Closer Than a Brother

What it means to be God’s beloved

When your grandmother is the church pianist, you spend a lot of time sitting in the front pew, waiting for her to finish chatting after Sunday services. More than once, I heard someone thank “Sister Sybil” for her willingness to play and her husband, “Brother Boyce,” for all he did as a deacon. The terms always sounded strange to my little ears, downright jarring in fact. After all, I knew what a brother was. I had an annoying little one at home who dogged my every step and—despite many passionate entreaties—refused to watch Sesame Street.

“When your grandmother is the church pianist, you spend a lot of time sitting in the front pew, waiting for her to finish chatting after Sunday services.”
 

The terms “brother” and “sister” in a religious setting never felt familial to me, but the first time a pastor referred to the congregation as beloved, well, that was something altogether different. The word resonated inside my 7-year-old heart and left me with a warm and comfortable feeling deep in my belly, as if I’d eaten a bowlful of soup on a cold evening. I left church that afternoon still savoring the sensation, trying to hold on to it long as I could.

Now that I’m older and have been well schooled in the particulars and peculiarities of the English language, I think I understand why beloved struck me the way it did. Words have both a denotation and a connotation. The first is the formal definition, the one you’ll find when you look up a term up in the dictionary. The second is a bit more nebulous (and all the more delightful as a result). A word’s connotation refers to the associations or emotions that are connected to it.

Think of it this way. The terms frugal and stingy both describe how a person is with money, but which one would you rather be called? The first one, of course. It conjures up images of a person who is fastidious and economical. The second is not so kind. It connotes tightfistedness, a reluctance to share or spend, much like Ebenezer Scrooge before his transformational three-spirit visit on Christmas Eve.

“The word resonated inside my 7-year-old heart and left me with a warm and comfortable feeling deep in my belly, as if I’d eaten a bowlful of soup on a cold evening.”

When it comes to beloved, the connotations are overwhelmingly positive. One who enjoys such status is esteemed and cherished, perhaps even venerated by a group or individual. The word beloved speaks of an intense connection of depth and constancy rather than young, passionate affection or short-lived fancy. It is a word reserved for a person who is truly known and closely held to the heart of another.

 

What’s in a Name?

Consider the many terms used in the Bible for believers. Collectively, we’re referred to as the church (Eph. 5:29), brethren (Phil. 4:8), children of God (1 John 3:1), partakers (Heb. 3:1), and the bride, the wife of the Lamb (Revelation 21:9). However, the most common term for followers of Jesus is saints. There are roughly 60 uses of the word in the New Testament. (See Acts 9:32, 1 Corinthians 1:2, and Eph. 4:12 for examples.) All of these names are wonderful and distinct—filled with theological and emotional significance—but there’s an additional component to beloved that sets it apart.

The adjective translated as “beloved”—the Greek term agapétos—is derived from agapé and means “divinely loved” or “loved by God.” It has two distinct applications. The first is the title for the Messiah, the One who is beloved by God above all others (Matt. 17:5). And the other is a title for Christians, those cherished by Christ and one another. That is why Paul, John, James, Jude, and especially Peter (who uses the term five times in 2 Peter 3 alone) apply the term liberally to those on the receiving end of their epistles. Neither generic, sterile greetings nor folksy terms will do between believers—“those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:1).

But what makes beloved so much more than a term of endearment? It’s the process by which we got it. According to James Montgomery Boice, God was rarely referred to as “Father” in the Old Testament, and when He was, it was as the Father of Israel, never of individuals. The concept was foreign to Jews, which is why the Lord’s constant references to God as His Father were both confusing and challenging. For Jesus to assert “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) was blasphemy of the highest order.

“We work out our salvation from a very secure foundation: the knowledge that we are deeply and truly loved because of the one who ‘sticks closer than a brother’”

Martin Luther wrote that Christians are simul iustus et peccator, a Latin phrase that means “at the same time righteous and a sinner.” On its face, this seems to be a contradiction, but the tension is correct. In and of ourselves, we are sinners, but because of Jesus Christ and the great exchange made on our behalf on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21), we have received His righteousness and He our condemnation. By His death and resurrection, believers are united to Christ and reconciled to the Father. This is why Jesus tells us, “Because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (John 14:19-20).

Tim Keller explains it succinctly: “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope” (emphasis added). It is because of Jesus—the first and preeminent beloved—that the term is imparted to us. It is because we are found “in Him” that we are not found wanting and can call God “our Father,” as we are instructed to in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9). Because of Jesus, we can use the term when referring to members of the body to which we belong.

Beloved is not an elitist term reserved for a select few who possess superior knowledge or deeper spiritual worth. Rather, it speaks of the great intimacy all are called to enjoy, regardless of class, gender, race, or nationality. Knowing that should color—that is, should change the very connotation—of our every thought, deed, and word. It should also bring us peace, for we work out our salvation from a very secure foundation: the knowledge that we are deeply and truly loved because of the one who “sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). One who died to make us family.

 

Illustrations by Adam Cruft

Related Topics:  Gods Love

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What happens to my notes

29 for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church,

8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

1 See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.

1 Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession;

9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and spoke with me, saying, Come here, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb."

32 Now as Peter was traveling through all those regions, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda.

2 To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours:

12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;

5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!"

1 Jude, a bond-servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, To those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ:

30 I and the Father are one."

21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

19 After a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me; because I live, you will live also.

20 In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.

9 Pray, then, in this way: `Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.

24 A man of too many friends comes to ruin, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

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