Summary: The love of God at work in the heart of man
Shortly before his death Peter wrote a brief letter to encourage Christians to live holy and godly lives. In the introduction to his epistle he gives a list of godly virtues that conclude with the attributes of brotherly kindness and love. Unquestionably love is the apex of all Christian virtues. At the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry he gave his disciples this instruction: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13.34-35). Ironically, many people have difficulty defining exactly what they mean by the word love. Though many struggle to define the word, they know it when they see it and they feel its absence when they are deprived of it. Indeed, love is the foundation of all binding quality relationships. Jesus summarized God’s requirements toward humanity in two statements: first, love God with all your heart and second, love your neighbor as yourself. But just what does this mean in practical terms? Before we answer that question let us consider what Peter says about love.
Peter uses two separate words for love in this passage. The first, philadelphia (filadelfiva), refers to a love for brothers or sisters. The second word, agape (ajgavph - noun), is used in the New Testament to describe God’s love for his Son. Jesus uses the same word to describe how the disciples are to love him and one another. It is a love that has particular reference in the love that the Father has for the Son, but it is also used broadly in Scripture. Peter makes a distinction between these two words for love, and they are never used indiscriminately in the same passage. If they are used with reference to the same objects, each word retains its distinctive and essential character.
Peter stresses the importance of imitating the moral and spiritual character of God as it is uniquely displayed in the life of Jesus. The Christian is able to live this life by the enabling work of the Holy Spirit given to every believer. Brotherly love focuses on the life of the Christian living in community with others. Love is the most important of the spiritual virtues. It is the apex of godly character. Everything the believer may cultivate with respect to his virtuous character must find its ultimate expression within the life of the community.
In an earlier letter Peter summarized the attitude that should be plain to see in all Christians: Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms (1 Peter 4.7-10). Nowhere in Scripture are Christians encouraged to live in isolation from other Christians. The “lone Christian” is an utterly foreign concept to the Bible. Peter requires that the believer be sensitive to the needs of others. Every Christian is obligated to minister to others according to their needs (cp. Ephesians 4.29).
Paul also writes about this kind of brotherly love in Philippians 2.13, If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves (cp. Romans 12.3). Motivation for brotherly kindness is derived from the indwelling Christ who prompts the believer to give deference to the needs of others. Paul writes in Romans 12.10, Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. It is characteristic of the believer to consider the needs of others over his own personal needs. Sacrificial love for others is the biblical norm, not the exception.
The following is a sample of New Testament teaching on the Christian community living together. Serve one another in love (Galatians 5.13b). Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently (Galatians 6.1). Speak the truth, but speak it in love (Ephesians 4.15). Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Ephesians 4.29). Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (4.32). As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity (Colossians 3.12-14; 1 Peter 4.8). John sums it up well in his letter, if anyone says, ‘I love God’ yet hates his brother he is a liar (1 John 4.20-21). Does not this very small sampling from the New Testament suggest that there is a vitality to the community of faith whereby one Christian’s life is enriched by another? Certainly, we are a tapestry tightly woven together which displays the wonderful work of God’s saving and transforming grace. We are given, as children of God, the dignity of effecting change in the lives of others around us. Thus, the perfecting of the saints is a work of a Spirit-filled community of faith. Developing the spiritual virtues is a primary activity of the faith community; it is cultivated through the practice of brotherly kindness.