Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Agape’s meanings need to be expanded (PART I)

In this Part I, we will look at the credibility of saying the agape love is indeed charitable, sacrificial, selfless and unconditional.  In Part II (in a separate article), we will look at the ingredient that needed to be included in the expanded meaning of agape.


Agápe:  In Ancient Greek, it often refers to a general affection or deeper sense of "true love" rather than the attraction suggested by "eros" {sensual love}. Agape is also used in ancient texts to denote feelings for a good meal, one's children, and the feelings for a spouse. It can be described as the feeling of being content or holding one in high regard.  (quoted from Wikipedia, sometime back. Now this definition is NOT there anymore; it is nevertheless, the traditional general definition).

It is in its biblical context use that it had come to “acquire” the sacrificial connotation so strongly. 

How “unconditional” got into agape?
And because of usage, in the modern day Greek it has also taken on the connotation of an unconditional love. 

Influential Christian theologians contributed to the shaping of the meanings associated with “agape”; in other words, agape was NOT a very adequate Greek word, albeit the best love word in place of its Hebrew equivalent, and it acquired its richness, afterwards, through imputation from overall counsel of the Word, which in my view, was somewhat lobe-sided for lack of imputing the richness of the Hebrew equivalent word of the Old Testament. 

One such influential theologian was CS Lewis who wrote on the “Four Loves”, published in 1960.  I have NOT read the book, although I have read reviews of that book, and know that the book resembled the author’s meditation of the 5 “classes” (4, I added one here – thelo) of love as categorised in the ancient Greek words of love, namely, storge - familial or affectionate love; philia (or phileo) - friendship; eros - romantic love; thelo – be fond of/take pleasure in …(verb); and lastly, agape – God kinda of love.

Now most reviews of the book equated agape to unconditional love, the others, to spiritual love or God’s love.  Why do they equated agape love to unconditional love is something deserving a thought, ourselves.

Perhaps, it was because CS Lewis, who also in that book distinguished between Need-love and Gift-love, with the obvious pointing of agape love to the Gift-love.  Being a gift, agape is therefore, logically equated as unconditional.  Although as a notion, the implication of a gift, is understood as unconditional, by men generally, regardless faith (i.e. it is NOT a Christian notion), but it was through CS Lewis’ acquired Christian faith lenses (he was previously an atheist) that he meditated on this subject of love, thereby implicitly referencing the salvation gift of life as the highest expression of a Gift-love, God’s kinda of love.  It was also possible that, through collective proclaiming by early influential theologians that agape love had acquired the unconditional love “fame”. 

What I am saying is that the original meanings of the ancient Greek word of love, “agape”, as typified by the Wikipedia quote (give above) or its traditional general definition, did NOT necessarily included such extensive meanings and expressions as expounded by such early theologians, including CS Lewis.

How is love defined in Bible?
The English Bible is a translation; the original Biblical texts were mainly in 2 languages:  The Old Testament (OT) in Hebrew {It is believed that a few chapters in the prophecies of Ezra and Daniel and one verse in Jeremiah were written in Aramaic}, and the New Testament (NT) in Greek (ancient Greek).  On top of that during Jesus’ time, Aramaic was the common language, and it is believed that Jesus spoke Aramaic in His day to day conversations; a few Aramaic words were even used by the Gospel writers in the NT {NT was written in ancient Greek then, because Greek was the language of scholarship}. So, when we read the English Bible, it is a translation, from both Hebrew and Greek.

Because languages have “shades” of meanings associated with a word or group of words or similar words, there has always been the issue of correctness of translations, to put it very simply.  Then, there is also the issue of the NT was in Greek, NOT in the same Hebrew language of the OT which came into being, much earlier in history, and is foundational, because the God of the NT is the very same God of the OT; what were written of God and God’s dealings with Man, of course, were true and remained true.

Because of the difference in language, expressions, such as “love” were expressed, in OT, in Hebrew words, different from those in NT, in Greek.  Had one language been used throughout it would have been easier, since a notion or expression would have been denoted by the same word of one language.  It is NOT unusual when interpreting NT scriptures to consider if an expression was first mentioned in the OT – rule of first-mention is a “rule” of interpretation of scriptures.

For the English language word, “love”, there are 3 main Greek words (in NT) possible {eros and storge were NOT found directly in NT Scripture), and 2 main Hebrew words (in OT).  The 3 Greek “love” words are: agape (G26), phileo or philia (G5368), and thelo (G2309); and the 2 Hebrew words are: `ahab (H157) and dowd (H1730). 

I will be giving the various meanings assigned to the words given here, representing “love”; from there, we can see the “more than a little bit of headache” in deciding which love word was being referred to, in the English Bible.

First, we have the Greek words of love, found in the NT (short definitions taken from Strong’s Lexicon):

Agape -
1) affection, good will, love, benevolence, brotherly love (also to love dearly – agapaō (G25));
2) love feasts;

Phileo -
1) to love: to approve of, to like, sanction, to treat affectionately or kindly, to welcome, befriend
2) to show signs of love: to kiss
3) to be fond of doing: be wont, use to do

Thelo - to will, have in mind, intend:
to be resolved or determined, to purpose; to desire, to wish; to love; to like to do a thing, be fond of doing; to take delight in, have pleasure

One may think, for the English NT text, we could look up the equivalent Greek Bible verse, and then we will know.  That is right, but, just as the English word, “love”, is inadequate to capture which (or what) love was being referred to, by the Greek authors, there is the possibility of a similar problem of the Greek language was NOT able to frame which love was being referred to, as was first understood by the Jews, in God’s historical dealings with them in the OT period. 

Of course, it is possible something really new, was revealed by God in NT, where the first-mention “rule” fails, but sometimes, it is difficult to tell; it could be an existing “theme” (existing in OT) being rehashed; like in the case of “love”, would you think that the notions/ideas/concepts of love would have been fully expressed and made known to Man, even before NT; or do you think that some concept of love was only made known in NT time? 

The races and their cultures of particular times, including their linguistic depictions of ideas, notions or concepts could make the one and same thing, being expressed in approximating words only, in the respective languages; so, that the OT was in Hebrew, and the NT, in Greek, does possess interpretive issue.

You have already seen the meanings of the 3 Greek words for “love”; here are the meanings of the OT “love”, `ahab and dowd:

`ahab (H157) – either love or like, and for love, it is broken down to:
human love for another, includes family, and sexual;
human appetite for objects such as food, drink, sleep, wisdom;
human love for or to God;
act of being a friend: lover (participle), friend (participle);
God's love toward man: to individual men, to people Israel, to righteousness;
lovely (participle), loveable (participle);
friends, lovers (fig. of adulterers).

Dowd (H1730) – beloved, love, uncle:
loved one, beloved, uncle, love (pl. abstract)

Some people include checed (H2617) as a love word in Hebrew, because some translations have rendered it as love.  It has the main meaning as loving-kindness from one of a higher position – God, or from man to man, and so, typically it is used as God’s “love” for men, but NOT the other way round of men, for God.  To me, grace is perhaps the appropriate word to use.

See, how do we match them up, the 3 Greek words and 2 - 3 Hebrew words?  Not so easy isn’t it! 

Be careful if your revelation goes against established interpretations
What am I trying to do here?  To frighten people so that they should NOT try to interpret scriptures, and just rely on the pastors?  No, but I do want to caution people against just interpreting scriptures, without weighing seriously established interpretations. 

Much research, study, meditation, and waiting on the Lord would have been exacted on what came out as established interpretations.  I am NOT saying there cannot be fresh revelation, but we do have to check and recheck what we think is fresh revelation; for one thing, truths of God do NOT contradict themselves; we do need to consider other scriptures, and the overall counsel of the Word. 

Because it is possible that we “blunder” on giving new interpretations, it is also possible that some other people, including fame preachers and pastors, giving out erroneous new interpretations.  The Word of God said, to check other people’s teachings:

Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11).

Back to agape
Coming back, in many places in the NT, where “love” appeared, the underlying Greek equivalent used was the Greek word, “agape” (G26) or its connected words like agapaō” (G25).  From there, many people started to expound on the love, (agape love) in the verses.  Currently, inevitably, agape love is labeled as the charitable, sacrificial, selfless and unconditional love.  If we just look at the short-form Lexicon meanings of agape, as given above, you see the shades of such attributes of the agape love in the list; but definitely such strong connotations as sacrificial, selfless and unconditional are NOT that explicit in the list of meanings. 

Therefore, it is necessary to know the attributes of the love which the Greek called agape were noted from gleaning from the overall counsel of the Word, including through various accounts recorded for us, in Scripture.  I believed that was what the early theologians, including CS Lewis, did; gleaned from Scriptures, and “formulated” the meanings of agape love.  Frankly speaking, in my early days as a Christian, I understood agape love as unconditional love from the mouth of my pastor who probably learnt them from the theologians.  In this article, I would like to be a little more critical, and go back to the source (Word) to “test” like what the Bereans we noted, did, and was praised by the Apostle Paul.

We shall look at some of the Scriptural accounts so that we are completely satisfied that indeed, when that love is mentioned, it was truly comprising such and such attributes like charitable, sacrificial, selfless and to a good extent unconditional.  Then I shall reveal what I believe is a serious ingredient missing in the list of attributes of that agape love.

The charitable, sacrificial, selfless and (to a good extent) unconditional nature of agape love was gleaned from such as these:

1.   “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).  

The Greek word used for “loved” was agapaō” (G25).  Through Adam, all men have sinned, and would surely die, meaning one would go  through physical death, and ultimately, be thrown into the burning fire of Hell, away from God where eternal life is to be lived, according to the penalty as specified in Gen 2:16-17. 

It was Man who disobeyed God in the first place, and God has provided a plan called the salvation plan, entirely without merit from Man, in which, in His time, He had given His one and only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to be born as a man and to die for us, so that He, his Son, might bore the penalty of our sin, so that with that substitution, we do NOT need to perish (go to Hell), but have eternal life with Him, the Father God, in Heaven.  All of this, the giving of His Son, pointed to the attributes of that agape love, charitable, sacrificial, and selfless.

The Apostle John repeated, in more words, the same, in 1 John 4:9-10 9 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. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  The Greek word for love used here was again agape love. 

2.   For Jesus so loved the world that He gave up His place in Heaven, came to be born as a man, and in the prime of His earthly life gave up His life willingly do the Father God’s will.

6 {Jesus} Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross! (Phil 2:6-8). “I have testimony weightier than that of John {the Baptist}. For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. (John 5:36). They did not understand that he {Jesus} was telling them about his Father. So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. (John 8:27-28). 

Therefore, Jesus, NOT just the Father God, was loving Man charitably, sacrificially, even selflessly (as least as a Man, that He would die for another, was that NOT selfless?).  If NOT in all regards, at least in this, He died unconditionally, that He died for any sinner, NOT some sinners, NOT particular sinners, but any sinner, who would appropriate His propitiation for sins.

3.   For the Holy Spirit so loved the world that He was willing to be in us (believers), despite He being holy and we still having the sinful nature in us, and guide us into all truths ever so gently.
My understanding of the teaching of the Apostle Paul is that a believer is still with a sinful nature (Gal 5:13, 16-17, Rom 8:12-13), despite he is a new creation.  If you believe that the moment you believe in Jesus, you are perfectly righteous and holy thereafter, which is in my view, wrong teaching from the “overly grace” preachers, you probably cannot appreciate the charity, the sacrifice, and the selflessness of the Holy Spirit to be willing to be dwelling inside of us, without guarantee on our part that we shall maintain holiness and righteousness at all times, for His (Holy Spirit) sake; neither do we guarantee that we will yield to His (Holy Spirit) desires instead of those of the sinful nature, although we are exhorted to do so (Gal 5:16-17, Rom 8:12-13).

Do NOT get me wrong, I am NOT trying to tear down the contribution of early theologians, such as CS Lewis, in this area of defining the agape love; on the contrary, which we shall see later, I want to add to it.    Indeed, even though I have NOT read the book referred to, in my study of the reviews made of the book, this quote from CS Lewis is so spot-on concerning the attributes of agape which can be gleaned from Scripture - the charity, sacrifice, and selflessness demanded from God kinda of love:

"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. but in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell."

CS Lewis painted that love from the human perspective. If we put ourselves in God’s shoe, taking a theocentric perspective, the Father God gave His one and begotten Son, Jesus, to come to be born as a man and to die as a man with the terrible death of being crucified, was He NOT putting Himself in a vulnerable spot, that although He desired all men be saved through that sacrifice He made (1 Tim 2:4), NOT all men are willing to accept that love sacrifice He made?;  Jesus, similarly, gave up His glory in Heaven, and came to down to earth to be born as a man, and to go through all the sufferings as a man, that he might become the merciful and faithful High Priest in service to God (Heb 2:17), and to die the cruel death, was He NOT taking the risk of “His heart be wrung and possibly be broken” by some who refused Him as Savior and Lord?; the Holy Spirit, in continuing the salvation plan for each of us, through His willingness to make His dwelling inside of us, despite His holiness, was He not risking the “tragedy of being repeatedly grieved by our sinful thoughts and actions”?  Indeed, God’s love was and is charitable, sacrificial, and selfless.

God is agape, and so the love from Him is agape
In 1 John 4:8, we read “God is love”, and the Greek word used there, was again, “agape”.  God is love; God is agape; and the love from Him is agape love.

But is the overall counsel of the Word merely telling us that God is agape, and His love for us is agape, the way the olden Greeks understood agape; or is there more?!

Be agape as He is agape
Man was created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27).  Man, before the Fall in the Garden of Eden, was capable of eternal life, capable of holiness, righteousness, and agape.  The Fall had corrupted those capacities, but the regenerate man (a believer), is once again capable of them.  As a believer, we know we are once again capable of eternal life, because Jesus has propitiated for us the penalty of death from the Original Sin.

Just as there are exhortations in Scripture for us, believers, to be holy as God is holy (1 Pet 1:16 KJV), to be righteous – to resist sins, even the point of shedding blood (Heb 12:4), there are exhortations for us to agape.  I will give you some of the verses in a moment, but what it means is that agape love is NOT just for God to love us with.

Agape is also for us to love God with, and for us to love our neighbors with.  We are to agape God, in return; and we are to agape one another.  In other words, we are NOT to just phileo one another, that was just the olden Greek’s understanding; God asks for agape love, in addition to brotherly love.  Our brotherly love has to be pursued to the level of agape love if we excel in love.  Here are the verses supporting my saying that we are to agape God, and agape one another:

The Apostle John used the same Greek word, “agape”, when referring to our love for God and our love for our neighbors, meaning we are to love God with the same kind of love that God loves us, and we are to love our neighbors with that same kind of love (1 John 4:19-20):

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

Jesus’ speaking of the commandments to love was written in Greek by the Apostle Matthew using the same word, “agape”.  Matt 22:37-39 –

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matt 22:37-39).

The love the Apostle Paul referred to in 1 Cor 13 which ended with this: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13), the Greek love word used was also “agape”.

It is very clear, from above, that if we are to excel in love, we are to agape God, and we are to agape (not just phileo) our neighbors.

In summary, firstly, I have NOT yet revealed the ingredient which should be added to the agape love; you will know what it is, in PART II of this 2-part series; secondly, we should have understood that the charitable, sacrificial, selfless and even unconditional attributes were more imputed into the Greek love word, “agape”, from gleaning from the Bible, than it was originally defined by the Greek in their use of the word; thirdly, the revealing of God kinda of love as agape, was NOT just that we might know of God’s love as being agape, but it was to exhort us to also agape God, and to agape our neighbors.

Anthony Chia, high.expressions – I am NOT God, but I am created in the image of God, and now that I am regenerated (have become a believer), the image of God is being restored, and I am once again enabled for eternal life, enabled for holiness and righteousness, and enabled for God kinda of love. As an image is close to the real thing, so must I excel in agape love, just as God is agape, and God agapes.  Lord, may you help me to grow in the image of you.  Amen.

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