By Clinton D. Hamilton
Question: Do 1 John 3:13-17 and Matthew 5:22 refer to mankind in general as offspring of Adam, or to only Christians, when the term “brother” is used? The same goes for James 2:15 and Romans 10:1 and Paul’s use of the term brethren in the book of Acts?
Reply: The term adelphos, brother or near kinsman, may be and is used in several different senses in the New Testament. It sometimes refers to male children of the same parents (Matt. 1:2; 4:18,21; 10:2; 14:3; Mk. 1:16; Lk. 3:1;16,28; 20:28; Jn. 1:40,41; 11:2,19). Sometimes the term refers to people of the same nationality (Acts 3:17; Rom. 9:3; Acts 23: 1). At other times the word refers to any man or a neighbor (Matt. 5:22; 7:3,4,5). It also refers simply to mankind (Heb. 2:17). Numerous passages use the term in the sense of those who share a spiritual relation in Christ, having been begotten of the gospel (Acts 10:23; 11:1, 12,29; 15:23; 20:32; Rom. 16:17; 2 Cor. 11:9; 2 Thess. 3:1,6,15; Phil. 1,7,16; Jas. 2:1; 2 Pet. 3:15).
Many other passages illustrating the above usage could be cited. However, these are sufficient to show some of the senses in which the term brother or brethren is used. Certainly, its use in the New Testament is not limited to one meaning, although the root meaning adheres in both the literal and the metaphorical senses.
In 1 John 3:13, brethren is set in contrast to the world. Obviously, this contrast limits brethren to those who have a common bond in Christ. In this sentence then, brethren has the meaning of ones having a common spiritual birth and relation in Christ as God’s children. Those whose souls are purified by obedience to the truth are to love one another from the heart fervently (1 Pet. 1:22). In 1 John 3:14, this generation is demonstrated by the love for those thus regenerated. Brethren here means other Christians. Contextually, brother and brethren refer to one’s fellow Christian or Christians in 1 John 3:13-17.
The use of brother in Matthew 5:22 is with the sense of any person or neighbor to which one might have some relationship in life. It means that one should call no man Raca or fool.
Romans was written to the saints (1:7) who were called to be Jesus Christ’s (1:6). It was these persons he addressed as brethren in 10:1. Therefore, brethren in 10:1 refers to those who are sons of God in Christ with Paul. In a sense similar to 1 John 3:13-17, brethren is used in James 2:15 to refer to those in Christ Jesus. The special obligation Christians owe to one another is emphasized.
Paul’s use of the term brethren in the book of Acts must be determined by the precise context. Sometimes he uses the word to mean simply a fellow Jew from common ancestral relation to Abraham (13:26,38; 22:1; 23:1,5,6) and he sometimes uses the term to mean one related to him in Christ (20:32).
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 14, p. 421
July 19, 1990