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.”
Imagine that you are walking along an unfamiliar street, and you see a sign that says, “Magic Potions from the Periodic Table.” The unusual sign and the look of the store arouse your curiosity.
As you walk in, you notice that the room is dark, and you see a man who looks like the stereotype of a wizard. On shelves lining the walls, there are 92 bottles of chemicals. You see labels on some of them that say “carbon,” “oxygen,” “nitrogen,” “phosphorous,” “zinc,” and other elements. The “wizard” is pouring some chemicals from bottles into some beakers. He looks at you with a smile and says, “What can I mix for you today? I can give you a potion for morality. How about something to make you appreciate beauty? Love—the true, unconditional kind of love is right here. How about letting me mix you up some meaning and purpose in life?”
You are startled and a bit confused because you had chemistry class in school. You realize that putting together the chemical elements you see on the shelves will not give you the things this “wizard” is offering. Even carbon-based molecules cannot supply morality, appreciation of beauty, true unselfish love, or meaning and purpose in life.
Chemistry is not enough. There is something beyond the chemical formulas and covalent bonding that comes into play in humans. The “wizard” is the naturalist who says that chance evolution and chemistry explain everything about our existence. Do we accept his suggestion? Does chemistry explain it all? Can the wizard’s magic potions from the periodic table fully explain what it means to be human?
Shouldn’t we look for an explanation beyond naturalism? We think a better explanation is that there is a God who created us in His image. It seems evident that we are more than bodies made of chemicals assembled by chance.
Jesus taught many unique ideas. Perhaps the most unique and astounding are his teachings about how to deal with those who differ from you. One of the major problems with atheistic evolution is the “survival of the fittest” motivation. That philosophy justifies acting superior to those who are different from you and destroying them because they are less fit than you. People have used that excuse to justify slavery. We have to contrast the magnitude of hate and the love of Christ.
When the liberation of Auschwitz occurred on January 27, 1945, (75 years ago), the world saw the result of “survival of the fittest” when applied to humans. It is hard to comprehend that Nazis murdered 1,100,000 people at Auschwitz during World War II. Russian liberators told of battle-hardened soldiers vomiting when they saw the magnitude of human tragedy in that Nazi death camp. Can you get your mind around over a million people being slaughtered in one human-controlled camp?
Try as we can to comprehend the magnitude of hate and the love of Christ, we find that His teachings are also beyond the ability of most people to understand. Consider the words of Jesus: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Jesus not only taught this radical concept, but he lived it. When Peter took out his sword and started to defend Jesus against those who would crucify him, Jesus not only told Peter to put the sword away but healed the man Peter had attacked. (See Matthew 26:51-54, Luke 22:49-51, and John 18:10-11.)
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.”
“That’s not fair!” We hear that not only from adults but even from young children. It seems that the concept of fairness is something that we don’t have to learn. It’s built into us. We see injustice in the world or in our personal space, and we cry out, “That’s not fair.”
Where do we get that concept of fairness and justice? Could it be that our Creator placed it within us? In the DOES GOD EXIST? ministry, we talk about evidence for the existence of God. We see design in the universe, in living things, and in our own bodies. Is it possible that we can also see evidence of God’s existence in our desire for justice? Could it be that the God who is just and loving has placed the passion for justice within us? After all, He created us in His image. One of the great frustrations we face is our inability to rid the world of injustice. But more than that it seems that we can’t even rid ourselves of injustice. We often act in our own self-interest even when it causes undesirable consequences for others. It’s easy for us to see injustice in other people but difficult to see it in ourselves.
Christians have often been champions of justice in the abolishing slavery, in the struggle against human trafficking, and in helping the poor and oppressed around the world. When we demonstrate a passion for justice, we are emulating the life of Jesus. He was concerned about the poor and oppressed, the suffering, the neglected, and the outcast. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus as He could see the pain and injustice that sin had brought into the world. The Bible records Jesus weeping again as He approached Jerusalem for the last time. He wept because He pondered the fact that the people had not learned His message of love and justice. They were seeking someone to forcefully overthrow their evil Roman occupiers without realizing that Satan occupied their hearts.
What is hell, and why does God threaten to send us there? For the past two days, we have been looking at the challenges of this email we received: “How can you expect me to believe in a God who created me against my wishes and without my consent, and then because I don’t do things the way he thinks I should, sends me to eternal suffering in hell? That is a product of a twisted mind and is not something I can believe in or serve. I didn’t ask to be born, and I won’t spend my life worshiping an evil, abusive God who rejoices in bringing pain to everything he touches.”
The emailer’s understanding of hell is traditional, not biblical. No one can answer all the questions about hell with authority, because no one has been there and returned to tell about it. Works like Dante’s Inferno have influenced us. Preachers who have used hell as a scare tactic to control their audiences. Misconceptions abound.
So what is hell? We tend to portray hell as a place of eternal punishing rather than a place of eternal punishment. There is a difference. When Jesus talked about hell, He used clearly symbolic words. He spoke of hell as a place of flames and burning sulfur (brimstone). Another time he called it a place of darkness (see Matthew 8:12; 22:13). Sometimes we hear hell explained by the story Jesus told of the rich man and Lazarus. The description of hell is presumed to be taken as literal. However, no Christian sees it as an instruction to pray to Abraham or that Abraham is the judge. Those things are presented in the story.
What we can say about hell is that it is total separation from God. An atheist who never wanted anything to do with God in life is going to be granted that same wish in hell. God never forces himself on any person. We are always free to reject God if we so choose. The only problem is that we must also suffer the consequences of that rejection of God. God is love, light, good, compassion, justice, etc. All of those things will be a part of heaven. None of those things will exist in hell. Being lost is frequently described in the Bible as “the second death” (see Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). Theologians argue endlessly over what this means, and whether the soul can die. I certainly have nothing to add to the discussion, but I know that being separated from God and all the blessings of God is not something I wish even to consider.
The emailer states everything in diametric opposition to the truth. God is good, not evil. God is love, not hate. Hell is simply the separation from God that the emailer claims to desire. God clearly says that He does not want anyone to be lost, but for all to inherit eternal life (2 Peter 3:9). However, God also allows us to reject Him and all He offers. This is like the parent who painfully releases a child to travel a road the parent wishes they would not travel, hoping they will learn from the wrong choices and return to the parent’s loving embrace. The Prodigal Son story in Luke 15 makes this so obvious that no one can miss it.
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.
On Valentine’s Day, the word “love” gets overused. When people around the world are demonstrating hatred for one another, do we even understand what love is? I am reminded of two incidents that happened in 2015 that involved loving and praying.
In the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris, many people posted that they are praying for the people of France. However, an international affairs columnist for a major Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail got media attention when he tweeted that praying for the French people was both “cruel” and “selfish.” He said that “modern European values were built on the ending of religion.” He blamed the mass murders on “religion” in general. He said that “cheering on the belief system that’s causing murder” by urging people to pray was “selfish and inappropriate.” He also wrote, “I am sure the guys in there attacking are praying. To the same God, too.”
Much could be said about the statements of that columnist, but were the attackers really praying to the same God? If the God who created the Earth and the people on it wanted to kill masses of innocent people why would He need terrorists to do it? Couldn’t He destroy anyone He didn’t like? I think the terrorists must be praying to a different god. The god of destruction must be different from the God who created us. I choose to be loving and praying to the God of peace for everyone to come to know His love.
A second incident occurred that same year. After the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, the New York Daily News ran a cover story with the headline “God Isn’t Fixing This.” The story was critical of Republican presidential candidates who expressed sympathy and prayers for the people affected by the tragedy. The newspaper was taking the view that God can’t fix the problem of hatred and violence that is destroying our civilization.
So what was the solution suggested by the editors of the New York Daily News? They suggested that the solution was more laws. But we have tried laws. We have laws against murder, and we have hate-crime laws. Laws don’t get to the real problem. The problem is in the hearts of men and women, and only God can fix that. (See Romans 8:3.)
Jesus gave us the solution, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Then He told the Parable of the Good Samaritan to show that our neighbor is anyone we can help and serve. In other words, the neighborhood has no limits! Then He showed us the true extent of God’s love through the ultimate sacrifice of Himself.
Those who serve a “god” of hatred and killing as they seek to destroy anyone they don’t like or don’t agree with, are really only serving themselves. The Creator gave us life, a beautiful Earth to live out that life, and the instructions for how to live. Let’s accept God’s solution to our destructive behavior. Start by allowing Christ to change your heart and then loving and praying for others—even for your enemies. Tomorrow we will look at the New Testament words for “love.”