Love is a mystery. Is it an emotion? Is it action? Is it an amalgamation of both? People with a scientific mind sometimes explain all the feelings involved by proclaiming that love is simply a chemical reaction in our brains and is therefore nothing truly real—just a random byproduct of human brain chemistry developed through millions of years of human evolution. When we look at Scripture, however, we see that love is not solely an emotion and not solely an action, but that it is the Christian lifestyle.
In this article I will not be discussing God’s love (because that’s an entirely different topic in itself), but rather what it means for Christians to love others. Valentine’s Day is approaching quickly, and as a single man, this holiday means nothing to me. Past and current experiences taunt me that I’ll be a bachelor until the Rapture. So, with no significant other to love, I’ve been doing my best to focus on loving others as a Christian. I asked myself, “What is Christian love?” Unable to come up with a definitive answer, I embarked on an endeavor to see how the Scriptures define Christian love.
Christian Love Is A Lifestyle
Perhaps most notable is Jesus’ command to Christians to love in John 13:34-35, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
If you’ve read my previous articles with Geeks Under Grace, you probably know by now that I love diving into Greek and Hebrew exegesis as part of my pastoral studies. So, I opened up my Greek New Testament Bible. Three times, Jesus says something along the lines of, “that you love one another.” When redundancy occurs in the Greek, it is done so for emphasis. I would estimate that 99% of the time, when this redundancy occurs, it is hidden in the original Greek language, so English readers don’t know when something is said with heavy emphasis. In this verse, however, it is carried over clearly into the English language. Obviously Jesus was stressing something of high importance. When we think of the word “love,” even in the Christian sense, we think of it as being accompanied by that “warm, fuzzy” feeling. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have that warm, fuzzy feeling with every single person I meet, whether they’re Christian or not. So does that mean love is absent? Absolutely not. This is because Christian love is not a feeling; although strong feelings can be involved, but rather a lifestyle.
A Pharisee once asked Jesus what the greatest command was, to which He replied, “‘You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-39).
Any time that a speaker in the New Testament says, “the Law and the Prophets,” he is referring to the entire Old Testament, which are the Scriptures that the Jews adhere to. According to Jesus, the entire Law, or Old Testament (also old covenant), is dependent upon this love. Similar to this, Jesus said, “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). This is where we get the cliché, “Treat others how you want to be treated,” more-so from Luke 6:31.
Love of Omission
St. Paul says regarding this, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:8-10).
Some have taken this to mean that if we are perfect in love, then we fulfill the Law and are thereby saved; however, this thinking is wrong. As Christians, we are only able to love and therefore fulfill the Law because we have been declared righteous “by the mercies of God” (Romans 12:1). In other words, because Jesus fulfilled the Law for us (Matthew 5:17), we are able to fulfill the Law in Christian love (the love of Christ) since His righteousness is imputed to us (Romans 1:17; 3:21). Ergo, it is by the righteousness of Christ He has given to us that we are able to fulfill the Law by loving others as He would.
Would you want someone to commit adultery with your wife/husband? Then don’t commit adultery. Would you want someone to murder you or someone you love? Then don’t murder anyone. Would you want someone to steal from you? Then don’t steal. Would you want someone to lust after your significant other? Then don’t have lust in your heart for someone who doesn’t belong to you (just don’t have lust for anyone in general). Acts of omission is one method in exemplifying Christian love. This does not mean, however, that non-Christians are incapable of loving others as we do. God’s moral law, or מִּשְׁפָּטִים (mishpatim), is bound on all people of all time. Since all human beings were created in His image, we all have similar morals (notice I said similar, not the same). This is why, when we observe a culture that knows nothing of Yahweh, they have similar morals against murder, theft, and so on.
As Christians, we do not limit our love to other Christians alone. Jesus said:
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:32-36).
If we only love other Christians, we are no different than unbelievers, for even they love other unbelievers. I find it interesting that Jesus uses the word “credit.” I don’t know if it was intended, but it makes me think of monetary transactions between businesses and consumers or other businesses. In a business, when you receive payment, it’s called a credit transaction to decrease your expense accounts. You receive money, and that’s good for business. You’ll notice the same on your personal bank statements—the credit transactions recorded on them are the payments we receive from our jobs.
But when we limit our love to only other believers, what credit is that? We gain nothing. Instead, Jesus calls us to love unbelievers as well because our God Himself is kind and merciful to ungrateful and evil people—to unbelievers. Not only that, but going back to what Jesus said in John 13:35, people will know that we are His disciples by how we love one another.
As we obey the Ten Commandments and doing what Jesus has called us to do, we don’t always have warm, fuzzy feelings, especially when we act in love toward people who irritate us, persecute us, and wish to see us suffer or even dead. As Christians, love is what we do. Jesus calls us to live a life of love, not to extend our love only to people we have warm, fuzzy feelings for or those we think deserve it. After all, we don’t deserve God’s love, yet He loves us anyway, so just because we may think people don’t deserve our love doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love them.
Love of Commission
A more concrete definition of how we love people as Christians comes from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
This passage is the cliché of all weddings, which I believe is the primary reason why people mistake this passage as delineating human love in the romantic sense. Rather, Paul is talking about Christlike love. However, we can still use this passage as a guideline to love our significant other, so long as we recognize that it’s describing Christlike love, not solely a romantic love.
The Greek word used for “love” here is the Greek word that virtually every Christian is familiar with: αγάπη (agape). According to the Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, agape is typically used to denote God’s love to man and man’s love to God. It is also rarely used to denote a brotherly love, or charity. There is no sense of romanticism in the word at all. This passage is not describing a love we ought to have for our wife or husband (though it can serve as a guideline for it), but rather the Christlike love we ought to have for all people. We know this because of what Paul said prior to this in verse 3, “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.”
It’s easy to do things for people by just going through the motions or out of obligation, but if you don’t love that you’re doing it for the benefit of that person and for the glory of God, then it means nothing. We aren’t expected to be 100% perfect in this First Corinthians list, but it has been given to us as a guideline on how to love others as Christ does. We ought to pray that Christ empower us to love in these ways to the best of our ability.
Scripture talks of another kind of love, φιλέω (fil-EH-oh), which comes from the Greek word, φιλαδελφία/φιλαδελφός (fee-lah-del-FEE-ah/fee-lah-del-FOS), which is where the city of Philadelphia gets its name, “the city of brotherly love.” Both of those words together only appear three times in the New Testament, all of which are in Revelation, so I won’t be discussing them much. The verb, phileo, is a “focus on consideration of someone as a close friend” (Danker & Krug, 372), which is ultimately translated to the word “love” but with the attitudinal brotherly, or friendly affection, love. Philadelphia “expresses ‘affection/love for a sibling'” and “signifies caring attitude toward members of a fictive kinship group with common interests, namely, fellow believers” (Danker & Krug, 372); hence the translation, “brotherly love” and why we call each other brothers and sisters in Christ. It can also be used to describe the affection one feels for a brother or sister. So if I were to use phileo in the Greek, it would be like saying, “I love you like a brother/sister.”
The book of Philemon is a great example of this Christian agape love. In this letter to Philemon, we see Paul’s genuine Christian love for Onesimus. Onesimus was one of Philemon’s slaves, who had run away, made his way to Rome, and met Paul of all people. In this letter, Paul describes himself as Onesimus’ spiritual father, which tells us that Onesimus became a Christian during his time there. Before Onesimus rebelled and ran away, he might have been lazy; hence his being “useless” to Philemon (v. 11), but now that he is Christian, he has an ostensible usefulness for Christian ministry.
Paul was asking Philemon to free Onesimus because if he didn’t, Onesimus would go back into slavery. A returning runaway slave faced punishment, so the fact that he’s returning strengthens his credibility as a Christian. In verse 13, Paul says, “I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel…” Because Paul led Onesimus to faith, he is now in prison, so for Onesimus to be in slavery as a Christian is just as horrific. Paul continues, “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother — especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (vv. 15-16). So Paul tells Philemon to receive him as a brother in Christ, not as a slave, and Paul offers to pay for anything stolen or damaged when Onesimus fled.
So what does Paul’s example of Christian love to Onesimus mean for us today? Compare Paul’s love for Onesimus to Christ’s love for us. In John 3:16, the aorist (past tense) verb form of agape is used when it talks of God’s love for the world. Agape love is the Christian lifestyle. In spite of Onesimus’ slavery and in spite of what he did in his rebellion against his master, Philemon, Paul led him to conversion and loved him, and so Philemon received him as a brother in Christ. Likewise, in spite of our slavery to sin and rebellion against God, Jesus died for our sins, reconciling us to God, and God receives us as His children. Although we may flee, God still embraces us should we return (see the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32). Therefore, as Christians, we love one another in spite of sin and in spite of unbelief.
What is Christian love? It is the lifestyle in which we act on Christ’s behalf to extend God’s love to everyone around us. Scripture says that “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). God’s appeal is the “message of reconciliation” that Paul talks about in the previous verses, and as His ambassadors—His representatives—we have been entrusted with this message to teach, to guide, and to live. The message of reconciliation is Christ reconciling us to God by being the propitiation for our sins, having taken God’s anger away from us and taking upon Himself the wrath of God on the cross that we justly deserve. As part of this reconciliation, Jesus has taught us how to live as God’s children, and part of that is to love one another so that all will know we are His disciples. By this, people will come to know Christ.
Danker, F.W., & Krug, K. (2009). The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0058%3Aentry%3Da%29ga%2Fph
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