What is "The Love"?

The word "love" some would say is much used and abused. It is one of those words in English which has wide abstract applications. "Love" can be romantic and cruel. "Love" can be made, as in intimate relations. "Love" can be misguided and even hypocritical. But, what is "love"? First in the English language and then in the Biblical language of the Christian Greek Bible.

The English Word "Love"

The English word "love" has an interesting root system. Webster's New World Dictionary (Second College Edition) lists a full page on "love" and related words. We are told "love" comes from Old English lufu and is related to the Gothic lubo and the root leubh (where one begins to hear German). The root meaning is: fond and desire. The first definition of "love" is: 1. a deep and tender feeling of action for or attachment or devotion to a person or persons. ... SYN: implies intense fondness or deep devotion and may apply to various relationships or objects.

Thus, essentially in English love is a feeling of a certain type. It is for this reason that it falls short or is misunderstood when it comes to the Greek as used in the Christian Bible.

The Christian Greek Word AGAPE

Generally in the Christian Greek Bible the word "love" is translated from agape (noun) or agapo (verb). In many ways is resembles the English word "love" and often must be understood by the context in a sentence. There is good and bad love. There is hypocritical and unhypocritical agape. The word agape is very rare outside of the Christian Bible. Some would state that had it not been for its preservation in the Christian Bible we would know nothing of agape today.

In Greek there are four general words often rendered "love." There is sexual or romantic love as found in the word eros. There is family love, storge. There is brother love, philia. And, lastly there is agape which is sometimes referred to as "principled" love. What is meant by this?

The answer lies in the real meaning of agape. We will see that the English "love" is unsatisfactory in conveying this word. However, agape may be understood to be an action rather than a feeling. Now when we take some action toward others there are generally two factors at work: a) motive; and, b) principle. Admittedly, often actions toward another are based on a selfish or impure motive though the principle behind it may be correct. Consider, the action of charity, a good and godly principle. However, the motive of charity may be pride or personal glory. Or, consider "love of money" where the principle is erroneous from a Christian standpoint. (Compare John 3:16, 19; EGAPESAN.) [NOTE: Paul uses the word-group agape 128 times, while John uses it 95 times.]

Saint Paul shows this difference when he takes on a description of agape in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3: "Now if I were capable of speaking in human and angelic languages but do not possess AGAPEN I have become no more than a noisy gong or clanging cymbals. Also, if I possess the prophetic gift and know all mysteries and (religious) knowledge, as well as conviction so strong I could move mountains, but do not possess AGAPEN, I am nothing. Also, if I sacrifice all my possessions to feed the needy, sacrificing my own physical body so I may brag, and yet lack AGAPEN, I profit nothing."

Here Paul is not defining agape but rather the motive behind certain gifts or actions.

Paul then continues to list what agape is and is not. We note he speaks of a certain type of agape by including the article, "The Agape is TOLERANT (patient) and BENEVOLENT. ... Agape is joyous in honesty and truth. Agape covers over everything. Agape trusts and believes everything. Agape hopes always. Agape endures everything. The agape never stumbles." (1 Corinthians 13:4-8) Here he has told us what agape does. Now he tells us what agape is not. "The agape is not JEALOUS, not BOASTFUL, not ARROGANT, not ILL-MANNERED, not SELFISH, not ADVERSARIAL, does not KEEP A LOG OF INJURIES, is not HAPPY OVER WRONG." (1 Corinthians 13:4-6)

Exactly, What Is The Agape?

We read what Paul says what agape is or is not. Note that in 1 Corinthians 13:4 he refers to "the agape." He writes of a certain kind, a specific type of agape -- The Love. But, what is it, exactly? We may define agape as possessing three attributes: interest, concern, and action.

In order to have agape one begins with INTEREST in another. Now this may be either rightly or wrongly motivated. A person rushes into a burning building to save another. (Right Principle) However, the motive for this action was because the other person is one's sole source of income and well-being. A person gives to another because they wish to curry favor or further along their own political ambitions.

Often agape is never manifest because there is simply no interest in another. Some people show themselves constantly aware or interested in how others might be getting along. While another person is always oblivious of another's need, having no interest whatsoever.

Once INTEREST is cultivated it must be followed by CONCERN. The awareness or interest in another's situation arouses a concern or worry so that some action might be anticipated. Failure to follow through on this interest and concern results in a failure to be loving, or changing the noun (agape) to the verb (agapoo) -- does not love.

Thus, the third link in the agape chain is POSITIVE ACTION. This action, as defined by the Greek scholar William Barclay, "seeks the highest good of another." Actually, non-action (though interest and concern be present) is described as hate in the Bible. It is the sin of omission, one of the worst kinds described in the teachings of Jesus. (Note the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46 and see what the unrighteous goats were guilty of not doing. Compare also 3 John 5, 6.)

How "The Agape" Is Manifest

In the writings of John we can see this agape at work and how vital The Agape becomes. Note in the following verses the three factors of: INTEREST, CONCERN, AND POSITIVE ACTION in 1 John 3:13-18 (21st Century Version of the Christian Scriptures - NCMM) ---

"My brothers and sisters, do not worry about why the world hates you. We realize we have stepped over the gulf between death and life because we continue to love [AGAPOMEN] our fellowship. The individual who is unloving [ME AGAPON] in their disposition continues under the condemnation of death. Anybody who hates a fellow is guilty of manslaughter. You realize that anyone guilty of manslaughter does not have everlasting life remaining within. Here is how we really understand what love is [TEN AGAPEN = THE LOVE]: our Lord sacrificed his very existence for us. For this reason we are obligated to sacrifice ourselves for our fellowship. For example: if any of us has this world's resources for maintaining life and is aware [INTEREST] that another Christian is in need [CONCERN] and yet slams shut the doors [NON-ACTION] of his tender affections -- how is it possible that God still loves [THE AGAPE] that person? My little children, make it your habit to always show loving concern [AGAPOMEN], not in speech or words only, but in positive and real action."

We learn several important things from these verses: There is a divine type of love which is The Love, or The Agape; The Love goes beyond mere feeling (interest and concern); The Agape is manifest by positive action which seeks the highest good of another; even though this may call from some sacrifice after the example of our Lord; an absence of this positive action is hateful; and, finally, such non-action places on outside of God's own agape.

Almost without exception The Agape is in the context of charity and hospitality. (3 John 5, 6) The disciple James describes the same circumstances above in 1 John but in the context of faith and works. Consider this at James 2:8, 15-17; 4:17: "You must love your neighbor as yourself. ... Now should a (Christian) brother or sister lack the proper clothing and daily nourishment, and yet someone among your Christian community tells them: 'Peace to you! Now leave and find warmth and food!' -- and you Christians refuse to provide them with what their bodies need -- who does it benefit? So also conviction without charitable works is completely dead. ... So, if someone knows how to do good but does not perform, it is their sin." In both verses we become aware that without interest, concern, and positive action we cannot remain in God's love and our faith is dead.

The Agape may be shown in another way. Consider the example of our Lord in Mark 10:17-22. A Jewish man rushes toward the Nazarene and falls on his knees and then begs to know what he need do to inherit everlasting life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments and then lists several from the Ten Commandments. The fellow states that he has been keeping all these from his youth. Now the account states: "But having looked upon him [INTEREST], Jesus loved [EGAPESEN] him." [CONCERN] (Mark 10:21) But, here in this Jew's case Jesus sought his highest good by giving him what he really need: spiritual advice. The Nazarene told him: "You lack one single thing: Go and sell your possessions and give to the poor -- then you will have heavenly treasure -- and after doing this then come and follow me." (Mark 1:21) So, one may demonstrate agape in both material and spiritual ways.

We do well as Christians and fellow members in the Nazarene Community of Friends to strive every day to become a more loving person by INTEREST IN OTHERS, CONCERN FOR OTHERS, AND POSITIVE ACTION SEEKING THE HIGHEST GOOD OF OTHERS. Paul makes this appeal to a congregation known for its love:

"Make me completely happy by minding one thing: Hold this one thought -- continue demonstrating the same love [AGAPEN] for one another. Do nothing motivated by contention or egotism. Rather be humble with one another, always considering that others are your superiors. Do not just show interest in your own affairs, but be concerned about other people." (Philippians 2:2-4)

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Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller

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