We live in a society that is highly individualized. The tax department does not recognize families with breadwinners, but they recognize men and women who either work or do not. Social institutions do not offer one standard package, but deliver custom-made care. Soups, desserts, condiments, household articles: they are available in various types and brands. Mankind consists of customers who judge everything according to their own interest and taste.
I deliberately mention negative and positive aspects of this individualization alternately, as it is a development with harmful effects but also with some merit.
The same goes for our church life. In the church as well there is a new focus on personal distress and a personal experience of faith. Slogans and stereotypes are not accepted anymore. Joy and problems have to be taken seriously.
At the same time our attention is also turned to the drawbacks, for what is left of the connections and the unity of moral choices? Don’t we see members of the church growing apart? Is not everyone doing what is good in his own eyes? In what way can we be addressed all together? The one congregation falls apart into groups. “Progressives” and “conservatives” attack each other from their own positions and seem to be less and less on speaking terms with one another. Ecclesiastical decisions are judged according to whether they agree with one group or the other.
In this situation the commandment to brotherly love is of great importance.
“Let brotherly love continue” (Hebrews 13:1). Or as another translation says, “Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters,” because this is also about the love towards the sisters.
Which brothers (and sisters) are meant here? For that we have to turn to Hebrews 2. Those brothers are first mentioned there. It refers to “brothers” who are all children of the same father: children of Abraham, children of the covenant, children of God. Not only are they brothers of one another. Hebrews 2 says that they are also brothers of Christ. That is what they are called: his brothers. Christ has become like his brothers in everything—except for sin—to make atonement for the sins of the people, his brothers.
Those are the brothers that are referred to in our text: the church family. As Christ sings in Psalm 22:22, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” “My brothers”—that is, the congregation, the congregation of Christ. They are the brothers and sisters of Christ. When in the church the word “brother” or “sister” is used, we consider such a person to be our brother or sister. But according to Hebrews 2 the word “brother” has an even deeper meaning. Not only: you and I belong together. But also: you belong to Christ! That is how I see you: as a brother, a sister of Christ! You too are someone for whom Christ came into the world and for whom he has done his work. “Brother” is more than “friend” or “buddy”! Behind our “brothers and sisters” we see Christ!
That in the church we are brothers and sisters of Christ is not our own choice or our own doing; it is his gift. Hebrews 2 states that Christ is not ashamed to call us brothers. He made us his brothers. It is his choice, his work. We are his brothers, because we live under his gospel, his rule. Brotherhood and brotherly love is therefore not a matter of accidental and superficial encounters. It is a real bond, which has been laid by Christ and has to be maintained by his power. Christ does not gather individual believers. He takes us up into his family, his congregation, in which we are connected in love.
It is therefore not a matter of whether I judge someone to be good enough to call him “brother,” but whether Christ calls someone his brother! Whether Christ has come for him too, to save him. For those brothers of Christ are not such impressive persons in themselves. They are people for whom Christ had to come from heaven to earth and for whom he had to die. They are people like…me.
Not a Group, But the Church
We do not choose our brothers; Christ determines that. That is now exactly the difference between “a group” and “the church.” A group is a gathering of people among whom it “clicks”: you have the same hobbies, or you dislike the same things, or you are “wired” the same way. You feel attraction to one another, you chose one another.
That is different in the “church.” There you find people with different characters, who experience things completely differently. Sometimes they even have awkward experiences with one another. They did not choose one another, but they have been given to one another by Christ. He binds them together despite their differences. Their unity is not unity of feeling or opinion, but of faith. No unity in some disposition, but in Christ.
Becoming part of a group is a choice that you make. But your brothers and sisters have been received from Christ. The love for them is a matter of grace and faith. You may not find them nice, but you do love them. Sometimes you do not understand that yourself! There could be all kinds of matters between you and the other, but still, Christ’s Spirit binds you together. Not because of what you make of it yourself, but because of your place in God’s covenant: together you are under God’s promises and under his charge. That is fundamental; it goes deeper than sympathy and is stronger than antipathy.
No High-Handed Selection
Brotherly love does not choose. Of course it is not possible to be close friends with everyone in the church. Nowhere does the Bible disapprove of special friendships; consider the closeness of the friendship that existed between David and Jonathan!
But that refers then to “friends” and not to “buddies.” The Bible disapproves of all nepotism and the forming of cliques. No favouritism for “buddies,” and reject everything from “the other side”!
“Let brotherly love continue.” It is a serious warning against any forming of groups or group mentality within the church. Don’t crawl together according to your own preferences. Don’t push yourself away from other groups in the congregation. Don’t stay away from lawfully called ministers. Continue to focus on Christ and on all those whom the Father has given him. In the church there is more at stake than feeling comfortable and connected. In the church we together form the body of Christ. In the church we are all different. You can deal easily with the one, but with the other it is extremely difficult and you have to overcome quite a bit.
Still, however many we are, however multi-coloured and multifarious we are: we form one body. Not a failed fusion of two or more groups who keep track of how much of “their culture” will be adopted or rejected. Not a holding of different groups, but a congregation/body of Christ: one faith, one baptism, one Lord; all brothers and sisters of him.
Matter of Faith
Christ binds us together. All brotherly love is his gift.
Both promise and demand require faith. Christ’s Spirit and Word are needed to bring us there. Every time again, for whoever believes does not suddenly become someone who will never cause any sorrow to his brothers and sisters anymore. We know better than that! How often are feelings being hurt, also inside the church! How loveless things can be done within the church. How difficult it then becomes to still continue to speak and act! Satan enjoys inciting people in the church against one another, spreading gossip, and causing strife! And due to our sinful nature, he succeeds too often. A text like Hebrews 13:1 is not superfluous: brotherly love does not perpetuate itself automatically. It really needs to be summoned up.
However, it is important how we are willing to come to that love. For that we have to go back to the source! To Christ, who gave us to one another and who died for the loveless behaviour from ourselves and our brothers and sisters. We have to allow his Spirit to work in our lives. Then we should listen to his word; that should inspire us! We should look at the Lord’s Supper. Together we sit at the table of the Lord. Despite all the differences and mutual difficulties, we taste the same grace and confess the same Lord. Christ shed his blood for our brotherly love! It is important that we keep that in mind all the time. Brotherly love does not find its origin in the opinion that everybody has the right to lead his own life and to make his own choices. Brotherly love is not a matter of pluralism or acceptance of each other’s autonomy. Brotherly love in Scripture is the fruit of the gospel, the fruit of faith!
That is why so often these two are found together: love and faith (John 15:7-12; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Peter 1:22). Real love is a fruit of faith, not its competitor. Therefore, you may never exchange the demand of love for the demand to abide by the truth and live according to God’s commandments. This is the love given by God: that we know him and abide by his commandments (1 John 4:7; 5:3).
Whoever loves his brothers and sisters does not push the word of the Lord aside, but rather listens together with his brothers and sisters to those who come with the word of the Lord, and submit to that (Hebr 13:17) and is not led away by diverse and strange teachings (Hebrews 13:9).
But it is the other way around too: no faith and truth without love! You don’t cut it with a “personal faith.” The Lord demands “brotherly love” as well. Have a heart for the brothers and sisters in the congregation of the Lord. Faith and individualism do not go together!
Such brotherly love never comes all by itself. It is always accompanied. Not accompanied by indifference for the doctrine, but accompanied by confessional loyalty, by a life in obedience to what the Lord says, by the growing knowledge of the Lord, by self-denial and reverence for the Lord.
Brotherly love is not the same as “romantic” or “idyllic” love.
If there is one thing that stands out in the letter to the Hebrews, it is that their life was anything but sunny and idyllic. It is hard as a rock. They are pilgrims—not at rest, but still on their way. Facing danger every day, even attacked and robbed.
More than once in the letter to the Hebrews there is a reference to the journey of Israel through the desert to Canaan, a journey full of hardships. That is how the “Hebrews” are on their way, nowhere at home, foreigners everywhere, roaming around without a homeland, with enemies wherever they go. They are ill-treated, imprisoned, robbed. Their journey is a race.
In such a situation one would say: those people have enough to deal with! But they receive the assignment: keep loving your brothers and sisters! Don’t think only about your own life, do not neglect to show hospitality (verse 2). Be hospitable and offer shelter to your brothers. In their misfortune do not forget the command of brotherly love!
Showing Your Colours
Be hospitable. That sounds easy but it really isn’t! For the brothers to whom you had to offer shelter were brothers who were persecuted because of their faith. And to take a fugitive into your house is risky. What if they find your person-in-hiding!
The same goes for verse 3: “Remember those in prison.” In some countries you can just pay a visit to the jail. When you abide by the times and rules, nobody will bother you. But in the time of Hebrews 13, when you visited someone who was jailed because of his faith, you showed your colours, and one knew you to be a Christian as well.
Then, in verse 4 and on, we read: Show love for your fellow Christians, in your married life, as well as in your dealings with money and goods. Hold marriage in honour; keep the marriage bed undefiled. Be unselfish and content with what you have. In other words, be recognized as a Christian. Distinguish yourself from the people who live for fun and pleasure, for money and career.
Therefore, the brotherly love of Hebrews 13 is something other than love without colour. It is a love that can be recognized as Christian love. Not a cheap love, but one that makes clear choices, even when it is dangerous.
Hospitality, unselfishness, open-handedness: those are virtues that make you available for people who are vulnerable, who are imprisoned, or who are on the run. Who seem not to be able to go anywhere. Who need safety and refuge. You are there for them, you understand their sorrows, you read their signals, and then you don’t reason from your own situation but understand what they cannot do and you help them therein.
This brotherly love is not bent on retribution or economical gain. You don’t focus on those who might bring you honour, but on those who do not count in the world: the persecuted ones. They are not the smart guys—influential governors or financial sponsors you would like to have in your social circle. I don’t condemn social networking in itself, but brotherly love is more! In that you follow Christ, who was rich but became poor, for enemies and the wicked.
“Let brotherly love continue.” That does not mean: only be there for one another and help each other against dangers from outside. In the whole of the letter to the Hebrews it also means: continue to journey together as pilgrims. Make sure that no one stays behind or loses the right path. Stay together and follow the Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, the founder and perfecter of the faith. Continue to inspire one another to throw overboard the ballast of sin and to move ahead with new encouragement, in love and good works.
So, brotherly love is also exhorting others to be obedient. Some connect love and noncommittal behaviour together. Love is: to leave the other person free to determine his own way. A council that exercises discipline is seen as coming from the dark ages. But Scripture states: you are without love if you allow a brother or sister to go a path other than the path of the Lord. Exhort them. Let no one lag behind or miss the prize. Exhort one another. Don’t leave that up to the council or to the elders. It is not the “official love” (love from office bearers) that should remain, but the brotherly love. You really don’t hinder an office bearer when you address sin or when you try to bring back a brother or sister from the path that leads astray.
But let us exhort them in a brotherly manner. Do not point out the truth in an unloving way, not breaking one another down, but building up; not cutting down, but rather make sure that the other gets to stand up firmly on his feet again. Don’t gossip, but strengthen each other’s weak knees and hands. Let us not watch over our own honour and rights, but for the salvation of the brother, the sister.
We are on our way together. When you are in a lifeboat together in a flying storm, you don’t stop someone else’s breathing or throttle him. At such a time you need one another, you encourage one another, you help one another out.
In the church we are on our way together. There, one thing counts: to keep each other alert and to journey together! Follow Christ towards the eternal wedding feast. Then “a” pleasant atmosphere in the church does not suffice. Then “the” brotherly love must remain. Where there is that love, the odour of Christ fills the church, and it is good to be there.
You need an open eye for this brotherly love; illuminated eyes of faith.
The Spirit must first open your eyes to the deep connection which is in your faith. For what we see are people, who often do quite human—and sometimes even petty and inhuman—things, which bother us. You have to learn to see past these things and see the Lord—see what you share in Christ with these people. Only once you see Christ, who is always the same (verse 8), can the brotherly love remain, sealed as it is in Christ’s blood!
But then you also need to have an open eye for the world in which you live. If you are together in a small, closed-off room, without knowing what happens outside and what you have to do, the boredom soon arrives and it will become stale inside. The irritations will grow and the brotherly relations will suffocate. When you don’t know the Christian alienation (Hebrews 11) anymore and you move around in your own small circle, you will concern yourself about futilities. Then you can quarrel about all kinds of things. But once you have devoted yourself to one another and know that you depend upon one another as pilgrims in a world where mortal enemies are threatening, you come together. Fellowship grows in danger!
New Year’s Wish
“Let brotherly love continue.” Love is more than a matter between Christ and my own soul. It also is more than basking in the glory of the nice things from the past or of the high points in our church history. Christ does not remain in the past; he is the same, yesterday and today and forever. His brothers must continue to love one another.
You need an open eye for that. You should see more than the situation of today. For that, you need to see Christ. For that you have to distinguish what kind of world we live in.
That means: come to church and let yourself be instructed about him. Meet him and sit at his table and taste his love (Hebrews 10:19-25). It also means: search the Scriptures together. Not alone at home or in superficial contacts, but in church and in study societies. Brotherly love does not assume a superficial relationship, but a real bond.
In addition it means: have an eye for the time in which you live. Distinguish which trends and tendencies are trying to separate you from the host of pilgrims you belong to. Search where in this world the track of Christ is found. Talk about that together, at home, in study society, in conversations.
Assist one another to continue to see the Lord and to remain on the right track. Together, under God’s promise and commandment. That is true brotherly love.
That is my prayer for you in this new year. This message is much needed in a time of individualization.