There are many ways that cultures identify connectedness, but few analogies are more universal or personal than speaking of family. The singular reference that joins as family, while avoiding added implications of authority, is that of calling a person a brother.
The term “brother” refers to those who are connected at the deepest level of identity. Blood-brother can be that of a genetic connectedness between those with at least one similar parent; or, it can reference two people who have made a commitment of supportive friendship by co-mingling their blood, like through a ritual or by serving in the trenches of warfare.
The Bible uses the term, brother, in several important ways; some obvious, some not-so-obvious.
The common references for brother, include physical lineage, like James and Jude being “brothers” of Jesus. In their case, they had the same mother, but different fathers, so we might more specifically identify their connectedness as “half-brothers”.
Genetic identity can be extended beyond immediate family, to that of race as well, calling those with similar features or background, brother. Some shorten this to “bro”, as a more personal reference to a recognition of connectedness.
Another common reference for brother, involves familial position, perhaps like Moses having an Egyptian brother, or like one who is adopted into a family. The genetic line might not be there, but the position of official acceptance within a physical family would be attributed to anyone adopted, or viewed in a similar manner, like step-brothers who share a connection as a result of parental-marriage, but not by blood-line.
Of course, it is common for group membership to attribute the connectedness of brotherhood, to those who join ranks, be that a club, or fraternity, or gang. Churches often refer to fellow believers as brothers and sisters in this way, and the Bible certainly uses this term as such. In fact, “brother” was the most common reference to a believer: 325 times in the New Testament.
The later introduction of the new term “Christian” is surprisingly used only 3 times in Scripture. Once to note that the term first started to be used in Antioch. Once by king Agrippa regarding Paul’s preaching. And the third time by Peter:
“but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name” 1 Pet 4:16).
To be called a Christian is a glorious honor, but that was not the term most often used in the early church to reference believers. That term was that of a brother. It is also one of the general names given to followers of Jesus by the Lord:
“For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he [Jesus] is not ashamed to call them brothers”. (Heb 2:11)
“they love to be greeted [with important titles as religious leaders, but in contrast]…and you are all brothers.” (Mt 23:8)
Although there are times within Scripture when the male gender is intended, the original use of the term within biblical context was often aimed at this idea of side-by-side familial connectedness, a personal identification which fully includes women who believe in Jesus.
Regardless of race, or physical family identity, or any other form of discrimination, Christians are commanded to view each other as brothers. Even to the extreme of required separation of association due to persistence in sinful behavior, we are instructed “yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 The 3:15).
Most often, we commandeer this term and use it to compliment a close friend, someone we deeply identify with. This is the relationship that the Bible speaks of when it says that there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother. At its core, a person becomes our brother for no other physical or logical reason other than we feel strongly connected to them. In a more general sense, Jesus uses this term in the same way as he does in defining who is our neighbor: namely, anyone who is next to us is our brother, since we all ultimately descend from the same Adam.
There is, however, one more very important, and often missed, usage of this term. There was a subset of Christians to whom this label held special status. There were believers for whom, “brother” became “the Brothers”. We don’t have such capital letters within the original Greek, but we do have contextual use, that shows an apparent distinction in what the Holy Spirit reveals about a special group of believers.
Notice in 1 Cor 16 how this term, brother, is used in several ways:
“I urged you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work and labors at it.”
“Now about our brother Apollos”.
“I am expecting him [Timothy] along with the brothers.”
“All the brothers here send you greetings.”
The first quote is speaking of the group of Christians at Corinth, who were considered with Paul as fellow brothers in Christ.
The second is the same, specifically applied to one person, a fellow minister to Paul, named Apollos.
The forth is again a reference to a group of Christians who were with Paul in Ephesus, from where he was writing this particular letter.
The third quote, however, appears to be something different. “The brothers” that Paul was anticipating to arrive with Timothy were not just random believers. The surrounding text seems to indicate they were a specific sub-group of Christians who had become so well known that they appear to have been commonly identified simply as “the Brothers”. This same group are referenced again in this passage when Paul continues with the second quote from above:
“…I strongly urged him [Apollos] to go to you with the brothers.”
Paul was speaking in both cases about a group of people who traveled from church to church with a common purpose and a common heritage. They were not called elders, or apostles, or evangelists, although they may have also been such. Rather, they had become so well known as a group, that their individual identities never get mentioned. Scriptural references to these men show that they needed no introduction or acceptance by local pastors.
“With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel.” (2 Cor 8:18)
Paul is speaking above about some un-named Christian who was very well known, such that his name didn’t need mention, but instead the reason for accepting him is cited. This person appears to be one of several who have this status within the global church at that time. Without need for personal identification, they were known throughout Christendom as “the Brothers”.
It would seem redundant to suggest sending brothers to brothers. It is like saying, I’m sending the Christians to you Christians. Huh? Paul’s audience must have understood that the “brothers” he said he would send, were those already widely known and accepted by all the churches, not just within a city or region.
“And with them we are sending our brother whom we have often tested and found earnest in many matters, but who is now more earnest than ever because of his great confidence in you.” (2 Cor 8:22)
“But I am sending the brothers so that our boasting about you may not prove empty in this matter, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be.” (2 Cor 9:3)
“So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction.” (2 Cor 9:5)
“I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him.” (2 Cor 12:18)
These “brothers” appear to have become accepted as inter-congregational missionaries. They would travel through all the known churches, giving special aide and expertise in church-life issues, as well as specifically preaching a common message of the gospel.
“As for Titus, he is my partner and fellow worker for your benefit. And as for our brothers, they are messengers of the churches, the glory of Christ.” (2 Cor 8:23)
During the early church development, this group of men had become widely trusted by the original apostles as believers who could be trusted with the truth of the gospel. It would seem likely that their role helped to sustain a common message to Jesus’ gospel in spite of the changing cultures from one region to another.
“For I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth.” (3 Jn 3)
“Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are,” (3 Jn 5)
Perhaps that is why, as the recorded era of the early church was about to move beyond readable Scripture, that the Apostle John speaks about a minister who was refusing to accept or submit to the influence or teaching of these “Brothers” who were attempting to interact with the other Christian brothers in that area. This pastor was not stopping church growth with new brothers, but preventing members of this particular group from being able to confront his teachings in church. He wanted his own denomination and he needed to get rid of any influence from these special Christians who were often used to teach the same gospel message in every church. He needed to stop their first-priority witness, so he could become first in the minds of brothers in that church.
“…who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.” (3 Jn 10)
So who were these Brothers? Their names are not listed, nor is their individual identity necessary to discover. Their role was significant, and sadly does not appear to exist any longer. My guess is that they were eye-witnesses who had grown up at the feet of Jesus.
“Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” (1 Cor 15:6)
Whatever their names, they were a blessing to the early church. Others, like Paul and Timothy and the Twelve, contributed dramatic efforts toward building the church and spreading Christianity, but these Brothers appear to have helped provide the common glue to keep the gospel message and the approaches toward showing Christian love on similar ground. They helped ensure that what was preached everywhere was kept consistent and not allowed to morph into distorted messages. They appear to have taken on the directive of Paul to “seek to agree with one another”, and went about trying to help believing brothers find common ground of truth upon which to establish agreement, rather than the modern approach of “agree to disagree” or “agree at least to the mainstream basics”.
They were men with a common mission; with a connectedness of the gospel message as first taught by our Lord.
It was likely someone with this caliber of recognized authority and trustworthiness in preaching truth, who didn’t promote their own name when writing the dramatic instructions to brothers in Hebrews. He would have been well known at that time as one possessing the right to speak scriptural truth not found anywhere else in the Bible (thus a likely eye-witness of Jesus), and who could rebuke believers through his letter as being so immature that they needed to start all over again in being taught the truth about the gospel of righteousness, and who traveled with Timothy and thereby was connected to Paul in some way.
Like a disappearing race, these Christians, scripturally referred to simply as the Brothers, carried a common message from a common heritage, as primary-source graduates from that 3 year degree program taught by the Lord Jesus himself. It was their original proximity to the Teacher, rather than their personal identity or skill, that gave them their recognized connectedness as brothers of a select part of God’s family.
Others would lead the mission into all the world, and then these Brothers confirmed the unity of that original gospel. They set the mold for faithful Christian testimony for all generations to follow: to speak the good news consistent with that original gospel as taught by those who walked and talked and ate with and learned from the Master.
Oh, that God would grant his people such leaders once again—who care more about his truth than their ministry or ideas—preachers and servants of Jesus who love God’s word more than religious tradition or personal agenda.
Be a Brother, my brother.