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Understanding God's Agape Love

There are at least two reasons why the love of God is easily misunderstood: The first is the language barrier, and the second is our own human ideas about love. In the English, the word "love" carries a wide range of meaning. Love for our parents; love for our children; love for our spouse; love for our friends; love for our pets, etc. We read from John 21:15-17; vs 15."So when they had dined, Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?.' He saith unto Him, 'Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love Thee.' He saith unto him, 'Feed my lambs.' 16. He saith to him again the second time, 'Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?' He saith unto Him, 'Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love Thee.' He saith unto him, 'Feed my sheep.' 17. He saith unto him the third time, 'Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?' Peter was grieved because Jesus said unto him the third time, 'Lovest thou me?'

And he saith unto Him, 'Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love Thee.' Jesus saith unto him. 'Feed my sheep.' " The NT was mostly written in the Greek and the word translated into the English word 'loveth' came from two words "agape" and "phileo". Agape is unconditional love; and phileo is brotherly love. When we re-read the same passage substituting the English word "loveth" with the equivalent Greek word, it would read like this: " you 'agape' me?" asked Jesus; "Yes Lord, you know that I 'phileo' you", replied Peter; then Jesus asked him again, " you 'agape' me?";
"Yes Lord, you know that I 'phileo' you." Notice when Jesus asked him the third question, He used a different word for love, " you 'phileo' me?" This grieved Peter this time, because before now, he was proud, impetuous and quick to put his foot in his mouth, but now he knows to be humble and so he replied, "Yes Lord, you know everything, and all I can muster is the 'phileo' kind of love." Although it is not required to learn Greek in order to appreciate the good news of Jesus Christ and feel the assurance of His salvation, there are some words worth knowing that will enable us to understand the depth of God's love revealed when the veil of the language problem is lifted.

There are four Greek words that is the equivalent for the word love and here are the other two not mentioned previously; 'eros' - this is where we get the word "erotic" and it actually means love for our spouse or sexual love; and 'stargae' - this is familial love, the love we have for our parents, brothers and sisters and even relatives. 'Agape' was an obscure word rarely used by the people of that day until John the Beloved used it to declare "God is agape" 1John 4:8. He rightly understood it to mean "God's unconditional love" but the philosophers of their day disagreed with that usage because Plato had elevated the word 'eros' to mean 'heavenly love', the love required for us to have to love God but did not go very far except for what we now know to be 'platonic love'.

The other problem we need to deal with is our human concept of love. How does agape differ so much from our common idea of love? How could the apostles' idea possibly be such a threat to Plato's supposedly noble concept? The answers are found in several clear-cut contrasts between these two ideas:

1. Ordinary human love is dependent on the beauty or goodness of its object. We naturally choose for friends those who are nice to us, who pleases us and is kind to us. We fall in love with our sexual opposite who is beautiful, happy, intelligent, and attractive, and turn away from those who are ugly, mean, ignorant, or offensive. In contrast, agape is not awakened by any of these, it stands alone, it is sovereign and independent. "For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for a good man someone would dare even to die." Rom 5:7. Exclaimed the Greek philosophers: "This is love! Someone willing to die for a good men!" Imagine the shock when the apostles came along and said that that wasn't it at all. "But God shows His agape for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us, while we were even His enemies" Rom 5:8. A message like that either captured your soul or turned you into an implacable enemy!

2. Natural human love rests on a sense of need. It feels poor and empty of itself and requires an object to enrich its own love. A husband loves his wife because he needs her, and a wife loves her husband for the same reason. Two friends love each other because they need each other. Each feel empty and alone without his/her counterpart. But infinitely wealthy of itself, agape feels no such need. The apostles said that the reason God loves us is not because He needs us, but because - well, He is agape. "You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich" 2Cor 8:9. To this day we are staggered by the idea of a love that "seeketh not her own" 1Cor 13:5. Even churches seem drawn almost irresistibly to representing God's love as a seeking-its-own thing, a motivation inspired by a divine acquisitive instinct. God saw a hidden value in us, it is assumed, and He was simply making a good bargain when He bought us. We come to resemble what we worship, so multitudes profess to worship such a God because they too are seeking a good bargain. Their religion is the soul of acquisitiveness - what they want to acquire is heaven and its rewards - and a self-centered motivation is what keeps them going. When agape breaks through into this egocentric milieu, the reaction is pretty much what happened when it broke upon the then known world after Jesus ascended into heaven, it turned the world upside-down.

3. Natural human love rests on a sense of value. Few treat the garbage man as courteously or patronizingly as we do the mayor or governor. If, like water seeking its own level, "ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? asks Jesus (see Matt 5:46, 47). "Men will praise thee, when thou doest well to thyself" (Ps49:18). In contrast, agape is refreshingly different. Rather than being dependent on the value of its object, it creates value in its object. Suppose I have a rough stone in my hand. I picked it up from a field. If I try to sell it, no one would give me even a nickel for it. This is not because the stone is inherently bad, but because it is so common it is worthless. Now suppose that as I hold this rough stone in my arms, I could love it as a mother loves a baby. And suppose that my love could work like alchemy and transform it into a piece of solid gold. My fortune would be made. This is an illustration of what agape does to us. Of ourselves we are worth nothing other than the dubious chemical value of our bodies' ingredients.
But God's love transforms us into a value equivalent to that of His own Son: "I will make a man more precious than the golden wedge of Ophir" Isa 13:12.

4. Natural human love goes in search of God. All heathen religions are based on the idea of God's being elusive. People imagine that God is playing hide-and-seek and has withdrawn Himself from human beings. Only some special ones
are wise or clever enough to discover where He is hiding. Millions go on long journeys to Mecca, Rome, Jerusalem, or other shrines, searching for Him. Again,
agape proves to be the opposite. It is not humans seeking after God, but God is actively seeking after man: "The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which is lost" Luke 19:10. The shepherd left his 99 sheep that were safe and risked his life to find the one that was lost; the woman lit a candle and searched her whole house until she found the one lost coin; The Spirit of God searched the heart of the prodigal son and brought him home. There is no story in all the Bible of a lost sheep required to find his shepherd! Paul was obsessed with this great idea: "...the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preached)" Rom 10:8. That "word of faith" is so closely related to agape, that faith can be understood as the response of a contrite human heart to this tremendous revelation of agape; and Paul's point is that this tremendous "word (agape) is near you." It is the evidence that God has already sought you out where you have been hiding. The Good Shepherd is always on safari looking for us.

5. Our human love is always seeking to climb up higher. Every first-grader wants to enter the second grade; a child who is 11 says he will soon be 12. An employee does not want a demotion, instead he wants the promotion promised and recognition. The state politician longs to get into national politics, and probably every national senator at some time dreams that he might make it to the White House. Who has ever heard of a national president voluntarily resigning in order to become a village servant? Plato's idea of love could never imagine such a thing. Neither can we!

What sobered the ancient world was the sight of Someone higher than a president stepping down lower and lower, until He submitted to the torture of the cross and a death of a criminal. In what is probably an outline of Paul's favorite message, we can trace in Phil 2:5-8 seven distinct downward steps that Christ took in showing us what agape is:

a. "Though He was in the form of God, He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped." When we get into high positions in politics, business, or even the church, it is our nature to worry about falling. "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." But the Son of God abdicated His crown voluntarily, motivated by agape.

b. He "emptied Himself." We humans will fight to the death to maintain our honor or our reputation. And daring deeds of valor are not always the same as emptying oneself as Christ did, for one can give his "body to be burned and yet lack agape." When Paul says Christ "emptied Himself," he was talking about a voluntary surrender FOR ETERNITY of everything held dear, something quite impossible apart from agape.

c. He took "the form of a slave." Can you imagine a more dismal life than always being forced to work without wages or thanks? Angels are said to be servants, "Ministering spirits sent to wait on us" (Heb 1:14); if the Son of God had become like one of them, that would have already been a great condescension on His part, for He was their Commander. But He stepped still lower:

d. He was "born in the likeness of men," "lower than the angels"(see Ps 8:5). Not the sun-crowned, majestic splendor that Genesis says Adam was created in, but the degraded level of fallen man in the abysmal human debasement common to the Greco-Roman world. No human being has ever fallen so low but that the Son of God has come far enough to reach him or her. And once we let agape steal its way into our hearts, all lingering traces of any holier than thou spirit melt away before it, and we also find it possible to reach the hearts of others.

e. "And being found in human form, He humbled Himself." In other words, He was not born with a "silver spoon" in His mouth, in either Caesar's or Herod's palace. His mother had Him in a stinky cattle shed, forced to wrap her little one in rags and lay Him in a donkey's feed box. His became the life of a toiling peasant. But this was not enough:

f. He "became obedient unto death." This phrase means something different from the suicide's mad leap in the dark. No suicide is ever "obedient unto death." If he were, he or she would stay by and face what is reality. The suicide is disobedient. The kind of death Christ was "obedient" to was not an escape from responsibility. It was going to hell: the living, conscious condemnation of every cell of one's being, all under the assumed or understood frown of God. The seventh step He took in condescension makes it clear:

g. "Even the death on a cross." In Jesus' day, death on the cross was the most humiliating and hopeless possible. Not only was it the cruelest ever invented, not only the most shameful - being strung up naked before the taunting mob who watched your agony with glee. Death on the cross carried a built-in horror deeper than all that. It meant that Heaven had cursed you. In Deut 21:23, Moses had declared that anyone who received a capital punishment decree of death and then hung on a tree is "accursed of God." Capital punishment was stoning of one condemned to die, but as he is being stoned, he could still kneel and pray for forgiveness and then trust that God would forgive him and look kindly on him and could then feel God's acceptance and assurance in his death. But if the judge said, "You must hang on a tree," all hope was gone. Everybody expected that God had turned His back on the wretch forever. This is why Paul says that Christ was "made a curse for us: for it is written, "Cursed is everyone that hangest on a tree" Gal 3:13. The kind of death Christ died was equivalent to that of the lost who must perish at last in hopeless despair, this is what the book of Revelations call "the second death."
Of course it was a million times worse for Christ to endure than it will be for them because His sensitivity to the suffering was infinitely greater than for any of us. This was the death that Jesus became "obedient" to. In His despair He cried out, "My God! My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" Matt 27:46. He was actually experiencing the wrath of God. While He was hanging on the cross, Satan tempted Him three times; through the mocking Roman soldiers "If You are the King of the Jews, Save Yourself"; the chief priests also mocked Him saying "He saved others yet He cannot save Himself. Let this Christ the king of the Jews now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe."; and then one of the thief hurled abuse at Him saying "Are you not the Christ? Save Yourself and us."; These temptations were all too real but He reasoned that He cannot save Himself and save the world at the same time. Then He makes up His mind; "I am willing to say goodbye to eternal life forever in order to save these people." Just imagine Jesus was willing to give up His own life and be gone forever, just so the people He came to save has eternal life? Let us be quiet and be reverend as we contemplate this act of supreme sacrifice. You and I are the ones who would have to go through the wrath of God had He not taken our place.

Because we humans have the tendency to project our own ideas of love to God we distort the true meaning of Gods love. But God's love is so much different from our understanding of love. We sinful, self-centered mortals can learn to appreciate "agape" that has been revealed to us. God has not written an encyclopedia article with a systematic exposition of agape. He instead sent His Son to die on the cross so we can see that love. The true meaning of that sacrifice is that it is perfect, infinite, complete, and eternal.

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Last updated June 01, 2005
Susan Dietel
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