Love's Excelling Way

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,  lists five Greek words for the word love.  They are:  Aga’pe, E’ros, Phili’a, Storge’ and Xeni’a. Let’s take a brief look at each.

Aga’pe in Ancient Greek generally referred to a “pure,” ideal type of love rather than the physical attraction suggested by E’ros.  For example, in the Christian Greek Scriptures this type of love is used to describe God’s love for humanity.

E’rosis passionate love, with sensual desire and longing. The modern Greek word erotas means (romantic) love.

Phili’ais friendship in modern Greek, a dispassionate virtuous love. It includes loyalty to friends, family and community, and requires virtue, equality and familiarity.

Storge’is affection, natural affection, like that felt by parents for offspring.

Xeni’ameans hospitality in modern Greek and was an extremely important practice in ancient Greece.  It was an almost ritualized friendship formed between a host and their guest who could previously be strangers.

The Christian Greek Scriptures give us special insight as to the meaning of love from God’s perspective.  For example, Jesus said: “Love your enemies, and pray for those persecuting you.”  (Matthew 5:44)  At first, it may be rather difficult to relate to such admonition, especially if we think of love in the way it is frequently used today.

Of course, Jesus’ admonition, “love your enemies,” is not coached in language of tender affection.  Rather, it is based entirely on principle.  It is governed by a sincere concern for the welfare of others.  It involves sincere devotion to that which is righteous. This is the Scriptural meaning of love, as used by Christ Jesus. Our discussion today will focus on this unique aspect of love.

The Bible study aid, Insight on the Scriptures, (Vol. 2, pp. 273, 274) provides valuable information on the word love, as used in Scripture.  It states:  “The verb ‘ahev’ or ‘ahav’(“love”) and the noun ‘ahavah’ (“love”) are the words primarily used in Hebrew to denote love …”

Next, it states that: “The Christian Greek Scriptures mainly employ forms of the words aga’pe, phili’a, and two words drawn from storge’ (e’ros, love between the sexes, not being used).  Aga’pe appears more frequently than the other terms.”

It continues:  “Of the noun aga’pe and the verb agapa’o, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says: “Love can be known only from the actions it prompts.  God’s love is seen in the gift of his Son, 1 John 4:9, 10. But obviously this is not the love of complacency, or affection, that is, it was not drawn out by any excellency in its objects, Romans 5:8.  It was an exercise of the Divine will in deliberate choice, made without assignable cause save that which lies in the nature of God Himself, as shown at Deuteronomy 7:7, 8.”  - 1981, Vol. 3, p. 2.

Let’s consider these Scriptural examples given by Vine’s.

1 John 4:9, 10 states:  “By this the love of God was made manifest in our case, because God sent forth his only-begotten Son into the world that we might get life through him. The love is in this respect, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent forth his Son as a propitiatory sacrifice for our sins.” This is principled love shown by action on God’s part.  It is proactive love.

Romans 5:8 states:  “But God recommends his own love to us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  Once again we see God’s proactive love, agap’pe, in action. When Paul says “God recommends his own love to us,” he is really saying that God acted first, and that he encourages us to emulate this kind of love in dealing with others.

The point made by Vine’s Expository Dictionary is that God’s love for the human race was demonstrated even though mankind had done nothing to deserve it.  This is because God’s love, aga’pe love, is principled love.  It is pro-active love.

God also displays another aspect of love, phili’a, or affection.   He did so, for example, at the time of Jesus’ baptism when he said: “This is my Son, the Beloved, whom I have approved.”  (Matthew 3:17)  God shows such affection to others as well, to those exercising faith in his Son and obeying his righteous laws.

The third Scripture text cited in Vine’s isDeuteronomy 7:7, 8 which provides additional evidence of the pro-active nature of God’s love. The (NWT) renders this text thus: “It was not because of your being the most populous of all the peoples that Jehovah showed affection for you so that he chose you, for you were the least of all the peoples.  But it was because of Jehovah’s loving you, and because of Jehovah’s keeping the sworn statement that he had sworn to your forefathers, that Jehovah brought you out with a strong hand, that he might redeem you from the house of slaves, from the hand of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.”

The (NIV) translates this passage somewhat similarly, showing that God had affection for Israel, because he had love for them.  In other words, God’s affection for Israel was the result of his principled love for them.  Many Bible translations do not show this important distinction.  They translate those two verses somewhat like the (KJV) which states: “The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number…  But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, ...”

You will note that God showed affection for Israel because he loved  them.  And why was that?  It was “because of his keeping the sworn statement that he had sworn to (their) forefathers.”  God demonstratedprincipled love, because of his sworn oath to their forefathers.  Looking at this from a different perspective, God displayed affection toward Israel because of his pro-active love as regards the sworn oath he had made to their forefathers.

Regarding the verb phile’o, Vine comments:  “It is to be distinguished from agapa’o in this, that phile’o more, nearly represents tender affection.”

James Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, in its Greek dictionary (1890, pp. 75, 76),remarks under phile’o: To be a friend (fond of an individual or an object), i.e., to have affection for (denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling;  while (agapa’o) is wider, embracing especially the judgment and the deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and property…).”

Aga’pe, therefore, carries the meaning of love guided, by principle. It may, or may not, include affection and fondness.  That aga’pe may include affection and warmth is evident in many passages.  At John 10:35, Jesus said: “The Father loves (agapai’) the Son.” At John 5:20, he said:  “the Father has affection (philei’) for the Son.”  Certainly God’s love for Jesus Christ is coupled with much affection.  Jesus explained:  He that loves (agapon’) me will be loved (agapethe’setai) by my Father, and I will love (agape’so) him.” (John 14:21)  This love from the Father and from the Son is accompanied by tender affection toward the recipients of such love.  Of course, God’s worshipers (are expected to reciprocate such love).” – John 21:15-17.

Insight on the Scriptures also has this to say:  “So, although distinguished by respect for principle, aga’pe is not unfeeling; otherwise it would not differ from cold justice.  But it is not ruled by feeling or sentiment; it never ignores principle.  Christians rightly show aga’pe toward others for whom they may feel no affection or fondness, doing so for the welfare of those persons. (Galatians 6:10)  Yet, though not feeling affection, they do feel compassion and sincere concern for such fellow humans, to the limits and in the way that righteous principles allow and direct.

However, while aga’pe refers to love governed by principle, there are good and bad principles.  A wrong kind of aga’pe could be expressed if guided by bad principles. For example, Jesus said:  “If you love (agapa’te) those loving you, of what credit is it to you? For even the sinners love those loving them.  And if you do good to those doing good to you, really of what credit is it to you?  Even the sinners do the same. Also, if you lend without interest to those from whom you hope to receive, of what credit is it to you?  Even sinners lend without interest to sinners that they may get back as much.”  (Luke 6:32-34).

As we have already considered Jesus commanded: “Love (agape’te) your enemies.” (Matthew 5:44)  God himself established the principle, as the apostle Paul states:  “God recommends his own love (aga’pen) to us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us… For if, when we were enemies, we became reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, now that we have become reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:8-10)  An outstanding instance of such love is God’s dealing with Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul.  (Acts 9:1-16; 1 Timothy 1:15)  Loving our enemies, therefore, should be governed by the principle established by God, and should be exercised in obedience to his commandments, whether or not such love is accompanied by any warmth or affection.”  (end of quote)

Understanding the Greek word aga’pe should give us a better grasp of what John meant when he said: “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) It should enable us to see our Heavenly Father as the very personification of aga’pe love.  What this means is that our Creator acts pro-actively toward his creation.  He makes the first move, so to speak.  What a wonderful God and Father we have!  As his children, we should want to emulate this kind of love in our daily life.  Indeed, we have Jesus’ own admonition to do so for he said: “I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 13:34).

The importance of this type of love is further shown by Jesus as recorded in Matthew 22:37-40.  He said:  “You must love Jehovah your God with your whole heart, and with your whole soul and with your whole mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second, like it, is this, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself’.” He concludes his comments by saying: “On these two commandments the whole law hangs, and the prophets.”  Aga’pe is used in this instance also, showing that God’s dealings with the human race are based on aga’pe, principled love, and that he expects the same from us.

Because “God is love,” he is pro-active in everything he does.  No wonder the Holy Scriptures define love, (aga’pe) as a quality of action.  Love is not centered on self, but on the needs of others. In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, we find Paul’s remarks on the importance of love.  He clearly shows that love is preeminent.

He writes: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but do not have love, I have become a sounding piece of brass or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophesying and am acquainted with all the sacred secrets and all knowledge, and if I have the faith so as to transplant mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  And if I give all my belongings to feed others, and if I hand over my body, that I may boast, but do not have love, I am not profited at all.”

Next, in verses 4-8 he gives a detailed explanation of what love is.  Obviously, it would be difficult to explain what love is without showing what it does, or how it acts. After all, love is proactive.  Here is how Paul explains love.

Love is long-suffering and kind”:

As imperfect humans, we need to put up with one another in love.  However, this may be difficult to do, especially toward those whom we think should know better. I once saw a bumper sticker that had the inscription, “Christians are not perfect, just forgiven.” Sometimes we tend to forget that.  Paul counsels Christians to “put up with one another in love.” On the other hand, we might find ourselves in a situation that is very trying. At a time like that it’s good to remember what Peter wrote at 1 Peter 2:20  “For what merit is there in it if, when you are sinning and being slapped, you endure it? But if, when you are doing good and you suffer, you endure it, this is a thing agreeable to God.”

Paul mentions kindness along with long-suffering for a very good reason.  When others are harsh or cruel in their actions or words, one may be tempted to respond in like manner.  While such behavior on the part of another may be inexcusable, we should never react that way.  That would only make matters worst.  What is more, if the other party knows we are Christian, they might be stumbled.  It is far better to hold our tongue, think about the matter, and then respond with principled love, (aga’pe) doing so with kindness.

Love is not jealous”:

Jealousy is resentment or envy of another’s advantages, attainments, or privileges.  It is also defined as fearful suspicion of another.  Strange as it may seem, jealous hurts, not its object, but the one from whom it emanates.  If we have God-like love, aga’pe, it is impossible for us to behave that way.  Love is a proactive protection for us.

Love “does not brag, does not get puffed up”:

Love will protect us from a proud and haughty spirit.  How critical this is, for “Pride is before a fall.” (Prov. 16:18)  Some people have abilities and gifts that are outstanding.  And love helps to get a proper perspective of such abilities and gifts. In 1 Corinthians 4:6,7 Paul writes: “Do not go beyond the things that are written,” in order that you may not be puffed up individually in favor of the one against the other. For who makes you to differ from another? Indeed, what do you have that you did not receive? If, now, you did indeed receive (it), why do you boast as though you did not receive (it)?”  Love is a real protection, for it helps us gain objectivity and to remain humble.

Love “does not behave indecently”:

Love is courteous and well mannered, not only in Christian fellowship, but also on the job, with people who may not be Christian.  Sometimes, among non-Christians, one may be exposed to vulgar talk and obscene jesting.  Christian love will have no part of that sort of behavior. In Ephesians 5:3,4 Paul writes: “Let fornication and uncleanness of every sort or greediness not even be mentioned among you, just as it befits holy people; neither shameful conduct not foolish talking nor obscene jesting, things which are not becoming, but rather, the giving of thanks.”  And when Paul wrote to the Colossians, he said: “But now really put them all away from you, wrath, anger, badness, abusive speech, and obscene talk out of your mouth.” (3:8)   Clearly, love does not behave indecently.

Love “does not look for its own interests”:

Once again, we see that love comes to the fore positively, proactively, looking for opportunities to be helpful to others.  The apostle Paul set such a fine example in this regard.  In his first letter to the Corinthians (9:23) he wrote: “But I do all things for the sake of the good news, that I may become a sharer of it with (others).”  While we must be careful not to meddle in the affairs of others, we should be alert to opportunities in which we can be of assistance them.  Sometimes, the things we do may seem insignificant.  For instance, greeting a person warmly and making them feel wanted, showing that we care about them can be most beneficial. At other times we might use our resources when others are in need.  The early Christians did that.  Opening our home to a Bible study is a good example of not looking for our own interests.  That sort of sacrifice requires love, aga’pe love.

Love “does not become provoked”:

In the course of living, there are many things that may serve as cause for provocation. The question to consider is whether we are prone to react or respond.  In similar situations, most people will react.  They retaliate in word or deed.   But love does not become provoked.  It does not allow itself to be easily offended.  The course of love is a response that favors the way of kindness, not belligerence.  As Galatians 5:20 points out, “fits of anger” are “works of the flesh.”  Love will protect us from such a course.

Love “does not keep account of the injury”:

When we are offended or “injured,” it is important that we forgive and move on with our life.  This is true for two reasons.  First, harboring resentment is very harmful for one. It is much like jealousy.  The greatest damage done is not to the one who is the object of one’s resentment, but as with jealousy, harm is inflicted upon oneself.  In fact, there have been times when people harbored resentment for many years against another, yet the other party was not even aware of it.  Guess whose health suffered?  The second and most important reason why we must not keep account of the injury is that God tells us not to.  Jesus gave many illustrations to show how God feels about forgiveness.  And to make sure we don’t miss the point, in the model prayer he taught us to pray:  “forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.”  Therefore, if we tend to keep account of the injury, we are actually asking God to do the same with us.

Love “does not rejoice over unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth”:

Love cannot rejoice over unrighteousness. It cannot rejoice over the works of the flesh. Love rejoices with the truth because truth is righteous.  Truth emanates from God, even as love does.  For this reason, we must always champion truth, even if it means that we are inconvenienced by such a stand.  In Jesus’ prayer to his Heavenly Father, he prayed: “Sanctify them by means of the truth, your word is truth.”  The Inspired Scriptures are the product of God’s holy spirit, and when we read God’s word, we receive holy spirit. Doing so will help us rejoice with the truth.

Love “bears all things”:

Love is willing to bear or put up with many things.  Perhaps the best example of this is a parent/child relationship.  When children are small, they need a great deal of attention. This generally requires the sacrifice of needed rest and sleep, but parents learn to bear that burden. As children grow older, other things may come up, things with which we may not agree.  But as long as the truth is not compromised, we will continue to bear up.  Moreover, this principle extends beyond one’s immediate family. Love will help us to bear all things.

Love “believes all things”:

Love is not suspicious, calling into question every move that people make.  Love gives people the benefit of a doubt.  However, it is not gullible, believing everything people say without checking it out.  Although the early Christians accepted the Scriptures as true, as they also received writings from the apostles and disciples, John admonished them, saying: “Beloved ones, do not believe every inspired expression, but test the inspired expressions to see whether they originate with God.” (1 John 4:1)  It is the course of wisdom for us to do likewise.  We must check every inspired expression (i.e., things that Christian may write about, or tell us) against the word of God, even as they did.

Love “hopes all things”:

Love hopes in what God has promised in his word, and it patiently waits for its realization.  Our hope also rests in God in that he will continue to draw people to his Son.  For this reason, we boldly declare our faith to others, telling them about God and his wonderful promises, and how they can return to Him by exercising faith in Christ Jesus.

Love “endures all things”:

Love will help us to maintain integrity to God in our Christian walk. It will assist us to overcome any and all obstacles in the path that leads to life, and to remain faithful, right to end.  Whether that means the end of ‘this age,’ or the end of our life is really immaterial because we are promised a resurrection from the dead.

Love never fails”:

Love never fails because God is love and love is his way of doing things.  When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, explaining what love is, he made this concluding comment: “Now, however, there remain faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”  (1 Cor. 13:13).

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Lewis Hrytzak.