Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Sibling rivalries. That’s our theme today. Welcome back to the podcast. We’ve talked about siblings on the podcast in a couple of contexts. We addressed the prodigal son and his older brother in APJ 1059. And we looked at how Jesus is our perfect elder brother in APJ 934. I love that episode and the fact that Jesus is our brother. He calls us brothers.

But today, we get a question about sibling rivalries in the home, something we have not yet addressed on the podcast. Here’s the question today, for you, Pastor John, who once again joins us remotely over Zoom. The question is from Stephanie. “Pastor John and Tony, thank you for all the work and thoughtfulness you put into APJ. I have listened for years, always encouraged by hearing brothers and sisters ask questions I would never even think to ask myself. Your careful responses exemplify 1 Peter 3:15, to ‘always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have . . . with gentleness and respect’ (NIV).

“My question for you is about sibling rivalry. In Genesis it seems that every family dynamic was affected by jealousy or envy between siblings. Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau. Rachel and Leah. Joseph and his brothers. Just to name a few. What are gospel implications of this recurring plot theme in the Bible? And, seeing that many of these broken relationships are the result of favoritism or passivity by parents, what lessons can we learn as fathers and mothers today?”

Wow, what a good question it is. That caused me to do some serious thinking on things I haven’t quite posed in that way.

First Families

Let’s start at the beginning. God creates man, male and female, and designs that, by becoming one flesh in marriage, they would have children who are called, in their relationship to each other, brothers and sisters. So this is a universally understood relationship. It’s amazing — brothers and sisters. All over the world, everybody knows what that is. Every culture understands what brothers and sisters are. Together with marriage, this relationship is primal. It’s really basic. Brothers and sisters ordinarily grow up under the care of parents and are helped to be productive adults in the family structure all over the world.

Now, sin enters the world, and its first devastating effect is on the married couple. Adam blames Eve; Eve blames the serpent. Their innocence is over; shame and guilt come into their relationship and wreak havoc. And the next relationship that we read about as contaminated and ruined by sin is Cain killing his brother, Abel.

So the basic family structure is brought into being by God, and then sin moves out through that family structure to destroy all the relationships. Simultaneously, though, God’s grace enters into the world and begins to do its redemptive work. And what we are to see is that in these very broken and sin-ruined relationships of brother and brother and sister and sister, God nevertheless has worked redemptively, savingly. We see it in God’s relationship with Isaac and Ishmael. We see it in his relationship with Jacob and Esau. We see it in Egypt, where Moses said to two Israelites, “Why are you fighting? Are you not brothers?” And in that very context of brother against brother, God is saving his people.

Brothers of the King

When Jesus enters the world, two dramatic things happen in the way Jesus defines the relationship between himself and his followers, and then the way those followers understand their relationship with each other. First, he defines his relationship with those who follow him as brothers to himself, whether there’s any physical family relationship or not. For example, it says in Mark 3:32–35,

“The followers of Jesus who love like Jesus are brothers of the King of the universe.”

A crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

And in the picture of the final judgment, when the disciples ask the King when they served him, it says, “The King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:40). So the followers of Jesus who love like Jesus are brothers of the King of the universe.

Church as the Redeemed Family

This dramatic act of identifying as brother to his followers had a huge implication for how they understood their relationship to each other and how the apostles later taught about the nature of the church.

For example, Jesus said to his disciples, “You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8). They weren’t physical brothers; they were a new kind of brother. So they are brothers to each other, not just brothers to him.

And then, when we turn to the apostle Paul and ask how he understood the relationship among believers in the church, we find an amazing fact. Just to give you a sense of proportion, this was a surprise to me. I’ve made a big deal out of Paul’s favorite name for Christians being saints, right? He loves to call Christians saints. Forty times he calls Christians saints. But when you ask, “Well, what about brother? What was his real favorite?” He refers to Christians as brothers over 130 times.

Paul picked up on Jesus’s reference to himself as brother as well as to each other. He says in Romans 8:29, “Those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” So God predestined us to be the brothers of the Son of God and for him to be preeminent. So the link is finally made with God — God explicitly. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, is the preeminent firstborn among many brothers — meaning that the whole church are the children of God and part of the divine family through the redemptive work of Christ. This is breathtaking if you just let it sink in.

God’s original creation order of husband and wife and then brother and brother become the two dominant ways of thinking about Christ and his church. He’s the elder brother to brothers and sisters in the church, and he is the husband to his bride, the church. God’s original design finds its fulfillment not mainly in redeemed, earthly, nuclear families, but mainly in the divine family with the Son of God as preeminent brother over his brothers and sisters and as the husband over his bride.

Minimizing Rivalry

Now what about the second part of Stephanie’s question? What can we do as fathers and mothers to foster peace, to minimize rivalry between our children? And I think the little survey that we just did sheds light on this. I think I’ve got four things here to quickly mention. So what should I do as a parent? I’ve got old kids now — the oldest is 50 — and many of our listeners have tiny kids. So what can we do to help minimize a sinful sibling rivalry?

1. Treasure God.

Don’t make the mistake of Adam and Eve. They rejected God as an all-wise, all-providing Father and replaced him with their own private preferences, and the result was a destroyed family. So turn that around and make God in Christ the supreme treasure of your life, and trust his word and his care implicitly. Let the children see you do that. “Mom and Dad trust and treasure God. Mom and Dad have a heavenly Father, and they trust him to take care of them and us.”

2. Point to the ultimate family.

Teach the children that this natural family that they’re part of is not ultimate. Belonging to God’s family is ultimate. Humans — boys and girls, teenagers — need something great to live for, something much greater than the natural physical family they’re a part of. If you idolize that family, it will not suffice for the human soul. If they can be captured by something glorious that is greater than the family — namely, the global family from all the nations — they will have resources to love their natural family better.

3. Teach true greatness.

Number three, teach them that squabbling over which is the greatest puts them in the category of those who do not understand Jesus. When the disciples did that — “Who’s the greater among you?” — Jesus said, “Who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27). In other words, if you follow Jesus, then being a servant is true greatness. So if you want to try to be greater than your brother or your sister, be a greater servant.

4. Honor diversity.

When you think about the different gifts that your children have, don’t demean or discount any of them. Take your cue from Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12:24–25. He said, “God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.”

“If you want to try to be greater than your brother or your sister, be a greater servant.”

There’s no point in pretending that your children are all equal in every way. They know they’re not; you know they’re not. Some are better at one thing, some at another. The key is teaching them the humility of viewing everyone as precious and useful in God’s sight as they are. Nobody is wasted. God doesn’t waste his creation. Nobody is pointless. Everyone has a design in God’s mind, and they’re called to something significant.

Stephanie, thank you for a very provocative and helpful question. It was good for me to think about this. May God help us to love being God’s children, Christ’s brothers and sisters, and may God make us good examples to our children.