by Al Maxey

Issue #386 ------- February 17, 2009
There is a destiny that makes us brothers;
None goes his way alone;
All that we send into the lives of others
Comes back onto our own.

Edwin Markham {1852-1940}

These Brothers of Mine
Reflecting on the Nature
and Necessity of Brotherhood

A reader who resides in the state of Kentucky recently wrote me inquiring about a statement that was made by our Lord Jesus in the text of Matthew 25:31-46, which is a scene describing the gathering together of the nations before Him for judgment on that last day. In this dramatic depiction, Jesus speaks of the separation of sheep and goats, the former representative of all those who are to be received into His presence and the latter representative of all those who will be forever rejected. The sheep will experience the joys of eternal life, whereas the goats will experience a much different, less joyous, eternal fate [vs. 46, 41].

The basis of this eternal judgment would be how well one related to the needs of those about him. Were you loving, merciful, compassionate, generous, kind? Or, did you withhold your love from others, showing no mercy, refusing to share with those in need? The brother of our Lord states that "judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy" [James 2:13], a truth certainly conveyed by Jesus in the separation scene before us. The apostle John wrote, "Whosoever has the world's goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?" [1 John 3:17]. The answer is -- it doesn't. We must evidence the love of Jesus Christ to our brothers. By closing our hearts to them, we will share the fate of the goats rather than the joys of the sheep.

The specific statement about which this reader in Kentucky inquired, however, is found in Matt. 25:40 --- "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me." This brother wrote asking, "Brother Al, I have been taught within the Non-Institutional Churches of Christ that the 'brothers' in vs. 40 refer to Christians ONLY, which, of course, we've all been taught to understand to mean only those who completely subscribe to 'our way of thinking.' Anyone outside this sect is simply regarded as unfaithful, unsound, unscriptural, and so on and so on (i.e., not 'brothers'). Would you give me your take on this passage? Thanks in advance for your comments."

When discussing and defining the precise parameters of "brotherhood," it is a heart-wrenching truth that men can be terribly "unbrotherly." And this is especially true of those professing to be the children of God and disciples of Christ. The apostle Peter characterized "brotherly kindness" as being one of the many Christian virtues [2 Pet. 1:7], and the apostle Paul urged the saints to "be devoted to one another in brotherly love" [Rom. 12:10]. The author of Hebrews (whoever he or she might be -- Reflections #128) commanded, "Let love of the brethren continue" [Heb. 13:1]. Nevertheless, genuine brotherhood has always seemed to elude the people of God in virtually every period of history and in every culture. Men are simply too intent upon magnifying their differences, instead of celebrating together the One who unites them. And yet, now and again some do perceive this great eternal truth. Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), in his monumental work "Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion," observed, "The brotherhood of men would be an empty dream without the fatherhood of God." Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), in "A Study of History," made a similar insightful observation: "The brotherhood of Man presupposes the fatherhood of God." Our brotherhood is not determined by some imposed and enforced uniformity of thought and practice, but rather by the reality of our shared "siblinghood" under One Father. Wherever the Father has a son or daughter, I have a brother or sister. And they do not have to be my identical twin in order to be my brother or sister. "The heart and soul of all men being one, this bitterness of His and Mine ceases. His is mine. I am my brother, and my brother is me," states the immortal Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) in one of his essays.

As true as the above principles and precepts are, they do not fully address the statement in Matt. 25:40, however, for in that passage Jesus speaks of those who are HIS brethren -- "these brothers of Mine." Who exactly are Jesus' "brothers"? Of whom is our Lord speaking here? And what is our obligation to these brethren of His? And why is our response to these people and their need (or our lack of response) so vital to our very salvation? Is it possible that our Lord may recognize and accept some people as HIS brothers whom YOU and I refuse to recognize and accept as OURS? The account in Mark 9:38f and Luke 9:49f seems to indicate the answer is a resounding YES. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, recognizes sheep that we may have excluded from our little sectarian folds. Yet, in the eyes of the one, true Shepherd, they are still part of the One, True Flock. Thus, it clearly behooves us to determine who it is that HE regards as HIS "brothers," for in so doing we shall have far better insight into the nature and parameters of the brotherhood.

A very similar question, by the way, is: "Who is my neighbor?" This is a question put to Jesus by a lawyer who had come to test/trap Him [Luke 10:29]. Initially, this lawyer had asked Jesus what he should do in order to obtain eternal life. Jesus, of course, simply asked this man, "What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?" The lawyer answered that one should love God and love his neighbor. Jesus responded, "You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live." This is not the "right" answer, however, for one devoted to LAW -- it wasn't then, and it isn't today. That's just too simple, Jesus!! Give us a list of laws to obey; give us good works we can perform so as to merit salvation. No, says Jesus, that is NOT what is necessary to salvation. LOVE and you will LIVE. It's just that simple. Well, not knowing what else to say, the lawyer does a bit of legalistic sidestepping and nitpicking --- "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus answers the question by giving the Parable of the Good Samaritan [Luke 10:30-35]. At the end, He asked the lawyer to identify which of the men in the parable was the most neighborly. It was the one who showed mercy, the lawyer replied. "Go and do the same," said Jesus [vs. 36-37]. In principle, we have much the same teaching here as was found in the judgment scene of Matthew 25. Being neighborly and being brotherly are not all that different. More about this later.

With regard to this statement by our Lord Jesus, "there is disagreement over the meaning of these eloquent words" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 519]. That is actually quite an understatement. There is not only disagreement, but there is outright division within certain segments of Christendom over the identity of these "brothers of Mine." This is especially true of the more legalistic sects and factions, as they have a vested interest in identifying these "brothers" of the Lord with their own narrow perspectives, preferences and practices. Thus, as the reader from Kentucky mentioned, some will actually teach that ONLY those disciples who are in a non-instrumental, non-class, non-cups Church of Christ are the "brothers" of Jesus. If you use multiple cups in the Communion, for example, you are NOT the "brothers" of Jesus ... you are heathen headed for hell. Multiply this narrow-mindedness by a thousand other "salvation issues" and you begin to perceive the problem. There are absolutely no serious, reputable biblical scholars who take such a sectarian view of our Lord's statement, and there is nothing in the text or context of the passage (or anywhere else in Scripture, for that matter) that would even begin to justify such a view. Thus, it can quickly be discarded as little more than yet another evil ploy of Satan to divide the Family of God.

FIRST --- Setting aside the spurious and sectarian views, we are left with a few interpretations that have some degree of merit. The first of these is the conviction that these "brothers" of our Lord are the apostles, prophets, evangelists and elders of the church. These spiritual leaders will be going into all the world preaching the gospel and establishing congregations of believers and seeking to lead them in the paths of righteousness. Many would be ill-treated because of their ministries: being hungry, cold, without adequate clothing and shelter (hardships to which the apostle Paul himself alluded during his years of ministry). Those who received them with kindness would be rewarded, but those who rejected them would in turn be rejected. Even "the least of these" would be worthy of assistance and acts of kindness because of the greatness of their sacred mission. An appeal is made to the sending out of the Twelve in Matthew 10, and some similarity of wording in that chapter, especially with respect to the judgment that would befall those who did not treat these commissioned emissaries well. Although these individuals would certainly be included among our Lord's "brothers," most scholars feel that limiting this statement to these few is simply much too restrictive. Therefore, although a few scholars embrace this theory, the vast majority reject it as not sufficiently inclusive. I would agree.

SECOND --- The second theory has the difficulty of perhaps being insufficiently exclusive -- i.e., everyone is included. The brethren of our Lord would simply be ALL of humanity. If this is true, then Jesus is telling His disciples that they must do good to ALL men, regardless of their rank or station in life. "Even the least of them" is worthy of acts of loving kindness. Even one's enemies. And to the degree that we engage in these acts of charity, we do them for, and vicariously to, Him. There are certainly sufficient passages within God's written Word that promote such service to those about us (whether they be believers or not). Therefore, there's nothing biblically unsound about this theory. The question, however, is -- Does Jesus regard all of humanity as His "brethren"? Although they would be "brothers" in the sense of a shared humanity, just as soldiers are "brothers in arms" as a result of a shared experience on the field of combat, there is really no biblical justification for assuming that Jesus meant the totality of humanity here. Yes, it is certainly true that all the nations were assembled before Him for judgment, and His "brothers" reference must be understood within that context, but His language does not seem to indicate an unrestricted acceptance of every living human being on earth as constituting "these brothers of Mine." Most scholars believe He had certain people in mind, and that the language clearly suggests some degree of specificity. Thus, although this is a popular view, most scholars tend to reject it as too inclusive.

THIRD --- Similar to the "brothers in arms" comparison mentioned above, a good many biblical interpreters see these "brothers" of Christ as being those persons throughout all of humanity who are suffering affliction and hardships due to their attempts to live according to the will of God. Jesus clearly identified with those being persecuted. On the road to Damascus, Jesus said to Saul of Tarsus, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting ME?" [Acts 9:4]. To the extent that Saul persecuted those seeking to live righteous lives, Saul persecuted the Lord, which is the very principle seen in Matthew 25. What you do unto others, even the least of them, you do to HIM. Acts of goodness done to others are acts of goodness done to Him. Acts of unkindness done unto others, or the neglect of others, is done/not done to Him.

It is my own personal conviction, after considerable study and reflection, that this third perspective is getting to the very heart of the teaching of Jesus. Love shown unto others is the very core teaching of the Christian faith, especially when that love is demonstrated in acts of kindness and support for those experiencing difficult circumstances, perhaps even brought on by their determination to conduct their lives according to the will of their Creator (as best they understand it). Such persons should be able to count on the assistance of their brethren, for such persons are truly the beloved brethren of the Lord. I would go even farther, however: suggesting that these "brothers" of the Lord are not just limited to those we might characterize as "Christians." ALL the nations are assembled before the Lord, and He speaks of "these brothers of Mine" who are to be found within these many nations of the world. This brings up the "Available Light" theology that I firmly believe to be the teaching of Scripture. God has revealed Himself unto ALL men in ALL nations. Therefore, when the nations are gathered before Him in judgment, those who reject those truths conveyed to them, and who reject HIM, will be without excuse [Rom. 1:18-20]. They may not have had the greater revelatory Light with which some of us today are blessed, but they were in possession of sufficient light from above to perceive His nature and His will. Those who sought to live by that revelatory light are included in "these brothers of Mine." And humanity will, in part, be judged upon how they treated those who sought to do His will as best they perceived it. For a more in-depth study of this "Available Light" concept, I would strongly urge the reader to examine carefully and prayerfully Reflections #158 -- Grace and the Caveman: Pondering the Parameters of Divine Acceptance of Human Response to Available Light.

Dr. Charles Ellicott (1819-1905), in his classic Commentary on the Whole Bible, came to this same conclusion. In speaking of "the heathen who stand before the judgment seat," he stated: "They have acted from what seemed merely human affection towards merely human objects, and they are therefore rightly represented as astonished when they hear that they have, in their ministrations to the sons of men, been ministering to the Son of Man" [vol. 6, p. 156]. In other words, as our Lord informs these good men and women from "the nations" that they had been providing acts of kindness toward HIM throughout their lives, they indicate that they were not aware that this was what they were doing. They were simply conducting themselves according to their available light, which would have impressed upon their hearts the need to be loving toward others. "For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law unto themselves, in that they demonstrate the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus" [Rom. 2:14-16]. "Those who had not heard the gospel (for surely many heathen men will be among the number of the blessed) had shown the law of love written in their hearts ... and the King now shows to them the meaning of their deeds of love" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, part 2, p. 493].

I genuinely fear that too many disciples, especially those who have fallen victim to the wiles of Satan through sectarianism and factionalism, have a perception that the Day of Judgment will be a time when the Lord God will want to know what kind of music was or wasn't employed in a "worship service," how many cups were employed, what version of the Bible one used, whether saints ate in a building or not, whether they had a kitchen or fellowship hall, if they supported orphanages or colleges out of the local "treasury," if they had a Sunday School, and other "weighty matters" of LAW. In reality, not a one of these things are relevant to our eternal destiny. "The ground of judgment will be men's conduct towards other people. It will not be a profession of some religion, nor a creed, nor a performance of acts of worship. Christ looks chiefly to conduct in the world. He takes what is done to one of His brethren as the test" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, part 2, p. 497]. How are you treating the "brothers" of our Lord? Are you kind, loving, merciful, compassionate; do you seek to encourage, uplift and support them, or do you seek to criticize, condemn, find fault and exclude them? How you respond to this question will largely determine whether it's sheep or goats you end up being numbered with on that great day. May God awaken us to the eternal significance of loving our brethren ... for they are HIS brethren as well.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother Maxey, I was helping my grandson do a research paper on the book of Haggai (he is in the 6th grade in a Christian School here) and he used some of your information on that prophet that he found on your web site. I wanted to write and let you know that I thought your study of the book of Haggai was absolutely excellent. I'll email you a copy of his paper before he turns it in, as I would love your analysis of it and whether you might have some suggestions that would make it even better. Our grandson is 11 years old and wants to be a preacher some day. He has already preached his very first sermon at a Nursing Home, and he'll preach his second one this Sunday night. He's doing it on the book of Haggai. Thanks so much for your help.

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al, Your study on Genesis 3:6 ("Her Husband With Her") was most interesting. It presented some new thoughts for pondering. I am always interested in your input and opinions, even when we don't agree! May our God continue to bless you and yours in this New Year, and please keep those fine studies coming, because they always make us think in new directions!!

From a Minister in New Mexico:

Brother Al, It seems likely to me that Adam failed to understand the decree "Thou shalt surely die." Although Eve ate, she continued to live, thus providing tangible evidence that Satan's deception contained an element of truth. Faced with this evidence, Adam disbelieved God and chose to eat despite the warning. We fall into the very same kind of traps today, believing things that from our short-sighted perspective appear true, even when we realize they are contrary to what we've been taught from the Scriptures. Satan, after all, is the master deceiver, using our own thoughts to draw us into sin.

As for the recent church directory matter (which you discussed in Issue #384), in the Revelation of Jesus Christ given via John, we find congregations represented by lampstands. The text warns that those lampstands may be removed, but ONLY by the One who has authority to remove them! The editors of church directories have in the present instance elevated themselves to the self-righteous level of little gods in their unauthorized removal of lampstands from their "list of the approved." The issue of using musical instruments has become one of Satan's tools in separating brothers and sisters in Christ and causing them to violate our Lord's command to love neighbor as self. Too many have lost sight of the fact that the apostle Paul taught us to accept one another despite disagreements over disputable doctrines such as this. People are to know we are Christians by our LOVE of one another. And they will also know if we remain sinners by such evident LACK of love. We should be blushing in embarrassment!!

From a Minister in Oklahoma:

Dear Brother Al, I've read with no little interest all the comments about the folks at 21st Century Christian putting out a directory in which several congregations were intentionally left out. Might I suggest a solution to this problem --- Folks, do not buy this faulty product!! Since most printing projects are "for profit," if folks do not buy the product, there is no profit. Even dummies do not repeat the same mistake too many times before they get the message!

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Bro. Al, I love you and what you do, not with just any old love, but with AGAPE. When Jesus' earthly ministry was complete, the veil in the temple was rent from top to bottom. That veil represented the separation of God and man in the most dramatic way that the human mind could imagine to that point. There is another veil, one that does the same thing, and it is much harder to penetrate. It is the veil that you, and people like you, labor to penetrate. It is the veil of preconceived notions and ideas that control our thinking and separate us from God. Carl Ketcherside was right -- God has revealed His will to us, and we ARE bound to believe that. Our own feeble efforts to interpret that revelation are simply our own efforts to understand what He meant by what He said. We ARE NOT bound to believe any of that. Agape love is the only umbrella that will allow us to exist in a relationship with one another that allows this to be the case. The people of God who love the people of God are the people God loves!! God bless you, brother, as you do what you do!!

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