What is Love?

It’s Valentine’s Day. “Love” gets thrown around a lot, in Christian and non-Christian circles alike. But what does it actually mean?

What did God mean by saying he loved Jacob and hated Esau (Malachi 1:2-3)? How could God, who is love (1 John 4:8), hate anyone? The use of love and hate here isn’t meant to conjure up the emotions we typically associate with those words. It’s simple—God chose Jacob. There was a preference. A priority. He chose Jacob to carry on the ancestral line of His people that would one day bring His son into the world as a man. He still blessed Esau’s people greatly, they just weren’t chosen (see Genesis 36). Why did Jesus say “unless you hate your mother and father (and even your own life) you cannot be my disciple”? (Luke 14:26) Again, this is in no way meaning you should abhor, detest, or despise your parents. Rather, you have to make a clear choice who you are going to follow. Who are you going to make the lord of your life? If that choice isn’t Jesus, if you don’t commit to bearing your cross daily, if you don’t consider the cost and pay it—you can’t be His disciple. A clear preference, a clear priority (the *only* priority).

So then, love involves making a choice, showing a preference. I choose Jesus, what about you?

If I choose Jesus, what does that mean? Jesus says this (recorded in John 14:15): “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

Hmm… That seems pretty broad. What about those commandments? We might be tempted to think like the Pharisee who asked him “just what is the most important commandment?” The Pharisee was trying to trick Jesus into saying parts of the God’s law weren’t valid, but Jesus’ response (as always) was perfect: And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Love God. Love others. Choose God. Choose others? If we choose everyone, how can we give everyone priority over everyone else? If I can’t actually walk that out, that “love” really amounts to nothing. This gets a little tricky, and I anticipate some pushback on some of this, but I hope you’ll at least give this some real thought. I do not claim to have a full understanding on anything, much less this, and always appreciate thoughts and comments.

Don’t misunderstand any of what follows here—I do not dispute at all that we should be a people that has love for all mankind. After all, the phrase “love your neighbor as yourself” from Matthew 22 is also recorded way back in the Old Testament (at least twice—Leviticus 19:18 and Leviticus 19:34). One of those (19:34) is explicitly talking about showing love towards a stranger sojourning through your land. However, it is true that the vast majority of the commands we have in the New Testament about love is in the context of loving within the body of Christ. I heard someone describe that fact as the best kept secret in New Testament studies. While all mankind is created by God, we are not all adopted as His children until we become born again into new life in Christ (John 1:12-13). There’s just something different when it comes to love among those in the family of believers.

This may be where you would expect a breakdown between the different Greek words for love. Many of us have heard sermons on that very topic I’m sure. I contend that those distinctions do very little for us in furthering our understanding of love. In fact, there’s a mountain of evidence that John himself used “agape” and “phileo” interchangeably throughout his gospel. These are separate articles (here and here) that I found very helpful on this topic, but I don’t want to derail from the pertinent train of thought now.

I think the better way to think about love is to see what is presented as the interaction among people as recorded in the Scriptures. How did the people in the church interact with each other? How did the people in the church interact with those outside the church?

I will make no attempt here to cover all the passages about love in the Bible. I hope that as you read this, other passages that I don’t mention will come to mind and you will share it with all of us. We grow by working together! That being said, a key passage of Scripture we should focus on here is John 13:34-35. It reads: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.””

ONE ANOTHER. Not the whole world. Your brothers and sisters in the faith. And it’s by that that “all people” will know who we are.

I also like how Peter lays out these priorities in 1 Peter 2:17: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

Who gets your honor? Everyone. (Notably, the “emperor” gets nothing more than the rest of the world…)

Who do you fear? No one but God. Not death. Not even that scary political party you oppose (Matthew 10:28).

Who do you love? Your brothers and sisters in the faith.

Does this sound strange? I think God’s wisdom often does the first time we see it. But we must remember that we shouldn’t try to advance God’s Kingdom using the world’s ideas.

Let’s get down to the bare bones. I choose Jesus, I want to follow His commandments, and I want to love God and love others. Now what? We already referenced Luke chapter 14. Jesus is telling His disciples that they must weigh the cost to follow Him. I once had a friend respond to the old saying of “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” with a sincere rebuttal that “there is one thing that is free—your salvation.” I appreciate what he meant, but I took the opportunity to point him to this section of Luke. Our salvation isn’t free—it cost Jesus His life, and it should cost us ours! Fact: love is expensive. It takes effort, energy, resources. It takes action.

John 21:15-19 is one of those passages commonly used to discuss the different Greek words for love (and is the basis for the articles linked above). I agree with those authors that this could divert us from the true meaning of this passage (not to mention, the context more than suggests the two Greek words for love there are used interchangeably). The main ideas in this passage revolve around Peter having a chance to move on from his denial of Jesus before the crucifixion (John 18:15-18,25-27) and the fact that loving Jesus will mean action (feeding/tending the flock) and sacrifice (the foreshadowing of the martyr’s death Peter would face for his faith). Jesus is teaching Peter what his love will mean and what it will look like to live that out.

We referenced John 14:15 earlier. Let’s look at a few more passages that show us that real love is active (also take note of the direct reference to the body in some of these):

Matthew 25:37-40 – “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And 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.’”

James 1:22 – “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”

James 2:14-18 – “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

1 John 3:18 – “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

With all of that in mind, let’s walk out the idea of “love everyone” as we talked about earlier. What would it look like? For instance, if showing love means sharing resources, I could give a penny to as many people as I could until I completely ran out of money. It wouldn’t take long and it wouldn’t go far. Who would benefit? Who would actually feel loved?

Unfortunately, we have limited resources. Churches all across America undoubtedly have difficult decisions about what can be supported in their budgets and what (or who) has to be cut out. How should we make those decisions? How might those that don’t make the cut interpret our “love”?

Let’s look at Israel. God’s sovereign plan was to have a chosen nation of people for a time in history. God’s Son would come into the world in the flesh through that nation, and He would usher in the good news of the coming of God’s Kingdom—a Kingdom that transcends any national/geographic/ethnic boundary. Israel had a special role in this plan. The mission of Israel was to be a set apart people. They weren’t even supposed to marry outside of their own people. They were supposed to be a light on the hill. A beacon of light that shone in the darkness of the rest of the world. While they were certainly supposed to provide for the exiles and sojourners that passed through their land (Leviticus 19:34), that display of love was an overflow of their love for each other. They cared for each other well enough that they could afford to care for others that passed through. Their efforts were to be focused on displaying the great love and righteousness of the Father to the rest of the world’s nations (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)—but not by expending all of their efforts outward, but rather living as the people of God in perfect unity and love.  

Likewise, now we in the church are a set apart people. We are sojourners and exiles in this world (1 Peter 2:9-12). Like Israel was in the past, we are now supposed to be the light that outsiders see. What’s the best way we shine that light? Again, John 13:34-35 is key here. If we display the love for one another that we are called to, the light of God’s Kingdom shines outward. Those outside looking in can see the kind of love that exists in Christ—a true and sacrificial love. Those outside get a picture of what the Kingdom is about. It’s with that information that they can decide if being a citizen of God’s Kingdom is something they want (or not). If we expend all of our energy outward and leave nothing for the body, we leave nothing for each other and leave nothing for an outsider to look at. By doing that, we try to “create” God’s kingdom on the outside while simultaneously neglecting the actual Kingdom inside. No, God’s wisdom is that if we love each other in the body well, that love will overflow and shine out. If we love each other in the body well, we give those outside an accurate picture of what it means to be God’s children.

Jesus says (recorded in Matthew 5:14-16): “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Peter records a similar teaching in 1 Peter 2:12: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

People on the outside will be looking at us. What picture are we giving them? Do they see that we love each other so much that we consider other brothers and sisters more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4)? Do they see nonsensical (by the world’s standards) acts of sharing (Acts 4:32)? Do they see an inexplicable bond between people who otherwise would have nothing to do with each other (such as the Jews and Greeks in the first century, 1 Corinthians 12:12-13)?

1 Corinthians 13 is known by many even outside the church as the “love chapter.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 is the most commonly quoted passage. Contrary to popular usage, this passage wasn’t written to be read at weddings. (I get it, the definitions of love carry over to marriage, but let’s not forget about the actual context!) Rather, the description of love that Paul lays out is a beautiful picture of love that unites the family of God. The kind of love that overshadows all the former differences we may have had in the flesh that are no longer relevant in the Spirit (2 Corinthians 5:16-17). The kind of love that covers over a multitude of sin (1 Peter 4:8). This is the kind of love that we should have for each other as members of the body of Christ. It’s a special love for the most special family.

I certainly believe that as we have opportunity, we should do good deeds, showing love, to outsiders; BUT the preference, the priority, should be the church (Galatians 6:10, 1 Thessalonians 5:15, Acts 11:27-30, 1 Timothy 5:8).

Again, please don’t misunderstand my thoughts here—we must have a loving attitude toward the outsider! But don’t forget your greater mission as a citizen of God’s Kingdom. The most effective show of love for the outsider is letting them see the love they could experience as an insider. Work in your own circles of influence to be a good neighbor, and seek opportunities to introduce those neighbors to your Kingdom community. As described so well by John Nugent in his book “Endangered Gospel,” let’s quit trying to make the world a better place, and let’s focus on BEING the better place in this fallen world. The church is special, so let’s live and love like we actually believe that.

Share your thoughts!