a New Christianity

What Does it Mean... God is Love?

I’ve written a series of articles on The Beatitudes, (which are found in chapter five of the Gospel of Matthew) and if you haven’t read those pieces, you may want to read those first and then come back to this article.

In the third article on the 7th Beatitude (which begins “Blessed are the peacemakers...”), we found that the peacemakers are huios theos. The translation of this Greek phrase is sons of God. We also found that Yeshua used the same words (as recorded in the Greek text) to describe Himself as the Son of God, indicating that the intended meanings must be the same; therefore, like Yeshua the peacemakers are also a part of God. In that article, I pointed out the second part of verse 16 from the 4th chapter of 1st John, as part of the explanation of what being huios theos means, (and one of the reasons that we declared the peacemakers to be a part of God, with Yeshua). In this verse, he writes “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” (1st John 4:16b NIV)

As I was discussing this verse with a friend, he asked this question. “You say ‘God is Love’, but what does it mean to say that God is Love?” He went on to explain that the bible has been translated, and even translated from those translations, and that the Greeks used four different words to describe the separate concepts of what we now call love. “I could say I love my car, or I love my wife, I love the recipe, I love you, etc; but can that be the same as saying that ‘God is Love’?” he asked.

Wow! What a great question. He followed up the question by sending me the page from the Wikopedia web-site about the C. S. Lewis book called The Four Loves. As my friend had mentioned, the word we use love embraces four different concepts, as expressed by the Greeks. According to Lewis, these four concepts of love are represented by the Greek words: storge, philia, eros and agape.

(This information is available here: Wikipedia.org: The_Four_Loves. Another wikopedia page, Wikipedia.org: Greek_words_for_love, indicates that the Greek word storge is actually a modern Greek term, and was rarely used in ancient texts, but because it was included in Lewis’ book, we’ll include it here.)

I will admit that I haven’t read the book by C. S. Lewis, but I was aware that the Greeks had different words with which they described the different types of love. Briefly, storge means affection, or fondness - such as family members would have for each other. Philia means friendship, and describes a strong bond existing between people who share a common interest or activity. Eros is the sense of ‘being in love’ with someone. And finally, agape is charity, or an unconditional love directed towards one’s neighbor which is not dependent on any lovable qualities that the neighbor may possess. This is a summary of the four categories of love, as presented by C. S. Lewis.

Those of you who are familiar with this site have probably already guessed where I went next - especially since the “Greek” words for love were raised as part of the question. I went and looked up the word love in Strong’s concordance. Using this resource, it was quite easy to determine that in the first letter of John, the words he used to write ‘God is Love’ were Theos agape. So the easy answer to the question, “What does it mean when he wrote ‘God is love’?” is Theos agape, which means that the Father loves us unconditionally, and that this love is not dependent on any lovable qualities that we may or may not have.

So yes, it is easy to see that the Greeks saw these concepts of love as being separate and distinct categories of emotion and interaction; hence the four different words. That affection for members of our family, while referred to as love, is not the same as the love we have for that one person, whom we are ‘in love’ with. And that these feelings that we have for the significant other in our life is a different emotion than that which we feel for our golfing buddies or bridge club friends. From this line of thought, it would be easy to infer that the concept of what love is, has been over simplified in the English language by combining these concepts into one overarching word: love. I disagree.

In previous pieces, I have talked about the two ‘selves’ that we are. That each of us is made up of a lower self and a higher self. The lower self is the physical part of us, or the body. The Apostle Paul refers to this as the ‘natural man’. The higher self is the spirit. This is referred to by Paul as the ‘spiritual man’. (As I have stated before, this term is not meant to exclude women. Historically, the term ‘man’ has been synonymous with the term ‘people’. Therefore the term is meant to represent both genders.) One of the main goals for our life then, is to learn how to overcome the lower self, and to learn to live in the higher self. The practical application of this goal is that we learn to put the needs of others ahead of our own needs. Let’s put these two ideas together and see what we can come up with.

Instead of seeing these differing expressions of love as being separate and distinct, as the Greek words would indicate, what if we look at these four words which describe different forms of love, in terms of being points on a scale? A good analogy for this would be the area of study known as Mathematics. As students progress up through the grades in their years of schooling, they find that the subject of math gets more difficult and complex with each passing year. Students in the second grade spend their days working on addition and subtraction of smaller numbers. They may get into multiplication later in the school year, but not until they’ve mastered the lessons from the beginning of the year. As they move up in years and grades, they get into Algebra and the concepts of variables. But they certainly can’t understand the concept of adding two variables together, until they have mastered the concept of adding two integers together. The challenge of learning math doesn’t stop there. The higher the grade level, the more challenging and difficult the math is, which is being taught at that level. We should keep one very important thing in mind, however: just because more difficult concepts exist, doesn’t mean that second graders are expected to learn or understand these concepts so early in their schooling. Just as there is a range of mathematical concepts, from the less difficult concepts of basic math, to the more difficult concepts of calculus, and beyond; so it is with the different degrees of love which we learn to experience.

In Matthew, chapter 5 verses 43-48, as Yeshua is teaching the people, he says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This passage is important to our discussion for two reasons. One, it reinforces the idea that storge is the easiest form of love, as demonstrated by the fact that the ‘tax collectors’ do even that. Remember that the ‘tax collectors’ (referred to as scoundrels in the translation known as The Living Bible ) from Yeshua’s time were dishonest and often charged the people over and above what they actually owed in taxes, keeping the overpayments for themselves. But Yeshua also indicates that these scoundrels knew storge. I believe that we can infer from this passage that those who know storge are similar to the second grader who may have a difficult time just trying to understand the concept of adding two numbers together.

The second reason that this passage is important is that Yeshua lays out the goal for us all to work toward. As quoted above from the NewRSV, Yeshua’s instructions to us in verse 48 are misleading. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” is what the verse says, but I don’t think that our interpretation of this verse today, is the same as what Yeshua intended to communicate to us.

Once again, as we turn to Strong’s concordance, we find that the English word perfect is translated from the Greek word telios. Looking for the ideas implied from telios, we find that the word translates as ‘complete’ or ‘completeness’. In fact, if we look at the history of the English language, we find that even the word ‘perfect’ has evolved in the last 400 years (from the time when the bible was first translated into English). At that time, the word perfect was used to describe a sense of completeness, just as the word telios does. It is only in the time since the King James Version of the bible was first printed, that the word ‘perfect’ has evolved from meaning complete, to meaning flawless. If we use this ‘old’ meaning for the word perfect in verse 48, we find Yeshua teaching the people that we should seek to love one another ‘completely’, even as the Father loves us completely. But even if we interpret the word perfect in this way, it doesn’t quite give us the full picture of what Yeshua was trying to communicate.

The Greek word telios derives from the Greek word telos. The meaning of telos is ‘to set out for a definite point, or goal’ or ‘the point aimed at as a limit’. Think of the pole vaulter in the Olympics who sets out to vault 19 ft. 6 inches (the olympic record). His goal is to go over the bar, so when he clears the bar, he will certainly have vaulted higher than 19 ft 6 inches, where the bar was placed. The bar then, is the point he is aiming at, as a limit. If we take this idea of ‘the point aimed at’ and apply it to Yeshua’s teachings from Matthew 5 verse 48, we find that our goal is to learn to love each other ‘at least’ as much as the Father loves us! Therefore, just as there is a range of heights from which the pole vaulter can choose a point to be aimed at, we learn from Yeshua that there is a range of love. This range contains not only a point to aim at, but it also has other points along the range that seem to be distinct and different. Some of these points along the range seem to be easier to understand, and to learn to have towards others, than others points along the range, but they are all points along the range of the same thing: love.

It is not coincidence then, that the closer we come to the point we are aiming at to love those around us, at least as much as the Father loves us - the closer we come to realizing the goal of becoming spiritual man. And what that means is that we don’t have to put these ideas together after all, because they are just different ways of talking about the same thing! Whether we refer to learning to live in higher self, and overcoming the lower self; or we refer to learning to love others through agape, the un-earnable love which the Father has for us; we are still learning to put the needs of others ahead of our own needs.

If you have been reading along looking for the ‘not so easy’ answer to the question, “what does it mean to say that ‘God is Love’?” then you will note that I haven’t gotten there yet. Before we do get to that more difficult answer, we need to gather some more information. Look for the next article on this subject to follow, soon.

Grace and peace to you all,

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