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Agape - God's love

18th May 2006

The Greeks had various words that could be translated into English as "love". The actual Greek word translated as "love" 10 times in the passage 1 Corinthians 13:1-14:1 is agape.

(for the precision-minded, agape actually occurs only 9 times in the Greek, and an extra one is put in by the English translators to make it easier to read).

1 Corinthians 13:1 - 14:1
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.

W. E. Vine, the writer of the famous "Exposotory Dictionary of New Testament Words" says that agape is "the characteristic word of Christianity".

That is, if there is any word that sums up what Christ and His followers are about - or should be about - it's this one.

That's why Paul can write:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

The Corinthians prided themselves on how much they spoke in tongues. Speaking in tongues is a gift from God, as we see in Chapter 12, verses 7-11. But the use of a spiritual gift is of no value if it's not motivated by love. Why do we pray and sing in tongues? Is it to make us feel important? Is it so others know how spiritual we are, or is it because we love God and our brothers and sisters in Christ and want to bless them? Spiritual gifts are of great importance to the church. But we should want spiritual gifts because we love the church, not because we want the gifts for their own sake.

And not only tongues – the good gift that was being so abused by the Corinthian church - but also prophesy – which Paul describes in Chapter 14 verse 1 as the greatest gift - and any other gift, is valueless if not motivated by love.

And not only the use of those gifts which are clear manifestations of the Holy Spirit, but all acts of service, are valueless if not motivated by love - even martyrdom.

So we see that whatever we do must be motivated by love.

What is agape love actually like?

The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (which I heartily recommend) says this about agape:

  • This is one of the least frequent words in classical Greek, where it expresses, on the few occasions that it occurs, that highest and noblest form of love which sees something infinitely precious in its object.

This definition explains why Jesus died on the cross. He died to save you from your sins and to restore you to relationship with God for all eternity because he sees in you something of infinite value.

This definition remains true in the Bible, but the Bible takes it further. It uses the word agape to refer specifically to God's love.

The New Dictionary of Theology says:

  • agape was the relatively uncommon Greek noun used by both LXX [The Greek translation of the Old Testament] and the NT [New testament] to describe the self-giving love of God revealed in Jesus Christ which is the motivating power and pattern of Christian living.

The crucifixion is the greatest example of agape. The crucifixion also makes agape possible for the Christian and motivates the Christian to agape. In fact, only Christians are capable of agape as defined by the Bible (although many non-Christians are self-sacrificing).

1 John 4:7-11
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

Agape is a gift from God.

Romans 5:5
...God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

And Agape is God’s commandment:

Mark 12:28-31
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"
"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these."

John 13:34-35
"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

1 John 3:23
And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.

This is the starting place for the Christian life – believe in Jesus’s atoning sacrifice, in His salvation and in His love for you, and love everyone – especially God’s people.

Verses 4-7
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

What a wonderful description of the love of God for us! And what a challenge when we realise that we're called to love each other with the same agape!

Verses 8-10
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.

Speaking in tongues, prophesy, words of knowledge, and all the other manifestations of the Holy Spirit listed in Corinthians 12 will come to an end. They are imperfect but when we stand in Glory with out Lord, we will see and understand perfectly - and we won't need these gifts any more. But agape will never die!

Verses 11-12
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

Living on Earth we are like children, compared to the people we will be when we live in heaven. And, like children, we don't know all that much conmpared to what we will know when we reach maturity - in heaven.

(Also, like children, we think we're wiser than we are)

The Greek word translated "poor" in the NIV is ainigma, from which we get the English word "enigma". Thus when the NIV says "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror", a better translation might be "for now, we see a reflection of an enigma”. This shows us how much more clearly we will see when we see Jesus face to face.

Verse 13
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

These are the three gifts from God that are fundamentally necessary for the continuance of the Christian life.

Our faith that we are truly saved – truly His – will not be required when we stand in glory and see Him face to face.

Hebrew 11:1
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

But we will see! We won’t need to be certain of what we do not see – we will see Jesus face to face!

And we will have received what we hope for. Our hope of final salvation will have been fulfilled!

But our love will continue for ever!

Chapter 14 verse 1
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.

Paul says this:

  1. Because agape is the greatest gift of all.
  2. Because this side of heaven, we NEED the spiritual gifts.