Let's talk a moment about love, or at least the kind of love God has called us to have for him and for others. But wait before you move on to something else. I'm not going to go maudlin or sappy on you. I'm not going to give you a Hallmark Channel message about love — although there are probably times we all need the reminder that happy endings are possible in real love.
Here's the truth about the word agape. Before Jesus, the word agape didn't mean anything special. It was a sloppy word for "love," pretty much like our English word "love" as we use it today. I love God. I love a beautiful sunrise. I love the chariot races. I love literature. I love these shoes. I love a little mint with my lamb.
Yep, I know you've heard about the books, sermons, and seminars on the four loves. I know these books on agape were written or presented by notable authors, counselors, and presenters. Yet agape didn't mean anything special before the New Testament was written. Find someone who knows Greek and has looked into the meaning of agape before the New Testament was written, and they will validate what I am saying. The word agape wasn't used specifically for sacrificial, unconditional, unchangeably good, love as we define it today. It was used sloppily for just about anything humans like a great deal.
Those seminars are not wrong. They define agape properly. Yet this proper definition is true only because God redefined what agape meant by who Jesus was and what he did for people. However, this higher meaning for agape was true, not because of what the word meant but because of what Jesus did!
The early disciples of Jesus, especially the apostles, Paul and John, redeemed the sloppy Greek word for love, agape. They attached what God did for us in Jesus to it and filled agape with precious and powerful meaning through Jesus. God's actions for us in Jesus changed the word agape into something special — something sacrificial, unconditional, and unchangeably good. Jesus made agape mean what it does! The truth is that early believers chose a loosey-goosey word for love. Then, they used it for divine, self-giving, gracious, redemptive, and eternal love, because of Jesus!
So, what? What's the big deal? Why even talk about this?
Well, for me, there are at least three convictions that come out of recognizing the truth about the word agape:
- We don't need to know Greek to define the kind of love God wants us to have; we need to know Jesus and see how God has loved us in Jesus! God loved us first. He sacrificed for us, knowing we could reject him, yet chose to love us, anyway.
- We should notice that nowhere does the New Testament just say that God loves us; when we are told that God loves us, there is always a description of what God did to demonstrate that love! This kind of love is far more than a mere feeling; it is deep emotion backed up by sacrificial and faithful action. God didn't just talk about loving us; he ALWAYS demonstrated that love in costly ways.
- You and I need to keep the divine order to love; we must love God with all we are, first, then, we love each other how God says we should love them, second. When we reverse the order, we get love confused with sex, lust, selfishness, and manipulation. So, today, a host of things can pass for love, yet they are little more than ways for us as rebellious humans to get our jollies in self-expression through selfish forms of "having sex."
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8 — Also see John 3:16.).
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:9-10 — Also see 1 John 3:16-18.).
[Jesus' critics asked him,] "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"
Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:36-40 — See also 1 John 4:11-12.).
So, in this season of love and honoring those we love, let's not forget where the truest example of love can be found: God's love for us in Jesus. God's actions fill up the word agape with its rich and deep understandings. And let's not forget that if we truly are going to love each other, we have to begin with God — with his example, his definition, and his truth about what love is. Anything less is to return agape back to its loosey-goosey definition that is empty of anything significant or eternal. With Jesus, agape is divine, self-giving, gracious, redemptive, faithful, and lasting. Or, as the apostle Paul described it:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
Because of the love God showed us in Jesus, we know what love is. Because we love God first and foremost, we know how best to love each other. This is the divine order of love.