People long to love and be loved. Consider the countless love stories, songs and poems that have been written! Romanticists sing the praises of love, as in the song "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing!" It seems the world is in love with love.
The word love can mean many things, as can be seen from the numerous dictionary definitions. We also find many kinds of love in the Bible.
Love usually refers to strong feelings, and feelings are important. God wants us to really feel love for Him and for other people. But we will see that God also wants us to experience a greater love that transcends human emotions.
Many people go through life receiving very little human love. However, God's plan is for every person to eventually experience His love flowing to him and through him—so fully that each can honestly say, "My cup runneth over with love."
Ironically, when people are desperately trying to understand the "mystery of love," they seldom read the greatest book ever written about relationships, the Holy Bible. If you study it for yourself, you will learn far more about love than we can cover in this introduction to the subject. This brief look is meant to help you get started.
The greatest love and examples of love
Many of the examples of human love in the Bible didn't involve any special help from God. Even without His help, people can have a grateful type of love and appreciation for their Creator.
But the Bible also reveals how we can experience love for God and love for people that far exceeds mere human capability! This highest and purest form of love is God's divine and sublime love that He offers to share with us!
In fact, love summarizes and epitomizes the ultimate nature of God. "He who does not love does not know God, for God is love" (1 John 4:8, emphasis added throughout). We can learn about love from Love Himself. God wants to transform us so that our character is also defined by love.
First, consider God's decision to create human beings. He didn't need us. And God knew what to expect initially from His wayward creatures—mostly grief. But because of God's desire to share everything with others, He is creating "sons and daughters" for His expanding family (2 Corinthians 6:18).
Even before creation, God the Father and the One who became Jesus Christ knew that to transform human beings spiritually and bring them into the Kingdom of God, Christ would have to sacrifice His life for humanity's sins (Hebrews 10:12; Revelation 13:8).
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). That greatest-ever demonstration of love was the ultimate sacrifice God the Father and Jesus Christ made for each of us.
What was "new" about the love Jesus Christ taught?
The two "great commandments" Jesus emphasized were not new. Contrary to what many people think, the Old Testament is full of teachings about love. But Jesus Christ taught a whole new level of love and set a never-before-seen example of love! Let's see what was new about it.
A man well-versed in scriptural law, trying to test Jesus, asked Him which was "the great [most important] commandment in the law" (Matthew 22:36). Jesus answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37).
This is the answer the lawyer probably expected, since Jesus was quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, a passage known as the Shema (after the first Hebrew word in it), which had become the Jewish confession of faith, recited twice daily by the pious.
But Jesus then went beyond what was specifically asked, saying, "And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matthew 22:39). This was not a new commandment, since Jesus was quoting Leviticus 19:18.
But it seems the Jews had not coupled it with Deuteronomy 6:5 as another "great" commandment. Therefore, the first thing we notice is that Jesus raised "love your neighbor" to a much higher level of importance.
Jesus also expanded the concept of "who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29). He told the parable of the good Samaritan, which shows that God wants us to regard everyone as a "neighbor" we would gladly assist in any way we could. We are to be neighborly to all, regardless of race, nationality or social class (Luke 10:30-37).
Nowhere does the Old Testament say, "Hate your enemy," but that had become the traditional thinking by Jesus' day (Matthew 5:43). Jesus then shocked everyone by saying the opposite: "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" (Matthew 5:44). This was a "hard saying" and revolutionary, as it is completely contrary to human nature.
When the Bible speaks of love, note that love has more to do with what we do than what we think or feel. For example, consider the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12), usually paraphrased as: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Works are more important than words, although what we say is an extremely important part of how we treat people (James 2:22-26).
Interestingly, this emphasis on action and commitment is indicated by Jesus' choice of Greek words. Usually Jesus used the most general word for love— agape as a noun or agapao as a verb—which implies thought-out decisions and determined effort to show love. Occasionally He used phileo, which implies affectionate feelings.
Understanding how the word hate is often used in the Bible helps us to understand the meaning of love. Both usually emphasize action. Treating someone badly is equated with hate and treating someone well is equated with love.
Therefore, when Jesus said, "Love one another," He meant for us to show love even when it is not natural or easy—even when the other person is not appreciative or responding. When Paul wrote, "Husbands, love your wives" (Ephesians 5:25), he meant that we should treat our wives lovingly all the time, even when we don't feel like it. And generally, the more we show love, the more we will feel love.
Christ's perfect example of love
Jesus said, "A new command I give you: Love one another" (John 13:34, New International Version). What was "new" about it? The second half of the verse explains: "As I have loved you, so you must love one another."
Jesus' teachings about love set the highest standards ever (Luke 6:27-38). And He backed them up with His perfect example, showing a love greater than the world had ever seen!
First, consider how Christ was willing—for the sake of mankind—to sacrifice His heavenly glory and power to be incarnated as a mere human being (Philippians 2:5-11).
Second, He continually "went about doing good" for everyone as a humble servant—teaching, encouraging, healing the sick, comforting the oppressed (Acts 10:38; Matthew 8:1-17). He "did not come to be served, but to serve" (Matthew 20:28).
Jesus said, "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:13). Jesus laid down His time and energy continually, and then laid down His very life for His beloved. He was willing to go through the most terrible suffering and then death—for each and every one of us.
So we see from Christ's teachings and example that godly love is deep outgoing concern for and generous giving to others. And it is a continual willingness to be self-sacrificing so we can assist others. It is the opposite of selfishness and self-centeredness.
Learn to love as God loves
We can learn how to love God and to love others by following the Bible's examples, teachings and laws. "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3).
God showed His love to us by giving us His perfect laws. We show our love for God by obeying those laws. The first four of the Ten Commandments tell us how to love God and the last six tell us how to love our fellow man.
Other biblical laws give us further details on how to apply the Ten Commandments. To understand all this and why the author of Psalm 119 exclaimed, "Oh, how I love Your law!" (Psalm 119:97), read the free booklet The Ten Commandments.
We can also learn godly love by being in fellowship with other believers in God's Church. True Christians are to love all people, plus they are to have a special love for each other. We "ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (1 John 3:14-18).
Jesus made it clear that the main way we show our love for God is by acts of mercy and service to His other children. Jesus said, "Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me" (Matthew 25:40; compare 1 John 4:20-21).
The original Christians were wonderful examples of ideal brotherly love (Acts 2:41-47; Acts 4:31-37). Jesus said that "love for one another" was to be the primary distinguishing feature of His disciples (John 13:35).
The fruit of God's Spirit is love
Our human efforts alone can never produce godly love. But the good news is this: People can have the divine-type love toward God and toward other people if—if—they have the indwelling of God's Spirit.
The apostle Paul referred to it as "the love that comes from the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:30, Contemporary English Version). He said God's Spirit is the Spirit "of power and of love and of a sound mind" (2 Timothy 1:7).
To the Galatians he wrote, as we are exploring in this article series, that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering [patient endurance], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). Love tops the list because it is first in importance! It also encompasses all the other aspects of the fruit of the Spirit.
The previous article in this series explains God's Holy Spirit. The key scripture on how to attain God's Spirit is Acts 2:38, which says, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission [forgiveness] of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
For those of us who have received God's Spirit, "God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit" (Romans 5:5, NIV). We begin with a little love, but God helps us to keep growing until we have a lot of love. In fact the previous verses outline the step-by-step growth process made possible by God's love and Spirit (Romans 5:1-5).
By His Spirit, God offers us a continual supply of His limitless love. He continually fills our wells so that we have plenty to give to other thirsty people. An analogy Christ used is that His love is like a river that comes from the great Source and will flow through us (John 7:38).
God will keep His love flowing into us as long as it keeps flowing out from us. It must flow back to God—a grateful, reciprocal, responsive love for God—and it must flow out in love and service to other people. The more you give it away, the more you will have. And the more you love others, the more you will be loved.
Loving in a world of hate
When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he was alarmed that bad influences were causing them to lose their love for one another (Galatians 5:13-26 - Galatians 6:1-10). They were exhibiting more "works of the flesh" than the "fruit of the Spirit." Today, the influences toward hatred and selfishness are even worse.
Paul wrote that "in the last days, perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves . . . without natural affection . . . lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God . . ." (2 Timothy 3:1-4, King James Version).
And Jesus, foretelling conditions in the end time, said that "because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold" (Matthew 24:12).
All around us we see indifference, resentment, anger, abuse and even cruelty. There is more loneliness and heartbreak in the world than real love.
But the return of Jesus Christ will bring about the fulfillment of this prophecy of Ezekiel 36:26: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh"—that is, a soft, yielding heart instead of a hard, stubborn heart.
In the meantime, we can swim upstream against the world's influence. With God's Spirit, each of us can be a light of love in the midst of the darkness.
God initiates—let us respond
All true love comes ultimately from God: "We love Him because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19). God takes the lead in establishing the relationship.
God's calling is like a marriage proposal. It is up to us to respond by humbly submitting and committing to Him. If we do, God will love us forever and will forever fill us with His love.
When God's people are "led by the Spirit of God," that Spirit produces wonderful and abundant "fruit to God" (Romans 8:14; Romans 7:4).
And of all the aspects of the fruit of the Spirit, the loveliest is—love.