“Therefore, my brethren, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, my beloved.”
– Philippians 4:1 –
Before Paul arrives at the crescendo of his exhortation to stand firm in our battle against sin, he couches that exhortation in a flood of the most warmly affectionate and tenderly endearing language found in any of his letters. And the first term of endearment that Paul uses to designate his relationship with the Philippians is brethren. Most fundamentally, Christians relate to one another as brothers and sisters. At the most basic level of our relationships with one another, we are marked by a unique, familial bond.
This designation dominates Paul’s thinking throughout his letters, especially in this letter to the Philippians. He addresses them as brethren six other times (1:12; 3:1, 13, 17; 4:8, 21). Although it’s well-used, it’s anything but just some sort of filler-word for the Apostle Paul. Sometimes I get the impression that we’ve begun to treat the term “brother” or “sister” as a sort of throw-away word, evacuated of all of its meaning. “Hey brother.” “What’s going on, brother?” But it wasn’t like that for Paul. He used the term purposefully, knowing that it would engender tenderness and affection from his readers by reminding them of their spiritual union in belonging to the family of God. On the basis of the atoning work of Christ on behalf of His people, all those who are united to the Son by faith have been adopted into the family of our Heavenly Father (cf. Gal 3:26; 4:5).
And what a wonderful picture of the fellowship that believers in Jesus have with one another: to be brothers and sisters of the same family! Our relationship to one another is not based upon common interests or shared hobbies. We’re not merely a social club or a political organization linked by superficial commonalities. We are objectively united to one another, by virtue of the electing work of the Father (Eph 1:5), the redemptive work of the Son (Gal 4:5), and the regenerating work of the Spirit (Rom 8:15). We’re a family. And a family is not merely a group of people with some shared interests and a subjective appreciation for one another. No, brothers and sisters are bound together by something much deeper than that: by the objective union that exists as a result of the love shared by their parents. And that objective reality that binds us together means that we will always be there for one another. I have two younger brothers, and we’ve had our share of tensions and arguments (and all-out fights). But no matter what happens in our lives, we will never stop being brothers. That objective bond is unbreakable.
And the same is true within the family of God. There may be tensions and disagreements that exist between us and our brothers and sisters in Christ. But just as nothing can separate us from the loving union that we share with Christ individually, neither can anything separate us from the union that we share with one another, corporately. And so whatever subjective disunity exists between us, we can fight for unity, and reconciliation, and oneness with one another, standing on the solid foundation of our objective unity as children of God.
One of the greater blessings during my time in seminary came when there was a potential conflict in my life. I actually don’t remember much at all about what that particular threat was, but I do remember speaking to a then-fellow seminary student about it. We had gotten to know each other through seminary and because we lived in the same apartment complex. As I spoke with him about whatever it was that was troubling me, he assured me that if I needed his help at all that I could come running, day or night. And then he looked up at me and said, “You’ve got family.” That really struck me. And it really stuck with me. Maybe it was especially because my wife and I didn’t have any blood-family out here on the West Coast at the time. But the sense of belonging, and security, and strength in numbers was just so comforting and reassuring to me that I praised God for giving such a loving, familial bond to His children.
Dear reader, that kind of brotherly and sisterly bond needs to mark our relationship with one another in the body of Christ. We need to be able to look at one another in the eye—from the darkest of trials to the smallest of conflicts—and reassure one another that, “You’ve got family,” that “You belong with me, and I’m here for you whenever you need me.”
And it doesn’t matter what diversity of circumstances and backgrounds we’ve come from. There’s no room in the family of God for an attitude that exalts natural, superficial distinctions over and against the supernatural, spiritual unity that belongs to every brother and sister in Christ. Like, “Oh, I prefer not to hang out with those people because they don’t understand my cultural heritage.” Or, “. . . because they’re so much younger or older than me.” Or, “. . . because they don’t have young children and I’m at the stage of life where I need people who are sharing my experiences.” The Gospel trumps all of that!
Remember where Paul was coming from. He was circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin! A Hebrew of Hebrews and a Pharisee of Pharisees (Phil 3:5–6)! As Paul penned those words he could remember a time all too clearly when the only thing he would have called the pagan Philippians was uncircumcised dogs. He even would have looked down on Jewish proselytes—and even fellow Israelites who didn’t belong to that strictest sect of the Pharisees. But because of the marvelous work accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross—because of the sovereign work of God in snatching Paul from the blindness of his Judaism and snatching the Philippians from the blindness of their paganism—and opening all of their eyes to the ugliness of their sin and the unspeakable glory of Jesus, granting to them a common faith in this crucified and risen Lord—they are now brethren; they are now brothers and sisters in Christ.
And so no matter what distinctions might exist between you—whether ethnic and cultural backgrounds, levels of education, age and circumstances of life, shared interests and hobbies, and even degrees of spiritual maturity—the reality of our common adoption into the family of God puts us all on a level. The things which we now have in common with one another as we share in Christ far outweigh any differences between us.
We are sinners, born under God’s just wrath and condemnation. We are undeserving recipients of the Father’s gracious, electing love. We are rebels for whom the sinless son of God has gone to the cross and rose from the dead in order to pay for our sins and provide our righteousness. We are hostile enemies overcome by the effectual and irresistible work of the Spirit to grant life and faith in our hearts. And having been justified by that faith that was given to us as a free gift, we have been adopted into the family of God. And those shared realities far outweigh any worldly differences that exist between us. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free man, neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
May God grant that we grasp the implications of what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ.