Jesus said that the most important commands are to love God and our neighbour (Mt.22:37-39). He also said that we must love him more than anyone else (Mt.10:37), and that love is the test of whether we are truly his disciples (Jo.13:35). He even said that we must love our enemies (Mt.5:44). So if we are to love God, Jesus, all our brothers and sisters and even our enemies, is there anyone at all whom we should not love? But how is it possible to love enemies? Can anyone really love murderers, tyrants or even those who are unkind? Jesus seems to be asking for the impossible when he says; “ ...do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you ... be merciful ... do not judge ... do not condemn ...” (Lk.6:27-38 N.I.V.).
The Greek language has not only one but three words for ‘love’, so finding which Jesus uses will help us to understand what he means. One is ‘eros’, which means sexual love and does not occur in the Bible, so it needn’t concern us. ‘Phileo’ means friendly love, as of a family member, or someone or something that we like; this is used sometimes. The word most often used is ‘agape’, which means a totally selfless love which desires only good for the person, and doesn’t depend at all on any merit of, or fellow-feeling towards them. An example is “God so loved the world ...” (Jo.3:16). The Breaking-of-Bread is called the ‘agape’ which means ‘love-feast’ (Jude 12) because it celebrates the greatest love, that of God for us in giving his son to save us.
In John 21 when Jesus said to Peter “ ... do you truly love me ...?” (v.15), he used ‘agapeo’ but in his reply Peter used only ‘phileo’, as though saying ‘I am your friend’. The same words were used the second time Jesus asked him; Jesus used ‘agapeo’ and Peter used ‘phileo’. The third time, Jesus himself used ‘phileo’, ‘are you my friend?’ Perhaps this is why Peter was hurt when Jesus asked the third time. Before denying his Lord, Peter had claimed to be more loyal than the other disciples (Mt.26:33) and to be ready to go to prison and death with him (Lk.26:33), but now, after his terrible failure, he was humbled and didn’t dare claim to love in the ‘agapeo’ sense.
Is there any one of us who would dare to claim that we have that ‘agape’ love for Jesus? Possibly ... until we remember that the only way we can show it is by loving others in that way. The ideal situation when we like and have a natural fellow-feeling for all our brothers and sisters is a very rare thing. But ‘agape’ love demands that we behave to them all as we would to Jesus; “ ... whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mt.25:40 N.I.V.). When we understand that ’agape’ can be selfless, not depending on our feelings, we can see that it is possible to love people we don’t like.
Perhaps Peter was thinking of what Jesus said to him when he wrote that believers must love each other (1Pet.1:22). The Revised English Bible has an interesting translation here, which the Greek can mean:
“Now that you have purified your souls by obedience to the truth until you feel sincere affection towards your fellow-Christians (philadelphia), love one another (agapeo) wholeheartedly with all your strength.” If this is correct, it means that when we practise agape love towards each other, that will lead to us getting to like each other better.
One practical suggestion of how to start is always to assume that people have good intentions. If anyone hurts your feelings or does you harm, most likely they didn’t intend to do so; think how often you have unintentionally upset someone. Even if they did it intentionally, it may simply be that they don’t understand you, or that you don’t understand them! It is easier to forgive when we think a person didn’t mean to hurt us, and it is better to forgive when they did mean it, otherwise we keep resentment in our hearts, which does us more harm than them.
Paul gave the ideal we have to aim for in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, which again is well translated in the R.E.B.
“Love is patient and kind.
Love envies no-one, is never boastful, never conceited, never rude; love is never selfish, never quick to take offence.
Love keeps no score of wrongs, takes no pleasure in the sins of others, but delights in the truth.
There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, its endurance.”
Here we have a picture of the Lord Jesus, the only one who has achieved the ideal. May each of us aim to be like him.
Sister Jean Field (Kendal, U.K.)