Love has proven to be a great mystery to me, and I’ve spent much of my last five years trying to discover what love is all about. While I have filled more pages of my notebooks than I can easily count documenting my findings on what society, pastors, the Bible, and my own conscience tell me about love, I still couldn’t tell you with any brevity what I think love is. The word “love” encompasses an absolutely vast number of connotations and meanings. It is used in so many different contexts for so many different reasons, I don’t think anyone could give one universal definition for what love really is.
So that is my first problem. I have to distinguish between all the different usage of the word “love,” since it’s used so frequently and variably. I’m not satisfied with merely identifying the different meanings of love, though. What I will attempt to do is address, define, and discuss the most important love. I want to try to explain my knowledge of what biblical love is.
Stop and think to yourself of all the different ways you’ve heard the word “love” used. I know that a plethora of scenarios comes to my mind. Think about a thirteen year old girl talking about how much she ‘loves’ the newest boy band. Think about how much you ‘love’ your pet, or when a husband tells his wife “I love you,” just before he hangs up the phone. In “Anchorman”, does Brick really love lamp? Does he, or is he just saying that? Think about what Jesus meant when he said, “For God so ‘loved’ the world that He sent His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not die but have eternal life,” (John 3:16).
Surely all of these examples can’t be talking about the same love. No one would ever love a boy band enough to die on a cross for them, right? Then again, pre-teens are crazy. I take that back. But seriously, a newlywed husband can’t love his cat in the same way he loves his wife. I might say I love beef jerky, but I also could say I love my brother. So what the heck am I talking about? If the english language wasn’t so confusing, I’d probably think this was hilarious. Using one word for a hundred different contexts only muddies the waters and hinders communication. For any word, that’s bad news, but to convolute a word that’s meant to represent an idea as important as love is heinous. That’s all somewhat beside the point, though. Let’s get back to love.
Love’s importance in the Bible is obvious. When asked what the most well known verse in the Bible is, I’m sure a great number of Christians would recite John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” If love is the central point of the most referenced verse in Scripture, it is safe to assume that love is vital to Christianity. But once again, what is this love? For starters, I’m going to go ahead and rule out some things that biblical love isn’t. Biblical love is not based off of an emotion. Biblical love is also not unsubstantial. What I mean by that is, some people say that love comes and goes like magic. Some people think that one can’t control who they love. That might be true for a different love, but biblical love doesn’t work that way. There is a solid basis for biblical love. Biblical love isn’t hyperbolical. Jesus doesn’t love you like I say I love the movie Tron Legacy. That’s the same kind of colloquial dilution that I just said I despised. Finally, I think it’s important to note that biblical love is nothing that Taylor Swift has ever sung about, ever. Just saying.
With all that, what can we learn? First, biblical love is separate from emotion. Biblical love has a reason and foundation. Biblical love is significant, and it actually means something to love someone. And just to reiterate, it’s nothing Taylor Swift has ever mentioned in any song. Where should we look to see if any of these statements are valid? Well, since I’m trying to explain biblical love, the Bible is probably a good place to start.
If biblical love was based on emotion, we’d all be screwed. I don’t know about you, but I know for a fact that I’ve given God plenty of reasons to not love me emotionally. Mankind’s done a pretty stelar job of destroying His creation. The fact that He claims to love any of us is hard to believe, but the truth of the situation is far more surprising than one would expect. Ephesians 2:3-5 reads as follows:
“All of us [referring to the Christians in Ephesus, and all Christians by extension] also lived among them [referring to gentiles, or non-believers] at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were objects of wrath.”
That doesn’t sound like much of a reason for God to feel any sort of affection towards us. Continue reading, though.
“But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved,” (Ephesians 2:3-5).
What? God loved us even while we were in rebellion against Him? That wouldn’t make any sense if God’s love was simply emotional. If I was God, I’d be pretty pissed off at all the crap mankind has done. World War 2? Slavery? Not highlights. Yet, even in this, God loved us to bring mercy and grace. Romans 5:8 states this idea with greater clarity: “God demonstrates His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus was willing to pay the penalty for our sins without us offering anything in return. He just loved us, period. Jesus probably wasn’t feeling any “warm and fuzzies” when he was nailed to the cross. I’m sure he was experiencing other emotions. It’s more than a feeling.
Clearly, mankind’s merit wasn’t the basis for God’s love. So what was? Well, this goes back to the reason man was created in the first place. Remember that we were made in the image of God to maintain His creation and bring Him glory. What’s not to love? Sin, of course, but the cross brought reconciliation. We’ll get to that. Simply knowing our original intent only explains why God loves us; it doesn’t really say anything as to why we should love one another.
If, in the Bible, we as Christians are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we need to know why and how to follow that commandment. Our why can be found in 1 John 4:7-21. I strongly encourage you to read that passage. It’s chalk full of the most important information humans could ever know. Why should we love God and our neighbors? Love comes from God, God is love, and Jesus Christ is the embodiment and ambassador to the world to show us visibly and personally what biblical love is. Because Jesus is the “visible image of the invisible God,” (Colossians 1:15), the world has experienced walking, breathing love. We’re called to share that love. Once again, look back to man’s purpose. The great commission is a command to spread the love around.
The Bible isn’t kidding, either. We’re called to be in a real love. In 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Paul explains to the church that actions are meaningless without love as their foundation. In addition to describing qualities that an authentic biblical love has, Paul affirms that love gives our actions value. Galatians 5:22 lists the often referenced “fruits of the spirit,” the first of which is (you guessed it) love. Love is the absolute first thing one receives from God through the Holy Spirit upon his/her admittance, confession, and belief. In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, he notes that “Christ’s love compels us,” (5:14), which is simply fancy talk for Jesus’ love motivating us to live according to His will. The love in these passages is a far cry from what I meant when I said I loved Tron Legacy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great move, but I don’t think it’s making my life worth living.
Let’s regroup. So far, I’ve written about what biblical love is not and touched on what it is. I mentioned when referring to 1 John 4:7-21 that Jesus is the physical embodiment of love on earth, but what do I mean by that? I mean that any and all examples of what biblical love is and how Christians should love others are provided to us through the person and words of Jesus Christ. What is love? Put as simply as possible, the Gospel.
This is where things start to get a little hairier. The Bible never tells us individually exactly how to go out and love our “neighbors”, but it does gives us the four accounts of Jesus’ life. What did Jesus do to establish Himself as the definition of and final authority on love? Like I just said, the Gospel. Death, resurrection, union. That’s why John 3:16 is so significant.
Of all the characteristics of God that can be seen throughout Scripture, I’d like to draw attention again to these three: love, justice, and power. These qualities can be seen almost anywhere in the Bible, but for a brief example, just look with me at Genesis 1. God’s power is shown through His ability to create (Genesis 1:3), His justice is shown through his judgement of His creation (“saw that it was good,” 1:4), and His love is shown through blessing His creation (1:28). There are countless other examples in Scripture, but I think Genesis 1 is one of the clearest to see. Now, back to John 3:16, and Jesus in general. Where can we see those traits in the Christ?
It’s time to be as concise as possible, and leave the Scripture reading up to you. John 1:3 and 1:14 tell us that Jesus had the authority over creation to become a man Himself. Throughout his life, Jesus was subject to the same temptation, struggle, and brokenness of the world that every humans is, yet lived without sin (Hebrews 4:15). 2 Corinthians 5:21 notes that since Jesus was flawless, He was a fit sacrifice to bear the sins of the world. After He fulfilled the penalty of Sin through death, God had the power to raise Jesus from the dead (Acts 2:24). Finally, and most crucially to us, the gift of eternal life has been extended to us through His sacrifice, as seen in John 3:16, Ephesians 2:8-9, and Romans 5:18. Of course, the law’s requirements would have been met with our own deaths; Romans 3:23 and 6:23 make that clear. But God wasn’t satisfied with that; out of love He rescued us from the damnation we deserved. We have been greatly loved.
Because we have been loved much, we need to love others. It is the only appropriate response to what Christ has done for us. So who do you love? Rather, who are we called to love? There are three persons, bodies, parties, you get what I’m trying to say, that we need to love after accepting God’s love. To find these three receivers of love, I’ll direct you to Matthew 22:36-40: the greatest commandment.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus says that we are called to love God primarily, and then ourselves and our neighbors. We are to love God first because we must receive love and reciprocate love. Love is give and take. Nothing can be given that is not first received. Loving oneself is next. This love is frequently overlooked, but completely essential. Christians must be right with who they are in Christ before they can extend love to others. Here is a quick encouragement. If you as a Christian have trouble with loving yourself, take comfort and find rest in your new identity. 2 Corinthians 5:17 states that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Your old self doesn’t define you anymore; who you are is determined by who you are in. Loving oneself is a prerequisite to loving others. Jesus’ parable of pointing out the speck of dust in someone else’s eye while ignoring the plank in one’s own is typically associated with judging others, but it can also be applied to how we should love. Christians must know how to love themselves properly before they can love other people properly.
Finally, we are called to love others. In John 13:34-35, Jesus reaffirms this command to His disciples. For Christians, loving others is not optional. It’s mandatory. That includes the people we don’t necessarily like or agree with. Remember, while we were sinners, Christ died for us. If He was so generous with His love, who are we to be stingy? I think Bob Goff might have said that. If so, he gets the credit for that last sentence. I’ll elaborate on the differences between loving one’s friends and loving one’s enemies. Jesus teaches about loving both in Matthew 5:43-48. Friends are easy to love because we like them. Between friends, feelings and interests are mutual. When we love fellow Christians, we show proof of Christ. Loving our friends is a good thing. Loving our enemies is equally important. Enemies are harder to love. Why? Because they suck. And they’re stupid. And they hurt us. And they don’t deserve it. I’m sure you can make your own list for why people resent their enemies. Still, they need love. It doesn’t matter how much you think they don’t deserve it. Remember, you and I are responsible for the murder of the only truly innocent man in history. What do we deserve? Hell. What are we offered? Quite the opposite. We have been the enemy; yet, we were loved much. Now, we need to pass the love.
I’ve covered a lot of material in the last few pages. Let me start to summarize some of this. Biblical love is not Taylor Swift love; it is perfect and the foundation of the Christian faith. Biblical love is separate from emotion (unconditional), substantial (has a basis), and significant (it means something to love someone). Jesus Christ’s death, resurrection, and union with the Father is the definition and lead example of what biblical love is. After receiving love from God, we must love God in return, ourselves in Christ, and our friends and enemies alike.
So what do we do with all this information? What’s the big “so what”? What applications can we draw from what we’ve learned? To find our conclusion, I’d like to return to 1 Corinthians 13, specifically verses 4-7, because it gives us a good picture of what biblical love practically looks like. Ephesians 5:1-21 also describes what a life lived with biblical love is like. Actions display the intentions of the heart. If one truly is a Christian, transformed by the Gospel and living in the Spirit of the Lord, other people should be able to know. Even with that being true, it’d be nearly impossible to live as described in the Bible without having some more specific points to follow. I’ve made my own list of five tips for living in biblical love. By no means are these exclusive, nor are they full proof. I just think they’re helpful.
First, I’d encourage anyone who wants to live out biblical love to be conscious of where biblical love is in their own live. When music plays on the radio or commercials come on the TV, know what’s from T Swift and what’s from Jesus. Second, think about why you do what you do and say what you say. Remember, love gives actions significance. Third, remind yourself of the cross often. If you’re a Christian, how different would your interactions with people be if you were constantly mulling over the implications of the Gospel? I’ll tell you: you’d produce the fruits of the Spirit. Fourth, take in as much love as you need to give out. Note: I didn’t say want to give out, I said need. I’ll keep saying it: we have been loved much, so we are called to love much. This is the part where I tell you as a Christian to pray, read your Bible, and seek fellowship. It’s not a suggestion. Christians need to actively intake the love of God to give it out. Fifth and finally, be generous with love. Love came at a great cost, but it is free for us to give and receive.