One of the most well-known verses in the Bible is Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When taken in context, however, it’s not simply asking us to be nice to people; it’s asking for something much more challenging—and yet something we all deeply long for.
This is about Loving a Neighbor Who Has Wronged You
The words leading up to this famous command make clear that the context is one in which someone has wronged you deeply—so deeply that you have to be told not to hate this person, not to do wrong to this person, not to take revenge on this person, or not to maintain hostility against this person. Instead of all these things, you must love your neighbor as yourself.
“You must not hate your fellow countrymen with your heart;
you may certainly reprove your neighbor,
but you must not [do wrong to them and so] bear punishment because of them;
you must not take revenge,
nor will you maintain hostility against anyone from the members of your people,
but you must love your neighbor as yourself;
I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:17–18)
This is not primarily about extending love to a neighbor you get along with; it is about extending love to a person you have every right to be angry with and doing so in a very practical way: forgiveness. This becomes even more evident by looking at the words for “hate” and “love” and then returning again to the context.
Love: Not First and Foremost a Feeling
The words “hate” and “love” both occur in these verses. We tend to think of these words primarily as emotional: we feel hatred or love toward others. But the Bible thinks of these words primarily as action-oriented: we show hatred or love toward others. Simply stated, “hate” and “love” in the Bible often refer to hateful or loving actionsthat express our heart’s commitment. To use a well-known example, the exhortation in Deuteronomy to “love the Lordyour God with all your heart” (6:5) clearly focuses on a commitment of the heart that results in actions that can be described as loving, namely, obedient service (6:1–3, 6–9). As applied here, the command not to hate means the Israelites must not allow their hearts to commit them to hateful actions toward the neighbor who has wronged them; they must not return wrong with wrong. Similarly, the command to love means the Israelites must commit themselves with their hearts to show loving actions toward the neighbor who has wronged them; they must return wrong with right. And in this context, that has a very particular application: forgiveness.
Love: Choosing to Forgive
Once we remember that the context is one in which we are to show love to someone who has wronged us, it becomes clear what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself”: we must forgive our neighbor instead of treating him or her with hostility. After all, when we have wronged another, what we long for is forgiveness, the choice of the other person not to hold our wrong against us. Here, the Lord tells his people to extend this same act of love to others (and in this way, “to love your neighbor as yourself”). He immediately reminds us that we have the perfect model for this: “you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord” (19:18), the one who so richly and quickly forgives you. As my holy people, go and do likewise, showing the world what I desire to do for them as well. Just as he shows his love to all — even to those who have sinned against him — so must his people do the same.
Jesus makes this point in addressing those who sought to limit this command to friends (Matt. 5:43), emphasizing that it also applies to enemies. He teaches us even to pray for them and explains that only when we show love to all people can we become living examples of God’s generous care and love for the entire world (Matt. 5:44–45). Similarly, when asked to explain what loving our neighbor as ourselves entails, Jesus tells the parable of a good Samaritan who showed practical love and care for a man who would normally be considered his enemy (Luke 10:29–37). He concludes the parable by saying, “Go and do likewise” (10:37), making clear that loving our neighbor means showing the Lord’s love and care to all those we encounter, whether friend or foe, and to do so in very practical ways.
This fundamental command is one of the most quoted verses in the New Testament (Matt. 5:43; 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31, 33; Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8). Only three words in the Hebrew, it does more than thousands of pages of commentary ever could to explain how the Lord wants us to interact with others. As Paul states, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Rom. 13:9; see also Matt. 22:36–40). When we love people in this way, we help them to understand and to experience the love of God himself. This is our calling. This is our privilege.
Dr. Jay Sklar is vice president of academics and professor of Old Testament at Covenant Seminary. This article is adapted from his new commentary Leviticus, coming soon from Zondervan.