On June 25, 1967 the Beatles played a new song during the first world-wide, satellite broadcast in history. Every country in the world could see the Beatles live in the recording studio at the same moment. It was a milestone in broadcasting history and the song they played for that historic occasion was one of the most simply stated expressions ever made of what is essential in life. They played John Lennon’s song, ‘All you need is love.’ Paul McCartney said at the time that he had no idea what the rest of the words to the song meant with lines like, ‘there’s nothing you can make that can’t be made; nothing you can save that can’t be saved’ but the chorus of the song boldly and clearly stated that there is one essential in life: ‘All you need is love… all you need is love… all you need is love, love… love is all you need.’
Truth is, many people would agree with John Lennon: all we need is love. And to be honest, that sentimentis often supported by quoting the Bible. It was Jesus himself who said in John 13:14 “A new commandment I give you: love one another. As I have loved you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,if you love one another.” There is one big problem with talking about ‘love’ though: what do people mean when they say ‘Love?’ It’s so difficult to pin down, at least it is in English.
Why, I can say, I love my wife, I love bacon and chocolate cake, I love the feel of a new razor when I’m shaving and I love having a quiet cup of coffee in the morning while reading and it all makes sense to us. Everyone knows, or at least I hope they know,that my love for my wife and my love for bacon are not the same thing and yet we use the same word. And this one-word-fits-all-feelings business we find in English makes the translation of the Bible from Greek, the original language of the New Testament, into English, really difficult.
The Greek language had 4 primary ways to talk about feelings that we use the one word ‘love’ to translate and three of these words are found in the New Testament.
The first word is storge (Romans 12:10) and it is the kind of affection you find In a family between parents and children. It’s a rarely used Greek word but we all know that there is something different about the way family members feel about one another. The Greeks recognized this and they had a word for family affection: storge.
Next is eros which at its core is a feeling of passion or a desire for intimacy. It’s a sensual word. You get it, I’m sure. We get a number of eros-y kinds of words from it, but it is usually translated: love.
Then, there is philia.This word was used to talk about friendship… brotherhood… mutual respect. This word was used when someone wanted to express a deep bond between people. We use this word today: Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love.
Then there is the word agape. (ahgapay) This word was used to talk about what we might call selfless love… it is a word that means: to always be thinking of what you can do that is the very best for another person without expecting anything whatsoever in return.
The word agape has an interesting history that starts when the Jews translated the Old Testament from its original Hebrew into Greek about 200 years before Jesus was born. They called this translation the Septuagint and that’s another story in itself. What the Jewish translators did was use this word ‘agape’ to describe the kind of love God continually showed to the Jews. The way the Jewish scholars saw it, even though God often got nothing in return from the Jews, he was always doing whatever he could do to give the Jewish people what was best for them.
The Jews could see that God’s love for them had been consistently selfless and so they used this word ‘agape’to describe God’s feelings for them. But, and I think this is really interesting, until recently there were no known records of this word being used in any ancient, secular sources until after the translation of the Septuagint. So, scholars for centuries just figured that the Jews had simply made up this word and that it wasn’t really a word at all just something the Jews made up since most people believed that this kind of love was an impossibility and nobody, God in particular, would have loved the Jews like this. So, even though we find agape in the Septuagint a lot, scholars just figured the word didn’t really exist until the Jews dreamed it up as a way to brag about their relationship with God.
Well, in the last century a pre-Septuagint secular source was found containing the use of ‘agape’ in theway the Jews had used it and so we know now that the Jews didn’t make it up; they were simply employing a Greek word that was rarely used because, seriously, hardly anyone continually does what is best for someone, constantly looks out for them and shows them great affection without ever expecting anything in return. And yet here is where this all gets practical for us as we study the Sermon on the Mount. Even though we rarely see this kind of love in action in the world, this is exactly the kind of love that Jesus was talking about in his New Commandment when he said ‘Love one another,’ to his disciples and it is the kind of love that he expects us to show one another. It’s also the only kind of love that will prove to the world that we are disciples of Jesus.
Again, who does this? Well, for one: Jesus did it and he gave us a powerful example of this kind of love in action. In fact, one of the greatest showings of ‘agape’ in the Bible had just happened a few minutes before Jesus said these words. Here, listen to what had just happened before Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you: love oneanother. As I have loved you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another?”
What Jesus did for his disciples was unimaginable. Foot washing was the rarely-if-ever-required task of the lowest of house slaves. It’s no wonder Peter didn’t want anything to do with Jesus washing his feet at first. But, this action on Jesus’ part is the core of what he meant when he said, “As I have loved you, you must love one another.” It was as if he was saying, ‘I have set aside every ounce of my position and my privilege as your Rabbi and your Lord and I am doing this for you to show you how deeply I want only what is best for you and I want you to do this same sort of thing for one another!” And the first thing this screams out to me is this: if I am really going to separate the trivial things in my life from the few essential things, if I am serious about choosing to live a life characterized by the essential, few, important things, the place I have to start is deep in my own heart. I have to eliminate every vestige of selfishness, along with every hint of entitlement, pride and self-aggrandizement. The first voice I must hear is the voice of Jesus who not only commanded us to surrender to the selflessness of agape, but then said the way that the world will know we belong to him is by loving one another in this unimaginable, rarely seen way called ‘agape.’ Here is the voice of Jesus telling us what is essential when it comes to loving others: “To you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-36).
When you gather up all of this: the meaning of agape is Jesus’ command that we love one another. It is the clear, essential necessity of living an ‘other-centered’ life. Taken all together these scream ‘community’ to me. Here’s why: there is no possibility of living out the kind of love that Jesus calls us to in a relational cocoon. We have to be in relationships with others to show this kind of love. There has to be an object of our ‘agape’ or it can’t simply be an ideal that we believe in; it has to be lived out in the reality of real life or it is all just words. And the more I’ve thought about this it has become apparent to me that this is the only kind of ‘love’ that will build true community: meeting each week and being friends is good, having a deep bond with someone can give life significance, but love that is selfless that never seeks its own advantage that does whatever is necessary to bring the best into someone else’s life with no expectation of the love being returned, now that changes everything.
Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a community of people that are all looking out for one another in this way? Can you imagine what it would be like to be always thinking of others and yet at the same moment living in the confidence that there were others in your life who were equally concerned about you and your life? Jesus must not have thought this kind of life is a dream because it is literally what he commanded us to do. This is why Ministry to Men makes such an effort to help gather men into small groups, so that men can experienceand then hopefully spread this kind of agape. They don’t go to the trouble just to make it possible for guys to have more friends. That of course is importantbut that isn’t the ultimate goal and they don’t go to the trouble to create opportunities to just learn doctrinal thing. It is also important that we grow in the knowledge of our faith together but that isn’t the ultimate goal of community, either. No, I think they go to great efforts to help us become a part of a small community of fellow followers of Jesus because it is within these kinds of relationships that we can best obey the command of Jesus: to love one another. Agape one another and in the process of us all loving others and others loving us in this generally-never-seen agape way, we will show the world that we belong to Jesus. I believe that there may be no better proof of the truth of the gospel than seeing the selfless love of Jesus lived out in community.
John Lennon was not quite right when he sang, ‘All you need is love.’ There are a few other essentials that we need besides love but we do need love, we need to give it and receive it and that love is a love that we can define, it is selfless, other-centered, merciful, forgiving and generous. It has no expectations, it is agape. And it is the kind of love that is best lived out in a community of fellow followers of Jesus. And Jesus says that when we do the hard work of making this kind of love and the community of his people essentials in our lives we will change the world.