In Matthew 22:34-40 we find an occasion where Christ is once again tempted by the Pharisees. One of them asks Jesus - “What's the greatest commandment in all the law?” Now it must be understood that he wasn't merely referring to the “Big Ten”! Some scholars tell us that the Pharisees of the day said that the Law contained 248 affirmative precepts (“thou shalt’s”) - as many as the bones of the human body. They said that the Law contained 365 negative precepts (“thou shalt not’s”) - as many as the days of the year. That left 613 total laws - the number of letters in the Decalogue. This lawyer asked Christ which of these commandments was number one. Now, some of the learned religious men of the day would say that the mandates about the number of fringes on the bottom of their robes were the most important. Some thought that the laws governing cleanness were of most importance. For one to not keep oneself ceremonially clean was akin to homicide in some of their minds. I suppose that, in a sense, this man was asking which type of commandment was the greatest. Christ's response is interesting. He says that the first and most preeminent command is the first one of the Decalogue – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.” Then he says something rather startling – “Number two is that you should love those around you as yourself.” This was Christ's message. In Mark 12, this same occasion is recorded and in verse 31 we find this addition, “There is no commandment greater than these”.
This was the message of Christ. This was the mission of Christ. The subject that our Lord said was the most important of all is LOVE. In the ancient Greek language there were three primary words for love: storge - this was a familial love - it was natural. It was often unmerited, but was quite natural and protective - like the love that a mother has for her child. The second type of love that we find in the ancient Greek language is eros. This was a very selfish, possessive, erotic and sensual love. The third type - and most common - is phileo. This is the word that is the second most common found in the NT. It is used some 30 times and refers to a “brotherly love”. These are the only three words that the ancient Greek language contained pre-Christ. Yet, when our Lord entered the scene, there was a new word for love introduced. The earliest Greek writings that contain the word agape are Scripture. I think it was Mark Minnick who (humorously) speculated that when God came to earth in the flesh, He was moved to create a new word describing His love to man.
Agape love is that self-giving love that is not merited. An interesting side note here - this word agape appears in the NT more often than any of the other words for love. It is used over 300 times. A small portion of those times is describing God's love to man. Another relatively small number of times, it is used to describe the way we are to love God - only a few times is it used in that manner. Most often, it is used to describe the way we are to interact with other humans. This idea of agape love sums up the ministry of Christ. His coming to earth in the flesh to die for humanity is the greatest expression of love that we can ever know.
Now, we sometimes have this view of agape love that says that we can never achieve it. That is to say, it is just some “pie in the sky” of which we can never partake. To a point, I suppose that's true. We are limited by our flesh - so we always reach a point of selfishness, retaliation, etc.
Growing up I was taught that this type of love was descriptive only of the love that God shows man and that man is incapable of displaying this love himself. However, over and over again, we are commanded in the NT to exhibit agape love to one another. Christ said often - you can look all through the Gospels - particularly the Gospel of John - and find Christ saying, “love one another”. He told the disciples in John 13 that He was giving them a “new” commandment – “Love [agape] one another". In I John 4 we read a great description of God: “God is love [agape]”. In Galatians 5:22, the Apostle Paul tells us of this thing called the “fruit of the Spirit”. The first thing that he lists is “love” [agape]. All the other components of this fruit are the natural by-products of love. In essence, if we exhibit true, Biblical agape love, the characteristics of joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance will also be exhibited.
If we are to have agape love; if this type of love - to God first, and then to man - is the absolute most important thing we are to put on as Christians, I suppose we had better find out what it is! One definition of agape love that I found is “an intense desire to please God, and to do good to mankind; the very soul and spirit of all true religion; the fulfilling of the law, and what gives energy to faith itself.” However, I think it is difficult to formulate a concise and precise definition of agape. Instead, I’m going to use my next several posts to examine a passage of Scripture that perfectly defines this love for us by means of description.
In the first 8 verses of I Corinthians 13, we begin reading about the nature of love. In these 8 verses there are 14 characteristics of love described. It’s these that I will focus on in the next several blog posts:
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.” (NKJV)