Paul says, of three things that abide in Christian experience the greatest of them is love (1 Corinthians 13:13). The KJV has the word charity instead of love. There is important significance in the use of charity, here and a few other places, in the common version of the New Testament. We will explain it in the course of this essay.
Love is seen as a basic aspect of God’s nature, perhaps as a metaphor of God (1 John 4:8). It is also the tie that binds man and God to each other, and should bind a man together with other persons (Deuteronomy 6:4-6, Leviticus 19, Mark 12:28-30). If we are to be identified with God as Christians our love must be like the love of God (1 John 4:10-11) and the love of Jesus (John 13:34-35).
Love is a learned concept, an acquired ability and attitude. It is not something implanted in us that functions according to design. It is learned by imitating the example of God and of His Christ. To love as God loves or as Christ loves means to treat people as the Lord would treat them. It means to treat others the way Christ treats you.
The Old Testament words which can be translated love are important for Christians because Jesus quoted them and gave them new meaning and application. The most frequently used is AHAB, which can be as ambiguous and wide-ranging in its meanings as our English word love, covering everything from love of food, objects, possessions, and persons to love relationships, including romantic and sexual.
The words used in the Greek New Testament are more precise. We must be careful to note here that we are not concerned with modern Greek words, words spelled the same as in ancient manuscripts, but with meanings that have changed since that time. It is a problem that occurs too often with Bible students who try to use modern dictionaries to determine the meaning of words found in the King James translation of Scripture.
It is known that about 300 words used in the KJV and other 17th century translations have changed meanings enough to require a revision, an updated translation. Our concern should be to find the meanings of words used by original authors of Scripture, in particular the Koine Greek of the New Testament. There are four words that apply in our present study. Two of them do not appear in the Greek New Testament, although the concepts they represent do appear.
First is EROS. The word itself does not appear in the New Testament, but the implied attitude and action does. It is gratification of one’s personal desires, lust rather than love, whatever brings pleasure and satisfaction. This can be very childish and immature, though obviously not completely invalid. If there were no personal pleasure or benefit in it, not many would do it, whatever it is. Some never outgrow the selfish “please me” attitude or experience any deeper love. “If it feels good to me, or if it ‘turns me on,’ I’ll do it. Let’s do it.”
The second word is STORGE. This word too does not appear in the New Testament except in negative or compound form, for example ASTORGE, without natural affection (Romans 1:31). STORGE can sometimes be understood as “covenant love,” the particular affinity that binds together the members of a defined and limited group, such as a family. It should apply to the members of the family of God, the body of Christ, the church.
PHILIA appears 25 times in the New Testament, frequently as the verb form PHILEŌ, to love, to experience the feeling or to do the loving thing. It is sometimes called friendship love, but is best understood as affection, appreciation of shared relationships, of those who have something in common. It is not simply affection or emotion, though feelings are usually involved.
This is the word to use when we say we like something or someone. PHILIA recognizes the common ground, shared aspects, the likeness shared with others. It is the basis for fellowship, community, mutuality, brotherhood. So it is “friendship love” (James 4:4), “brotherly love” (1 Peter 1:22). PHILIA is often commanded, or strongly urged. Christians are to love the brethren (1 Peter 3:8, Hebrews 13:1). Wives are to love husbands and children (Titus 2:4). If anyone does not love Christ, let him be anathema (1 Corinthians 16:22). It is sometimes used with reference to the Lord’s feelings for His people (Revelation 3:19): “As many as I love I rebuke and chasten.” But notice the emphasis on likeness, the capacity for sharing characteristics and relationships. There are obvious similarities in PHILIA and STORGE and EROS which may explain why the latter two words are not used in New Testament writings.
AGAPE with the verb form AGAPAŌ is the most frequent and most important word for love in the New Testament, appearing some 116 times. It is not necessarily emotional, but more volitional – action based upon perceived value. It is unselfish good will and concern and therefore can be directed to all, good and bad, friends and enemies. This is “love, with no strings attached,” love which does not have to be earned or repaid, or even returned. This love has a special priority basis: it puts the object of love above the lover himself. It is not to be limited to a select few who deserve it or may return it, from whom one may gain some personal benefit – that kind of love is neither virtuous nor praiseworthy and it receives no reward from God (Luke 6:32-35). This kind of love makes one to be like God the Father (Matthew 5:43-48).
The Latin word CARITAS (from which we get our word “charity”) is sometimes used in the KJV to translate AGAPE (in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 and elsewhere for a total of 17 times in Paul’s writing, and 6 times in Peter and John). CARITAS or charity means “of or pertaining to the heart.” Not the emotional heart but the mental and volitional heart, the reasoning faculty with its thoughts and intents (cf. Hebrews 4:13).
Charity implies care and concern. In general, the love which is God’s nature, and which is to be shared and demonstrated by God’s people is AGAPE. God is AGAPE (1 John 4:8). “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have the same AGAPE for each other that I have for you” (paraphrase of John 13:34-35).
Remember that, if we are to be identified with God as Christians, our love must be like the love of God (1 John 4:10-11) and the love of Jesus Christ (John 13:34-35). Not just our affection and our feelings for family members, but our concern and willingness to do what is good for all persons, even wicked, non-Christians, and enemies.
In Scripture it is called AGAPE. It is a basic attribute of God and of Jesus Christ, and must also be an integral part of the Christian’s character and will. We can be bold enough to say that without AGAPE one cannot please God or be truly identified with Christ and cannot be a proper Christian. It occurs to me that at some point in these studies we must define and apply properly that word, Christian. Probably no word is more misunderstood, misapplied, and generally abused. But, to the point here: love must be perfected in order to be effective.
John tells us about perfect or perfected love and what it can do. He does not spell out in specific terms what he means by perfected love. That will be our task in this part of our essay on love. The primary reference is 1 John 4:18 “…Perfect love casts out fear. …He who fears is not made perfect in love.” Perfect here is from TETELEIOS which means completed, finished, or mature; fulfilling its design and purpose and achieving its proper end. It does not necessarily imply moral or sinless perfection, never making a mistake, never needing correction or improvement. Love is dynamic, not static. It grows and develops with time and understanding, especially in relationships.
Notice that John says perfected love casts out fear, even fear of the judgment. If one is fearful it is because love has not been perfected in him.
Unless we read John’s words in his own context and with his own explanation we will probably expect something we have no right to expect. We may be inclined to condemn ourselves or others – even to blame God – for failure based upon improper attribution and expectation.
To exemplify the point, notice first that John does not refer here to God’s love, the love given by God himself to His creatures. God’s love is perfect. It has neither flaw nor deficiency. That could mean to some that since God’s love is perfect we have nothing to fear, even in His judgment of us.
God’s perfect love is assumed to be unconditional, and so it will save everybody God loves – at least all those who accept it from Him. Such platitudes as: “Smile! God loves you and we love you too” can put one too much at ease about his condition. Adding that “love covers the multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8) may lead one to think, “God loves me and covers all my sins – He will find a way to save me from my sins, no matter what.” That is not true.
Let us say it right now, emphatically, and then show how the context and other words of John support the contention: God’s love does not save anybody who does not obey Him. In the same way that God’s love does not save anybody without faith (Hebrews 11:6, Mark 16:16), or without repentance (Luke 13:3, 5 and 24:47). God cannot love anyone into salvation or into heaven.
Perfect love does not mean whole-hearted, as in “I love God, the Lord, Jesus (or you) with all my heart.” Jesus said the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and then expand it into loving your neighbor as you love your own self (Mark 12:28-30). Perhaps the word unreserved fits here – holding nothing back, willing to give all. True, love does not withhold anything that is of benefit, certainly anything needed for the welfare or to prove the merit and value of the loved one.
Giving something or doing something that is not in the best interests of the person, something actually detrimental, disagreeable, or destructive to the person is not true love. All of that is an appropriate application of those words of Jesus, but that is not the point John is making in the text we are considering here. It is not, “I love you, so you must not hold against me anything I do to you, or fail to do for you – do not hold my sins against me.” Neither your love nor the other person’s love can cover your sins.
Loving God means that one obeys Him, and nothing God commands or requires is too difficult, too great a burden for one to bear for, “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3). Compare the statement of Jesus in John 14:15, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
It is not just a matter of knowing the commandments, but rather of doing them. “If you know these things, happy are you if you do them” (John 13:17).
Earlier in the present epistle John explains what perfected love is. If one reads through the epistle from beginning to end, rather than reading only one enigmatic statement, such as 4:18, and letting it stand alone, he should have no trouble understanding what is being said. Notice 1 John 2:3-5. We know that we know God if we keep His commandments (v. 3). One who says he knows God but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him (v. 4). But when one keeps the words and commandments of God the love of God is perfected in him (v. 5).
That makes it simple, doesn’t it? Perfect or perfected love means keeping the commandments of the Lord. How many of the commandments? Jesus said, “Keep my commandments.” But how many of them must we keep? “Teach them to observe everything that I have I have commanded” (Matthew 28:19). Keeping some, or even most of the Lord’s commands, means imperfect love. Imperfect love is imperfect or incomplete obedience to what one knows is required.
Unperfected love cannot cast out fear of the judgment and of God’s reaction to one’s life and deeds. Doing what one knows is right and seeking forgiveness for any violation or failure to keep what one knows is commanded by God – that is to say, perfected love – is the only thing that can remove one’s doubts and fears about his own salvation.