In America, we tend to think that if an action such as love is an obligation, then it cannot be true or sincere love. For many, an obligation is something you don’t want to do. But is that true? Are biblical commands things that you don’t want to do, but you do them anyway?
Many also read imperatives or commands, such as “love the brotherhood,” and immediately “get to work” on fulfilling this divine obligation. But is that what we, as Christians, are called to do? Are we to hear commands and swiftly carry them out, or is there an important step we’re missing?
In this article, we will consider the command to “love the brotherhood” (1 Pet. 2:17) by considering the broader and more immediate context to help us understand imperatives in the Christian life and to avoid pulling ourselves up by our “moral bootstraps.” Instead, we will see Christ, embrace the love of God in Christ, and allow God’s Spirit to make our duty our delight.
First Peter 2:13–17 says,
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (emphasis added throughout)
The Broader Context of “Love the Brotherhood”
Peter begins 2:13 with the verb “submit” (ὑποτάγητε). This verb, recurring in 2:18, 3:1, and 3:5, unites the material from 2:13 to 3:12. This section also has a thematic connection: relationships. Peter addresses household relationships in the first century, such as masters and slaves (2:18–20) and husbands and wives (3:1–7), as well as relationships between the church and outsiders (2:13–17 and 3:8–12).
What is fascinating about this broader context (2:13–3:12) is how Peter intentionally drops the example of Christ in the middle of it all, forming what seems to be an inverted parallelism. . .
2:13–17: instruction for everyone
2:18–20: instruction for slaves
2:21–25: the example of Christ
3:1–7: instruction for wives (and husbands)
3:8–12: instruction for everyone
... although the example of Christ is closely connected to the specific appeal to slaves in 2:18–20, and this example is worth imitating.
Peter presents our Lord as the greatest example of enduring unjust hostility and excruciating suffering on behalf of others, neither committing sin nor reviling in return (2:22–23). He did not threaten those who tortured and killed him, but instead he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly (2:24). Like a lamb led to the slaughter (Isa. 53:7), he offered himself as an acceptable sacrifice to God on behalf of our sins, in order that “we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (2:24).
The example of Christ clearly applies to church-state and husband-wife relationships, not solely that of master-slave. But is Christ simply an example to follow in 1 Peter?
Christ as Gift before Example
We should heed a vital word of caution from Martin Luther: before Christians receive Christ as example, we must receive him as gift. In A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels (1521), Luther urges his readers to accept Christ “as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own.” He continues, “This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you. On this you may depend as surely as if you had done it yourself; indeed as if you were Christ himself.” Only after you accept Christ as a gift can you then “take him as your example, giving yourself in service to your neighbor justas you see that Christ has given himself for you.”
By the time you reach the example of Christ in chapter 2, Peter anticipates that his readers will have already accepted Christ as gift in chapter 1. He begins this letter in trinitarian fashion, calling them “elect exiles” (1:1) who are foreknown by God, set apart by the Spirit, for obedience to Christ (1:2). Our triune God is the source, the means, and the goal of our salvation. That is why Peter blesses our God who sovereignly “caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3). Being “born again”is new creation language. As Peter later writes, “...since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1:23).
When we received Christ as gift through his word, we were newly created. We passed from death to life (John 5:24). Old things have passed away; new things have come into being (2 Cor. 5:17). Formerly, we were not God’s people, nor did we receive his mercy. But God showed mercy (Rom. 9:16). We are now “a chosen race,
a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9).
Unsurprisingly, only after Peter drills the indicative down deep into our hearts does he turn to the imperative of Christ’s example, and the same can be said of the obligation “Love the brotherhood” (2:17).
“We love because he first loved us”
Augustine famously prayed, “Lord, command what you will, but give what you command.” When God commands us to “love the brotherhood,” we need to see the ways in which God has given what is necessary to fulfill that command. Two texts are especially illuminating.
The first is 1 Peter 1:8: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory....” Initial faith in Christ must precede love for Christ (even though faith continues to work through love, Gal. 5:6). For Peter, being “born again” (1:3) precedes new creational love for Christ (1:8).Or, put differently, being precedes loving.
The second text is 1 Peter 1:22: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” Being “born again” (1:23) and having your soul “purified” (or “set apart” [ἁγνίζω]) by obedience to the truth precedes the ability to love others sincerely from a pure heart.
Now, before you think the phrase “obedience to the truth” promotes works-righteousness, consider the fact that “obedience” can be understood as “faith.” Romans 10:16–17 is key: “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us? So, faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.’” “Obedience to the truth” is yielding to the divine summons to believe in the gospel of Christ.
We must live before we love. Or, in John’s words, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). We must first receive Christ as the greatest gift of love. Only then, as Luther argued, can you “take [Christ] as your example, giving yourself in service to your neighbor just as you see that Christ has given himself for you.” Only then can we “love the brotherhood.”
The Immediate Context of “Love the Brotherhood”
Intriguingly, this imperative appears within a section focused on the church’s relationship to the state. Peter begins with a word many despise today: “submit” (ὑποτάγητε, 2:13). To whom? “Every human institution,” but specifically “the emperor” and “governors” (2:13–14). However, Peter elevates the Lord as supreme over these earthly powers.
Our submission to human authorities is “on account of the Lord” (διὰ τὸν κύριον, 2:13). In other words, we submit to God by submitting to them, but our ultimate allegiance is to God. As Peter and the apostles declared, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
But what does submission to them look like? For Peter, it is “doing good” (ἀγαθοποιῶν), for that is how one receives praise rather than punishment (2:14). But the praise one receives from man is ultimately praise from God, the one who instituted these earthly powers. “For” (ὅτι), Peter continues, we carry out “the will of God” (τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ) when “by doing good [ἀγαθοποιοῦντας], we silence the ignorance of foolish men” (2:15). Notice how Peter purposely blends obedience to the “will of God” by obeying the “will” of governing officials, the purpose of which is to silence “foolish men.”
Apparently, some “foolish men” were insisting that, as Christians, they were free from the political and moral restraints of Roman law. They declared that “Jesus Christ is Lord, and Caesar is not!” They used their freedom in Christ as a cover-up for evil. To this, Peter responds in verse 16: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil but living as servants of God.” We are “free” (ἐλεύθεροι), yet “servants of God” (θεοῦδοῦλοι); liberated, yet enslaved.
It seems contradictory, but this is precisely how Martin Luther famously defined Christian freedom in The Freedom of a Christian. “The Christian individual is a completely free lord of all, subject to none. The Christian individual is a completely dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” For Luther, this defines the Christian because it first and foremost defines Christ. During his earthly ministry, he was simultaneously in “the form of God” (free Lord) and “the form of a slave” (dutiful servant).
By faith, we are united to Christ and conformed to his image. We are freed from the power of sin and enslaved to God (Rom. 6:22). We are freed to serve. Or, perhaps better, we are freed to love. As Paul writes, we “were called to freedom...only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13).
Freed to Love the Brotherhood, but Why?
It seems strange to go from the relationship between church and state in 2:13–16 to the specific imperative to “love the brotherhood” in 2:17. In the former, we are dealing with the church’s relationship toward outsiders; in the latter, the church’s relationship toward insiders. The other imperatives of 2:17 have an easier time connecting to the immediate context. “Honor everyone” and “Honor the emperor” are straightforward connections. Even “Fear God” makes sense. He is the Lord above all earthly powers, so that fearing them is fearing God. But why does Peter include “love the brotherhood”?
There are at least two reasons. The first is that the world is watching. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Would the church’s love for one another have influenced the state’s perception of the church? Does Peter include their love for one another as the honorable conduct that leads many Gentiles to “see [their] good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12)? Would this have been assumed in the “doing good” that receives their praise (2:14)? It’s difficult to say with certainty, but it seems probable. Love impacts people, even unbelievers.
The second reason Peter includes “love the brotherhood” in this specific context is that your church family needs you. The word “brotherhood” (τὴν ἀδελφότητα) only appears twice in the NT (2:17; 5:9). It captures the familial nature of the church. Believers have been corporately “born again” by a common “imperishable seed,” “the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23). That makes the waters of baptism thicker than blood.
But how does this relate to the state? A parallel use of the term “brotherhood” in 4 Maccabees, a book in the Apocrypha, may illumine Peter’s use. Both 4 Maccabees and 1 Peter were concerned with faithfulness in the face of hostility (hence, the weighty example of Christ in 2:21–25). This leads one scholar to gloss “brotherhood” as “the family of believers called to faithful testimony in the face of hostility.” Peter may be alluding to the need to love one another as the state and society oppress the church. He will say more on this in 3:8–17, where he calls the church to “brotherly love” (φιλάδελφοι, 3:8) and encourages them “not to repay evil for evil” but, on the contrary, to “bless” (3:9).
The command to “love the brotherhood” has at least two purposes: to bear witness to the love of God in Christ toward outsiders and to uphold fellow believers through love as they withstand hostility from outsiders.
Freed to Love the Brotherhood, but How?
What is God calling his church to do in our present day? I see at least two ways this text exhorts us to love one another.
Love One Another before a Watching World
In our current, politically polarized climate, we have allowed masks and vaccinations to breed hostility (even church splits!) rather than promote love. Cultural emphases have, slowly and subtly, crept into our churches, corrupting the ways we treat one another. “Welcome one another” (Rom. 15:7) becomes “exclude
one another.” “Tolerate one another in love” (Eph. 4:2)becomes “discredit one another in apathy.” “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10) becomes “outdo one another in gaining honor.” “In humility count one another more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3) becomes “in pride count one another more insignificant than yourselves.” Our lives should exhibit the way of the cross, not the way of the world. Our delightful duty is to display Christ in our lives, not the hallmarks of our culture. For when we “love one another” as Christ has loved us, then “all people will know that [we] are [Christ’s] disciples” (John 13:34–35). But when we “hate one another,” the world won’t be able to distinguish us from unbelievers.
Love One Another against a Hostile World
As much as we need to display our love before the world, we also need to love against it. Love builds up the church (Eph. 4:16). But God, who is love (1 John 4:16), remains the source of all our love. Jesus Christ, the epitome of love, who reigns “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,” is the head of the church (Eph. 1:20–23; 4:15–16). We draw from his inexhaustible resources to love our Christian brothers and sisters amid hostility. The government will increasingly become more volatile toward churches and Christian institutions. The state continues to indoctrinate our children with an unabashedly liberal agenda. Unbelieving employers are irrepressibly imposing mandates contrary to one’s Christian conscience.
But none of this should surprise us. “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13). Why? Because you are not “of the world” but belong to the one whom the world hated first, Jesus Christ (John 15:18–19).
May our love be the very thing that defines us, whether in word or deed, as it shines before and against a world diametrically opposed to the gospel of God.