Frequently Asked Questions
- What does “love” mean in the Bible?
- Does the Bible say to love your enemies?
- Who are the neighbors we are supposed to love?
- What is love?
- Are we supposed to love people of other religions, nations or races?
- How should we treat people who are sinners?
- What if my spouse and I don’t love each other anymore?
The English word “love” has many different meanings. It can have affectionate, benevolent, strong liking, romantic, or sexual implications. The Hebrew word aheb, most commonly used in the Old Testament, had a similar range of meanings.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (NIV, Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
The Israelites were also commanded to have sincere good will for each other:
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (NIV, Leviticus 19:18)
What is Love?
Several different Greek words are translated as “love” in the New Testament, and they have more specific meanings than our English word “love.”
Agapao (verb) and agape (noun). This is the “Christian love” of the Bible. It means affection, benevolence, good-will, high esteem and concern for the welfare of the one loved. It is deliberate, purposeful love rather than emotional or impulsive love. Almost all of the New Testament references to love are agapao or agape in the original Greek language. The King James Version of the Bible sometimes translates agape as “charity,” but charity has now taken on the meaning of assistance to the poor rather than benevolent love.
Phileo (verb). This means to love in an impulsive and emotional way. It is seldom used in the Bible, but there is a play on words (lost in English) in John 21:15-17. Jesus says to Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love (agapao) me?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you.” Philadelphia is a related word meaning the love of brothers or sisters (e.g., Romans 12:10). It is often translated “brotherly love.”
All the references below are translations of agapao or agape except as noted.
God’s Love for Mankind
Love is one of the attributes of God and an essential part of His nature:
God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. (NLT, 1 John 4:16)
Our relationship to God is like the loving relationship between a child and parent. Like a loving parent, God knows and cares deeply for each of us:
Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? And yet not one of them is forgotten before God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows. (NAS, Luke 12:6-7)
Like children, some of us return God’s love, and some do not. Nevertheless, He loves all of us. God’s gifts of love and salvation are freely offered to all, even to those who choose the path of wickedness instead:
He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (NIV, Matthew 5:45)
Love the Lord Your God
Jesus said our most important responsibility in life is to love God:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (NIV, Mark 12:28-30)
We demonstrate our love for God by obeying His commandments and Jesus’ commandments (Luke 11:28, John 14:21-24, 2 John 1:6), putting our trust in Him (John 14:1), maintaining a humble attitude (Matthew 18:1-4, Luke 18:9-14), and by prayer (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 18:1-8).
Love Your Neighbor
Our second most important responsibility in life is to love other people. Jesus went on to say,
The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these. (NRSV, Mark 12:31)
All People of the World Are Neighbors
In His Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus explained that we should consider all the people of the world to be our “neighbors.” The Jews and Samaritans were peoples of a different race, different nationality, and rival religions. They had despised each other for hundreds of years and did not even speak. But in the parable, a Samaritan man stopped to help an injured Jewish man and spent his time and money to give him the best care he possibly could. In the conclusion of the parable, Jesus says to, “Go and do likewise.”
Enemies Are Neighbors Too
Just as God loves all His people, so should we. Jesus calls us to extend our love even to our enemies!
You have heard that the law of Moses says, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and on the unjust, too. If you love only those who love you, what good is that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (NLT, Matthew 5:43-48)
“Sinners” Are Neighbors Too
In Jesus’ time, “proper” people looked down on those they considered to be sinners and would not associate with them. But, we are all sinners in our own ways (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). Jesus taught by word and example not to look down on, shun, criticize, judge, or condemn other people (Matthew 7:1-5, Matthew 9:10-13, Luke 18:9-14, John 8:3-11).
Love Is the Greatest of the Spiritual Gifts
The apostle Paul said that Christian love is the greatest and most essential of all the spiritual gifts. Even faith is worthless without love!
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (NRSV, 1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
The Nature of Christian Love
Paul went on to describe the nature of true Christian love in this beautiful passage:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end… And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (NRSV, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 13)
The passage above is often read at weddings, and it is especially applicable to marriage. Romantic feelings and sexual attraction may fade with time, but true unselfish Christian love for each other is the “glue” that can hold marriages together for a lifetime. Related article: What Does the Bible Say About Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage?
Love Is the Essence of All the Commandments
In another of his letters, Paul said loving our fellowman is the way to live by all the commandments:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (NIV, Romans 13:8-10)
God is the source of all our love. Loving God and loving other people are so interrelated that we cannot have one without the other:
We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (NRSV, 1 John 4:19-21)
Related verses: Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 5:21-24, 5:38-39, 6:14-15, 18:21-35, 22:34-40, 25:31-46, Luke 6:27-31, 6:38, 10:25-37, John 13:34-35, 15:9-13, Romans 12:10 (philadelphia), Galatians 5:13-15, 5:22-23, James 2:8-9, 1 Peter 4:8-10, 1 John 4:7-21
Jesus greatly expanded the scope and importance of love, saying love of God and love of fellowman are the most important of all the commandments. The apostle Paul said Christian love was the greatest and most essential of all the spiritual gifts. Throughout the New Testament, we are encouraged and commanded to live in peace with all God’s people (e.g., Romans 12:17-18) and commit ourselves to genuine love and caring for others (e.g., 1 John 3:17-18). Those are the ways we can put our faith into practice in everyday life.