Let brotherly love continue.
The Highest Christian Love
For Brothers and Sisters in Christ (Phil. 2:2)
In the Greek text of Hebrews, “brotherly love” immediately follows “consuming fire.” This is a striking juxtaposition of ideas, especially since the original letter did not have chapter breaks, versification, or punctuation: burning fire…brotherly love. Where the holy God is present and purging, his children love one another. Many other practical duties follow (13:1-17), but he begins with brotherly love, for it is the Christian’s highest love and the fountain of all other duties. We love our earthly family and our extended countrymen. Our hearts break for their salvation (Rom. 9:3), but our closest ties are with those whom we share the same love (Phil. 2:2). This love is thicker than earthly blood or boundaries, so that we willingly leave our own people and our father’s house in order to come to Christ (Ps. 45:10). To rebuke and challenge our inborn tribalism and family idolatry, our Lord said that “whoever loves father or mother more than me, is unworthy of me” (Matt. 10:37). He identified his mother, his brothers and sisters, as those who with them do the will of God (Matt. 12:48). He did not say these things because he devalued the fifth commandment or would have us treat our earthly connections with contempt. He clearly loved his mother and “came unto his own.” At the same time, we can have no closer ties than with those who have stood with us at the cross of our Savior, believed upon his name, been cleansed by his blood, and had our shame carried away by his suffering. These ties are sealed with his blood, and there is nothing more precious or binding.
For God So Loved the World
Never should we be surprised at the high value that God places upon love. It is the first listed fruit of the Spirit. It is the work of faith, the last emphasized motivation that led our blessed Savior to lay down his life for us (John 13:1), and the defining mark of his disciples (John 13:35). On that last night, when he might have given formulas for success in the world or esoteric teaching in the light of his imminent departure, instead he was all love – washing the disciple’s feet, including Judas’s, and giving them the new commandment to love one another. It was not new in the sense of unheard of, for Deuteronomy is one of the most loving books in the Bible. Jesus’ love command was new in that they and we now look love in the face when we look into the face of Jesus Christ – his sacrifice, his humility, his service. And behind these considerations is the majestic love of God, for it was in love that he sent his Son, who revealed all these glories of love to us. It is not that Jesus Christ changed God’s mind about us, or turned him from a vengeful Judge into a forgiving Father. No, all that Jesus Christ did, all his burden-bearing for us, his tears, his deep immersion in our pains and temptations, these were all flowing from the Father’s love. And then the cross – it was the Father’s bleeding heart of love that led him to crucify his Beloved, so that mercy and peace might meet and kiss upon the altar of satisfied justice. These were all part of “for God so loved the world.” Never can we wonder enough at his love. We must pray to know it better, to practice it more warmly, to walk in love, as Christ has loved us (Eph. 5:2).
By This All Men Will Know (John 13:35)
In the light of these clear teachings of Scripture and well-worn though no less beautiful paths of love, it is alarming that we should see so little of brotherly love, the special affection that exists among Christians because they are Christians, because they feel nothing stronger than their common attachment to Jesus Christ, have sought cleansing in his precious blood, and been raised to new life to follow him in love. Four centuries ago, John Owen wrote these words about brotherly love:
That the power and glory of Christian religion are exceedingly decayed and debased in the world. –Next unto faith in Christ Jesus, and the profession thereof, the life and beauty of Christian religion consists in the mutual love of them who are partakers of the same heavenly calling, which all pretend unto. And this is that whereon the Lord Christ hath laid the weight of the manifestation of his glory in the world, namely, the love that is among his disciples; which was foretold as the peculiar glory of his rule and kingdom. But there are only a few footsteps now left of it in the visible church; some marks only that there it hath been and dwelt of old. It is as unto its luster and splendor, retired to heaven, abiding in its power and efficacious exercise only in some corners of the world, and secret retirements. Envy, wrath, selfishness, love of the world with coldness in all the concerns of religion, have possessed the place of it. And in vain shall men wrangle and contend about their differences in opinions, faith, and worship, pretending to design the advancement of religion by an imposition of their persuasions on others; unless this holy love be again introduced among all those who profess the name of Christ all the concerns of religion will more and more run into ruin (An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Vol. XXIII in The Works of John Owen, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991, p. 383).
Love is talked about a great deal, but it is usually defined as tolerance without moral judgment, or acceptance of everyone’s self-definitions and demands, or a warm feeling about things that are important to us. This is not love but selfishness. And whenever Christians look for identity, it is usually defined by moral crusades like “save the family” or being relevant to the world, but rarely do we consider that according to Jesus Christ, brotherly love is the defining mark of Christians. This is our great crusade in the world! Our Lord has made almost the whole weight of his kingdom to rest upon brotherly love among his people. “By this, all men will know” – not by your political convictions, or how astutely you think about a host of other secondary issues, or your wealth and education, or your views on the great social issues agitating your particular time and place – but by love. This is because true Christians, those truly born again by the heavenly Spirit, have their selfishness broken before the cross. They cease seeing things after the flesh, by the appearance of things, by earthly judgments, but they see men and women in terms of their connection to Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:16-17). And then there is that deepest place of all in the Christian’s heart, that place where he has stood before the judgment seat of God, hauled his conscience before that dread seat, and seen that one thing alone can save him in the hour of his standing before the HOLY ONE: only love, only mercy, only the love of God his Father, the love of the God-man, the Son of God, who loved him to the end and bore his shame and spitting, and the love of the Spirit, whose sealing communion brings us into the holy circle of love with the Father and the Son (John 15:9-11). This is the reason that absolutely nothing distinguishes Christians from unbelievers as much as brotherly love; it also distinguishes the true from the false within the professing fold of Christ.
Why Brotherly Love Decays
Self-Love, Worldly Loves, Fleshly Loves
Brotherly love is the affection that believers nurture among themselves because they are Christians, love Jesus Christ, have a shared experience of faith in his sacrifice and intercession, and thus are bound together by enduring ties of fellowship, sharing, and service to one another. Brotherly love motivates believers to provide for one another on the one hand, and if necessary confront one another on the other. Brotherly love is a precious thing; it is illusive. When the disciples in the Upper Room should have been upholding and comforting one another with brotherly love, they were fearful, loving themselves, thinking who would be the greatest, worried about who might be the betrayer. These were their thoughts before and after the Lord showed in concrete terms what it means for us to love another – washing one another’s feet, preferring our brothers and sisters to ourselves, and doing all the good we can for one another. Clearly, brotherly love will decay now and it did that night when self-love dominates us, or worldly love for preeminence (3 John 9), or fleshly loves. All false loves drive out brotherly love and crucify it, for they ignore the crucified One and do not apply his cross that kills sin, enables self-denial, and supremely exalts others by debasing itself.
Ignorance of Love’s True Source and Significance
It might seem a little useless to encourage brotherly love to a people facing a firing squad, but the Spirit thought otherwise. Our Savior warned us that the world would hate us, but still we struggle to accept this hard reality, especially when it means loss of respect, property, and life. And then, we start doubting – is it legitimate to be a Christian? Is what I believe the truth? If we are God’s children, why are we going through these hardships? Then, the command to continue in brotherly love comes, and it is a wind blowing down from heaven’s slopes to refresh the weary pilgrim. Ah, yes! Love! This is the mark that defines me, for only believers can love in this way. John said that everyone born again loves; that without love, there is no new birth (1 John 4:7). The world may hate us, and we may be called to lay down our lives for God’s truth, but if we love one another during hard times, put one another first, bear one another’s burdens, and draw closer together the greater our trials, then we are truly God’s children. Brotherly love marks us out as having the Spirit of our Elder Brother, Jesus Christ; love marks us out as the beloved of God. His affection for his children fills their hearts with love for one another: the only lasting family connection.
Loss of Communion and Cold Hearts
Because brotherly love is heavenly, then communion with the God of love is the strength and source of brotherly love. Our Savior warned that in evil times, “the love of many will grow cold” (Matt. 24:12). He rebuked the Ephesian church, which although doctrinally astute had lost its first love (Rev. 2:4). One needs not choose love or truth; it is both, for each is found in union and communion with Jesus Christ. Thus, when brotherly love decays, when we see believers divided over secondary matters, holding grudges, slow to serve one another, more renowned for their bickering than their fellowship, you can be sure that communion with Christ has decayed. Strong communion with Christ must bear fruit in love. If we know him, if we are growing in him, we shall love one another (Gal. 5:22). Love is the defining mark of the blood-stained throng who love the Savior of love. As he loved us, so we love one another, forgive offenses, prefer one another, love to talk about eternal things with one another, and bear one another’s burdens through hardships, so that the more tears we shed the more joys we share.
When Brotherly Love Decays
Arguments and Disputes between Believers
Since love is the mark of Christians, we must guard against those occasions when brotherly love comes under attack – and if we cannot avoid such occasions, honestly, humbly, and vigilantly guard one another while they last. Any time believers dispute among themselves, we are quick to forget with whom we are disputing, if he is a believer, and for whom we are disputing, the Lord of glory and of love. He is as concerned that we “speak the truth in love” and “instruct in meekness” as he is that we “contend earnestly for the faith” (Eph. 4:15; 2 Tim. 2:25; Jude 3). If the matter is a secondary one, as they usually are today, as in matters pertaining to political economy or family preferences, then we must exercise great vigilance, lest we fall into vain wrangling, as the apostle described all such disputes about secondary matters that do not tend toward edification. And that is his test for all our words, if they would be with brotherly love – that they are with grace and tend toward the building up of the saints (1 Cor. 14:26; 2 Cor. 12:19; Col. 4:6). If all believers have a sincere desire to know the truth so that we can know God’s will and follow our Savior more closely, then we shall be ambitious for his honor, and not to win an argument. Otherwise, if we cannot control ourselves while we are speaking about God’s eternal truth, if we cannot listen carefully, as we are commanded to do, then our natural (fallen) temperament needs mortification, for the Lord and his truth will be served with loving and meek instruments. Our wrath never effects God’s righteousness, as so much of history bears sad witness (James 1:20).
Looking for Offense, Provocation, and Record Keeping
Most decline of brotherly love among professing believers is explained by the sad lack of holiness among us, which holiness we have just been strongly exhorted to pursue (Heb. 12:14). Pride of position, respect, having the last word, being thought the smartest, having one’s opinions esteemed, God resists all these forms of pride, and they are the death of brotherly love because they provoke his majesty. Without his grace taming our hearts and making us meek, we cannot die to ourselves and prefer our brothers and sisters. Pride may well be called the anti-love, as we learn from 1 Corinthians 13. One form of pride cannot forgive a wrong suffered, looks for occasions to take offense, is provoked at the slightest injury or misspeak on the part of others, and keeps a careful log of every insult received. It is no wonder that brotherly love sometimes dies first in Christian marriage, where it ought to be strong, and then the stench of that death invades the church. James told us that “in many things we offend all,” so offenses will come. The real issue is, “Shall we demand satisfaction, or shall we extend forgiveness?” Shall we be ambitious for our Savior’s honor and remember what a list of offenses he has blotted out by his blood, or shall we receive his mercy but be unforgiving toward others?
Given that brotherly love is the defining mark of Christians (John 13:35; 1 John 3:10,14), an unmistakable mark of the new birth, we must take seriously these sins, fight against them, and seek to have our Savior’s mind. If we all took Philippians 2:1-5 more seriously – seeking lowliness of mind, having the same love, preferring others to ourselves, taking the form of a servant, as the Son of God did, believers and the church as a whole would soon be marked by such fervent, self-denying, serving love, that the world would take notice that we have been with Jesus and that we are of an entirely different and heavenly order, being born again, and that we have a power unto love of which all the world’s pretended loves are nothing but the ugliest counterfeits and pale shadows.
How Brotherly Love Is Preserved
Right Estimation of Love’s Importance
Nowhere is brotherly love based upon personal affinity with another person. Believers share such a great love and mercy, a new and heavenly nature, and a common bond in Christ their Head, that they can be very different in terms of natural temperament, daily habits, and situation in life, and yet after some discussion and disclosing of their hearts, find glories of grace and oceans of love that bind them together. If this is not true of you, if you do not find that your greatest bond and love is with other Christians as Christians, as lovers of Jesus Christ, if earnest Christians tend to shy away from your company and you from theirs, then be sure that something is very wrong. A lack of brotherly love, inability to love, lack of desire or interest to serve other believers, is a spiritual disease worse than any cancer. It may be a sign that you have not been born again, for God gives brotherly love when he gives the new birth. Brotherly love is preserved when we esteem it for what it is – a heaven implanted, new nature that embraces, feels deep affection, and desires to serve those whom are loved by Jesus Christ and who profess to love him. This is all that it takes to arouse brotherly love and kindness in a healthy believer. Faith is known by its fruit, and love is faith’s first fruit. That we have strayed so far from this, trained our hearts to think of love and alignment with other believers based upon secondary matters and opinions about this world that can rarely claim the imprimatur of inspired truth, is evidence of the decline of true religion among us. In its place is substituted an idol of man’s creation – slick, persuasive, and apparently needful programs of church renewal. These can never replace the old religion and new commandment of Jesus Christ: faith working through love.
Intentional, Dogged Pursuit of Growth in Christ’s Love
In addition to recovering a conviction that love is the mark of Christians, to continue or abide in brotherly love, as we are here commanded, we must continue to grow in the love of Christ. The apostle’s prayer in Ephesians 3:17-19 shows us that we are incapable of love until our minds are illumined and our hearts enlarged to know the love of God in Christ. There is a seed of new life and of love implanted by the Holy Spirit, but it needs watering and nurturing. God must make this seed grow. And therefore, we must pray to know more of Christ’s love. He remains – and no passage of years, not a thousand millennia, diminishes his significance – our example. We must walk in love as he has loved us (John 13:14-17; Eph. 5:2). Coming to Jesus must be intentional. We must apply to him for the grace and power of his Spirit, for he has the fullness of grace and life (John 1:18; 3:34). And especially his love – the way he loved us to the end; the depths to which his love led him in order to dive into the abyss of hell and judgment; the heights to which his love has raised us, even to be the queen at his right hand in gold of Ophir – it is the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge – not ours for him, but his for us. He cannot stop loving us, for he never began loving us. The Father chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world; in love he predestined us (Eph. 1:4-5).
The more any believer thinks upon the love of Christ at Calvary, the more he will readily admit that all else he may be and do as a Christian must recede before the blinding light of his love. Why would he give his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to those who plucked off the beard? It was our shame he bore, that clothed in his shame we may never be ashamed before God but have all our stains removed and boldness in the day of judgment. What love is this! And why would he be condemned and crucified between two criminals, he who is the Judge of all, except that love led him to become sin for us so that he might bear away our sin and make us righteousness by his obedience and cleanse us from our filth by his stripes? What love is this, that we are now permitted to bathe in his wounds so that our every defilement may be cleansed away! And to hear him groaning, crying in agony as he was judicially forsaken by his Father and Judge, for the sake of sinners, enemies, vile and defiled by any hope of recovery, except that love lifted us. What are we to make of this love? We are to think of it again and again, turning it over in our minds, remembering how his love saved us, loving him for his love, and doggedly pursuing him that we may grow in him, be fruitful in him, and live in love, as Christ has loved us. This is the reason brotherly love must be continued in our midst. It flows down still from the old rugged cross. Its loving stream can never be exhausted. It is the living water that flows from the throne of God, for our Savior is loving us even now, even here, as he reveals these things to us, intercedes for us, and calls us to follow him. Let us bathe in his love, rejoice in it, wash one another’s feet in it, and show the world the power of the love that saved the world, that saved us.