Who is my neighbor? Throughout history, theologians reasoned about the answer to this question. Today, the same question is being debated by both theologians and laymen. In their quest for the right answer, many use the Bible with great skill to find the most inventive answers. In many cases, these answers are not simple and tend to be quite complex in an effort to sidestep the obvious meaning of the biblical text for the sake of a subjective reading that serves their self-righteous motives.

The answers given to this question are diverse. Some limit the meaning of “neighbor” to include “your closest family,” while others expand the meaning to include “your people” or “those belonging to your race.” There are also those who believe that the goal of the parable of the good Samaritan is to teach that someone can only be your neighbor when, like the Samaritan, you are in a position to do good. When, like the priest or the Levite, you don’t have the means to do good, you are free from any responsibility; you may look the other way and are free to pass.

Biblical Litmus Test

As the litmus test is used in science to distinguish between an acid and alkaline, we should likewise utilize the “biblical litmus test” to identify misinterpretations of the biblical text. The well-known Latin phrase Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres (Scripture is its own interpreter) describes this test best. The late Dr. R.C. Sproul explains: “We must be careful to read the Bible holistically. We ought not to draw interpretations from the text that are against interpretations that the Bible elsewhere draws itself. The Bible interprets the Bible; the Holy Spirit is His own interpreter.”1

The test for our answers shouldn’t be how acrobatic a performance we can give to bend the biblical text into unimaginable positions. The test for the accuracy of our answers is much simpler: Is our interpretation consistent with all Scripture or not?

In this article, the Ten Commandments will be utilized as litmus test to evaluate the different interpretations of who should be regarded as our neighbor. It will also serve as starting point toward a definition of the concept of “neighbor” that is in harmony with all Scripture.

Two Tables of the Law

Matthew 22:34–40 tells of the expert in the law who tested Jesus with the question: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36). Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37–39).

Whoever claims to truly love God, should also love their neighbor.

Christians unanimously believe this to be a summary of the Ten Commandments: loving God and loving your neighbor (see also Heidelberg Catechism 93). At the core, all Ten Commandments relate to the summary thereof: loving God and loving your neighbor. These two aspects are so intertwined that the first is the precondition for the second. Whoever claims to truly love God, should also love their neighbor (cf. 1 John 4:7–11).

The command to love our neighbor, therefore, is not undefined. It isn’t detached from the contents of the Ten Commandments. On the contrary, the command to love one’s neighbor is defined and guided by the Ten Commandments. Within these commandments, the “how” of neighborly love is clearly explained. The instant we grasp this truth, any uncertainty about “who” my neighbor is, also disappears.

Love and Neighbor Defined

The Ten Commandments define the love we owe our neighbor as follows:

  • Neighborly love doesn’t withhold the truth about the one, true God from others, but rather testifies unashamedly.
  • Neighborly love doesn’t present false images of God to others.
  • Neighborly love uses God’s name with reverence in the presence of others so they too can be struck by awe for His holiness.
  • Neighborly love prevents me from being a stumbling block for others toward observance of the Lord’s Day.
  • Neighborly love honors the authority God has placed in my neighbor.
  • Neighborly love protects and respects the lives of others.
  • Neighborly love doesn’t betray marital love; neither does it infringe on the relationships of others.
  • Neighborly love steals from no one and protects the property of all.
  • Neighborly love is truthful to all, without partiality.
  • Neighborly love withholds egocentric desires that are harmful to others.

Whenever I do these things to anyone, I am displaying neighborly love. As in mathematics, the reverse of an equation should also be true. Anyone to whom I then display this love, as commanded by God, is considered to be my neighbor. By this, the Ten Commandments then define “who” my neighbor is. According to this definition, it even becomes possible to love our enemies (cf. Luke 6:27).

With this biblical definition of “neighbor,” all other definitions most surely fail the biblical litmus test, as they all limit neighborly love to certain groups or certain people.

Natural Affinity Lifted?

What, then, about our inborn kinship? This biblical definition doesn’t deny or ignore our God-given natural affinity as God created us within natural societal institutions such as family, people, and ethnic groups. Within these societal institutions, the definition of the “who” of neighborly love is primarily fulfilled. However, this definition is not limited to these institutions, nor to our natural inclinations. As a family, we live among other families, and as a people or ethnic group, we live among other peoples and ethnic groups. Although it is true that some neighbors are closer than others (cf. Gal. 6:10), it doesn’t deem those who are further away to be less of a neighbor. Our obligation to be obedient to the Ten Commandments also applies to those who are further away.


  1. R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, teaching series (Orlando, Fla.: Ligonier Ministries, 2009), cited in “Reading the Bible Holistically,” Ligonier Ministries, February 24, 2017, accessed September 15, 2021, ↩︎

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