Keep and Share logo     Log In  |  Mobile View  |  Help  
Select a Color





"...And who is my neighbor?"


The true answer to that question is a matter of life and death for all Christians because Jesus said that to have eternal life we must love our neighbor as ourselves. How can we possibly obey Jesus if we do not know who our neighbor is? The scriptural answer to that question may surprise you...


In the book of Luke, we find a man who asked Jesus this question: "Master what shall I do to inherit eternal life?". Jesus responded by asking the man what had been written in the law about receiving eternal life. The man then quoted the following verses from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus:


"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and all thy mind; AND THY NEIGHBOR AS THYSELF".


Jesus told the man that he had answered correctly and that if he would do those things he would inherit eternal life. The man then asked "And who is my neighbor?"....


There are three general answers to that question. To determine the legitimate answer we need to compare the words brother and neighbor because they are often used as synonyms in the scriptures. In order to simplify this study I have expressed the three opinions in the form of equations:




In this view neighbor and brother are equal terms and may be applied to all human beings; thus all men are my neighbors.




Here, neighbor and brother are different. The neighbor is anyone who is geographically near, while the word brother applies only to
one who is a fellow Christian.




Finally, neighbor and brother are synonymous terms that apply only to fellow believers. Thus my neighbor is my brother in Christ and no one else.


In order to determine which of these views is correct we must let the scriptures define and explain themselves. One of the first rules of biblical interpretation is to examine the verse in context and determine what it meant to the people it was spoken to. When Jesus said "love thy neighbor as thyself" he was quoting from Leviticus 19:18. Here is that verse in context:


:16 Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among THY PEOPLE: neither shall thou stand against the blood of THY NEIGHBOR. I am the Lord.

:17 Thou shalt not hate THY BROTHER in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke THY NEIGHBOR, and not suffer sin upon him.

:18 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the CHILDREN OF THY PEOPLE, but thou shalt love THY NEIGHBOR as thyself.


It is easy to see that the terms "neighbor", "brother" and "thy people" were used as synonyms. That usage is especially clear in verse:18, where "children of thy people" is used in parallel with "thy neighbor". The command was not to bear any grudge against fellow Israelites but to love them "as thyself". This command, in its original context, applied only to the people of God; that is, those who lived in the land and obeyed the laws of God.


The following articles from standard reference works emphatically point out that the words neighbor and brother referred specifically to fellow Israelites:


BROTHERLY LOVE Gk. philadelphia, means, not figurative brother-like love, but the love of those united in Christian brotherhood...In the OT 'brother' like neighbor, means fellow Israelite (Lv 19:17f.) New Bible Dictionary, Tyndale Press


NEIGHBOR. Five Hebrew words are rendered "neighbor" in the AV of the OT, the principal one being rea'....In the OT one's neighbor is clearly a fellow Israelite as indicated by the statement: "You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18 RSV). The parallelism of this verse identifies “neighbor" with sons of your people." A different code of conduct was prescribed towards the foreigner in contrast to ones fellow countrymen. (Deut 23:19, 20) Baker's Dictionary Of Theology, Baker Press

The article from Baker's Dictionary of Theology above points out that there was indeed a different code of conduct towards those who were not of the Israelites. That distinction can be clearly seen in these verses from Deuteronomy 23:19&20


"Thou shalt not lend upon usury to THY BROTHER;...

"Unto a STRANGER thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury,"


The formula for defining neighbor and brother in the verses we have looked at would be:




The sharp eyed Bible student will quickly say "Stop! there is another class of people. What about the stranger who dwells in the land?" He (or she) would point to Leviticus 19:33- 34 which says:


"And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and THOU SHALT LOVE HIM AS THYSELF;"


To that vigilant student I would say thank you - for proving my point that the people whom Israelites were to love as themselves were the people who followed the law of God. Although the stranger who sojourned in the land was not a fellow Israelite, he was to be treated as a brother ("as one born among you") because God said the sojourner was required to obey the laws of God just as the Israelite:

"ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgements, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, NOR ANY STRANGER THAT SOJOURNETH AMONG YOU: (Lev 18:26)


"The sojourner could be circumcised (Exod 12:48) and enjoy all the privileges of true religion: the Passover (Exod 12:49) the Atonement
feast (Lev 16:29) presenting offerings (Lev 17:8) all the feasts (Deut16:11) and share in the sabbath rest (Lev 25:6)" Vine's Dictionary of Biblical Words


It is obvious that if the sojourner was to be treated the same as "one who is born among you", then there was a distinct difference between those who were born among the Israelites and all others who were not "born among you". In the Old Testament, the neighbor was not just someone who was near, he was a brother by birth or by choice.


The question we must now ask is:


Did the meaning of the word "neighbor" change in the New Testament?


In reference to the book of Luke, where Jesus told the man to "love thy neighbor as thyself" the word neighbor must retain the same meaning as the original text from which it was quoted (Lev 19:18) unless we find biblical evidence to the contrary. If this Old Testament definition of neighbor is brought forth into the New Testament it would mean that the neighbors we are commanded to love as we love ourselves would apply only to the brethren in Christ, that is, those who are born of God. If that is true we can expect to find
unquestionable proof in the New Testament epistles that the term neighbor is used as a synonym for brethren in Christ.


The word "neighbor" as used by Christ comes from the Greek word: plesion. It is used eight times by Luke, Paul and James. As you will see, in six of those verses the word neighbor and brother or brethren were parallel in meaning. Here are those six verses:


1. Acts 7:26-27

"And the next day he [Moses] showed himself unto them as they strove, and would have set them at one again, saying Sirs, ye are
BRETHREN; why do ye wrong to one another? But he that did his NEIGHBOR wrong thrust him away, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?" 2. Galatians 5:13-15


"For, BRETHREN, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by LOVE serve ONE ANOTHER. [not the world] For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even this; thou shalt love thy NEIGHBOR as thyself. But if ye bite and devour ONE ANOTHER, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another". 3. Ephesians 4:25


"Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his NEIGHBOR: for we are members ONE OF ANOTHER".


4. James 2:1-15 (For brevity's sake I will quote only the verses in this passage which are directly relevant to the question in order to provide context.)


2:1 "My BRETHREN, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.

2:5 Hearken, my beloved BRETHREN, hath not God chosen the poor in this world

2:8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, thou shalt love thy NEIGHBOR as thyself, ye do well:

2:9 But if ye have RESPECT to persons, [in your assembly] ye commit sin,

2:14 What doth it profit, my BRETHREN, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works...

2:15 If a BROTHER OR SISTER be naked and destitute of daily food. [brethren, not the world]

2:16 give THEM not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?"

"Do not speak against one another, BRETHREN. He who speaks against a brother, or judges his brother, speaks against the law...

There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you to judge your NEIGHBOR". James 4:11-12 (New American Standard)


It is abundantly clear that the Old Testament concept of neighbor = brother was carried over into the thinking of the apostles in the New Testament. Jesus carefully defined who our brothers in Christ are. He said:


"My mother and my BRETHREN are these which hear the word of God and do it." Luke 8:21


Therefore, the New Testament formula for neighbor would be:




Just as in the Old Testament, the neighbor is one who obeys the law of God. Why then did the Jewish lawyer who certainly understood that principal ask Jesus: "Who is my neighbor?". And why did Jesus answer the lawyer by telling him the parable of the good Samaritan? In order to understand both the question and the answer, we must consider the historical background:


"The Jews hated them [the Samaritans] and would have nothing to do with them. Over the centuries the Assyrians intermarried with Jews to form the hybrid group known as the Samaritans. The Jews did not accept them as their neighbors and it was with this in view that Jesus spoke to the Jews the parable of the good Samaritan".


The Jewish lawyer knew that Jesus had made converts among the Samaritans (Luke 9:52) and wanted to justify himself in his hatred of
them, even though they were related by race and religion. (The Samaritans kept the Torah) Jesus responded to the lawyer by telling
the parable and then asking him which of the three who passed by the hurt man proved to be neighbor unto him. The lawyer said: "He that showed mercy on him". Jesus proved to the lawyer that the Levite and the priest did not prove to be neighbor to the victim because they did not really obey God's law. On the other hand, the Samaritan whom the lawyer hated, proved to be his neighbor because he did obey God's command to "love thy neighbor as thyself". Again we see the principle that our neighbor in the biblical sense is not simply someone who is near, but one who is a believer in God and keeps His commandments.


When one stops to think about it, the expression "love thy neighbor as thyself" is telling us "how much" we are to love. In other words,"as thyself" is the measure of service to our brethren that God expects. If my brother or sister needs something and I am not as generous to him as I would be to myself, then I am a "respecter of persons". To say that we are to love anyone who "is near" in this same manner would place a terrible burden upon the believer. If that were true, then we would be required to share our homes,our clothes, and our food with any wretched person we happened to come across. That was never the intent of God.


I challenge anyone who says differently to prove from the history of the church in the book of Acts or the epistles that the church EVER was told to use its assets for anyone who was not a member of the body of Christ!


Having said these things let me also say that we are to "love our enemies" and to do good to all men as we have opportunity. But we are not required to love them as "ye love yourself". With the people of the world we are to follow the rules of love set forth by Paul in 1st Corinthians 13, "Love is patient and kind" etc. And yes, we are to do unto all men as we would that men would do unto us. Those are the everyday standards that God expects of us in our dealings with those outside the church. But to love another as I love myself is a privilege reserved for those who are my brethren in Christ - the children of God.


"In this the children of God are manifest...whosoever doeth not righteousness, is not of God." 1 John 3:10

Harold and Donna Kupp

Creation date: Feb 16, 2015 10:41am     Last modified date: Feb 16, 2015 10:59am   Last visit date: Jun 4, 2023 4:16pm
    Report Objectionable Content