As we come to the end of this epistle, we see that the author is closing with a number of brief yet important imperatives and reminders. The great burden of the argument of the epistle is concluded. And yet even though there is one main concern that is pursued throughout the pages of this letter (preventing apostasy from faith in Christ), the pastoral heart of its author cannot let himself end without encouraging them here at the end on a wide array of issues that concern the living out of the Christian faith in day-to- day life.
Verse 1 says, “Let brotherly love continue.” These words are simple yet profound. It is a short, terse sentence, and yet it contains an imperative of the greatest magnitude. This is of course tied in a very important sense to the rest of this epistle. In the chapters up to this point, they have been encouraged to continue in the faith. Here, in this verse, the believers are now being encouraged to let their love to one another continue. And the connection, which we have in some sense already seen, is that perseverance in the faith is really impossible apart from persevering in our love for people in the church. If you don’t have that kind of brotherly love, you will never be able to live out Heb. 3:13 or 10:24. People who stop loving other believers probably won’t last long in the faith.
These three verses here at the beginning of Hebrews 13 are really all about loving those who are in the household of faith. Verse 1 is an explicit command to love the brothers. But verses 2 and 3 go on to give some concrete examples of how this is to play out in the day-to-day life of the church. So verse 2 tells us to practice hospitality, to “be not forgetful to entertain strangers.” Now this almost certainly is a reference to other believers that we don’t know, for example, to travelling evangelists. Thus the apostle John commended his friend for doing this very thing: “Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and to strangers; Which have borne witness of thy charity before the church: whom if thou bring forward on their journey after a godly sort, thou shalt do well: Because that for his name's sake they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we might be fellowhelpers to the truth” (3 John 5-8).
And then the author encourages them to practice this hospitality because by doing so they are putting themselves in the position of receiving unexpected blessings from God: “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” He is probably thinking there of Abraham entertaining the angels in Genesis 18. However, I don’t think the point is that every time we welcome a guest, we should hope it’s an angel. Rather, the point is that Christian hospitality becomes a sacrament, in the sense that it becomes a channel of God’s grace and blessing. You don’t have to have angels for that to happen. And as someone who grew up in a home that was always very welcoming and hospitable, I can attest to the blessing that I received growing up in that environment. We should all aspire to the same.
Then in verse 3, you have another way that love to the brothers works its way out in practical terms: “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves in the body.” This is illustrated quite well in 10:34; they had been this way, but they needed to be called back to it. They are being called to be like Onesiphorus, who sought Paul out when he was in Rome and was not ashamed of his chains (2 Tim. 1:16-18). In particular, they are being called to sympathy: “as being yourselves in the body.” Those who are mistreated, who are imprisoned, are suffering bodily. And the point is that they should regard with sympathy those who are suffering, and to be moved by their sufferings so that they will readily and willingly and courageously meet their needs.
A way to put this in perspective is to look at this from the vantage point of Matthew 25. Jesus commends the righteous for feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and taking in strangers, and visiting the prisoners (25:34-36). What is our Lord doing there? He is commending them for loving the brethren, and the way that love is manifested was in these very concrete ways. By the way, I think it is important to point out that “the least of these” is a reference, not to society in general, but to the children of God, to those for whom the kingdom of God has been prepared before the foundation of the world. So our Lord really is commending them for doing Heb. 13:1, and the way he commends them is by pointing out deeds that fit into the categories of 13:2-3.
This is a command, not a suggestion. And though it is clear that the Christian does not need to be taught how to love (1 Thess. 4:9), we still need to be encouraged to love because we are apt, in our sin, to sabotage this fruit of the Holy Spirit through selfishness and worldliness. Andrew Murray’s melancholy comment is unfortunately still true: “The command of our text reminds us of how love may wax cold, and how it may be sadly wanting in the church. In divisions and separations, in indifference and neglect, in harsh judgments and unloving thoughts – alas, how little has Christ’s church proved that it has its birth from the God of love, that it owes its all to Him who loved us, gave us the new commandment of love, and asked us to prove our love to him by bestowing it on the brethren.”
So that is what I want to do: I want this message to be a message to myself and to all of us to encourage us to love our brothers and sisters in Christ. To that end, I want to consider the following three points: the importance of brotherly love, the identity of brotherly love, and finally the inculcation of brotherly love.
The importance of brotherly love
Brotherly love is important, first, because it is an exhortation from the lips of our Lord. Our Lord said to his disciples, and to us through them, “These things I command you, that ye love one another” (Jn. 15:17). In fact, he had earlier said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (13:34-35). I think this is why the apostle James calls the law of love the “royal law” in James 2:8. It is royal because it is a command issued from the throne of the King of the universe. To reject this is essentially to reject Christ. And so it is a fundamental contradiction when someone says that they love Jesus but then turns around and hates their brother or sister in Christ.
Second, not only brotherly love, but love in general, is important because love is of the essence of virtue. What I mean by this is that the Scriptures teach that love is the chief and underlying element in every virtue. Without love, you have nothing. Isn’t this what the apostle Paul said? “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-3). It is why love is “the bond of perfectness” (Col. 3:14). Curtis Vaughan explains, “Love is the perfect bond in the sense that it embraces and completes all the other virtues.” It is the thread that is entwine throughout the entire fabric of the Christian ethic. Without love, our ethic falls apart like a garment poorly sewed together.
It is why the apostle exhorts the Corinthians, that church that had been rent apart by sad divisions, “Let all your things be done in charity” (1 Cor. 16:14). Not some things, not most things, but all things. It is why Paul calls love “a more excellent way” (12:31), because all our spiritual gifts are pretty much worthless without it. Love must therefore permeate all that we do; it must be the atmosphere in which we live. It is why in Heb. 6:10 the labor of Christian service is called a labor of love. It is why Paul says that this one command, to love our neighbor as ourselves (Rom. 13:8-10) summarizes all the law. As William Hendrickson put it, “Love is the lubricant that enables all the other virtues to function smoothly.”
Brothers and sisters, there are a lot of things to be concerned about when it comes to being a church. But one of the most important things of all is loving one another. If this is the essence of our virtue, let it therefore be the chief concern of our hearts. Let us be diligent to show love to one another. Let us not simply say it, let us actually live it out. Let us not love in word only, but in deed and in truth (1 Jn. 3:18).
Third, this love is the evidence of true Christianity. This is one of the great concerns of the apostle John in his first epistle: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him. Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth. And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him” (1 Jn. 3:14- 19).
It must be this way, because the God who regenerates us, who gives us new life in Christ, is by his very nature love. Why is this relevant? It is relevant because as Peter puts it, we are being made “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4); to be born of God must at least mean that we are being made partakers of his nature (in terms, of course, of his communicable attributes). And if God’s nature is a nature of love, how can we legitimately say we are born again if we are fundamentally unloving? This is precisely how John goes on to reason: “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth God; for God is love” (1 Jn. 4:7-8).
But we must go further: we will not only be loving; we will love the brethren in particular. You see, you can’t get away with saying you are a loving person, but this or that particular believer over there is just unlovable. No, you can’t do that. Why? Because if you are born of God, you are going to love what God loves and love who God loves (and also hate what God hates): “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments” (1 Jn. 5:1-2).
Now this is so serious that Christ told the church at Ephesus that though they were doing a good job at staying busy for him and combatting heresy and hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans, yet the fact that they had left their first love meant that unless they repented their candlestick was going to be removed (Rev. 2:1-8). They knew how to hate but they didn’t know how to love. Now, as I’ve already said, there are some things we must hate. “Abhor that which is evil” (Rom. 12:9). “Ye that love the LORD, hate evil” (Ps. 97:10). Yet if you can only hate the evil but can’t love the brethren, there is something terribly wanting. Love is the evidence of true Christianity and of a true church.
Fourth, love is the element essential to fellowship. This is the point of Eph. 4:1-3, which we looked at recently, so I won’t linger here. Let me just remind you that an essential element to keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is doing verse 2: “With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love.”
Very well, hopefully we all agree that love is important, and in particular, the love of the brethren. It’s important because it is an exhortation from the lips of the Lord, the essence of virtue, the evidence of the new birth, and the element essential to fellowship in the church. Let us next consider the identity of brotherly love.
The identity of brotherly love
But what do we mean by this? I think on some level every true Christian really does know on an intuitive level what it means to be loving (cf. 1 Thess. 4:9). However, sometimes it can be helpful to set the definition of it before us so that we can more carefully evaluate our own attitudes and actions. So for the sake of clarity I offer the following definition: love is the delightful commitment to the happiness of another. I say it this way because the pattern for Christian love is the love of Christ, and this seems to me to be an accurate description of Christ’s love for his church. And this is important because the basis of brotherly love is adoption into the family of God, and that only happens because we are united to the Son of God by faith (Jn. 1:12). Our love depends on Christ even to exist, and it should not therefore surprise us that it should therefore be modeled after him as well. What then does our Lord’s love look like?
First of all, it is characterized by radical commitment. Commitment is certainly a crucial aspect of love – this can be seen in the fact that his love is always characterized by sacrifice (Eph. 5:1-2, 25-27). But it is not just the willingness to sacrifice for the object of one’s love; it is also a delightful commitment. For our Lord did not come because he had to but because he wanted to (Jn. 10:18). He is the Good Shepherd, not a hireling. Our Lord loves his sheep and willingly gives his life for them. No one can separate them from his love (Rom. 8:28-39).
But it’s more: it’s the delightful commitment to the happiness of another. Now it is important to note that I am using the word happiness here in the more objective sense of what is for one’s ultimate and eternal good. God works all things for the good of his people because he loves them. His people are truly blessed, and he showers blessings upon them because he loves them. The Beatific Vision, the seeing the glory of God in the presence of Christ is the apex of blessing, and this is what he gives us through his sacrifice for us, because he loves us.
So when we think about what it means to love others, we want to be like Christ. He loved us graciously, sacrificially, and willingly. We want to love like he loved, as far as it is possible for us to do so. It means that we will aim to be committed, to the point of sacrifice if necessarily, and yet happily so, for the good of my brother or sister.
And if you want to see how this works itself in very practical terms, we can come back to verses two and three. In verse 2, love works itself out through hospitality, especially to strangers. And that means the willingness to open up our homes, our cupboards, and our schedules to others. And it means the willingness to do it for strangers, for those whom we aren't close to, whom we aren't necessarily most comfortable around.
Now I know there are wise and unwise ways to do this. This is not an exhortation to be foolish or unwise stewards of what God has given us. But if you cannot think of a scenario in which you would be willing to open up your home to other believers, then the implication of this text is that you or not loving in a biblical sense. In fact, we ought to be happy and willing to be this way. And God doesn't let introverts off here: this is for all of us, no matter what our personal inclinations are.
Then there is verse 3: loving the prisoners. Now, I do believe in prison ministry, and am happy for those who do this sort of thing. I am also happy for ministries like Voice of the Martyrs who try to support and minister to those who are suffering around the world for the name of Christ. These are good ministries, and worthy of your support. But the application here, as I indicated earlier, is a willingness to sympathize with those of the household of faith who are suffering so that we are willing to meet their needs, no matter how difficult that might be for us.
To see this, we note that those in chains here in Heb. 13:3 are fellow believers. They are there languishing in a prison, and in the first century many of their personal needs would have needed to be met through the care of family, and in this case, the church. However, the problem was that this exposed those ministering to them to imprisonment themselves, not to mention assaults on their reputations and reproach and other persecutions. This in turn would have presented such people with the temptation to avoid being seen with them and thus to refuse to take care of them. And that is what they are being told they must not do at all costs.
The application, then, for us is that we don’t just minister to those whose needs are easy to meet, or who impose no burden on our lives. We are to be willing to go, as it were, to places that we don’t want to go, to help people who can’t help themselves but whose help imposes tremendous burdens on our lives. The Christian who lives out the principles of this text not only does this but does it willingly. They show mercy without grudging and with cheerfulness (Rom. 12:8).
We can also fill this out in terms of the “one anothers” of the New Testament epistles. In other words, if we will love one another (Jn. 13:24; 15:12, 17) by preferring one another (Rom. 12:10), receiving one another (15:7), serving one another (Gal. 5:13), bearing one another’s burdens (6:2), forbearing with one another (Eph. 4:32), forgiving one another (Col. 3:13), admonishing one another (3:16), comforting one another (1 Thess. 4:18), edifying one another (5:11), consider one another (Heb. 10:24), and exhorting one another 10:25).
Or another way to put shoe-leather on this, so to speak, is to look at love in terms of 1 Cor. 13:4-7. I don’t know about you, but sometimes Paul’s description of love here is like a splash of cold water in the face if you really are serious about implementing what he is saying here. For example, one of the very first things he says here is the love suffers long and is kind (4). I think some people need to just stop there and focus on that for a few months. Are you kind? Of course Paul is not saying that kindness is love, but he is saying if you are loving you will be a kind person. Am I? These are good questions to ask of oneself. Do people consider me to be a kind person? Paul goes on to say that love is not envious, isn’t arrogant or boastful, it isn’t rude (“doth not behave itself unseemly”), isn’t selfish or doesn’t insist on its own way, isn’t irritable and easily provoked, isn’t resentful (“thinketh no evil”). This is a really good checklist because we can sometimes think we are loving persons and yet if we are constantly irritable and rude and unkind, well then, Paul is saying that you are not in fact a loving person really at all.
And I think where you start out is by thinking about your own home. Does your spouse think you are these things? Do your children?
As we close this point, let me note a few final characteristics of Christian and brotherly love. It is to be “without hypocrisy” (Rom. 12:9), for God knows our hearts. It is to be genuine and authentic. It is to be fervent and earnest (1 Pet. 2:22; 4:8). Our love is neither to be half-hearted, nor is it to be like a shooting star, else it is false love. Brothers and sisters, let us love one another with a pure heart fervently; let us let brotherly love continue.
The inculcation of brotherly love
So what are we to do with this? Well, we don’t want to assume that we are where we ought to be. We can all be certain that there is room for us to grow. Sin is selfishness, and as long as we are sinful, we will be selfish. And that means that we will for all our lives this side of heaven be battling the tendency to love ourselves but not others.
I like the way the apostle Paul put it to the Thessalonians. He said, “But as touching brotherly love, ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another. And indeed ye do it toward all the brethren which are in all Macedonia: but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more” (1 Thess. 4:9-10). If you are a believer, you have been taught by God to love the brethren. But Paul does not reason from that to say that they didn’t need any further encouragement to love others. No, he beseeches them to love the brethren more and more. In the same way, we need to have this attitude. No matter where we are at, we need to increase in our love our fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord and to love them more and more.
How then do we do this? How do we go about the inculcation of brotherly love? Let me close with three brief exhortations. First, pursue personal communion with Christ. Be filled with his love. Meditate on his mercy. Read his word and spend time in prayer. To be like the Lord you must first be with the Lord.
Second, pursue purposeful commitment to the Church. Spend time with the saints. Worship with them. Be discipled by and with them. Meet their needs and allow them to meet yours. You can’t love people you are unwilling to be around.
Third, pursue a perpetual caution against those habits of the mind which tend to stifle love. Two of the greatest enemies are pride and selfishness, which are stems of the same sinful weed which, if allowed, will wrap its roots around the flower of love and choke it until it dies.
Brothers and sisters, let us love one another; let us increase in it more and more.
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