BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

What “God Is Love” Actually Means

As published in the Epistles section of the Fall 2020 Issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Over decades of studying the Bible, I’ve noted how much emphasis many scholars place on the adjectives used to describe the biblical God—God is righteous, God is holy, God is merciful, and so on. This is helpful up to a point, but not to the exclusion of studying the nouns used to characterize God—God is Spirit, God is One, and God is Love. Here, I will focus just on the last of these statements, noting from the outset that it is one thing to say God is loving; it is another to say God is love.

The problem, of course, for most people in English-speaking countries is that they associate the word “love” with particular kinds of human feelings, but in the Greek New Testament physical or tangible human love is referred to by the term eros, from which we quite appropriately get the word “erotic,” not by several of the other Greek words for love. English, unfortunately, doesn’t have the versality of Greek when it comes to having different words for different kinds of love.

In 1 John 4, where God is called love not once but twice, God is called agape, a very different word for love than eros. The verbal form of the noun agape (agapao) is used to say God loves the world of humanity in perhaps the most famous verse in the New Testament, John 3:16: “God loved the world in the following manner—he gave his only and beloved Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life” (author’s translation). There, we hear about a self-sacrificial God.


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Clearly enough, the sort of love predicated of God is not any mere human love, certainly not any sort of narcissistic self-directed love, search for personal fulfillment, or expression of strong personal desires. No, to say God “is love” is to say that God is the most self-sacrificial being in the universe, and as such he was prepared to go to incredible lengths to set humankind right. The writers of the New Testament would clearly have nothing to do with any attempts to define God on the basis of merely human notions of love or, worse still, define love “as our god.” For Christians, God is the very definition of self-sacrificial love and what it truly means. We should have long ago stopped trying to define God and the divine character on our very partial understandings of human love and human feelings.

But there is much more to be said. This love described by the author of 1 John 4 implies something fundamental about the freedom of God. Love cannot be compelled, manipulated, or predetermined if it is to be genuine love. It has to be freely given and freely received. God did not have to love a world full of self-centered and sinful human beings, but he chose to do this—and this accorded with God’s very nature. Even more interesting and surprising is that 1 John 4 also tells us that God’s love comes to its fullest expression not merely in creation, but in the lives of his “beloved humans,” about whom it is said that God’s perfect love casts out all fear of punishment, as well as other fears.

In the Bible, indicative statements about God often become imperatives for his people—“be holy as God is holy” (Leviticus 11:44), for example. This is also true in regard to love. “We love (agapomen),” says the writer, “because he first loved (egapesen) us” (1 John 4:19). But our response is also free. We are to freely obey the great commandment to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

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Yet just because the response is free, doesn’t mean it is optional. No, for Christians it is required. And the specific kind of love that Jesus, the author of 1 John, and the apostle Paul have in mind is a holy love, a righteous love, and a merciful love, which we have received from God and now in some measure are returning.

It is, of course, true that in the great commandment, “You shall love (agapeseis) the Lord your God with all your being” (Mark 12:30), the writer is not referring to feelings. No one can command their own feelings. You can’t get up in the morning and say, “I command myself to have warm, mushy feelings all day.” Feelings come and go and are subject to a million factors—circumstances, personality, health, and so on. The commandment to love God has little to do with that. It has to do with self-sacrificially loving God and others just as we have been loved by God.

It was Jesus himself who once said, “Greater love (agape) has no one, than he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), and Jesus himself was to do this very thing on Good Friday. There, paradoxically, is the place we see most clearly both God’s great love for us all and his holiness as well. Not love without holiness and righteousness, but not righteousness without love either. This is the character of God in both the Old Testament and New Testament. And the final proof of that comes once more in 1 John 4—for it is the person Jesus called Father, the very God of the Old Testament, that is said to be love in that text.

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Four Kinds of Love in Greek

  • Erōs
    (GREEK: ἔρως) Romantic love; erotic desire; intimacy; infatuation with another’s beauty.
  • Philia
    (GREEK: φɩλία) Brotherly love; friendship; affectionate regard for and loyalty to friends, family, and community, requiring virtue, equality, and familiarity.
  • Storgē
    (GREEK: στοργή) Familial love; affection; natural empathy for one’s family, country, or team.
  • Agapē
    (GREEK: ἀγάπη) Unconditional, self-sacrificial love; charity; God’s unconditional, self-sacrificial love for humankind and humankind’s love for a good God and for others.

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BEN WITHERINGTON III (Text Arcana: “What ‘God Is Love’ Actually Means,”) is the Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University, Scotland.


This article was first published in Bible History Daily in October 2020

Read more in the BAS Library:

Unlocking the Poetry of Love in the Song of Songs

Ways of Knowing God

Love Your Neighbor: Only Israelites or Everyone?

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7 Responses

  1. Great insight! Thank you! However I have one point for further finetuning. When you wrote “No one can command their own feelings” it recalls some passages when God clearly expect us to influence (command?) our feelings. For example, when He told Israelites before the conquer of the Promised Land how they should treat idols of the land He commanded them: Deut 7:26 “And you shall not bring an abomination into your house, lest you be a cursed thing like it. You shall utterly hate it, and you shall utterly despise it. For it is a cursed thing”. It sounds like influencing our feelings by our wills is possible although may take some time. When we ponder on how God whom we love hates certain things it will spark in our beings feelings of the same to such objects or actions.

  2. H Z says:

    It always amazes me at the grace and mercy and love of God: This is the love God has: “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, CSB.

  3. Ian Banks says:

    Agape…unconditional self sacrificing love….Hmm…what about the pharisees who agape the best seats at the feast….I dont think you have covered that part of love…I would suggest an intense longing that overules should be added to your list

    1. BRIAN says:

      The word used in Matthew 23 is NOT agape – it is phileo … so Prof Witherington’s list don’t need amending

  4. Angela Kinworthy says:

    I have been a.
    subscriber of BAR for many years. It is one my favorite magazines.

  5. Thanks, Dr. Witherington. My only observation has to do with the comment, “English, unfortunately, doesn’t have the versality of Greek when it comes to having different words for different kinds of love,” which might give aid and comfort to those who regard koine as some sort of super-language.

    In fact, I would argue that English vocabulary for love is exponentially more versatile. What about, “affinity, liking, affection, fondness, care for, delight, keen on, dig, value, cherish, treasure, prize; enjoy, relish, savor, altruism, goodwill, charity, be stuck on, and of course, and love.” (From Rodale). And this just to begin with. Thanks.

    1. Hillary Light Fuhrman says:

      from an Engish teacher: interesting response

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7 Responses

  1. Great insight! Thank you! However I have one point for further finetuning. When you wrote “No one can command their own feelings” it recalls some passages when God clearly expect us to influence (command?) our feelings. For example, when He told Israelites before the conquer of the Promised Land how they should treat idols of the land He commanded them: Deut 7:26 “And you shall not bring an abomination into your house, lest you be a cursed thing like it. You shall utterly hate it, and you shall utterly despise it. For it is a cursed thing”. It sounds like influencing our feelings by our wills is possible although may take some time. When we ponder on how God whom we love hates certain things it will spark in our beings feelings of the same to such objects or actions.

  2. H Z says:

    It always amazes me at the grace and mercy and love of God: This is the love God has: “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, CSB.

  3. Ian Banks says:

    Agape…unconditional self sacrificing love….Hmm…what about the pharisees who agape the best seats at the feast….I dont think you have covered that part of love…I would suggest an intense longing that overules should be added to your list

    1. BRIAN says:

      The word used in Matthew 23 is NOT agape – it is phileo … so Prof Witherington’s list don’t need amending

  4. Angela Kinworthy says:

    I have been a.
    subscriber of BAR for many years. It is one my favorite magazines.

  5. Thanks, Dr. Witherington. My only observation has to do with the comment, “English, unfortunately, doesn’t have the versality of Greek when it comes to having different words for different kinds of love,” which might give aid and comfort to those who regard koine as some sort of super-language.

    In fact, I would argue that English vocabulary for love is exponentially more versatile. What about, “affinity, liking, affection, fondness, care for, delight, keen on, dig, value, cherish, treasure, prize; enjoy, relish, savor, altruism, goodwill, charity, be stuck on, and of course, and love.” (From Rodale). And this just to begin with. Thanks.

    1. Hillary Light Fuhrman says:

      from an Engish teacher: interesting response

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