Dr. John B. MacDonald
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When God says to you, “I love you,”—what does He mean? 

I have a few questions about love—and not because I’m a hopeless unromantic. 

I wonder whether we have lost a sense of God’s love and have accepted a cheap counterfeit in the guise of Hallmark-like sentimentality or culturally-distorted correctness. 

Here’s my first question: “What is love?” 

A common definition

If you are familiar with modern English-language definitions of love, your safe answer is probably, “It depends.” 

A standard dictionary such as Merriam-Webster offers a range of common definitions, including:

  • strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties,
  • attraction based on sexual desire, and
  • affection based on admiration, benevolence, common interests.

I observe two things about this typical description. 

First, it classifies love as a feeling or emotion. Note the uses of “affection” and “attraction based on sexual desire.” Is real love merely a feeling or emotion? 

Second is the variety of scenarios used to describe love, such as kinship, sex, common interests. How can such a mixture of meanings refer to the same concept of love? 

I will first propose a reason for the diversity of meanings for “love” in the English-language. The issue of love reduced to a feeling or emotion will come later. 

An issue of vocabulary

The wide diversity of meanings for our word “love” is, in no small measure, a result of the limitations of the English vocabulary. To some extent, we get around these limitations by discerning the context in which “love” is used. 

So, adopting the three dictionary entries mentioned, we understand that “love” is being used in different ways. “Love” can refer to such things as:

  • the self-sacrificing love of a mother for her child;
  • the self-centered lust of a one-night stand; or
  • the self-satisfying love of football; or something else.

In contrast, the Greek language has at least six words that describe different types of “love.” 

One Greek-English dictionary (Liddell-Scott-Jones) gives some insight into the distinctions among three Greek words translated as “love” in the New Testament (NT). Keep in mind that these words still have a range of meanings, and context is essential. These Greek words are: 

1.         agapē – “the love of God for man and of man for a good God.” It is the word used for the selfless and unconditional love of God in texts such as John 3:16

2.         philia – generally means “affectionate regard, friendship,” and is often used between equals. It is translated as “friend” in John 3:29. We can see the adoption of this word in philanthropy, philosophy, and Philadelphia. 

3.         storgē – means “love, affection” and “especially of parents and children.” This word occurs in the negative as “without natural affection” or “no love” in Romans 1:31 and 2 Timothy 3:3.

4.         I also mention the word erōs, which has a sense of “love, mostly of the sexual passion.” This word is not used in the NT but does appear in the Greek version of Proverbs 7:18, where it is rendered as “caresses” (NASB) and “sexual intercourse” (NET), as well as the generic “love” (ESV). 

As you can see, Greek vocabulary offers more variety for different kinds of “love.” 

In this post, we will focus on agapē. I will tell you why in a moment. 

A sacred view

The NT not only provides us with a more helpful vocabulary in Greek but also a better answer to our initial question. We find that we should not be asking “What is love?”—we should be asking, “Who is love?” 

John, the apostle, reveals the answer (1 John 4:8, 16): 

God is love. 

As mentioned, this post will focus on agapē. My reasons for this focus are three-fold:

  • the agapē word group (noun, verb, adjective) is used more frequently in the NT than any of the other words for love.
  • the term agapē is used in the text, “God is love.” What does that mean?
  • God desires that we become more like Jesus Christ. Since God’s agapē is expressed fully in Jesus, we also need to express it in our lives.

So, for these reasons (and others), understanding and living agapē are important.

The statement that “God is love [agapē]” highlights agapē under a sacred spotlight.

Here are a few features and implications of this agapē-love.

1. God’s nature

The declaration that “God is love” is not merely an assertion that God loves or is loving. This text is a revelation of “the essential nature of God.” [1] In His essence and nature, our God is love! 

Implication 1: God is love. Therefore, He is the source of all true love. Real love cannot be separated from the God who reveals Himself as Jesus Christ. 

Implication 2: God is love. Therefore, He is the standard of real love. What I mean by this is that real love cannot be shaped and defined apart from the God who reveals Himself as Jesus Christ. In other words, it is not for us to define what constitutes real love. 

I make these points because of those who use the word “love” to describe that which is contrary to the nature of God, and that which is abhorrent to the standards to God. Our understanding of real love must also be kept in wholesome tension with other non-negotiable components of God’s nature. One such component is pronounced in Hebrews 12:29: 

 … our God is a consuming fire.

This text borrows the language of Deuteronomy 4:23-24, which gives us a sobering message: 

So watch yourselves, that you do not forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image in the form of anything against which the LORD your God has commanded you. For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. 

So, real love must fit together with God’s nature, which includes God as “a consuming fire”—that is, His uncompromising holiness. 

2. God’s activity

True love needs to express itself; it needs to be active toward the other person who is the object of love. 

What do we learn as we look at a few instances of how God expresses His agapē-love? 

Implication 3: God initiates. He does not wait to be loved before He reciprocates. God loves first.

We love, because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19) 

Implication 4: God loves sacrificially and for the benefit of others.

I remember spending time with a man in his 80s who had refused God’s love for so many years. He was quoting poetry to me. As it happened, he died the next day. 

At one point, I asked whether he had ever memorized any of the Bible. 

He asked, “Like what?” 

“Well, what about the Gospel of John 3:16?” 

“How does it begin?” 

I gave him the first six words, and he completed the verse:

For God so loved the world

that He gave His only begotten Son,

that whoever believes in Him

should not perish but have everlasting life. 

Jesus Christ, the Fathers unique Son, was given sacrificially and for the benefit of others—an act of God’s agapē-love.

Implication 5God loves unconditionally. The apostle Paul puts it in these terms (Romans 5:8): 

God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 

Take a moment to contemplate the death of Jesus Christ. God enfleshed Himself as a human and allowed representatives of our humanity to nail Him to a cross—and there He died.

This is real love. It is not merely a feeling or emotion—it is intentional action.

God is saying to you and me, not only by His words but also by His actions, “I LOVE YOU!” 

More questions 

In concluding this post, I realize there is so much more to explore about love. 

Understanding that God desires us to become more like Jesus Christ and that Jesus Christ is God’s ultimate expression of love leads me to ask another question for another post: 

How can we love as Jesus loves? 

Write to me at j[email protected] and let me know your about your response to God’s love.



Notes: [1] W. E. Vine, The Epistles of John, 80.

Photo credit: jtbrennan on VisualHunt.com / CC BY

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