The Message of Jesus governs how we relate to all people.
Jesus smashed the bounds of family, communal and national love, modelling a boundless love which includes everybody: our neighbour, the stranger and those we deem our enemy.
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Is there a word in the English dictionary that has more shades of meaning than love?
We love our children … and we love a good meal. We love God … and we love our favourite movie. Poets have waxed eloquent about love for millennia and musicians chime lyrical on the subject, too. The Beatles claimed that love is all you need while Tina Turner concluded that love is just a second-hand emotion.
In contrast, the New Testament writers drew from the Greek language which used different words to distinguish between these shades of meaning.
Among the words the Ancient Greeks used were eros, phileo and agape.
Eros is a get-love. While the word is negatively associated with lust (we get the English word erotic from eros), it is “love” based on what we get from something. The New Testament writers chose not to use this word.
Phileo is a give-get-love. It is reciprocal “love”, the basis for all healthy human interchange, and the best we can do as humans outside of God’s help. The New Testament writers used the word to speak of brotherly love; that is, kindness, generosity, hospitality and warm affection shown to others.
Agape is a give-love. This is self-sacrificing love and the word the New Testament writers used to describe God’s self-giving love.
John explicitly defined agape-love as follows:
We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us…”
(1 John 3:16, italics added)
Love is defined by no less than Jesus’ sacrifice.
But John didn’t leave it there; he didn’t allow us to leave it in the realm of what God alone does. He continued:
We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
(1 John 3:16, italics added)
Wow, that’s some standard. Most people know John 3:16 by heart. 1 John 3:16 is another goodie to invest in the memory bank.
Love is not only defined by Jesus’ sacrifice, but it’s also the defining quality of followers of Jesus.
As Jesus said,
By this all people will know that you are My disciples: if you have love for one another.”
This is where it gets practical.
Love Transformed and Expanded
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may prove yourselves to be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors, do they not do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Even the Gentiles, do they not do the same? Therefore you shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
(Matthew 5:43-48, italics added)
This is the one and only time in which Jesus called us to be perfect.
He’s not talking about moral perfection, however; He’s talking about demonstrating God’s love: His self-giving love.
God “causes His sun to rise” and “sends rain” on all without discrimination, free of prejudice. By blessing others, praying for others and doing good without partiality—by loving like God loves—we reflect the Father’s character.
God’s love is totally inclusive, a love that includes not just those we like, but a love that opens its arms to our neighbour, the stranger and even those deemed our enemies.
Jesus’ teaching on the matter was revolutionary. And the scale is often missed.
While most cultures had a reasonable grasp on the concept of family, community and national love, the Jewish people excelled at it.
Informed by the Old Testament, Jewish culture cherished their natural family bonds and took great delight in their communal and national identity as a people. This is a good and admiral thing. There’s much to admire about Jewish culture, as it was founded on the values God instilled in them.
But good became the barrier to God’s loving nature.
Here was the issue. The Jewish devotion to family, community and national love had settled into a rigid cultural border. A tribal love—exclusive to insiders.
And it was abandoned outside of those borders.
Outsiders were not included. Strangers were viewed with suspicion and enemies were hated and avoided.
Jesus took a wrecking ball to these religiously imposed borders with His words in Matthew 5. He further rattled their societal foundations when He said things like,
If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.”
The word “hate” is deliberately provocative.
We know Jesus wasn’t ditching the fourth commandment. We know He meant, “love less”—but used strong language to make a point. What we may miss, however, is that Jesus used the same word the religious teachers used of hating one’s enemy (Matthew 5:43) to underline the point.
The Jewish people had turned family, communal and national love into an idol they prized above obedience to God’s call to embrace the nations.
Jesus transformed the concept of family, communal and national love into agape-love, one without conditions or prejudice. He expanded the borders to include outsiders and kept expanding them to even include those perceived as enemies.
In other words, Jesus pushed the borders so far as to render all borders meaningless.
Everyone is included. No exceptions.
He expanded the concept of family love to include every human being: an unbounded love that shows no partiality, accepting everyone unconditionally—without exception.
God’s self-giving love is the standard that governs how we relate to other people. To all people.
Few believers would downplay the primacy of God’s love.
Sadly, however, it’s often followed by a “but”. “Yes, love is important but in order to define absolute standards…”.
God’s love is often treated like a modern-day monarch. All figurehead, no governmental clout.
However, God’s love ought to GUIDE and GOVERN how we respond to all people, especially those we deem as threats or enemies, AND how we moralise in the public domain.
Think on this deeply for a moment.
On what basis do we define morality and standards of behaviour?
Firstly, it would be good to start with how we define orthodoxy. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed have served God’s people well in this regard for thousands of years. While not on par with Scripture, they help emphasise the substance of our shared unity and common faith.
The Creeds centre primarily on the Godhead and emphasise that we have far more in common with other believers than what we don’t. And what we have in common has far greater substance than what doesn’t. Still, as powerful as they are, maybe they’re not sufficient to guide and govern us on morality.
So, again, on what basis do we define morality?
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.’ Upon these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets.”
To love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. And upon these Great Commandments hang—depend—all the Law and the Prophets; that is, the Old Testament Scriptures.
Importantly, Jesus was not just dumping down 10 Commandments to two. He was saying that self-giving love fulfils the Spirit of God’s heart in a way that the moral code of the Old Testament could not.
Jesus, in fact, did NOT hold up a list of STANDARDS of behaviour that we need to hold others accountable to. Instead, He taught us VALUES that guide and govern us. And agape love is the framework and fuel for these values. As we’ve discussed above, Jesus called us to be perfect in showing love to all (Matthew 5:43-48). And it’s worth reminding ourselves often that His sternest words were reserved for those who compiled lists of standards (Matthew 23:1-39).
Jesus then also repositioned the Golden Rule. While most versions taught a negative-reciprocal morality (“Do NOT do to others…”), Jesus gave us a front-footed, love-based morality: “DO to other what you want them to do to you” (Matthew 7:12).
In his teaching on love and prejudice, James called loving your neighbour as yourself, the “royal law” (James 2:8). Paul summed it up as follows: “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8)—after reminding us that without love, we’re just noise (1 Corinthians 13:1).
What about the 10 Commandments?
Yes, they unpack the baseline of human morality. (Note, the Big 10 aren’t some highwater mark of morality. They’re the baseline, they separate us from the beasts. Loving God and loving our neighbours is the highwater mark.)
However, Paul was emphatic about this. To the Romans, he wrote:
Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”
(Romans 13:8-10, italics added)
Underline that last statement: love is the fulfilment of the law.
And let’s be clear again on the definition of God’s agape love. We’re not talking about the pink and fluffy, warm and fuzzy, sentimental “feeling” version of love. We’re talking about the love defined by no less than Jesus’ self-giving act on the cross—THE standard John had the temerity to call us to live by (1 John 3:16).
Jesus’ self-giving, law-and-prophets-fulfilling, golden-rule, royal-law, unfailing love defines our morality.
To sum up then, Jesus’ comprehensive love-defined morality ought to guide and govern how we relate to others and how we moralise in the public domain.
The Biggest Obstacle
This unbounded self-giving love does not come naturally to us. As human beings, we are deeply suspicious of strangers and develop prejudices with disturbing ease.
In fact, it’s our entrenched biases that quickly morph into monstrous, love-less behaviour such as discrimination and hate.
From the get-go, Jesus actively confronted this beast.
In His first recorded contribution at a synagogue, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah and His audience, no doubt, warmed to the familiar words:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
(Luke 4:18, 19 c. Isaiah 61:1, 2)
Something about the way Jesus read the passage and His brief comments afterwards were enough to cause the audience to marvel at His “gracious words” and wonder about His true identity (v. 22). “Is this not Joseph’s son?” they asked, almost half expecting that He’d take off a mask and cape in some first-century equivalent of a Zorro reveal.
Yet in less than five verses—no more than three minutes of sharing—Jesus went from hot to not. His audience was “filled with wrath”, marched Him out of the city and tried to throw Him “over the cliff” (vv. 28, 29).
What made Jesus go from the flavour-of-the-month one minute to a tart, bitter taste the next?
The audience who heard Jesus quote the prophet that day evidently sympathised with the pathetic cretins who needed help:
- the poor in need of food or shelter,
- those crushed by life’s hardships compounded by society’s systemic injustice,
- the captives who needed a defence—more than likely, victims of a corrupt justice system,
- those in need of healing and counselling, and
- the indebted who needed assistance—those forced into financial debt by the abusive regime of the day; hence, the proclamation of Jubilee, the “acceptable year of the Lord”.
[Quick sidebar: we tend to spiritualise the words of Luke 4:18, 19. And yes, they certainly have application for the spiritually blind and bound, but they refer first and foremost to those physically and materially oppressed by societal and systemic injustice. We tackle this important topic in the article Empire Exposed.]
It seems that they were only too happy to spare a pious moment to think about the plight of the disenfranchised in their midst. And hey, if Jesus was going to fix the problem, then, well, “Goodie for Him. About time someone dealt with the riff-raff and all that stuff, ol‘ chap!”
There’s no question that they were initially placated by Jesus’ reading, moved by His “gracious words” to do … nothing! but nod smugly, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Jesus, of course, was not in the placating business. He turned the temperature up by referring to two examples in the Scriptures: Zarephath and Naaman (vv. 23-27).
Jesus’ synagogue audience was more than happy with Him spouting the need to help the poor in their fold. When Jesus held up two Gentiles as the recipients of God’s blessing, however, and implied they were the sort of people God had in mind, the audience was incensed. Enraged. Jesus was talking about those people!
Jesus poked the beast of prejudice and it awakened violently.
Otherwise devout men turned puce with rage, marching Jesus out of the city intent on murder.
Prejudice lurks deep.
And it is the biggest obstacle to God’s unbounded love.
The Beast of Prejudice
The word “prejudice” simply means “to pre-judge someone”. But there’s nothing simple about it.
It’s a very human sentiment, but not a humane one.
We’re naturally suspicious of who and what we don’t know. These suspicions create a wedge between “us” and “them”.
We develop biases about certain people based on our culture and upbringing, biases that become entrenched when reinforced by our tribe (family, friends, peers, the media, and the like). Certain people become those people.
Our biases harden into prejudices that when poked, flare-up—irrationally so, as though our worst suspicions or fears about those people are a sudden evil to confront or a threat to defend against. It foments wickedness in our world like discrimination, abuse and violence, and it manifests in evils like sexism, classism, ageism, racism and so on.
Jesus confronted bias and prejudice regularly. Indeed, He had centuries of prejudice to slay if the Gospel of the Kingdom was ever going to make it to the Gentiles. Like then, the beast of prejudice is one of the main foes standing in the way of God’s Kingdom project today.
Bias-free, Unprejudiced Love
Following Jesus requires not just dismantling the pre-judgement process in our heads, but also purging bias from our hearts. We yank it out at the root by allowing God’s self-giving love to transform us.
This bias-free, unprejudiced love is not an optional extra. It’s not a lesson for another day.
Those people are His people and therefore our people.
A good question to ask is, who does Zarephath and Naaman represent to you?
People of a certain religion? Those of a certain ethnicity? Those of a certain political persuasion? Those of a certain ideology? Those of a certain sexual orientation?
Think about it honestly. This is so important.
It’s easy to nod our heads to the sentiment of agape-love but prejudice lurks in the depths of our heart and pounces when we least expect it—often in our unguarded moments and in our knee-jerk reactions.
In 1 John 4:8, John wrote,
“He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
Firstly, notice, John didn’t say, “God loves…” Instead, he revealed that “God is love”.
Yes, God certainly loves—the action—but John is peeling back the curtain of heaven to reveal God’s character: who God is, not just what He does.
God loves because of who He is, a Father; His identity defines His actions, not the other way around. And for an utterly self-sufficient, self-existing Being to “be love” speaks outrageous volumes about both His character and the importance of love itself.
To resemble and represent our Father well, agape-love serves as our guiding rule of life and ministry.
Secondly, John implied that knowing God ought to lead to love for others.
Spiritual maturity is not primarily about growing in the knowledge of God; it’s about growing in the love of God.
Yes, the latter requires the former; our love for God and others is informed by knowing God.
However, the latter is the express goal of the former and the true evidence for it. The goal of growing in the knowledge of God is to walk with Him more closely and to thus, reflect His loving nature more fully.
As Paul implied, knowledge in and of itself “puffs up, but love edifies” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Knowledge that does not lead to a big heart leads to a big head.
Not only is self-giving love the true evidence of spiritual maturity, it is also key to keeping the unity of the Spirit and essential to our witness to a sceptical but broken world so in need of the Father’s love.
If we err in other things, let us not err in showing love.
If you haven’t yet explored the Message of Jesus series, I recommend starting there first, as it provides the platform for all we cover on this website.
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