John 3:16 (NIV)
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Our fourth and final topic for Advent is LOVE.
Many of us in here have been in the church for years and so we've heard countless sermons and sat through plenty of Bible studies whose topic is this great central tenet of Christianity - LOVE.
In some of those you may have been taught that there are anywhere from three to seven Greek words for love, as opposed to our paltry one word for love in the English language. Greek, as you know, was the original language of the NT and as such (we were taught) it was a much more precise language. For instance, the teacher might explain how in English we can say, "I love Pizza, I love college football, I love my wife, I love my children, I love my parents" - and they are using the same word to describe a variety of types of love. The Greeks, on the other hand, could use one word (eros) and refer to romantic or sexual love, and another word (philia) to refer to friendship or brotherly love, another (storge) to refer to the love between parents and children, and still another word (agape) to refer to a selfless love involving faithfulness, commitment and an act of the will. This word, we are taught, is distinguished from the other types of love mostly because it is in such short supply in the world today.
I'm not here this morning to blow off the way love has been taught to you over the years (above) but I am here to say that sometimes that chase can be fruitless, because quite honestly, many times Jesus and other speakers in the New Testament use these words interchangeably, sometimes in the same sentence.
Taken as a whole, however, we can say that there is something to this particular type of love - agape love - that is worth looking into. How is "agape love" different from other types of love?
Agape Love is From God
Well, first of all, Agape is used to describe the love that is of and from God, whose very nature is love itself: 1 John 4:8 says, “God is love.” In other words, God does not merely love; He is love itself. Everything God does flows from His love. God loves because that is His nature and the expression of His being. He loves the unlovable and the unlovely, not because we deserve to be loved or because of any excellence we possess, but because it is His nature to love and He must be true to His nature.
Agape Love is Demonstrated by What it Does
Second, we can say that Agape love is always shown by what it does. God’s love is displayed most clearly at the cross. Roman's 5:8 tells us that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We certainly didn't deserve it. God’s agape love is unmerited, gracious, and constantly seeking the benefit of the ones God loves. Likewise, the Bible teaches that the highest form of this love is found in laying down our lives for others as Christ laid his live down for us. This week in my Bible reading I've been reading Jesus' famous farewell discourse to his disciples found in John 13-17. There Jesus teaches them that we should love one another as he has loved us (13:34) and goes on to say there is no greater love than to "lay down our lives" for others (15:13).
For us that means that Agape love is not so much something that we "feel" as it is something we "do." In other words, Agape isn't a sappy feeling, it's an act of the will that is best demonstrated by concrete action on our part towards others. So many times I try to love someone like God loves them (in other words with Agape love) and I fail - and that's because I'm trying to convince myself emotionally to do so, when what I really need to do is make up my mind to do so and then to roll up my sleeves and jump in there and demonstrate my love for them by getting involved in their lives. Agape love is a fruit of that action. But let me warn you - it can be messy.
Agape Knows No Bounds
A sub-set of this point is that we are to love others with Agape love, whether they are friends, fellow believers (John 13:34) or bitter enemies (Matt. 5:44). Jesus gave the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) as an example of sacrifice for the sake of others, even for those who may care nothing at all for us. Agape love as modeled by Christ is not based on a feeling; rather, it is a determined act of the will, a joyful resolve to put the welfare of others above our own. That's why when I see groups that spout rhetoric and hatred for gays, the military, Jews, you name it, all under the banner of Christianity - something doesn't add up. As our opening verse today says, "God so loved the WORLD (cosmos) that he gave his only son…"
Agape Does Not Come Naturally
A final point that needs to be made, although it is probably fairly obvious, is this: Agape love does not come naturally to us. Because of our fallen nature, we are incapable of producing it on our own. If we are to love as God loves, that love—that agape—can only come from its Source. This is the love that “has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” when we became His children (see Rom. 5:5, Gal. 5:22). “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). It is only because of God’s love toward us, that we are able to love one another with Agape love.
That, of course, is what ultimately makes LOVE an Advent topic - because if Christ had not come down as a baby - if God had not taken on flesh and blood - there would be no example - no cross - no sacrifice - and so it would be impossible to love as God loves. That's why Christmas is supposed to be a season of goodwill towards everyone. And that's why stories of the season like Dickens' A Christmas Carol are so powerful. Because every "bah humbug" heart in the world can change and that change is ultimately demonstrated by changed behavior and actions by the recipient of God's Agape.
Talk About It
Have you ever heard a sermon or Bible Study that touched on the different Greek terms for love?
Do you find it difficult to love as God loves (with Agape love)? If so, why?
Do you know someone you believe loves with God's Agape love? How or why?
What kind of change would be necessary for you to begin experiencing and living out Agape?
Bonus Question - food for thought - Can a non-Christian experience or express Agape love?