Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.1 John 4:7-21 ESV
The first evidence of a transformed life presents through how we treat others. Transformation is an ongoing process, and we will never outlive our need to learn to love better. It is because humans drift toward selfishness and legalism that John wrote these words: We love because he first loved us. We need that reminder, especially in these divided days. The question is, what kind of love is this?
Very briefly, ancient Greek had four primary words that may all be translated to English as “love:” Storgé ( στοργή), Philos (φιλία), Eros (ἔρως), and Agape (ἀγάπη). Storgé and philos could also become a compound word: Philostrogos (φιλόστοργος). Storgé refers to a familial love, like that of parent to child. Philos is a bond of friendship (Phila-delphia: the city of brotherly love). Philostrogos might then be what we often call “framily,” the friends we call family even though there is no blood connection. Paul used philostorgos in his letter to the Romans when he exhorted the church to “love one another with brotherly affection (Romans 12:10). Like Storgé, Eros is not used in the Bible but was the term used for romantic love. It is sensual desire for another person and relies on emotion. (Find a far better analysis of the four Greek words for love in the C.S. Lewis book, The Four Loves. I highly recommend it.)
John only used one variation of love in this passage: Agape. Agape is a love that only occurs in connection with God’s love for us. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon is helpful for defining the nuances of a love that transcends human experience and is bound up in the very nature of the Creator (Thayer, 1995). Agape (from the root, agapaō; ἀγαπάω) is the “benevolence of God, in providing salvation or men, has exhibited by sending his Son to them and giving him up to death…the love which led Christ, in procuring human salvation, to undergo sufferings and death” (Thayer). This kind of love is inconvenient and requires us to give up ourselves for the benefit of others so that God is glorified. The Orthodox Study Bible says,
God is love is not a definition of who God is, but rather describes His relationship to us as our Father. As the only begotten Son sacrificially gave Himself that we might live through Him, so we are to give ourselves to Him and one another.(Orthodox Theology, 2008)
This kind of love is utterly impossible without the indwelling Holy Spirit active in our lives. It means using our gifts, talents, and strengths to serve one another, not for personal gain. Stewarding the gifts of God is essential to grace, and the first act of grace is agape.
Agape love grounds grace in us. There is no form of human love that can approach the love that God has given us and that can be revealed in and through us. Family affection (storgé) may be the closest comparison, but even that can be destroyed by the actions of others, especially in cases of familial abuse, neglect, or trauma. Deep and abiding friendships (philos) may be subject to betrayal, distance, or disillusionment. Romantic love may be the farthest from agape and can become an idol when it is not paired with at least one of the other three. Agape does not rely on emotions or on the actions of other people. Agape is devotion to God that overflows into devotion to the well-being of others. Christians demonstrate agape by living in unity, speaking Truth, and aiming for what is honorable in both the Lord’s sight and the culture’s (2 Corinthians 8:21). Grace requires that we draw near to God and purify our own hearts (James 4:8), which then allows us to treat each other with the same kind of love Jesus showed us in his incarnation and resurrection.
Living out grace through agape demonstrates to the world that Christians are not of this world (Philippians 3:20; 1 Peter 2:11-12). The old Catholic song, “They’ll Know We are Christians by our Love” (Scholtes, 1968) may be an anthem from the turbulent 1960s, but we live in increasingly chaotic time, and the essence of the song is an important reminder that how we treat each other changes our testimony to a lost people. People are watching us, looking for cracks in our devotion to God. As long as we glorify God in the way we honor our brothers and sisters in Christ, they will see agape.
Agape dissolves fear. Agape perfects us. Agape defines our abiding in God through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Agape manifests the unquenchable, radical, relentless love of God. Agape transforms us from ordinary humans to extraordinary disciples of Jesus who love each other well to the glory of God.
“In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give.”C.S. Lewis (1960) The Four Loves.
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