This should not be shocking to any Christian, but to me it was when I discovered it: God respects, values, and esteems people. All people, simply because they are human beings, created in his image and created with worth.
For the last several weeks we’ve been exploring Jesus’s moral teaching on anger, which he equates with murder. Last week’s post identified the root problem of anger as actually being contempt, an attitude that demeans and devalues other human beings.
The reason this is such a problem is that it’s totally contrary to the Spirit of God. God, who made men and women in his image, doesn’t just “love” people in some sentimental way, he respects them.
If you look up agape online or in a dictionary, you’ll get a lot of definitions like the following:
This is the Greek word for love at its ultimate. Agape love is not like a brotherly love or a love between a husband and a wife. It is the most self-sacrificing love that there is. This type of love is the love that God has for His own children. This type of love is what was displayed on the cross by Jesus Christ . . . That is the type of love which is always the highest, most supreme love there it. It is a love where one is willing to die for another, even if that person is unworthy, sinful, undeserving and is an enemy of the one who died for them.
(Jack Wellman, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2014/05/02/what-is-agape-love-a-bible-study/)
Personally, I’ve always found this definition unhelpful. It’s not that there isn’t truth to it — of course there is, and agape is the most-used word for God’s love in the New Testament.
But it’s lacking a fundamental definition, a definition I can really work with and put into action in my own life. To me this is like asking “What is a dog?” and being told “A dog is man’s best friend! A dog is loyal to the end.” True, but I still don’t know what a dog is, fundamentally — that it’s a four-legged mammal, a canine, a pet.
So what is agape, anyway?
The Truth about Agape Love
I tried for years to get hold of this slippery answer. Eventually I noticed that some Internet definitions hinted at the existence of a more fundamental definition for the word.
“Outside of the New Testament, the word agape is used in a variety of contexts, but in the New Testament it takes on a distinct meaning,” says http://www.gotquestions.org/agape-love.html.
Finally I found it. Here it is in a scholarly work discussing 1 Peter 2:17:
“Love the brotherhood”: St. Peter says next: “Love the brotherhood.” The agape he prescribes is not a higher quality than respect, as E.G. Selwyn has suggested; it is simply a special, affectionate kind of respect reserved for brothers. Agape keeps the fundamental sense it has in classical usage and in the Septuagint: “to venerate, respect, show esteem for.” (Ceslaus Spicq, O.P., Agape in the New Testament vol Two: Agape in the Epistles of St. Paul, the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of St. James, St. Peter, and St. Jude, trans. by Sister Marie Aquinas McNamara, O.P., and Sister Mary Honoria Richter, O.P. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006)
Fundamentally, agape love is the love that respects.
Agape means to honor, respect, and esteem others.
To value them.
Read 1 Corinthians 13, “The Love Chapter,” through that grid. Read John 3:16 through it: “God so honored the world, so esteemed, so respected and valued all people, that he sent his only begotten Son.”
In the New Testament agape takes on a special, technical nature as the word for love that specifically denotes the love of God, but in doing so, it doesn’t depart from its original meeting. It underscores the incredible grace and love in God’s heart that he sees past the rebellion, sin, and guilt of human beings to highly value and esteem them anyway.
I am afraid we as Christians have been guilty of misrepresenting the heart of God. We have sometimes taught people that God views them as disgusting worms, worth saving out of some inexplicable, detached “agape” in his character that urges him to glorify himself but not actually worth anything in themselves.
We do not tell people, often — although I think on the whole we’re getting better about this — that God honors and respects them.
That he values them.
Please don’t misunderstand me: human beings often are despicable.
We can be wretched.
And God must judge. But even in his judgments, God is respectful. He respects our free will. He respects our personhood. He goes to every length to save us but gives us the right to choose.
I have mixed feelings about sin … the way we talk about it, I mean. On the one hand I think it gets too much attention, considering that Jesus has killed it off in our lives. On the other hand, I think we could stand to talk about it more — or at least to understand it better.
It would be good, I think, if we understood better what sin is, and why it’s so bad, and why it makes judgment so necessary and important.
My favorite moment teaching about sin — I suppose that’s an odd thing to attach “favorite” to, but there you go — was when I was talking to a group of young teens about it. I said, “You know, most of us are a little uncomfortable with the word ‘sin,’ and we don’t really like to say we’re ‘sinners.’ But ‘sin’ is really not that complicated or strange a concept. It means to miss the mark. It means to be kind of messed up. You don’t have to raise your hand, but who here is messed up?”
The teens laughed. They looked relieved.
And every single hand went up.
“Sin” is such a loaded word we’ve become uncomfortable with it; we’re not quite sure what we’re saying when we say we’re sinners, and we’re not sure we want to lay claim to all it might mean. But ask us if we’re messed up? Sure we are. Of course we are. We get that. We all miss the mark all the time.
And yet, the greatness of grace.
The majesty of God’s love.
The depth of the agape in his nature.
Despite our sin, despite our constant mark-missing and our deep messed-upness, he respects us. He values us so highly that he launched a rescue mission at the cost of his own life, and he esteems us so greatly that he is devoted to ridding our lives of sin and bringing us back to our original, created image.
The Love We Show
As Christians, we have a clear mandate to love. The apostle John makes this crystal clear:
[Beloved], let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)
Love may take on many different expressions and forms. It may look like feeding the hungry. It may look like laying down our lives on the mission field, or for many, in contexts of persecution. It may look like giving counsel, being a good spouse or parent, being a good friend.
But fundamentally, first of all, it looks like respecting one another. If you cannot speak of a Democrat or a Republican with respect; if you cannot esteem the homeless person on the corner; if you can’t speak of those who oppose your values in a way that values them, you don’t really love.
When I realized that agape fundamentally meant this, it made intuitive sense, and it immediately made the task of loving others seem both easier and harder. Easier to grasp, easier to define; harder to walk out.
But also, in the process of walking it out, transformative.
In his discussion of anger and contempt, Jesus also spoke of levels of judgment—ending in his indictment of those who call their brother “fool” as subject to hellfire, or more literally, the Gehenna of fire. We’ll look at this more closely next week.
(This is Part 44 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)