Proverbs 27:17 As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.
In general, the book of Proverbs is a book of truisms, maxims and aphorisms. Solomon used short, pithy sayings expressing ideas that are generally true in a broad sense or absolutely true within the narrower context in which they are used. He passed on his wisdom in this manner in order to provide for us a quick, easy and memorable format to absorb, recall and apply the great gift of wisdom he had received from God (1 Kings 4:29-30). His truisms were written for the general benefit of everyone, but apply specifically to all God’s elect.
Although the book of Proverbs as a whole presents a deep and comprehensive insight into the wisdom given to man by God, the individual aphorisms are meant to stand on their own merit and are most often independent of those before and after them. Therefore, context is not as critical an issue here as in more normative writings. For instance, vss. 16 and 18 are not directly related to vs. 17 and do not help us to interpret the verse in question.
Many of the maxims of Solomon are very practical in their application and, at the same time, are filled with deep moral and spiritual undertones (see Proverbs 27:1-2). Others are more abstract or metaphorical in their premise (such as Proverbs 27:17, 18 etc.), but still convey very important moral and spiritual truth with practical application for our daily lives. Jesus also used aphorisms in His teaching (ie., sermon on the mount).
Seen in this light, Proverbs 27:17 presents us with a metaphor, a physical example to illustrate a spiritual truth. Just as a hammer (in forging), another blade, or a file made of iron may be used to physically sharpen a knife or sword (also made of iron), so also can a person be sharpened spiritually and intellectually by another person, especially a friend. Everyday life experience teaches us that bringing together two different objects made of the same material (iron) can sharpen one, or both the objects. Likewise, if we come together spiritually and intellectually with another person, one (or both) of us will better (sharper) for the experience.
Let’s consider just one of many possible examples. Suppose someone in your church believes and is teaching what you believe to be a false doctrine. You decide to approach that person in love; love not only for him but also for God, the truth and the welfare of Christ’s church. You prayerfully and gently engage him in a discussion of the doctrine. Bible in hand, you both draw from your knowledge and understanding of scripture to make your respective cases.
If the outcome of the discussion ends up in agreement, then you have deepened your friendship as well as your now shared understanding of the doctrine. If you end the process with the same positions you began with, then at least you are better off for the debate since it forced you to look deeply at the bible and examine your own position scripturally which has now deepened your faith in the truth of the doctrine and of God’s word. At least one of you has been sharpened and improved as a result of your “rubbing against each other” intellectually and spiritually. This, I believe, is the spirit and purpose of the forum.
Even though it is true that iron sharpens iron, there is no guarantee that every conflict will end in agreement, peace, love and harmony. We are still, after all, flawed and sinful people. Our as yet unsanctified traits may encumber our ability to sharpen or to be sharpened by others. Also, there are countless examples of practical application of this truism that do not involve conflict of any kind. When two people study, pray or worship together they are both sharpened or improved by the process. Mentoring and counseling are also good examples of “iron sharpening iron.” Just like the metaphor of sharpening a blade with another blade, the process of one person sharpening another may involve risk. But, it is an effective and often necessary part of our progression toward becoming more like Jesus Christ.