A Deeper Look at the Greatest Command: Love
- Bethany Verrett Writer
- 2020 14 Feb
Love. The world obsesses about it. If it is lacking in an individual’s childhood, that person may spend their life chasing after it. People will pay to find a spouse. Thousands of songs are about it, and everyone seeks it in one way or another. The Word of God is not silent on the subject of love that seems to be all-consuming in human existence - it is the greatest commandment stated in Scripture. Rather than writing to a life-advice columnist, consulting personality traits, or giving up on understanding the questions and frustrations that arise in human relationships, turn to the Bible.
Whether it is love of family, friends, spouse, or the love between God and man, there is a Biblical answer for the question. Love is one of the most pervasive themes in Scripture, and it is the foundation for understanding the message of the Gospel.
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What Is Love?
Love can be complicated to define, especially since different languages have different words for different types of love. It is also dynamic, manifesting differently depending on the relationship between the individuals or groups.
In English, the Dictionary definition of love is, “a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person; a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection, as for a parent, child, or friend.”
But how does this compare to the Biblical definition of love? There is an entire chapter of 1 Corinthians dedicated to defining it. These verses are used often in weddings.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
In the Bible, the characteristics of love itself are the focus, rather than how it manifests between people. Where the Dictionary focuses on what it is, the Bible defines love by the traits it expresses.
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What Are the Four Types of Love in the Bible?
While English only has one word for love, the Greek had more. In the Greek, the Bible focuses on four. One of the best texts about these four Greek words for love is The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis, and is an excellent philosophical resource on the topic.
This type of love is the one that can be described as the bond of empathy through fondness, family ties, and familiarity. It is the kind of natural love that forms between people. Even the pagan and the natural man have this love.
Also known as brotherly love, it is the affection between true friends, formed outside of biological friendships. A Biblical example is the friendship between Jonathan and David. It is a meeting of the minds, and - because it comes from no pre-supposed attachment - the most unnatural bond, in Lewis’ opinion.
This love is of a romantic nature, but it is more than mere lustful attraction. Instead, this love manifests as being in love with one’s spouse. It is the act of picking a partner and committing to that one individual in the covenant of marriage as ordained by God.
Considered the greatest of the four loves, it is the love called charity. It exists regardless of circumstances and is selfless. It is the highest Christian virtue.
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What Does the Bible Say about Romantic Love?
Many can associate Christianity with familial love and love of God, and have a difficult time understanding just how important romantic love is to God. He has an entire book of the Bible dedicated to it - the Songs of Solomon! There are also several passages that focus on marriage, the natural place God intended for romantic love to flourish.
In the Song of Solomon, there is a dialogue between a man, Solomon, and a woman, who fall in love. The bride declares, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine” (Songs of Solomon 1:2). The groom compliments his bride’s beauty. Despite highs and lows in the relationship, the bride and groom reconnect. It is an entire book of the Bible dedicated to romantic love, sex, and marriage.
In Ephesians 5, the Apostle Paul writes about how a husband and wife ought to show appropriate love to one another beyond the romance. Often men and women struggle to show one another affection and love, in part because they show and receive love differently. To husbands, Paul reminds them to, “...love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Wives are reminded to respect their husbands in verse 33 of the same chapter, “...and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” Men, on average, want to be respected, while women, one average desire more affection. While this statement may not necessarily be universal, it is a good base and starting point.
Marriage is a symbol, and a foreshadow of the reunion of Christ with His church. The love between a man and a woman is powerful and should be treated with reverence. It is an image of the great wedding feast in Revelation 16. Before this great marriage feast, God ordained romantic love to be the bond in earthly marriage.
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What Does the Bible Say about Familial Love?
The family is the core institution that God establishes for people. Through familial love, children grow up into healthy individuals. It is how values are passed from one generation to the next. When there is a lack of love in family units, it often does years of hurt, and leaves lasting scars.
Within the family, love begins with husband and wife, and passes onto their children. Within the family unit, the children are to show their love by obedience to their parents. One of the Ten Commandments is to “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).
Respect is one of the ways that people show love to one another, and this is especially true in the parent-child dynamic. A loving parent should have rules and boundaries to protect their children in the same way God has rules and boundaries for people, His children; “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Hebrew 12:7). The line for parents is that this discipline should resemble God’s discipline. It comes from a place of love, rather than wrath.
The Bible is full of examples of loving parents. Hannah - Samuel’s mother- Mary, and Timothy’s mother all illustrate strong maternal love, raising their sons up in the way of the Lord. Job prayed for his children every day, as a loving father. Joseph serves as an illustration of how step-parents can play important roles in the rearing of a family. Though some dismiss the role of Joseph, the Bible gives evidence of his fatherly love for Jesus when Mary exclaims to Jesus, “Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress” (Luke 2:48b). Joseph cared as much as Mary.
These principles of love, discipline, and respect are the foundations for a strong family, where children learn to love others. It is in the family that future generations learn how to love, and so parents define what real love looks like for their children, a serious responsibility.
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What Does the Bible Say about Loving My Neighbor?
The command to love one’s neighbor is ever-present in both Testaments, but it is clarified by the Lord Jesus: “Jesus answered, ‘The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31). The way Jesus presents it, loving God is first, loving your neighbor is second. But they are intertwined. When others ask Jesus who should be considered one’s neighbor, He shares the story of the Good Samaritan, showing that everyone and anyone should be considered a neighbor.
How then should a believer treat others, their neighbors? The Bible addresses this topic in several key verses and passages:
Galatians 5:13-15 “ For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”
Here, the Bible shows that love is where true freedom is. There are no limitations to the brotherly love one can show, especially through acts of service. Love does not turn against its neighbor, but gives through sacrifice with joy.
James 2:8-9 “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
In these verses, and the surrounding verses, the epistle writer emphasizes that love does not show partiality to status or wealth. It is for all, and should be shown equally to everyone. If one is kind to the wealthy and powerful, but ignores others, then one is not showing the same love as Jesus.
Deuteronomy 10:19 “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
This command in the law reminds the Hebrews that at one point in their history they were strangers in a strange land, and that part of loving like God means loving that person who does not resemble oneself. In context, this command also meant loving those of another faith. A great example of this kind of love towards strangers is the kindness initially shown by Boaz to Ruth when the Moabites come to glean in his fields.
Romans 12:9-13 “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”
This passage from Romans covers several types of love, as well as how it manifests. It is sincere, and wants good things. It is honorable and seeks to serve. It responds to needs, especially the needs of fellow believers.
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Why Is Love the Greatest Command?
God’s very nature is that of love, though man’s sinful nature runs counter to it. When believers (and non-believers) demonstrate love, they are acting in accordance with the way God intended them to be. It is conforming to the image of Christ.
Beyond love that conforms to the image of God, of the greatest virtues - faith, hope, and love - the one that will last through eternity is love. “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Corinthians 13:8). One day the faith will be made sight, and the hope of the believer fulfilled, but the love of God shall endure for eternity.
God is love, and His love endures. If love defines God, and shall last forever, then Christians should strive to seek and show that love. Because humanity was created in the image and likeness of God, people love. 1 John 4:19 sums it up well: “We love because he first loved us.” All love amongst all people exists because a loving God imbued His created children with His nature.
Bray, Gerald. God Is Love A Biblical and Systematic Theology. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.
Gowdy, Rick. Agape-Love How Important Is It Anyhow? United States of America: Xulon Press, 2007.
Lewis, Clive Staples.The Four Loves. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2017.
Minter, Kelly. What Love Is. Nashville: Lifeway Christian Resources, 2014.
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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer and editor. She maintains a faith and lifestyle blog graceandgrowing.com, where she muses about the Lord, life, culture, and ministry.