It was something of a surprise when my brother recently remarked that he had not regarded me as a friend when we were growing up at home in the 1950s and ’60s. We got on well enough, but, as I thought about it, he was surely right. The old nostrum about choosing your friends and being landed with your relatives really did apply then. He was my “wee brother,” and I rather looked down on him—that is, until he hit the weights, became a first-class rugby player, and represented Scotland in track and field! Only in our late teens—about the time we became Christians—did a true closeness develop.
The fact is that siblings frequently compete rather than cooperate, and this has often turned childhood from a playing field into a battlefield. Scripture confirms this observation. The first brothers, Cain and Abel, became history’s first murderer and victim (Gen. 4:8). Jacob and Esau were rivals from the beginning (Gen. 25:23). Jacob’s guilt over deceiving Esau into selling his (unwanted) birthright made him rightly fearful of revenge (Gen. 32:1–8). This occasioned the first “nervous” prayer in the Bible—one that was answered in reconciliation between the two men and continues to teach us how to take our fears to the Lord (Gen. 32:9–12). Mary and Martha were model sisters, but they had their differences (Luke 10:38–42). Jesus seems to have had the all-too-common experience of a gifted oldest son with less-distinguished younger brothers (John 7:3–5).
Nevertheless, blood is thicker than water. Siblings do grow up and become very supportive of one another. Solomon, who had plenty of trouble with his half-brother Adonijah (1 Kings 1:5ff), notes, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Prov. 17:17). Brothers can come through in the end with an intensity of devotion that not even constant friends can match. Brothers may sometimes prove to be less than friends, but they are often loyal to a fault.
Solomon also says that “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). Perhaps he had in mind his father’s friendship with Jonathan. In his eulogy for his friend, David declared, “Your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). What we have in these two men is masculine camaraderie of the kind that many men will recognize in their own friendships.
Jonathan’s visit to David in the wilderness of Ziph is remarkable on several counts (1 Sam. 23:14–18).
First, it shows that Jonathan, who knew where David was hiding, was protecting him from his father, Saul, who was trying to hunt David down to kill him. He practiced what Job preached: “To him who is afflicted, kindness should be shown by his friend” (Job 6:14). Jonathan loved David enough to risk his father’s wrath, should Saul discover his actions. But he also loved his father enough to thwart his murderous designs on David.
Second, Jonathan’s aim was “to strengthen his [David’s] hand in God” (v. 16b–17). His motive was not mere affection, but love rooted in faithfulness to God and His righteousness. He gave three reasons for his action: Saul would not find David, David would be king over Jonathan, and Saul was well aware of this. In other words, Jonathan fully accepted that God had appointed David king and he, for one, would not touch the “Lord’s anointed” (1 Chron. 16:22). He armed David with solid reasons to maintain a full confidence in the Lord, however desperate his situation might seem.
Finally, David and Jonathan bound themselves together in a “covenant before the Lord” (v. 18), surely reaffirming their earlier bonds (1 Sam. 18:3; 20:12–17). This was the last time these friends were to be together in this world, and the note of undying loyalty on Jonathan’s part had to rejoice David’s heart. Here was a friend who was sticking closer than any of his brothers were able to do, even if they wanted to. Jonathan sealed his commitment to remaining a strength and a comfort to his friend.
The friend that is closer than a brother in practice is, in a sense, the true brother. Jesus asks the lawyer whether the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan was neighbor to the man who fell among thieves (Luke 10:36). The “brother” Jews walked by on the other side. The despised Samaritan was the true brother for the poor man’s adversity. Like Jonathan to David, he showed the kind of friendship that is the soul of brotherhood.
It is not an accident, then, that Jesus is described as “the first-born among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). The context is Paul’s majestic statement of the sovereignty of God in salvation. Those who become Christ’s brothers are those whom God “foreknew” and also “predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son”—those who, in other words, are alienated from God and are saved by the Son of God taking human nature and dying on the cross as an atonement for their sin. Jesus is the friend who comes to people at “enmity with God” (Rom. 8:7: cf. James 4:4), the friend who is closer than a brother to those He saves by grace, and the Brother among brethren in heaven to those for whom He gave His life.
Are you a brother to Jesus the Savior? Are you closer than a brother to those who also love Jesus and, not least, to some who need Jesus to be their Savior also?