “made the last provision of love in regard to those nearest to him.”

The pathos of the scene is unmistakable: Jesus the man, displaying the tenderness of a son’s love for the woman who brought him into the world … Jesus the man, displaying the need for companionship with men and women of like-minded beliefs and complementary personalities. This was no doubt a reflection of the ‘complete manhood’ of Christ and the ‘characteristic property’ of his human nature referred to in the Chalcedon statement.

But therein lies the conundrum of the incarnation, or the ‘mystery of godliness’ as Paul puts it (1 Tim 3.16): Jesus, the Son of God, loved all who came to him, without distinction or qualification; yet Jesus, the Son of Man, enjoyed a greater unanimity and a deeper rapport with John the beloved and Mary Magdalene than with the other disciples.

It’s not good for a leader to be alone

When God made the first man, Adam, he provided an insight into the communal nature of this unique being. God declared, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him” (Gen 2.18). The Hebrew word ezer, translated ‘comparable’ in the NKJV, denotes a suitable helper or a complementary partner. The Septuagint translates it this way: “a helper correspondent to himself”.

This passage is frequently cited as justification for marriage, which it undoubtedly is. However, it is also a pretext for the close friendship and intimate partnership of like-minded people who work together to fulfill a great purpose or achieve an important goal. Paul exhorted the church in Rome to “be like-minded toward one another according to Christ Jesus” in order that they may glorify God with one mind and one mouth (Rom 15.5-6). Similarly, he pleaded with the church in Corinth to all speak the same thing and to “be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor 1.10).

To illustrate the point, Paul invoked the imagery of a team of oxen, evenly yoked together and working cohesively in order to maximize their collective productivity (2 Cor 6.14-15). In science this principle is known as ‘synergy’ — the creation of a new ‘whole’ that is greater than the mere sum of its parts. The Cambridge Dictionary defines synergy as “the combined power of a group of things when they are working together that is greater than the total power achieved by each working separately”. No doubt Paul had this principle in mind when he instructed the Philippians to “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil 1.27).

It wasn’t good for Adam, the prototypical leader of humankind, to be alone back then, and it’s not good for leaders to be alone now. Reflecting on the initial success and ultimate failure of his leadership, Solomon said, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up. Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; but how can one be warm alone? Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Eccles 4.9-12).

Over the years I have watched leaders reach the top of the pyramid only to discover that they are isolated and disconnected. Although they may be surrounded by thousands of adoring fans, they have no intimate friends, no close confidantes, and no trusted advisors. After a very public fall from grace, one such preacher was asked why he didn’t turn to someone for help. He replied that “there was no one to whom he could go”. Therein lies the danger of building a high profile ministry and neglecting to develop a support network of close friends and associates.

Indeed, the more popular Jesus became with the masses, the more time he spent with the twelve, the three, and the one. And in so doing, he demonstrated the importance of building sustainable relationships in the heady environment of crisis and opportunity.

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