Several years ago, I spoke at Ohio State University when a leading atheist maintained that God was an old Chinese woman. I pointed out that he should at the very least attack God on the level that God claims to be and not some straw horse god he had just described. He responded by quoting my old atheist friend Madalyn Murray O’Hair who said, “No God ever gave anything to man nor appeared in any way to man nor ever will.” Then I pointed out that God did precisely what Madalyn said He would not do when He came to Earth in the form of a human. Jesus Christ was God in the flesh.
Put yourself in the role of God for a moment. You have created humans, and you desire to lead them to a better way of living. How would you do it? You could make a violent entry to Earth, displaying all of your power and strength. What would that do? It might create a power struggle among humans to be your right-hand person.
That power struggle actually happened in the life of Christ. Matthew 20:20-23 tells about a mother bringing her two sons to Jesus and asking Him to make them His assistants in His kingdom. Another negative to this approach is that people would give service and obedience to God out of fear, not love. There have been those world rulers who tried to rule by power and force. People knuckled down to the ruler, but they hated him, and they rebelled at the first opportunity.
You can enslave a people for a short time, but ultimately they will revolt. The power struggle that always results brings out the worst in humanity. We see that happening in many places on Earth today. The kind of service that will last is one based on love, not enslavement. Jesus Christ, as God in the flesh, brought that kind of love.
It is also a fact that when a ruler lives a radically different lifestyle from that of his subjects, he has no way to relate to them. In today’s world, people try to imagine what it would be like to live the wealthy and opulent Hollywood lifestyle. Movies such as Camelot have had a theme that revolved around royalty trying to comprehend what it is like to live as “common” folk.
In Jesus, we see God in the flesh avoiding the show of force and the opulence. Hebrews 4:15 reminds us that in Christ, we do not see one who lived a lavish lifestyle, but rather one who could “be touched with our infirmities, but was in all points tempted as we are.” Psalms 22:1 describes God in the flesh crying out at the frustrations of life, as we do. Christ repeated those words in Matthew 27:46. Isaiah 53:3-6 describes the suffering of Christ for us. God coming to Earth makes perfect sense if you understand that God wants a relationship with His creation. The Bible makes this clear in passages like John 1:1-3,14 and Philippians 2:6-8.
The tragedy is that people today have gotten so far away from understanding real love that they think of God as they would a dictator, a slave owner, or a military general. The kind of love that the Bible speaks of has a special name – “agape.” It is so far removed from the mindset of our culture that John 3:16 is a cliché without meaning to most people.
Even religious people have trouble with the concept of grace because they can’t comprehend that God is love. In the verses following John 3:16, we read the observation that men love darkness and reject God. God gave us a choice because He wants us to believe in Him and love Him as a Father, not an abusive dictator.
We have a book titled The Rational God that explores this subject in greater detail. It’s available from us for purchase or on loan. You will find our catalog of materials at doesgodexist.org. You can also purchase the book from the powervine.store.
People in many countries observe various customs on Valentine’s Day, February 14, although, in a few areas, it’s celebrated in July. Valentine’s Day is not an official holiday in any country, but it is certainly a cultural holiday.
Saint Valentine’s Day originated as a Christian observance in honor of a saint (or saints) named Valentinus in the third century. It may have been an effort of early Christians to purify a pagan Roman holiday called Lupercalia, which celebrated fertility and occurred around February 14.
In the fourteenth century, Valentine’s Day came to be associated with romantic love. Today it has become highly commercialized due to merchants taking advantage of the giving of gifts to loved ones. Many legends about this day have come down concerning its origin and reason and, many countries have their own customs on Valentine’s Day. One thing is sure—we need more love in the world. I am not talking about romantic love, but the kind of love that is meant by the ancient Greek word “agape.” The Apostle Paul used that Greek word in his letter to the church in Corinth in the first century. “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 in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). Whether on Valentines’s Day or any other day, we can never get too much of that kind of love.
Perhaps the most abused word in the English language is the word “love.” We hear that word used in every kind of situation. “I love that song” certainly is different from “making love.” In English, you have to look at the entire context of a statement about love before you know what the person who said it is talking about. The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Greeks had multiple words that we translate with our one word, “love.” In today’s world, the greatest love is agape.
In the Greek language, sexual love was the subject of the word “eros.” “Thelo” was used when the love was a desire or wish. “I love that kind of perfume” would be an example of that use. The prefix “phileo” indicating an emotional or material kind of love and had multiple uses. “Philargurix” was the love of money. “Philanthropia” was human love. “Phildelphos” was the love of brethren and is familiar to us today in the name of the city Philadelphia. “Philedonos” was the love of pleasure.
The New Testament presents a unique concept of love. The Greek word is “agape,” a noun, or “agapao,” a verb. These words were used 114 times in the New Testament and especially by Jesus Christ. In John 21:15-17, Jesus repeatedly asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Jesus used the word “agape,” but Peter kept responding with “phileo.” The greatest love is agape, but Peter did not understand that yet.
Many people struggle with the teachings of Christ because they don’t understand Jesus’ concept of love. How can I love my enemy (Matthew 5:43-44)? How can we love one another (John 15:12) when many of us are not lovable? Ephesians 5:25 tells husbands to love their wives as Jesus loved the Church. This is not a sexual reference any more than is Jesus’ discussion with Peter. A marriage based solely on sex is doomed.
The familiar passage in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love” is another reference to the unique form of love that God calls us to. Christians have help in their capacity to love as 1 Corinthians 2:11-16 tells us that an unbeliever: “…cannot accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” The passage goes on to say that Christians “have the mind of Christ.” So do I have the capacity to love my enemy? Not in a physical sense or a sexual sense, but I have grown to love in a spiritual sense. This is a growth process, and I am closer to it now than I was 50 years ago.
Read Matthew 5-7 and pay attention to the fact that Jesus is talking about loving the spiritual nature of all humans. When you read 1 John 4:12-13, you see a great picture of what Christian love is all about: “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us. We know we live in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.” Read the rest of the chapter and especially verse 20: “If a man says that he loves God and then hates his brother, he is a liar, because he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen.”
In the modern Christmas celebration, we tend to think of the cute little baby lying in a sanitized manger with cattle and sheep and handsome shepherds looking on. We see oriental kings bringing expensive gifts to the Christ child. The birth of Christ was far more than that. We need to go back to see the connection between Christmas and creation.
Before creation, there was nothing – no matter, no space, no time. John 1:1-3 tells us, “In the beginning was the Word (Logos) and the Word (Logos) was with God, and the Word (Logos) was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.”
In John 1:14, we read that the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us. Colossians 1:16-20 tells us: “For by him (Jesus) were all things created, that are in heaven and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him and for him: And he is before all things, and by Him all things hold together.” As we learn more about quarks and the whole subject of quantum mechanics, we are beginning to understand a small part of what creation involved scientifically.
Part of the process was the creation of humans in the image of God with the capacity to demonstrate God’s “agape” kind of love. “God so loved the world…” (John 3;16a) is an expression of God’s love. To demonstrate that love, we had to have a choice not to love. If you can’t choose, you can’t really love. Because they had the choice, humans chose not only to reject God’s love but to rebel against Him. John 1:9-14 describes the Logos or Word coming into the world and His own people rejecting Him. This set the stage for the fulfillment of God’s love “..that He gave His only begotten Son …” (John 3:16b).
That is how Christmas and creation tie together. John 1:17 tells us that Moses gave the physical rules for life, but the spiritual redemption came from Jesus. “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” The Logos became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The Logos didn’t come in power and splendor but as a baby born to a poor couple in a dirty feeding trough surrounded by smelly, filthy animals.
Even though John 1:11 says that His own people did not receive Him, verse 12 tells us, “But to all who did receive him, who believed on his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, let us think about the connection between Christmas and creation. Jesus, the Logos, the one who created all things, “became flesh and dwelt among us” and redeemed us through His agape love.
It seems that God has built into the natural world all kinds of reminders about the nature of our relationship with Him. We repeatedly talk about how intelligence, order, and design are a natural part of the creation around us. One of the best examples of that is what we call lessons from a prism.
If you take sunlight and shine it on a prism (a solid triangular chunk of glass), the sunlight is broken up into all the colors of the rainbow. Each of those colors has a specific function In living things due to their different energies. Red has the lowest energy of visible light, and violet has the highest. The other colors have energies in between from red to orange to yellow to green to blue to violet. Green has the highest energy of light that makes it through the Earth’s atmosphere to reach us. Plants are green to reflect that highest energy, thus protecting the plants. Higher energies of light are scattered away from the Earth’s surface, making our sky blue.
The parallel to Jesus is astounding. In John 8:12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” This idea is repeated over and over. (See John 1:4-5; 1 John 1:5-7.) Like natural light, the “light of the world” is made up of many things – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. We see all of those things in the lives of the followers of Jesus. The most energetic of these is love. That is why 1 Corinthians 13 is devoted to describing the unique power of the kind of love Jesus brings to the world. The Greek word used in that passage is “agape,” the most unique form of the five types of love the Greek language describes.
The lessons from a prism do not end with visible light. In the spectrum of physical light, some frequencies are not visible to our eyes. There are ultraviolet, Xrays, and gamma rays, all of which have incredible power beyond that of visible light. In the “light of the world” we have the operation of the Holy Spirit, who has power beyond anything we can imagine. He can make changes in each of us not only now, but also when time has ended.
On the other end of the physical spectrum, we have less energetic forms of light beyond red. These include infrared and all kinds of radio waves. Jesus came to the Earth to bring a special kind of light to all people. The problem with this part of the “light of the world” is that it involves words and the written page. People could and did reject what Jesus taught. Today people not only reject it but misinterpret and misrepresent what Jesus wants us to do. This light is less effective because humans are involved in making it work.
The ultimate future of the cosmos is that all light will be made into one. Second Peter 3:10-13 tells us that the elements will melt with fervent heat, and everything physical will be dissolved. We see confirmation of this in the equation E =mc^2. Peter goes on to say that this will lead to a New Heaven and a New Earth. Revelation chapters 21 and 22 describe some of the properties of this new spiritual existence. Paul had a vision of it in 2 Corinthians 12:3-5 and said that any words to describe it would be unspeakable.
Lessons from a prism remind us that we are the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14-16). Understanding the magnificence of the spiritual spectrum seen in Christ Jesus gives us the tools to carry that light to those in darkness.
In my atheist days, I ridiculed religious people for believing something that has no power. I didn’t realize the power of faith and love.
“What good does being a Christian do you that I can’t get at my local bar or club?” That was my challenge. I said that I could have fellowship and share love and material blessings without going to church. I pointed out with some validity that going to church is similar to being a member of a country club. I pay my dues and enjoy certain privileges to be a member of the club. For many church attenders, their contribution is their dues, and they get to go to social events and have some name recognition.
This distorted view of Christianity misses the point at many levels. The Church is not a social club, but a service organization. People in the Church serve the community. They provide relief, take care of the sick, educate children, and support good causes.
Even more important is the power of faith that comes by having a relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus states things in Matthew 5-7 which are ludicrous to an atheist. How can a rational person love those who hate them (Matthew 5:44)? What is the logic of turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39)? How can anyone be willing to go the second mile (Matthew 5:41)?
To answer the atheist challenge, just ask what is causing the problems for most people living in 21st century America. Why do we have such a high suicide rate? Why is drug usage high and growing? What causes so many people to struggle with depression? It isn’t physical needs that are the most significant problem. It is emotional and spiritual ills that push people into behaviors that sometimes take their lives.
Paul describes the power of faith expressed in love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-5. People of faith understand the love which surpasses physical needs. “Love is patient and kind: love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing or keep a record of wrongs but rejoices in the truth… Love never ends.”
There is even a particular Greek word “agapao” to describe that kind of love. It’s a love that fulfills the emotional and spiritual needs that we all have, and God’s Spirit brings that love to life in us. The power of faith is available to anyone who will seek it.
The Bible describes godly love:
“God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God and God in him. It is through this that love has attained its perfection in us in our being fearless on the day of judgment, for we realize that our life in this world is actually His life lived in us. There is no fear in love, for love, when perfect drives out fear because fear involves punishment. If a man fears, there is something imperfect in his love.” 1 John 4:16-18
I believe that the most misunderstood word in the English language is “love.” For most of our 21st-century population, love refers to sexual activity, and more and more, the music industry fosters that idea. Young people today speak of “making love” because the sexual concept is all that they have ever heard. The Bible is unique in its presentation of what love is about. You can’t make sense of “love your enemy” (Matthew 5:43-44) or “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) if the sexual notion of love is all you understand. The whole idea of loving God cannot be comprehended by a culture that has a sexual fixation on the word love.
The Greek language is far more useful in focusing on the complexities of love. There is a sexual connection to “love” in the Greek word “eros,” but that word is never used in the Bible. When discussing a wish or want, the Greek word “thelo” is used in Mark 12:38. When talking about the love of brethren, the Greek word “phileo” is used as in 1 Peter 3:8. The word “phileo” is used to describe something material or emotional. For example, “philarguros” refers to the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10), while “philedonos” refers to the love of pleasure (2 Timothy 3:4) and “philautos” refers to the love of self (2 Timothy 3:2).
The most unique and spiritually important word for love in the New Testament is the noun “agape” and the verb form “agapao.” This is godly love—a love that values and esteems, an unselfish, serving love that has no sexual implications. This word is used 114 times in the New Testament and is described in passages like 1 John 4:7 to 5:3 and 1 John 3:16-18. The most touching example of the use of this word is in John 21:15 – 17, where Jesus keeps asking whether Peter loves Him by using the word “agapao” and Peter keeps answering with the word “phileo.”
One of the most abused and misunderstood words in human terms is the word “love.” Both non-believers and Christians use the word carelessly. Many non-believers use the word love only in a sexual context. “Making love” to many is a synonym for sexual intercourse or at least some kind of sexual experience. The ancient Greeks had multiple words for love, while we have only one.
The Greek language in which the New Testament was written had different words to describe various aspects of love. “Eros” refers to an erotic form of love while “phileo” refers to a friendship. “Philadelphos” deals specifically with loving one’s brethren as in 1 Peter 3:8, Hebrews 13:1 or Romans 12:10. “Thelo” refers to a wish and is seldom used in the scriptures. An example is Mark 12:38 where it refers to loving to go out in public wearing long clothing.
In the Christian belief system, the word “agape” (the noun) or “agapao” (the verb) is called “the characteristic word of Christianity.” It is used 114 times in the New Testament. “Phileo,” the next most common of the words for love, is used 18 times. “Phileo” is never used in a command for people to love God. (See the use of “agapao” in Matthew 22:37, Luke 10:27, Romans 8:28, 1 Corinthians 8:3, 1 Peter 1:8, 1 John 4:21.)
The classic example of the use of the different Greek words for love comes in John 21:15-17. Vines Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words says, “The context itself indicates that agapao in the first two questions suggests the love that values and esteems. It is an unselfish love, ready to serve. The use of phileo in Peter’s answers and the Lord’s third question conveys the thought of cherishing the object above all else, of manifesting an affection characterized by constancy, from the motive of the highest veneration.”
Passages like 1 John 4:16 “God is Love,” use “agape.”We struggle with “agape” love because outside of Christianity we do not experience it or see it in the lives of others. When “phileo” is used in scriptures, the object of that love is always something material or emotional in nature. Consider these examples: Matthew 6:5 “love to pray standing in the synagogue…” Matthew 10:37 “he that loves father or mother more than…” Matthew 10:37 “he that loves son or daughter more than…” Matthew 23:6 “loves the uppermost rooms at feasts …” Luke 20:46 “love greetings in the markets, and …” John 11:3 “Lord, behold, he whom thou love…”
When “agapao” is used, the object to be loved is spiritual in nature – either a soul or God. Matthew 5:44 “I say to you, Love your enemies…” Matthew 22:37, 39 “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all …” Mark 10:21 “Then Jesus, beholding him loved him…” John 3:16 “God so loved the world, that he gave…” John 13:24 “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another…” Hebrews 1:9 “You have loved righteousness and hated evil..”
The New Testament uses these various words for love. When a person has no concept of love except brotherly (“phileo”) or erotic (“eros”), much of the New Testament becomes too strange to believe. The reason Christianity can change people is that they can learn and be guided to act on “agape” love that allows them to live out the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7). This leads to the “new life” as described in passages like Romans 6. Seeing a person who was dead in sin changed into a loving, serving “new creation” is the strongest apologetic of all. We frequently quote Romans 1:20 in which Paul says, “We can know there is a God through the things He has made.” One of those things is a New Person in Christ.
Giving something of value (such as money) to someone for an item of equal value is buying and selling.
Giving something of value to someone without requiring anything in return, while expecting that person to give something of similar value is creating an obligation.
Giving something of value to someone who has done something to deserve it is compensation.
Giving something of value to someone who does not deserve it, but who will appreciate it is love.
Giving something of value to someone who does not deserve it, and who will perhaps not appreciate it is “agape.”
“Agape” is the Greek term used in the Bible to describe God’s kind of love. It’s the “I don’t care if you spit in my face, I will still love you” kind of love. It’s the kind of love Jesus demonstrated when, as he was being crucified, he openly forgave those who were doing it. The gift of Jesus coming to Earth to live among those who would eventually despise and kill him is true “agape.” The gifts we give are lame by comparison.
The story of Jesus from birth to death and resurrection is a story of giving. It is indeed the most amazing concept we can imagine, and a story nobody would dare to make up. The Creator of the universe takes the form of one of His creatures to bring them to Himself. I can see why many people refuse to believe it. It’s incredible, but I believe it’s true.
Giving something of value (such as money) to someone for an item of equal value is buying and selling. Giving something of value to someone without requiring anything in return, while expecting that person to give something of similar value is creating an obligation. Giving something of value to someone who has done something to deserve it is compensation. Giving something of value to someone who does not deserve it, but who will appreciate it is love. Giving something of value to someone who does not deserve it, and who will perhaps not appreciate it is “agape.” That is the secret of gift giving.
“Agape” is the Greek term used in the Bible to describe God’s kind of love. It’s the “I don’t care if you spit in my face” kind of love. It’s the kind of love Jesus demonstrated when, as he was being murdered, he openly forgave those who were doing it. The gift of Jesus coming to Earth to live among those who would eventually despise and kill him is true “agape.” The gifts we give are lame by comparison.
The story of Jesus from his birth to his death and resurrection is a story of giving. It is truly the most amazing concept we can imagine, and a story nobody would dare to make up. The Creator of the universe takes the form of one of his creatures to bring them to himself. I can see why many people refuse to believe it. It’s incredible, but I believe it’s true.