What is Love?
There are probably fewer words in the modern English language that have been more distorted, misused, abused, and overused than the word “love.” We have a tendency to take this word and then "stuff" it with our own meaning. We define it as we choose for the moment. We use this word to express our affectionate feelings for the family pet, our wife, or our favorite food.
But what does God mean by "love?" When I am told to "love my enemies" or to "love my neighbor" what does that mean? What does that look like? If we take the Bible seriously it is important to align our definition with God's. Love is Biblically depicted, as the greatest of Christian virtues. Paul, in his introduction to his treatise on the subject in I Corinthians 13, refers to love as “the most excellent way.” He concludes with the statement: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Jesus says that love is the distinguishing mark of all of His disciples (John 13:35). In addition, we are commanded to love one another as He has loved us. John tells us that the possession of true love is a means of determining if we are actually in the faith. He says, “Anyone who does not love remains in death” (I John 3:14).
Unfortunately, the English language is less definitive and distinct, in its use of words than "Koine" Greek, the language in which the New Testament is written in. The Greeks had four different words, each denoting a different type of "love." These four words, Eros, Storgos, Phileo, and Agape have different meanings. (For a significant study of this I would recommend The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis). But the word used most often by Jesus, and the other New Testament writers, is the word Agape. It is this word that is used by Jesus when He says to "love your neighbor." We cannot understand what Jesus meant by this without examining that word.
Agape love is the very nature of God Himself (See I John 4:8). It is not something He possesses, it is who He is. God cannot be anything other than agape. Everything that God does is an act of His agape. He never acts contrary to agape, because to do so would be contrary to His very being. This love is depicted to us as covenantly faithful, unconditional, and self -giving. It is self-motivated, in that it is not motivated by us. God does not love because there is something lovely in us. He loves because that is who He is.
The agape of God, the Father, is revealed in the death of Christ. Some people have the mistaken notion that Christ “rescued” us from God the Father. God the Father is viewed as vengeful and full of wrath, but Jesus stepped in with love and mercy, to “save” us from the Father. Nothing could be further from the Biblical truth. The Scripture tells us that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (II Cor. 5:19). John 3:16 declares the Father’s agape for the world by His giving of the Son.
Dr. Sinclair Ferguson has said,"When we think of Christ dying on the cross we are shown the lengths to which God’s love goes in order to win us back to Himself. We would almost think that God loved us more than He loves His Son! We cannot measure such love by any other standard. He is saying to us: I love you this much. The cross is the heart of the gospel. It makes the gospel good news: Christ died for us. He has stood in our place before God’s judgment seat. He has borne our sins. God has done something on the cross we could never do for ourselves. But God does something to us as well as for us through the cross. He persuades us that He loves us.”
Now if we understand that the cross is central to Paul’s gospel, we also find that the message of God’s agape love is central to Paul’s preaching. But it would be a great error to conclude that Paul saw these as two separate and distinct messages. Rather, Paul saw these as one. For Paul, God’s Agape and the theology of the cross were one and the same. (I was greatly helped at seeing this by Anders Nygren’s classic work, Agape and Eros.) The cross is the demonstration of God’s love for a fallen world.
Take note of Paul’s words in Romans 5:6-10:
"For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows His love (agape) for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved from the wrath of God. For while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.”
Paul says several things I want to call to your attention. First, he says that, “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” If we were to ask what Agape is, Paul would point to the cross of Christ. This is exactly what John tells us in I John 3:16; “By this we know love (agape), that He laid down His life for us.”
Secondly, the Agape of God, the Father, is revealed in the death of Christ. Some people have the mistaken notion that Christ “rescued” us from God the Father. God the Father is viewed as vengeful and full of wrath, but Jesus stepped in with love and mercy, to “save” us from the Father. Nothing could be further from the Biblical truth. The Scripture tells us that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (II Cor. 5:19). John 3:16 declares the Father’s Agape for the world by His giving of the Son.
Thirdly, the Father’s love is unmotivated by anything in us. It is self-motivated by the nature of who He is. In other words, God did not love us because we were lovely. He loves us because of the fact that He is love (I John 4:16). Paul uses four expressions to describe who Christ died for: the weak, the ungodly, sinners, and enemies.
God has revealed Himself through the Scriptures as a God of both mercy and justice. Apart from the revelation of the cross, we would never be able to understand how these seemingly opposite attributes could be reconciled. But it is at the cross of Christ that justice and mercy meet. For it is there at the cross that justice was fulfilled by the Son of God. The penalty for Man’s rebellion was paid by Man’s creator and the way was made for Man’s reconciliation. The climax of the crucifixion account occurs when Jesus cries out from the cross His declaration of victory, "It is finished." (The Greek here is more emphatic. The Greek word being tetelestai. A word that was used in the marketplace when the final payment had been made. It in essence means "paid in full.") Christ had satisfied the demands of divine justice and the price was completely paid for our redemption.
Matthew records that the veil in the temple was torn from top to bottom at the moment of Christ’s death. The symbolism of that event speaks of the reality that Man’s access to the throne of God has been made available. Under the Old Covenant, Man could only come to God by means of sacrifice. But under the New Covenant, sacrifice is no longer Man’s way to God, but God’s way to Man. For it is God’s sacrifice that enables us to come confidently before the throne of grace. The cross stands as the triumphal declaration of God’s agape love for a lost and sinful world.