Ponderings: God’s Love

Many of us heard and responded to John 3:16, either as part of our conversion or shortly after it.  With the possible exception of Psalm 23, it is the best-known verse in the Bible.  It shows up in all sorts of places, even behind goal posts at football games.

It’s a good verse to “show up” during Advent.  The coming of Christ (first time,second time, or every day) is due to God’s love.  The Greek for that love is agape.

Thanks to input from Dr. Dennis Kinlaw (via a series of taped teachings), I have learned something about agape I never knew before.  His knowledge of the original biblical languages so far exceeds mine that he often takes me to new and rich discoveries.

I did not know that the early Christians “coined” the word to describe God’s love.  It was not a word in use in classical Greek to describe the deity’s (or deities’) love.  In fact, it is a word that is only found once or twice in extant Greek materials—in other words, a very rare word.  But it is the word the Christians decided to use in order to speak of God’s love.

They chose it in contrast to the main existing words of their day:  eros, phileo, and storge.  Why did they not use one or more of the words which were already familiar?  One main reason—the three main words were conditioned by the love of the one loved.  That is, our love might change toward the beloved if the beloved’s love changed toward us. 

The early Christians made use of agape precisely because it is love which is defined by the nature of the lover, not the one being loved.  The beloved’s love may rise and fall—come and go—maybe even cease to exist.  But agape does not change.  And that was the only kind of love the early Christians could think of in relation to God.  So, they wrote of God’s agapeAnd by using that word in relation to God, they were saying, “There’s only one place where you can be loved like this—in God.”

Down through the centuries we read about God’s love, and often we do it without realizing how the Bible came to make use of this word to describe it.  Even today, we describe agape when we use the Great Thanksgiving:  “When we turned away, and our love failed, your love remained steadfast.” 

Eros, phileo, and storge cannot bring that to pass.  Those loves can be as conditional in the lover as they are in the beloved.  It’s only agape that “remains steadfast” when our love fails.

This is the message of Advent—agape—the love which moved George Matheson to write in 1862 these lines to one of our most beautiful hymns:  “O Love that will not let me go….”

When you see it like that, it’s hard to improve on John 3:16.   Have an agape Advent!

 

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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