When your grandmother is the church pianist, you spend a lot of time sitting in the front pew, waiting for her to finish chatting after Sunday services. More than once, I heard someone thank “Sister Sybil” for her willingness to play and her husband, “Brother Boyce,” for all he did as a deacon. The terms always sounded strange to my little ears, downright jarring in fact. After all, I knew what a brother was. I had an annoying little one at home who dogged my every step and—despite many passionate entreaties—refused to watch Sesame Street.
The terms “brother” and “sister” in a religious setting never felt familial to me, but the first time a pastor referred to the congregation as beloved, well, that was something altogether different. The word resonated inside my 7-year-old heart and left me with a warm and comfortable feeling deep in my belly, as if I’d eaten a bowlful of soup on a cold evening. I left church that afternoon still savoring the sensation, trying to hold on to it long as I could.
Now that I’m older and have been well schooled in the particulars and peculiarities of the English language, I think I understand why beloved struck me the way it did. Words have both a denotation and a connotation. The first is the formal definition, the one you’ll find when you look up a term up in the dictionary. The second is a bit more nebulous (and all the more delightful as a result). A word’s connotation refers to the associations or emotions that are connected to it.
Think of it this way. The terms frugal and stingy both describe how a person is with money, but which one would you rather be called? The first one, of course. It conjures up images of a person who is fastidious and economical. The second is not so kind. It connotes tightfistedness, a reluctance to share or spend, much like Ebenezer Scrooge before his transformational three-spirit visit on Christmas Eve.
When it comes to beloved, the connotations are overwhelmingly positive. One who enjoys such status is esteemed and cherished, perhaps even venerated by a group or individual. The word beloved speaks of an intense connection of depth and constancy rather than young, passionate affection or short-lived fancy. It is a word reserved for a person who is truly known and closely held to the heart of another.
What’s in a Name?
Consider the many terms used in the Bible for believers. Collectively, we’re referred to as the church (Eph. 5:29), brethren (Phil. 4:8), children of God (1 John 3:1), partakers (Heb. 3:1), and the bride, the wife of the Lamb (Revelation 21:9). However, the most common term for followers of Jesus is saints. There are roughly 60 uses of the word in the New Testament. (See Acts 9:32, 1 Corinthians 1:2, and Eph. 4:12 for examples.) All of these names are wonderful and distinct—filled with theological and emotional significance—but there’s an additional component to beloved that sets it apart.
The adjective translated as “beloved”—the Greek term agapétos—is derived from agapé and means “divinely loved” or “loved by God.” It has two distinct applications. The first is the title for the Messiah, the One who is beloved by God above all others (Matt. 17:5). And the other is a title for Christians, those cherished by Christ and one another. That is why Paul, John, James, Jude, and especially Peter (who uses the term five times in 2 Peter 3 alone) apply the term liberally to those on the receiving end of their epistles. Neither generic, sterile greetings nor folksy terms will do between believers—“those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:1).
But what makes beloved so much more than a term of endearment? It’s the process by which we got it. According to James Montgomery Boice, God was rarely referred to as “Father” in the Old Testament, and when He was, it was as the Father of Israel, never of individuals. The concept was foreign to Jews, which is why the Lord’s constant references to God as His Father were both confusing and challenging. For Jesus to assert “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) was blasphemy of the highest order.
Martin Luther wrote that Christians are simul iustus et peccator, a Latin phrase that means “at the same time righteous and a sinner.” On its face, this seems to be a contradiction, but the tension is correct. In and of ourselves, we are sinners, but because of Jesus Christ and the great exchange made on our behalf on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21), we have received His righteousness and He our condemnation. By His death and resurrection, believers are united to Christ and reconciled to the Father. This is why Jesus tells us, “Because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (John 14:19-20).
Tim Keller explains it succinctly: “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope” (emphasis added). It is because of Jesus—the first and preeminent beloved—that the term is imparted to us. It is because we are found “in Him” that we are not found wanting and can call God “our Father,” as we are instructed to in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9). Because of Jesus, we can use the term when referring to members of the body to which we belong.
Beloved is not an elitist term reserved for a select few who possess superior knowledge or deeper spiritual worth. Rather, it speaks of the great intimacy all are called to enjoy, regardless of class, gender, race, or nationality. Knowing that should color—that is, should change the very connotation—of our every thought, deed, and word. It should also bring us peace, for we work out our salvation from a very secure foundation: the knowledge that we are deeply and truly loved because of the one who “sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). One who died to make us family.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft