A member of our congregation put to me a question in the light of some teaching on Luke 8:21, where Jesus dealt with a messenger who had come from his own relatives. These relatives wanted to speak to Jesus. ‘But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”‘ This was the question: ‘As members of the family of Jesus Christ (the REAL Royal family!!) what are our responsibilities to each other, as perhaps distinct from the responsibilities of elders and deacons within the church?’
Is our use of the designation ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ little more than a pious and superficial label, such as we use in Communion Services when we announce that ‘our brother Bill’, for example, ‘will now give thanks for the wine’?
When the Old Testament speaks of brothers it almost always has in mind either actual brothers – male siblings, sons of the same father and mother, or close kinsmen. The people of Israel regarded one another as brothers because of their physical ties. Now here is something striking: just as the majority of Old Testament references to ‘brothers’ deals with brothers who are bound by a physical tie, in the New Testament there is a similar proportion where the designation ‘brothers’ refers to brothers in the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. These verses in Luke 8 which we are considering – and very similar material is found in Matthew 12 and Mark 3 – set the tone for the rest of the New Testament.
Jesus said to the disciples in Matthew 23:8: ‘But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.’ When our Lord had risen from the dead, he said to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me’ (Matthew 28:10). There is an even more powerful and moving testimony in John’s Gospel. John 20:17: ‘Jesus said to Mary, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”‘ In Hebrews 2:11-12 we can see how it is that Jesus uses this designation for his people. ‘For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”‘ This is a quote from Psalm 22:22.
Then there is quite a striking pair of verses at the beginning of Acts, 1:14 and 1:15. Here we see something of a transition, with one use of the word ‘brothers’ giving way to the other. ‘All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled”‘, etc. And from that point on, this spiritual use of ‘brothers’ dominates the Scriptures. This is because in the Book of Acts we are seeing the church of Jesus Christ attaining its full maturity and extent. The nation of Israel was the church of the Old Testament; the worldwide church of the New Testament is the ‘Israel of God’.
Perhaps we should also note the beginning of the letter that was sent from the Jerusalem Council, Acts 15:23: ‘The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings’. This is worth quoting because it powerfully demonstrates that this title ‘brothers’ was now being applied equally to Jews and Gentiles.
Then we come to Romans 12:10: ‘Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour.’ The first eleven chapters of the letter to the Romans has been the most magnificent exhibition of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul has shown how, from a position of unanswerable sin and guilt, God’s people have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and brought into a state of peace and security with God. Romans 12 begins a new section in which Paul spells out the practical requirements of believers in this new community. For that is exactly what it is. The church is the community of the redeemed. Or, to use more Biblical language, it is the household of faith or the household of God. In Romans 12:10 this brotherly love is the mutual exercise of devotion, because we honour one another as children in the same family.
The apostles, in writing their letters, make frequent use of the address ‘brothers’ when they are exhorting the churches or individuals to whom they are writing. With Paul and with James that often happens when they are delivering an admonition! So for example, 1 Corinthians 1:10-11: ‘I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarrelling among you, my brothers.’ And also James 3:10: ‘From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.’ This gives us a powerful clue. The members of these churches needed to be reminded that they were actually brothers and sisters in order that appropriate conduct might result.
Brothers belong to the same family. Division in a church is equivalent to family break-up, but it is even more serious because the bond between the blood-bought brothers of Christ is even more precious. And so, at the beginning of 1 Corinthians, Paul’s great burden is to emphasise the terrible injury done to Christ’s church by the presence of factions and divisions.
Brothers in the same family love one another deeply. They hate to be separated. No letter in the New Testament is so permeated with brotherly love and affection than 1 Thessalonians. We are moved by Paul’s words in 2:17-18: ‘But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavoured the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you – I, Paul, again and again – but Satan hindered us.’ The saints in Thessalonica had a brotherly love for all the believers in Macedonia that was exemplary. Paul commended them for this and yet urged them to love another even more. John Chrysostom, the ‘Golden-Mouthed’ preacher of the Fourth Century, accurately summed up the gist of Paul’s language: ‘Do you see the unrestrainable madness of love that is shown by his words?’
Later in 1 Corinthians, a related issue comes to light as Paul discusses the way that ‘brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers’ (6:6). Here is something unthinkable. Family disputes are being hauled in front of the unbelieving world and played out in their presence!
And at the end of Chapter 8, Paul deals with a theme which he also treats in Romans 14, that of offending a weaker brother. In a family of several children, the elder brothers and sisters will usually shield and protect the younger. The equivalent behaviour in the church is seen in terms of giving thought to how the ‘weaker’ brother is to be cared for. In love for one another, we must do all we can to ensure that a ‘weak’ or ‘young’ believer, or anyone who is in any way vulnerable, does not stumble. Our intention and our practice must be directed towards the peace of their conscience and their sanctification.
Paul nears the end of his Second Letter to the Corinthians (13:11) with these words. ‘Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.’ The Early Church was a small, humanly vulnerable community, surrounded by a dark and pagan world. But even pagans marvelled and exclaimed, ‘See how these Christians love each other!’ We need to pray that our demonstration of brotherly love for one another, along with the declaration of God’s salvation, may be a bright and enduring testimony that will reach the people around us.
Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Shrewsbury Evangelical Church.
Living in the World 6 November 2020
This article is the contents of an address first given in February 2020 at the Westminster Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Newcastle, UK. * * * LIVING in the world. How are Christians to live in the world? The question can be answered in many ways. The topic is potentially vast in scope — that becomes more […]
When coming to consider plagues throughout history and some Christian responses, it is appropriate to begin with this extract from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: O Almighty God, who in thy wrath did send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in […]