[This Words of Grace was originally posted on August 7, 2015.]
We have one word for many kinds of affection. The word “love” is used for food, sports, and spouses. It applies to marital fidelity and fornication. The only way to know what it means when it is used is to listen for the context or watch for the facial expression of the one speaking. In English, “love” covers a multitude of feelings.
The Greeks had different words to refer to different loves. Friendship love and sexual love had their own words. The New Testament (written in Greek) uses another word for love that is reserved for God’s love. That word is “agape.”
Agape is used to refer to the love that God has for us. This love was demonstrated when God sent Jesus Christ to die for our sins so that we would be forgiven and reconciled to him. God’s love is in a category of its own. It gets its own word.
Agape refers to the nature of the God who loves, not to the loveliness of the ones who are loved. If I say I love a song, I am telling you as much about the song as I am about me. But to speak of the love of God (agape) is to say something only about God. Agape refers to the God who loves us in Christ.
1 Corinthians 13 is all about agape. It’s about God’s love, so it’s about God. The common assumption is that we are to show agape to others. But how can that be? How can we, sinful and flawed humans, express the kind of love that points to the goodness of God? How can we say or do anything that refers to our ability to love like God?
This mystery is great, and it is resolved in the love of God itself. God, who loved us in Christ by sending him to die for our sins on the cross, also loves us by saving us from our sins and giving us new life. He raised Jesus from the dead and so gives new life to all who repent and believe. This new life includes the ongoing transformation of our minds and hearts, of our deepest affections. The transformation is not all at once. In fact, it is painstakingly slow. But it is real. It is happening in all who are born of God’s Spirit.
As God, in Christ, by the Spirit, transforms us more and more, we love with his love (agape) more and more. We are changed by his love, and we begin to express his love to others. So, as new people in Christ, when we love with the love of God, we are not putting the spotlight on our love, but on the one who first loved us.