Galatians 5:22-23 lists characteristics of genuine Christians. These characteristics are called “the fruit of the Spirit,” and the first fruit mentioned is love. Furthermore, several of the other fruit of the Spirit – longsuffering (i.e., patience), kindness, goodness, and gentleness – also reflect love. [For additional information regarding the fruit of the Spirit, see the appendix to our article titled “Filling versus Indwelling by the Holy Spirit,” which can be accessed by clicking on the title to that article.]
What Does the Bible Say about Loving Other People?
First, let’s consider what Jesus Christ said about loving others. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when we quote a non-biblical source that is using Scripture from a different version of the Bible.]
Matthew 22:37-40 records Christ’s response to the question: [W]hich is the great commandment in the law? In response, He quotes the following passages from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 in the Old Testament:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” [Note:The wording in Mark 12:30-31 is essentially the same.]
Christ’s response leaves no doubt that He regards love for other people as second in importance only to love for God.
The Apostle Paul also stressed the importance of love. In 1 Corinthians 13:1-6, 13, he declares,
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth. . . .”
“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”
The following excerpts from the Adult Learner Guide for Summer 2010 help to clarify the meaning of the first six verses in 1 Corinthians 13:
[A]ll giving isn’t motivated by Christlike love. Sacrificing one’s possessions to feed the poor can be an act of noble benevolence, but it also can be a self-serving action.
Paul pointed out . . . the emptiness even of Christian martyrdom if such a sacrifice wasn’t an expression of authentic love.
Love shows patience [suffers long] with individuals no matter what their circumstances.
The Greek word rendered kind can also be translated “gentle” or “easy.”
Envy is related to jealousy. . . . It seeks only self-satisfaction.
Love is not boastful or conceited [puffed up]. . . . Pride lurks at the root of both conceit and boasting.
Love is not selfish [seeking its own]. Authentic love is the opposite of self-seeking gratification.
The Greek word rendered provoked refers to irritability and unreasonable outbursts of anger.
[W]hen love is in control a Christian doesn’t keep a record of wrongs [thinks no evil]. The image is that of keeping a detailed report in order to settle a score or repay an injury.
Love doesn’t take pleasure in knowing the worst about others [does not rejoice in iniquity].
And in Ephesians 4:31-32, Paul mentions several additional ways for Christians to show love. These verses instruct, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you.”
Agape is the term used to describe the high-quality love that Christians should have for other people. Bill Bright states on page 7 of the Campus Crusade for Christ booklet entitled How to Love by Faith, “Agape is God’s love – the purest, deepest kind of love – expressed not through mere emotions, but as an act of one’s will.” Then on pages 8-9, he asserts,
It is the very same love which the Son [Jesus Christ] demonstrated on the cross in our behalf by dying for our sins. It is this same divine, supernatural, unconditional, everlasting unchangeable love which God has now made available to us with the command that we are to love one another.
This same divine love – agape – is available to us.
[In 1 Corinthians: 13:1-3] we are reminded that, apart from love, anything that we might do for God or man is of no value.
Strong’s Concordance states that agape love “seeks the welfare of all,” “works no ill to any,” and “seeks opportunity to do good to all men.”
The characteristics of agape love are described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, as follows:
Love suffers long [i.e., is patient] and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself [i.e., boast], is not puffed up [i.e., is not proud]; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own [i.e., is not self-seeking], is not provoked [i.e., easily angered], thinks no evil [i.e., keeps no record of wrongs]; does not rejoice in iniquity [i.e., does not rejoice in evil], but rejoices in the truth; bears all things [i.e., always protects], believes all things [i.e., always trusts], hopes all things [i.e., always hopes], endures all things [i.e., always perseveres].
The foregoing indicates that the love we are supposed to have for other people should be genuine, not superficial. And genuine love necessitates that we earnestly strive with both our words and our deeds to show that we truly care about the well-being of other people. But to whom is it necessary to show such love?
As previously noted, Jesus Christ stated in Matthew 22:39 that we should love our neighbor. And in Luke 10:29, when Jesus is asked by a lawyer, “[W]ho is my neighbor?,” He tells a parable about a man (presumably, a Jew) who had been attacked by thieves and left wounded on the road. First a priest and then a Levite (both of whom apparently were also Israelites) passed by without helping the wounded man. Subsequently, a Samaritan helped the wounded man, despite the fact that Samaritans were usually despised by Jews.
After concluding the parable, Jesus asks the lawyer which of the men was the neighbor to the wounded man. The response in verse 37 was, “He who showed mercy on him [i.e., the wounded man].” To this reply, Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” Thus, Jesus makes it clear not only that the Samaritan was the real neighbor, but also that He wants His followers (i.e., Christians) to follow the Samaritan’s example.
Should Christians Love Even Their Enemies?
The preceding discussion makes it clear that our agape love should include strangers. But what about people we don’t like, especially those who have severely offended us? Certainly, having agape love for such people is difficult. However, having agape love for someone does not require us to have a positive feeling about that person. Agape love requires an act of our will, as previously stated by Bill Bright. The New Testament does not say that we need to like a person, but it does say that we should love them. Consider the two following scripture passages:
In Matthew 5:43-44, which records a portion of Christ’s so-called “Sermon on the Mount,” He states,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
And in Luke 6:27-28, 32, Christ asserts,
“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you.”
“But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.”
So, because Christ stated that we should love even those whom we regard as our enemies, we should love everyone, and our love should be genuine, not superficial. But how can we genuinely love people we don’t like, including our enemies?
On pages 29-30 of his previously cited booklet, Bill Bright states,
[W]e cannot love in our own strength. . . . Many of us refuse to love certain other people. We love only those who are easy to love. . . . [I]n our natural ability, we have neither the power nor the motivation to love them.
When we are controlled by the Spirit, we can love with God’s love [i.e., agape love].
Then on page 32 of his booklet, Bright says,
[W]e know that it is God’s will for us to love. We also know that He would not command us to do something that He will not enable us to do. In 1 John 5:14-15, God promises that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears and answers us. Relating this promise to God’s command, we can claim by faith the privilege of loving with His love.
Nevertheless, many people who claim to love God don’t have genuine love for other people, perhaps with the exceptions of their family and close friends. Certainly, some of these include people who have been so deeply offended by certain other people that they choose not to love them. How does the Bible address these situations?
1 John 4:8 declares, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
And 1 John 4:20-21 asserts,
If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also. [Note: The term “brother” in this passage probably refers to people of the same nationality or even to all mankind, rather than to just a literal brother.]
Because each Christian is expected to show love for everyone, the implication of the last two cited scripture passages is that if a person claims to be a Christian but chooses not to love everyone, that person does not really love God and, therefore, there is serious doubt that that person is a genuine Christian.
In his widely acclaimed book entitled The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren says,
Because God is love, the most important lesson he wants you to learn on earth is how to love. [Page 123]
If I have no love for others, no desire to serve others, and I’m only concerned about my needs, I should question whether Christ is really in my life. [Page 228]
But doesn’t the Bible infer that it is permissible to hate some types of people? Jesus said in Matthew 5:43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” This seems to imply that the Old Testament commands people to hate their enemies. Perhaps, even more troubling is the statement that Jesus made in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.”
In contrast, there are a number of other passages in the Bible that teach us not to hate other people, even our enemies (e.g., Matthew 5:43-44; Luke 6:27; Ephesians 5:25, 33; 1 John 3:14-15). How can this matter be reconciled?
With regard to Matthew 5:43, Geisler and Howe state on page 333 of their book,
God never commanded His people at any time to hate their enemies. . . . God is an unchanging God of love . . . and He cannot hate any person, nor can He command anyone else to do so. . . .
Why then did Jesus say the OT taught that we should “hate our enemy”. . .? He didn’t, and for a very good reason. Nowhere in the OT can any such verse be found. In fact, Jesus is not quoting the OT here, but the pharisaical misinterpretation of the OT. Notice, Jesus does not say “it is written,” as He often did when quoting the OT. . . . Rather, He said, “you have heard,” by which He meant the Jewish “tradition.” . . . The truth is that the God of love commanded love both in the OT and NT and never at any time commanded that we hate other persons.
And, with regard to the Luke 14:26 passage, Haley notes on page 286 of his book, “The word ‘hate’ is sometimes used in the Bible in the sense of to love less.” And, he adds, “When the Hebrews compared a stronger affection with a weaker one, they call the first love, and the other hatred.” Haley goes on to say, “The very fact that, in the first text [Luke 14:26], the man is spoken of as hating ‘his own life,’ indicates the figurative or relative sense in which the term is there employed.”
Additional perspective regarding the meaning of Luke 14:26 is provided by comparing that passage with Matthew 10:37, which says, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.”
In this regard, Craig Blomberg, on page 121 of his book entitled The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, says,
At first sight Matthew appears drastically to tone down his version. . . . But Matthew’s paraphrase is a fair interpretation of what Jesus’ harsher sounding statement in Luke meant; in semitic language and thought, ‘hate’ had a broader range of meanings than it does in English, including the sense of ‘leaving aside,’ ‘renunciation’ or ‘abandonment.
Moreover, as G. B. Caird explains on pages 178-179 of The Gospel of St Luke, “[T]he semitic way of saying ‘I prefer this to that’ is ‘I like this and hate that.’. . . Thus for the followers of Jesus to hate their families meant giving the family second place in their affections.”
In light of the preceding information, especially from the Bible scriptures, it should be evident that Christians are supposed to demonstrate agape love – the purest, deepest kind of love – to everyone, including their enemies.