Arguably, the most overused yet least understood words in the English language is "love".  Because that single word can carry many different meanings, it's no wonder the term engenders so much confusion and misunderstanding in our culture.  You'd think we could avoid a lot of this misunderstanding by relying on a good English dictionary, but that's not the case.  Let's see, for example, how Mr. Webster defines it.  First among a dozen different definitions listed under the word "love", we find it is a "strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties, an attraction based on sexual desire or an affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests."  Chances are, most folks agree with this definition because it's generally the way we view it in our culture.   For most English speakers, love is a "feeling", an emotional experience we enjoy in a relationship with someone we cherish.  But be careful, for if we use that definition when reading Scripture, not only will we be hopelessly confused about its true meaning, we'll also miss the heart and soul of our relationship with God and with our fellow man. 

Fortunately, the New Testament was written in a time and place where Koine Greek was the common dialect of the people throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean area.  This is significant because Koine Greek was among the most exact and precise languages of its day.  It's grammar had great elegance, the highly inflected construction reduced vagueness, it embodied a massive vocabulary and had a highly defined verb system.  All these factors made for the optimal vehicle in which God would convey His supernatural truth with greatest accuracy, clarity and precision.  Now, with all this in mind, let's take a closer look at this thing called "love"!

Most of the early scholars who translated the Greek New Testament into English, lumped several distinct Koine words in the singular translation "love" thus blurring the significant differences conveyed in each.   For example, each of the following are, at times, translated in English by the word "love" except the first, Eros. The Greek word "Eros" (erotic), which connotes sexual love, is used in Classical Greek but is not found in the N.T., "philia", brotherly love (Romans 12:10) ; "astorgos", love, especially of parents and children (Romans 1:31);  "philautos" (II Timothy 3:2), self love or self conceit; and "agape", the highest form of love.  It was seldom used in Greek-speaking societies but in the New Testament, it occurs 320 times.  Many scholars define agape as embracing a universal, unconditional love that transcends and serves regardless of circumstances.   Wuest defines it as: "being called out of one’s heart by the preciousness of the object loved. It is a love of esteem, of evaluation.   It has the idea of prizing. It is the noblest word for love in the Greek language. Agape is not kindled by the merit or worth of it’s object, but it originates in it’s own God-given nature.  It delights in giving, thus this love keeps on loving even when the loved one is unresponsive, unkind, unlovable, and unworthy.  It is unconditional love. Agape desires only the good of the one loved. It is a consuming passion for the well-being of others." (*1)   I personally prefer the following definition, however, because it both embodies a transcendent, divine quality but also has, as its source, cognition rather than emotion.  It is a value-driven, decision-based love, therefore Agape love is an act based on choosing the highest good for the one loved.

With emphasis on the element of "choice", the use of agape in Scripture, now makes more sense.   Since it derives from the will, the mind, and from reason, a believer is capable of obeying the greatest of all commandments: to love God and all mankind (Luke 10:27).   If, on the other hand, we view love as a "strong affection for another....", how then could we carry out God's command to "love thy enemy".  How could God command us to experience an intense feeling of deep affection and fondness for murders, child molesters or habitual criminals?  Answer: He doesn't!  Instead, He commands us to mentally value their worth from God's perspective, then choose to seek their highest good.  When God commands us to love Him with all our hearts, mind and soul and our neighbors as ourselves, He's not referring to an emotion but rather, a choice to "act, do, behave or to seek the highest good for our enemies".  Matthew 22:37-40.

THE SOURCE:  Clearly, this selfless kind of love is not natural to mankind.  Indeed, we find it demonstrated only in the examples of God's love as found in Scripture.  Here, the old adage, "a picture is worth a thousand words", certainly applies.  For it is only in biblical narrative can we see exemplified this extraordinary concept of agape.  Who is not profoundly moved by the story of God's incredible love towards a fallen, rebellious and unworthy mankind who, most of whom not only rejected the gracious gift of His beloved Son, crucified God incarnate (Acts 2:23) and even mocks Him openly as a liar II Peter 3:3-4.  For the relatively few who see and understand the significance of God's incredible sacrifice for mankind, His agape love compels, constrains and binds (II Corinthians 5:14) the believer to humbly and gratefully reciprocate that same love back to God Himself (I John 4:19) and toward the object of God's love, mankind.  (Luke 10:27).

But is the mere demonstration of God's love in Scripture, enough to generate the same quality of love in His children?  The answer is "no".  In fact, any and all Christ like qualities will only be experienced in the believer's life through the Holy Spirit.  Agape is the first characteristic mentioned on the list of the fruit of the Spirit in I Thessalonians 5:17 and He is acknowledged as the source of all God's love in the believer's heart. "... because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us." Romans 5:5.  Thus, a complete reliance on the indwelling Holy Spirit to provide you with both the opportunity and the will power to exercise agape love is the key to Christ-like growth.  Does this phrase "opportunity and will power" remind you of anything?  Hopefully, you'll recognize it from lesson 3 in which we studied the collaboration between the Holy Spirit and the believer's obedient heart, it is "God working in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure". Philippians 2:13.  So we've come full circle by recognizing the greatest of all commandments, the most important characteristic of Christ-likeness which God wants us to exercise depends entirely on our reliance on His Holy Spirit within us to help us 1) make the mental choice to love and then, 2) to give us the grace, strength and empowerment to actually carry it to completion.  

Let me conclude today's study with a final comment.  During my academic training, many years ago, I was impressed with a branch of psychology called "Social Learning".  In short, it is a process through which individuals learn and modify their own behavior by observing the actions and consequences seen in others.  In simpler form, its much like "monkey see, monkey do".  Interestingly enough, it is a construct strongly supported throughout Scripture.  For example, in I Corinthians 15:33, the Apostle Paul warns Christians not to "hang out" with the wrong crowd because "evil companions corrupt good character."  By observing behavior, bad or good, in others, influences the observer to imitate the same actions.

Again in Philippians 4:9, pragmatic Paul writes: "Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me - everything you heard from me and saw me doing.  Then the God of peace will be with you."  This entreaty by the Apostle underscores the importance of "doing" in the Christian life.  It's an indisputable fact that the more a particular behavior is practiced, the easier it is to do and the more proficient we become.  The old adage "practice makes perfect" also applies to the Christ-like qualities in the Christian life, especially that of love.  To the degree that we study, observe, and understand God's great love for us, we can then exercise it based on His example.  Indeed, we learn to love Him because He first loved us.  I John 4:19.

THE SUPREME TEST:  But the practice of agape love is not only a measure of Christian growth, it's also the undisputable criterion for salvation.  I mention this here only to point out that, although all believers are commanded to love, some fail to obey.   All too often there is a lapse in the understanding of God's love.  For example, some believers view and receive God's great love as if it were an entitlement of sorts, not understanding that none are deserving of it.  (Romans 3:23)   Still others, think they love God but don't really understand what that phrase really means.  Fortunately, Jesus gave us a simple principle by which we can be assured that we do, in fact, love our Heavenly Father as He wishes.  John 14:23-24  “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words."  What could be simpler?  If we truly love the Lord we will demonstrate it by obeying His Word!

LOVING THE UGLY:   Although God commands us to love Him with our entire being, (Matthew 22:37), the choice to do so originates in the mind, prompted and encouraged by the indwelling Holy Spirit.  Having already defined love as a "strong affection or attraction", it seem implausible that even agape love be devoid of all emotion.  To the contrary, for most people, love would most likely be cited as the most wonderful, sublime feeling a human being can experience.  Indeed, even hardened sinners have been moved to tears upon hearing the story of God's great gift of salvation through the death of His Son.  A whole range of emotion may be experienced including joy at being saved, sadness over Christ's death, excitement about our blessed hope, anger at godlessness, gratitude for His blessing, etc. 

However, agape love does not depend on the vagaries of human emotion but by the rational choice of the will.  Otherwise, how could God expect us to obey His command to "Love thy neighbor as thyself?" if it depended on the particular mood we were in that day.  Matthew 22:39.  This same question came up one day when Jesus was teaching on the mount before the multitudes.  In Matthew 5:44-48 we find these surprising words: "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.....  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?..  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."  Jesus' command left no doubt that the act of loving and praying for one's enemy was contrary to human nature.  This was an act so foreign to man's thinking and so difficult to obey, that the actual practice of it demonstrated the power and reality of God in the lives of the apostles who were, in and of themselves, incapable of such perfection. (see PERFECT for comments)

CHECK IT OUT:  To become the world's greatest lover, should be the goal of every believer.   Of course, I refer to the act of agape love that every Christian is commanded to practice.   But how do we know if we're learning to love as He commands?  Fortunately, the Apostle Paul gave us a list of characteristics against which we may objectively measure our progress in that department.  Let's look at I Corinthians 13:4-7 and see how we measure up: "Love is 1) patient and 2) kind; love does not 3) envy or 4) boast; it is not 5) arrogant or 6) rude. It does not 7) insist on its own way; it is not 8) irritable or 9) resentful; it does not 10) rejoice at wrongdoing, but 11) rejoices with the truth.   Love 12) bears all things, 13) believes all things, 14) hopes all things, 15) endures all things."

 These fifteen characterizes, some negative, some positive, are the most obvious qualities of this agape love which God commands you to demonstrate in your daily life.  Now, if you're really serious about spiritual growth, I'm going to challenge you to do the following: make a list of these fifteen characteristics and, at the end of each day, go over the list and put a check mark next to the ones you failed to practice.  As the days go by, seeing fewer and fewer checks on the page will give you a rough idea of your spiritual growth in that area.  If this seems like a futile exercise, le me just remind you of the important God places on learning how to love with His love.  In the last verse of this chapter (I Corinthians 13), the Holy Spirit guides Paul to pen the following: "So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love." Even more important than faith and hope, in God's eyes, is the practice of His love in your every day life.  For it is though the demonstration of His love through to one another and to a lost world that the unbeliever may come to understand the road to salvation.

(1) Kenneth Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies in the Greek New Testament
(Grand Rapids, Michigan:
Eerdmans Publishing