P. G. Mathew | Saturday, June 3, 1995
Copyright © 1995, P. G. Mathew
What is love? Love is the essence of the Christian life. The Christian life consists of learning to love God first of all, and our neighbors secondly. But what does it really mean?
One day a Pharisee, an expert in the law of Moses, tested Jesus with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?" And 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." Then Jesus said, "All the Law and the Prophets," meaning the entire Bible, "hang on these two commandments." (Matt. 22:34-40) In other words, the will of God for us is to love God without limit and love our neighbors as ourselves.
Eros, Philia, Agape
In the Greek language there are three words that are used for love. The first one, eros, stands for sexual, romantic love. From eros we have the word erotica. Eros is the kind of love mostly known by the world. You can easily notice people's preoccupation with sex. This eros love is what generally motivates people.
The second word, philia, generally refers to affection between friends. From this word we have Philadelphia, the "City of Brotherly Love." Although both eros and philia have others as their focus, they both can be motivated by self-interest, self-gratification and self-protection. They are both the kind of love that is designed to satisfy the desires of the one doing the loving. There may be an element of giving involved, but it is a giving for the purpose of getting something in return.
The third Greek word for love is agape. The meaning of this word for love stands in sharp contrast to that of the other two words. This word alone points to a completely self-sacrificing love, a love that lacks self-interest, self-gratification and self-preservation. Agape love is motivated primarily by the interest and welfare of others. The word agape is used very sparingly by Greek secular writers, but in the New Testament, agape is the Greek word most frequently used for the love for God (Matt. 22:37, John 14:15), the love for spouses (Col. 3:19, Eph. 5:25), and the love for enemies (Matt. 5:44, Luke 6:35).
Agape love is divine in the sense that it is the love shown between the Persons of the Godhead from all eternity. The Bible refers to this in John 3:35: "The Father loves the Son" with this agape love. This is the love of the eternal Father to the eternal Son. The Father also loves the Holy Spirit. The Son and the Holy Spirit, likewise, love the Father. There is loving communion taking place continually among the Persons of the Trinity.
The Bible clearly teaches that all men are conceived in sin and born sinners. In Psalm 51:5 we read, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me." And in Romans 3:23 Paul says, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." All have sinned, and therefore all are enemies of God and absolutely incapable of loving with this kind of self-sacrificing, other-affirming agape love. This agape love, then, is not the love that you see expressed by human beings. It is a divine love brought from heaven into this world in the person of Jesus Christ.
God Must First Love Us
How, then, can we love with this agape love? Before sinful man is able to love God, God must love him and change his sinful enmity toward God and his neighbors. We cannot love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves, unless God first loves us. As sinners, we do not love God with all our heart; rather, we love ourselves with all our heart. As sinners, we do not love our neighbors; rather, we love ourselves and only help our neighbors when it is in our best interest.
No sinner can love God and his neighbor unless God, in love, changes that person's nature of enmity to love. We read in the New Testament that God the Father loved sinners in Jesus Christ, and planned our salvation from all eternity; that Christ the Son loved us and gave his life in behalf of us for our salvation; and that God the Holy Spirit loves us and applies salvation to each one of us. In 1 John 4:19 we read, "We love because he first loved us," and in verse 11, "Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." God's love for us came first, and it is the basis for our love for others. Romans 5:5 says, "God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." A sinner cannot love God or his neighbor with this self-sacrificing, other-affirming love unless God abundantly pours out his love into his heart by the Holy Spirit. Only then can he responsively love God with agape love.
The secular world defines love as a happening, as a feeling that is unpredictable. The secular man says, "Love is something that happens to me over which I have no control. When I feel it, I fall in love; when I don't feel it, I fall out of love. I cannot do anything about it. When I fall in love I may marry; when I fall out of love I may divorce."
This is not the kind of love with which God loves. Because God is eternal and unchangeable, his agape love is also eternal and unchangeable. God's love is not an emotional love that lasts for a while and then disappears; rather, it is an intelligent love that lasts forever. We are told about this in Jeremiah 31:3, where it says, "The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying, 'I have loved you with an everlasting love.' " God loves us with an everlasting love! Likewise, the love God has given us-by which we love God and one another-is everlasting love.
Agape love is not something that suddenly happens to us. Biblical love means action. It means that I act in a loving manner toward others. It means that I use my mind and my might for the benefit of the other, without regard to myself. Furthermore, agape love is a command, not a feeling. If biblical love were a feeling or an unpredictable happening, how could God command me to love him and my neighbor?
And so God says to the true believer that he has saved you. He has dealt with your sin, your self-centeredness, rebellion and pride. He sent Jesus Christ to deliver you from your sins, and now you are able to obey the first and second commandments-to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Isn't that wonderful? You can do it.
What Is Real Love for God?
Now, what does it mean to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength? Does it mean to have some kind of loving feeling come over us? Not at all. To love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength means that we surrender ourselves completely to him and obey him completely. If we do not obey God completely, we do not love God completely.
1 John 5:3 says, "This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome." Do we tell God, "Oh, your yoke is so heavy, your burden is so much, your commands are grievous and burdensome to me"? If so, the love of God is not directing us. When the love of God fills our hearts, we agree with the divine statements that his yoke is easy, his burden is light and his commands are not grievous. In John 14:15 Jesus said, "If you love me, you will obey what I command," and these commands are found in the Bible. Understand, then, that when we say we love God but do not obey him, we are lying. When a child says, "I love my father and mother," but he refuses to obey them, that child is not telling the truth. Love for God means total obedience to him.
Jesus himself labored to teach this point. In John 14:21 he said, "Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him." In verse 23 he said, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching." And then he adds, "My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." When God the Father and God the Son come and make their home with us, we discover that his commands truly are light and not burdensome at all. We are filled with joy unspeakable and will be found full of glory when God himself comes and manifests himself to us.
What is Real Love for Our Neighbor?
We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. As one man asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29). To start with, your spouse is your neighbor, and you are commanded to love your spouse as yourself. Your children are neighbors, and you are commanded to love your children as yourself. Your parents are neighbors, and you are commanded to love your parents as yourself. Fellow Christians are neighbors, and you are commanded to love your Christian brothers and sisters as yourself.
But that's not all. We are also commanded to love our enemies as ourselves. If love were a happening over which I have no control, how can I love my enemies? But love is a reasonable, self-sacrificing activity for the benefit of others, and we can love our enemies by doing good to them. We must love our enemies by giving them assistance: when they need water, we give them water; when they need food, we give them food.
How else do we show love? We are told to pray for our enemies. We must love them, pray for them and preach the gospel to them. This is the greatest love we can show our enemies, that they may come to know Jesus Christ, receive eternal salvation and themselves be enabled to love God with this self-sacrificing love. For this reason St. Paul spent his entire life preaching the gospel. He said, "I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks." And he said, "I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God unto salvation"; as such, the enemies of the gospel must hear it, that they may also be saved. If you are not sharing the gospel with the enemies of God, then you are not loving your enemies as God has commanded us.
Real Love Is Power
Biblical love is power. It is the might and strength with which we can act. In the book of Genesis you see the great love story of Jacob and Rachel. Genesis 29:18 says, "Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, 'I'll work for you' "-for Laban, his uncle-" 'seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.' " Seven years! That's a lot of hard work. But look at verse 20: "So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her." This service meant the dirty work of shepherding. Jacob was out in the sun and the cold, working day and night, for seven years. But the text says it was easy for him. Why? Because Jacob loved Rachel.
Agape love is the power that causes you to accomplish hard things. It is the greatest source of energy you can find. Mother Teresa works in the city of Calcutta, picking up dying people and taking care of them. How can she do this? She does this because of this self-sacrificing love. Read Song of Songs 8:6-7: "Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away." So, this love is might and power and strength. It accomplishes great things, even things that seem to be impossible.
St. Paul also speaks about this idea that love is power in 1 Thessalonians 1:3: "We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love." Labor means hard work, and here Paul said it was produced by the energy of this agape love that God gave to these believers.
God gives this to every Christian through his Holy Spirit. Suppose there is a woman dying of cancer, whose children have problems, but her husband is not walking away. What do you think holds that family together? It is this love of God. What do you think enables a church to live together in loving unity, even though it consists of people from widely-different backgrounds? It is this love of God.
Real Love Is the Fruit of the Spirit
This agape love of God is the first fruit of the Spirit, as we read in Galatians 5:22: "The fruit of the Spirit is love." This self-sacrificing, agape, other-affirming, self-denying love is grown in us by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Love is also the ultimate fruit of the Spirit. 1 Corinthians 13:13 says, "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." So agape love is the first fruit and the ultimate fruit. It is the fruit with which we live in heaven, where there will be perfect love-love for God and love for one another. We will live in the bright light of divine, self-sacrificing, agape love.
Because love is the first fruit, it is also the badge of every Christian. In John 13:34 we read: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another." Jesus Christ demonstrated what it means to love God and one another, including our enemies. Moses commanded us to do it, but Jesus Christ gave substantiation to that command by fully obeying it. And in verse 35 he said, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." So agape love, the love Jesus Christ demonstrated, is the badge that every Christian must wear.
God's love is greater than any love you can imagine from any human relationship. Look at Isaiah 49:15: "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?" A mother's love is certainly one of the finest human examples of self-sacrificing, other-affirming love that we have. But then God says, "Though she may forget, I will not forget you!" In other words, the love of God, this eternal love by which God loves us, is infinitely greater than the best love you can imagine in this world. Yes, a mother may forget, but-praise be to God!-the love of God, this agape love, is infinitely greater than even the finest human love. It is powerful and everlasting.
God Demonstrates Real Love
Where can we find a demonstration of this love? Moses gave us God's command to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, but Moses himself did not obey God completely. No one ever did, or can. So God sent his own Son for the specific purpose of demonstrating his love for us by his death on the cross.
Jesus Christ fully demonstrated God's love. You can never look at the cross and refuse to forgive and love, because this same Jesus Christ died for us. How great is God's love, that he gave his own beloved Son, in whom he was well-pleased! Jesus Christ, the one who was in the bosom of the Father, was given up that he may die for you. Keep that in mind. God the Father loved us, and love is always giving. God the Father loved us and gave us his only Son.
So God the Father loved us in planning our salvation; God the Son voluntarily and freely loved us and gave his life for us; and God the Holy Spirit loves us by freely and voluntarily taking on the ministry of applying to us Christ's redemption, that our sin may be dealt with, that our enmity may be removed, that our hearts may be filled with the love of God, that we may love God.
So you see all three persons of the Holy Trinity engaged in this great act of love toward sinners, toward the ungodly. God did not love us because he saw some merit in us. Eros and philia are based on mutual advantage, that I see something in you and you see something in me. God didn't love us because he saw something nice and wonderful in us. In fact, he saw everything that is bad, yet he loved us. Whatever good in us has been created by him.
Jesus Christ was the only human being ever to fulfill this command to "love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength." The proof of this came when God the Father said, "This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Matt. 17:5). God was announcing to the world, "My Son did it!" Only Jesus pleased the Father in every way by his obedience. Jesus lived in obedience to God, and died in obedience to Him. It was the Father's will that he die, and he did die.
Jesus Christ was the only man ever to fulfill the command to "love your neighbor as yourself." He loves the church and gave himself for her. He is committed to make her glorious and blameless, without spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. And Jesus Christ loves his enemies. Peter preached to the crowd at Pentecost, "You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross." His listeners were convicted and cried out, "What must we do to be saved?" What was the answer? "Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:23,37-38) You see, Jesus Christ loves his enemies! He demonstrates that by changing them from enemies of God to children of God. He did the same for us-we were enemies of God, but God saved us.
If you are still an enemy, let me say to you that Jesus Christ loves you! How will you know that? By your repentance. If you repent and trust in Jesus Christ, it is clear evidence of the fact that God loves you, that Jesus Christ loves you. No one loves God until he or she is enabled to do so by God changing that person.
God commands us to love him. He asked Simon Peter three times if he loved him (John 21:15-19). Peter finally said that he did and Jesus told Peter what was awaiting him: his own crucifixion. But even this did not shake Peter. The strength of love is death-defying.
Think about this: God commands us, first, to love him-the true, infinite God of the Holy Scriptures, the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit-with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and second, to love our neighbors as ourselves. We must love our enemies by praying for them, preaching the gospel to them and doing good to them. We also must love the church of Jesus Christ. Because we are sinners, this is impossible for us to do on our own, but God loved us first, and through his love he changes us and makes us able to obey this commandment.
May God help you to have this love! If you are not born of God, may God help you to be saved by repenting of your sins and trusting in Jesus Christ alone for your eternal salvation. Then God's Holy Spirit will pour into your heart an abundance of this powerful, other-affirming, self-denying love so that you will be able to love God most of all, and your neighbor as yourself.
Copyright © 1995, P. G. Mathew
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