Who am I supposed to love? Is John talking about loving people who aren’t Christians?
In the context of the book of 1 John, it appears that John’s main focus when he tells us to love one another is on believers in the church. That is, when John says to love one another, he’s talking to Christians, and he’s telling them to love other Christians. We learn from other parts of scripture that this is actually a characteristic of true believers. Moreover, it’s a sign to the world that Christians are set apart and different from the rest of the world: because we love one another, even in light of our differences (John 13.35).
But I believe we can extrapolate from the command to love other believers in the church that a similar kind of love is also due of Christians for the unbelieving world. This is a different kind of love, however. There is a special type of love that believer’s enjoy that is typified in Christ. This is not the same kind of love that believer’s show to the world. (For example, we have a love for those who don’t know Christ. This kind of love is not evident between genuine believers.) But in general, Christians are to be characterized by love for everyone, but especially their brothers and sisters in Christ.
I understand the command to love others, but how do I love my neighbor in practical ways? Sometimes the command to love others can seem kind of ambiguous.
You’re in luck! The Bible is full of practical, specific ways that Christians can show love to one another. In fact, there are more than 40 “one another” commands in the New Testament. Check out this list for some good ideas. “One another” commands are all those commands from the Bible such as “love one another,” and “bear one another’s burdens,” and “regard one another as more important than yourselves.” Any time you obey these commands, you are loving your brothers and sisters in Christ.
You mentioned that through Christ we are “free” to love one another. Can you explain that some more?
The Bible declares that apart from Christ, all people are slaves to sin (Romans 6.20). That is, we can’t do anything but sin. It is our nature to follow after our own sinful desires, and God’s law shows us that we are in slavery to sin because through it we see how far we fall short. So when we try to love as God commands, we fail, because we are slaves to sin. But Christ has come and obeyed the law perfectly and has applied his perfect obedience to the accounts of those who will trust in him. Now those who are in Christ are seen as perfectly obedient. They never have to try to keep God’s law as a means of earning his favor. Instead, they can keep God’s law to experience the joy that obedience brings. In this sense, the believer is made free to love as God commands. God has always commanded love, but before being in Christ we couldn’t keep it. Now that Christ has kept the law perfectly, we are finally free and able to do as he commands.