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What is love? Part 6: revisiting the standard definition

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3 minutes to read What does it mean that God is love, that he loves us, and that we are to love him? In part 6, I return to the broader definition of love, to demonstrate how to presupposes onetogetherness, but also points us to other biblical concepts.

You might wonder why I’m finishing this series by revisiting (briefly) the standard definition—after all, I’ve spent five posts arguing for and explicating a completely contrary definition of love as onetogetherness.

But remember what I said at the beginning of this series: while love is a concept we should carefully develop by studying all of Scripture, our understanding of it starts with commonsense, human-level definitions. And God knows that, and he knows that many (perhaps most) Christians won’t develop their understanding of love even in the relatively rudimentary way I’ve documented in this series. So I think it’s important, given how language works and how God uses it, to ask:

Does love in the Bible always mean something like unity?

Because the honest answer is obviously no. When the Bible speaks of love, unity is not necessarily the main focus of the passage, or perhaps even an intended focus at all. In fact, if it were, the standard definition of love would probably not be standard.

For example, when Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-17), it is unlikely the rough-and-ready fisherman interpreted the question through a sophisticated lens of love developed out from the Trinity. He probably understood Jesus more as an unschooled church-goer would. Yet Jesus’ question was still meaningful.

I think unity is generally presupposed when the Bible speaks of love—particularly the love of God, or the great commandments. When Peter reflected back on this event, he would no doubt have developed a deeper and more nuanced understanding of Jesus’ question, and that understanding would have leaned in the direction of unity or onetogetherness.

Nonetheless, the point must be acknowledged: the Bible is not just written for philosophers; the commonsense, colloquial words it uses, like love, must be accepted for what they mean to the average person, as well as for what they presuppose to someone who has spent more time working through the issues. And I think this commonsense, colloquial view of love—that is, love as something like wanting what is best for people, desiring their flourishing, being affectionate toward them, helping them be what they ought to be, and so on—is worth considering one last time because of how it ties in so closely with a related concept in the Bible. A concept which rounds out our understanding of this topic very nicely…


The Hebrew term shalom is generally translated peace. But it is actually an impossible word to properly translate because it means much more than that. There is no equivalent word in English, partly because English is a product of a very different culture. In Hebrew, shalom means wholeness, delight, flourishing, safety; it means for things to go well or be the way they ought to be.

Of course, one of the great messianic titles given to Jesus in Isaiah 9:6 is sar shalom—prince of peace. This is because, as Paul puts it, “he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).

And this tying together of Jesus being our peace, with Jesus having made us “one”, is really where I want to end this series. Shalom is only possible with unity. Perfect shalom is only possible with perfect love. Shalom and love are two sides of the same coin; indeed, one of my favorite passages in the Bible is the priestly blessing of Israel in Numbers 6:

Yahweh will bless you and keep you;
Yahweh will make shine his face upon you and be gracious to you;
Yahweh will lift up his face upon you and he will give you shalom. Numbers 6:24-26

God does not promise love here; he promises shalom. Not merely peace, as the English translation is forced to render it due to English being a lousy language sometimes; but something more like the Amplified Bible’s rendering: “tranquility of heart and life continually”.

This is what we get when we strive for onetogetherness with God. Tranquility of heart and life in him. Shalom. Love God. Get peace.

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