Jesus says you should love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39). But who are these neighbors exactly? Someone asked me this important question:
“What is the definition of ‘neighbour’ in the bible? Is it literally your neighbours as in the people around you? Or only brothers and sisters in Christ? And what about your enemies? Do we treat them all equally?”
This is a really good question that lies at the heart of Christian beliefs as Jesus calls the command to love your neighbor as yourself one of the two most important commandments (Mark 12:30).
The question actually consists of three related questions:
1. What is the Bible’s definition of a neighbor?
2. What is the Bible’s definition of an enemy?
3. How should Christians treat either one of them?
The Bible’s definition of an enemy
I will start with the second question since that one is the easiest to tackle. The Biblical definition of an enemy is rather clear: that is anybody who is in opposition against, or hostile towards us and/or God (Matthew, 5:43, Romans 5:10, James 4:4). That automatically includes anyone who is not our brother or sister in Christ (Colossians 1:21, 2 Thessalonians 3:15).
That doesn’t mean that we treat them as the world thinks one should treat an enemy, quite the contrary. But we’ll get to that later. Let’s first lay the rest of the groundwork of definitions from the Bible.
The Bible’s definition of the word neighbor
Everybody probably has a feeling of what the Bible means when using the word “neighbor”. But, when we have to apply this to our daily lives, it often becomes harder to specify who we should call a neighbor as Jesus intends. Most of us consider the people around us our neighbors, but, is a woman on the other side of the world our also neighbor? Is the man on the news who got arrested for a heinous crime considered a neighbor? How about that person who treated us horribly some time ago?
When we use the word neighbor in English, it is used to describe someone physically nearby (e.g., someone who lives next door or in the same neighborhood) and to describe a stranger who should be treated kindly and respectfully. The latter use of the word illustrates a nearness in the figurative sense.
Often, when I research a specific topic in the Bible, I start by exploring the Hebrew and Greek Bible texts, because that gives me a better sense of how a word or concept was used in those days. After doing so, it revealed that the Bible uses more than one word to say “neighbor” and that those words are used in distinctive ways. Knowing that makes it easier for us to understand what Jesus meant when He used the word neighbor.
Hebrew words for ‘neighbor’
When the word neighbor is used in the Old Testament, it is mostly translated from the Hebrew words “rea” and “shaken”.
The word shaken (from the root word shakan) indicates physical nearness. You can find an example of the use of that word in Ruth 4:17. To emphasize literal nearness, sometimes a form of the word qarob (meaning ‘near’) is used, for example in Exodus 12:4 and Joshua 9:16.
Rea (from the root word raah) means friend, companion, or fellow, and indicates a closeness that is not necessarily dependent on physical nearness. You can look up Exodus 20:16-17, Psalm 28:3, and Proverbs 17:17 to see some examples. It is also used in the commandments. For example in: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18, ESV)
In this verse ‘neighbor’ is clearly referring to God’s people. The reason for that is because this was one of the moral regulations that demonstrated God’s character in His people; a people set apart from the rest of the world. In those laws, God specifically taught them how to live with one another in a holy way. Because they were set apart, they were not supposed to mingle with other people groups at all. As a consequence, rea-type neighbors in those days, were limited to God’s people and the strangers living among them (Leviticus 19:34).
It seems that the Old Testament uses both Hebrew words very intentionally. For example in Exodus 3:22, where it says that God foretold Moses that the women of Israel would receive the valuables of their Egyptian neighbors (shaken). Using shaken here makes sense because it assumes the physical nearness of the people in their neighborhoods. But, when in Exodus 11:2 God commanded Moses to tell the people to go and collect those valuables, God used the word rea (friend, companion, fellow) to describe the same people. That is interesting because the Egyptians were (officially) considered enemies, not friends.
I believe that this use of words is intentional, because of what we read in the next verse. There it states that the Egyptians willingly gave the Israelites their valuables because God gave His people favor and because the Egyptians held Moses in high esteem. This indicates a kind of comradeship, which makes rea a logical word choice. Those neighboring Egyptians seemed to be, at least in part, on Moses’ side. That doesn’t seem farfetched, seeing that due to Pharao’s hard-heartedness, they were subjected to many dreadful plagues.
Greek words for ‘neighbor’
The Ancient Greek also has two words to indicate nearness. The first word, “plesion”, is used to indicate the figurative nearness of people, whereas the second word, “geiton”, is used to indicate people living nearby. That means that plesion corresponds most with the Hebrew word rea while geiton resembles shaken.
Only the first word, plesion, is used in Jesus’s sentence “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Four unexpected neighbors
From looking only at the Old Testament, you could draw the conclusion that since all rea-neighbors were God’s children, our brothers and sisters in Christ are our neighbors, period. But we must also take the New Testament into account in which Jesus raised the bar of righteousness and came with a – especially for those days – rather shocking explanation of who our neighbors are and how we ought to treat them.
Let’s look at four texts in the Bible that clarify who Jesus defines as being our neighbor.
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Enemies in need
The first is when a lawyer who knew the importance of the command to love your neighbor as yourself asked Jesus (out of self-justification) who his neighbor was. Jesus told him the parable of the Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In that parable, the Samaritan went out of his way to help a severely wounded man because he had compassion for him. The wounded man had been ignored by self-righteous fellow Israelites, but the Samaritan, who was from another region (so not physically near), and who was considered an enemy of the Jews (so not figuratively near either), showed him mercy. Jesus said that the Samaritan is the neighbor in this story.
That parable teaches us that we can be a neighbor by standing beside someone in times of trouble. We can do that by blessing them with words of encouragement, good deeds, prayers, etc. That means that being a neighbor is mostly an attitude of the heart. And that brings us to the second text:
Those who hate you
In Luke 6:27, Jesus said: “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” (ESV). In verse 31 He adds: “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”
These verses relate closely to the command to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said this in the context of loving and blessing enemies and that is precisely what the Samaritan did when Jesus called him a neighbor.
Loving someone as yourself implies holding someone so close to your heart that it is only natural to take care of them the way you take care of yourself. Everyone wants to be fed, happy, free, safe, loved, etc., and everyone needs Jesus. That means that there is plenty we can give to friend and foe.
Sometimes we don’t want to bless the people who hate us. Perhaps we are upset with them, or we feel that they don’t deserve it or should be taught a lesson. In those cases, we must remind ourselves that once we were God’s enemies too. We hated Him because we served some other master (Matthew 6:24). And He blessed us anyway, even to the point of sacrificing His one and only Son for us. We received His gift of salvation while we were still His enemies. He showed us mercy, while we were still sinning against Him.
That is what it means to be a good neighbor, showing someone mercy, even though they did nothing to deserve it or even if they will never repay you. In that way, we follow God’s example. And that leads us to the third text:
The people who persecute you
In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus said: “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 be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (ESV)
God blesses evil people too. And because we are His children, He expects us to follow Him in His ways. He said that we should love and greet our friends and our enemies. In that sense, we treat our enemies with the same love and mercy as we do our brothers and sisters.
The needy who will not repay you
Remember the difference between the Greek words for neighbor, plesion and geiton? All of the texts above use plesion, to indicate a figurative nearness. But there is another text from Jesus about neighbors, where the word geiton was used.
Luke used the word geiton to clearly capture Jesus’ words in Luke 14:12-14 when He said that when you are organizing a dinner or banquet, you should not invite friends, brothers and sisters, relatives or rich neighbors [geitonas] because they can repay you. Jesus said we should invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind instead. He stated that we will be blessed if we do and be repaid at the resurrection because they cannot repay us.
This text helps us understand how we should treat people and why.
When Jesus says that you should not invite friends, brothers and sisters, relatives, or rich neighbors, but people who are poor, crippled, and blind who cannot repay you, He doesn’t say that you should not treat the people closest to you well. We are commanded to love them too (John 13:34-35, 1 John 3:11-18). What He says, implies that we are naturally inclined to be kind to people who repay our kindness in some way, but that we should challenge ourselves to be good to people who will not repay us. The motivation for helping people is key here. We don’t help because we need or want something in return, but to give as freely as God gave us. We give from a heart filled with agape love.
Poor people aren’t able to repay us, but do you know who else will not repay us for our good deeds? Our enemies.
Blessing your enemies
Blessing enemies is not easy. It is impossible to bless enemies with pure motives by human strength because it goes against the desires of the flesh.
We read that the lawyer asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” because he wanted to justify himself (Luke 10:29). He arrogantly put Jesus to the test (verse 25). Since he was a lawyer, I imagine that he was good with words and good at justification, but at the same time, he was likely not much different than most of us. When something challenges the desires of the flesh, most of us are tempted to resort to self-justification. But Jesus’s parable is crystal clear.
I think we should be careful not to ask God who our neighbor is for the same reasons: to test God or to justify ourselves. If we don’t like someone, or if we feel that someone takes advantage of us, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is not a neighbor needing help. Obviously, there are many instances when we should steer clear of someone who is clearly seeking to take advantage of us, but what I mean is that we must not have a mindset that we should be repaid by a person for whatever good we have done for them. God puts the most unlikely people on our paths to be a neighbor to. The goal is to be light to them; to reflect God’s light in even the darkest corners (Matthew 5:15-16). The sun doesn’t pick and choose who it shines its light on. It always shines and it shines on everybody during the day. Jesus says we are light (Matthew 5:14), so just like the sun, we shouldn’t be picky on whom we shed His light.
For example: if you smile at a stranger in the supermarket and that person spits in your face instead of smiling back, that will probably upset you. Next time you meet that person, chances are that you would rather not smile at him or her. But that is not what Jesus teaches us. We do good to people who cannot or will not repay us (Luke 6:32-35).
“For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” (1 Peter 2:20, ESV)
And that means we bless our neighbors, no matter who they are or how they treat us. They might become friends. But even if they insult us or mock us for our good deeds, we continue to bless them. It might hurt, and we might feel rejected, but their behavior is not the motivation for ours. Our behavior should be motivated by the fact that we are children of God, eager to glorify God.
To be children after God’s heart, we should behave like Him and bless even the most unlikely neighbor. If they sin against us, we leave final judgment up to our Father. And that is very different from what the world does. Instead of immediately repaying evil with evil, God patiently blesses everybody on this earth. He gives us chance after chance. He blesses people who don’t believe in Him and use His name in vain. He blesses liars, thieves, and adulterers. He even blesses murderers and people who have committed horrible crimes against His children. They too see the sun rise and the crops of the land watered. And they might be blessed with jobs, food, clothes, moments of laughter, and tears of joy, just like us.
The reason why He does this, according to the Bible, is so that they will see their evil ways, repent, and turn to Him (Romans 2:4).
Jesus teaches us to follow God’s example and bless those who revile us (Luke 6:28, 1 Corinthians 4:12).
In conclusion, you could say that a neighbor is any fellow human being you are aware of. Therefore, we should hold all people close to our hearts. Whether friend or foe, good, or evil.
Keep in mind that we are no better than any other person. The Spirit of God in us is better and makes us better. Without Him, we would still be a slave to sin. We would repay evil with evil; an eye for an eye, just like most people did in the Old Testament. But Jesus called us to a higher standard: to repay evil with good. Because, now, thanks to His Holy Spirit, we can.
Thank you for your question! I hope this clarifies what the Bible teaches about neighbors and how we should treat them. I encourage you to do some research in the Bible and see which conclusions you come to yourself. May God bless your efforts to bless your neighbors!