By Matthew Elliot
“Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” (Matt 22:36)
An “expert in religious law,” backed up by the Pharisees, poses this seemingly innocent question to Jesus in an attempt to trap him. Will he agree that some laws are greater than others? Jesus’ answer thwarts their expectations and overturns their religiosity:
“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt 22:37–39)
The Greek term used for love in this passage, agape (ἀγαπή), has often been interpreted as a special type of love—one that embodies rational commitment, our actions, and our will, but not necessarily our emotions. Is this the way we should love God and our neighbor?
Agape: pure and simple
Agape has come to be understood as a love irrespective of emotion. As such, we’ve applied an interpretive lens to New Testament passages employing this form of love.
However, the usage of agape in the New Testament does not provide enough evidence to support this claim. Matthew even uses agape as generic love in reference to money when Jesus says: “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love (agape) the other” (Matt 6:24). In this context, Jesus is saying you can agape money.
The Septuagint—the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that New Testament writers drew on—goes so far as to use agape for immorality and other godless loves.
How did this love myth come about? The idea that love involves our will and actions, but not our emotions, is based on the teachings of Plato and Darwin who thought of emotion as a primitive impulse. They considered reason to come from our higher, more developed faculties.
In contrast to this, the Bible teaches us that we were made in the image of God. Our emotions and our reason were built to function in a relationship—as they do in God himself. Since the fall, both our reason and our emotions are equally broken.
We find instructions for emotions in the Bible. Scripture teaches us not to live in fear, hate, anger or sorrow. “Fear not” is probably the most repeated phrase of comfort in the Bible. But we’re also commanded to embrace feelings of love, joy, and hope: “Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice!” (Phil 4:4).
We often mistakenly believe that God does not care about how we feel. Stripping the emotion out of loving God and others inhibits our desire to live out the gospel.
When we approach Jesus’ greatest commandments without emotion, we drain them of their power to transform. Love that is driven by duty and action only demands so much of us. In contrast, genuine love requires more; we can’t simply check it off our spiritual to-do list. It’s not easy to obey Jesus’ command: “But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you” (Luke 6:27–28). Feeling a real love toward those who are difficult to love requires God’s power to move in us.
The greatest of commandments
The Pharisees attempted to live out a works-based religion. Jesus overturned their sense of law-keeping by identifying love as the greatest command—the heart of the Scriptures: “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (22:40).
When you read “rejoice in the Lord always,” or “love your enemies,” realize that it includes God transforming all of you—not simply your reason, your actions, or your will.
A version of this article originally appeared in the January–February 2012 issue of Bible Study Magazine.