Under an Agapē-ing God
And regardless of what else you put on, wear agapē. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. (Col. 3:14)
For God agapē-d the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (Jn. 3:16)
Dear friends, since God so agapē-d us, we also ought to agapē one another. (1 Jn. 4:10)
Right off the bat I want to acknowledge all those linguists — both English and biblical Greek — who are cringing at the way I have titled this post and adapted the three passages. But this is not an apology because throughout this post I will continually refer to love in this way, because unless we understand the impact that this word agapē would have had on its original readers we will not fully understand what it means to worship this God, nor what it means to practice faithful Kingdom Ministry.
In a previous post I noted that a primary characteristic of kingdom ministry is the act of peace-making — shalom-ing — as a re-presentation of the God we call Father. In this discussion, I want to continue this idea of representing, or re-presencing of God to the world and the way we live by looking at the foundational expression of the Christian faith, love — agapē.
Within the Greek language of the time four words were used to denote love.
- Phileō : Brotherly love (Philadelphia = city of brotherly love)
- Storgē : Love of family/family loyalty or love of king
- Eros : Love of desire (I love chocolate, I long for God)
- Agapē : Servitude love – a love for the sake of the other (I choose to enslave myself for your sake; e.g. Gal. 5:13)
Phileō, from where we derive such words as philharmonic, the love of harmony, and philanthropy, the love of people as a benefactor, was commonly used in relation to friendship, or occasionally to the love of something such as food. In the NT is primarily used for close relationships and only occasionally used to express God’s love for the disciples. For example, in John 15:19, Jesus stated that if the disciples belonged to the world, the world would love them (phileō) as its own. In John 21 where Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him (agapē), Peter responded four times that he loved (phileō) Jesus. In other words, Peter responded with a term that he thought was the most intimate, but ultimately misunderstood the intent and importance of what Jesus was asking him.
Storgē was a classical Greek word used to express love in a similar way to phileō, most commonly denoting mutual love of parents and children, or the love of a people for their ruler, or a dog for its master. In this sense storgē may have been a better term to speak of our love of God as a loyal people who are his children, because it has an element of devotion attached to its meaning. However, it does not occur in the NT apart from in three compound verbs (astorgos — Rom. 1:31; 2 Tim. 3:3; philostorgos — Rom. 12:10).
Erōs is the term we most associate with words such as erotic or sexual love, but it is also a word that can speak to our love of sport, or chocolate, or anything that we desire. The meaning of the term embraced longing, craving, and desire, and commonly was used to denote sensual ecstasy. There was however a more mystical understanding of erōs. Verbrugge notes that, in a desire to move past human limitations towards perfection, many Greek religious rituals included certain ‘rites intended to unite participants with the godhead. Here spiritual and physical unity with the God came into the foreground more and more’. Furthermore, the likes of Philo and Aristotle regarded erōs as ‘striving for righteousness, self-possession, and wisdom; it was the embodiment of the good, the way to attain mortality’. As we will see, this is in stark contrast to the biblical idea of a love-based righteousness. But before we do, I want to put forward a provocative thought. Given that erōs speaks of a longing and desire, this also may have been a better term to express our longing devotion of God; seeking after him and worshipping in order to obtain something of a deeper connection, an intimate experience of closeness and power. While this idea may grate on our theologies of worship, it is in fact what we often experience in those more manifest moments of corporate and individual praise sessions.
Each of these terms tells us something about the various ways that we experience and express love. But it is agapē that sits at the foundation of what it means to love God, love others, and express kingdom ministry. Used extensively as the main interpretation of love throughout the LXX (the Septuagint — the Greek version of the Old Testament) and the New Testament, agapē shapes the people of God in a profound and unique way. Its use in the Scriptures was unique, and there are very few examples of the term in general Greek literature. Apart from the passages already mentioned, agapē is always used when speaking of God’s love for his people, the reciprocal love they are to have towards God, and, almost universally in the NT, the love they are to have for each other. This is a love grounded in servitude, where one seeks the good of the other, willing to serve the other as a slave would a master, even to the point of laying down their life for the other.
In the NT we are continually confronted with a God who has opened up himself in order for creation to experience the grace, the mercy, and the goodness that is central to his character. And this character is encapsulated in the term agapē. It is because of agapē that the triune God the father, son, and Spirit entered into our reality. It is because of agapē that Jesus willingly embraced the shameful death of Roman crucifixion, meant to expose subversion and oppress the non-Roman, and in doing so exposed the cross’s futility and weakness. And it is agapē through and through, a core characteristic of God, which has reconciled us to him, and to each other.
And here is the most profound aspect of agapē. When we view God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit through this lens, we find a God who does not stand aloof and above, but one who continually serves us by empowering us to live in the fullness of life towards himself and each other. This is why Jesus said, ‘the world will know you are my disciples by the way you agapē each other’. Our role as kingdom ministers is to faithfully imitate Jesus as we serve one another. This countercultural expression of kingdom life stands against the self-seeking, hedonistic, power-seeking character of modern society. It challenges political, social, cultural, and religious worldviews and systems that continually enslave, or ignore, the least, the lost, and the last in our communities by impelling Christians to view the world and those in the world through the eyes of agapē. As we serve one another in agapē and serve our communities beyond the walls of our church in the same way, we faithfully re-presence the Father and in doing so reflect Jesus to all the world who needs him, but doesn’t quite know that yet.