"Love" as it appears in our Authorized Version represents either of two Greek words having widely different meaning. One is the noun AGAPE for which the verb is AGAPAO; the other noun is PHILANTHROPIA for which the verb is PHILEO.
Love as denoted by AGAPE is, on the benefactor's part, a most unselfish love. It is neither invited nor deserved by others. Those on whom it is conferred are most undeserving, so it is a love motivated by principle rather than by feeling.
Love as denoted by PHILANTHROPIA is, on the other hand, a relationship resulting largely from mutual attraction, usually motivated by some quality, virtue or appeal in some person or persons whereby they become the object of another's devotion and affections, to which they may also respond.
Coined from the same root as PHILANTHROPIA and PHILEO we find also the Greek PHILADELPHIA which appears in various passages as "brotherly love." It relates to fellowship in the faith. As such it signifies an affection of higher quality than do those other words derived from the same root; yet even such "brotherly love" falls short of the qualitative sense we have indicated here for that highest of all love denoted only by the Greek AGAPE.
Some translators have indicated the distinction between PHILANTHROPIA and AGAPE by rendering the former word and its derivatives as "fondness" or being "fond of" while they properly reserve the use of "love" to represent AGAPE only. Here to avoid any undue repetition of Greek terms, we may often refer to AGAPE only as "the greater love and to PHILANTHROPIA as the lesser love.”
In the Hebrew Scriptures of The Old Testament there appears to be no way of indicating the above distinction but there is one Hebrew word (AHAB or AHEB) which is most frequently rendered as "love," although the same word appears as "friend" in those important passages where Abraham is called the friend of God; the only person who is ever so uniquely honored in the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus in II Chronicles 20:7 we read of "Abraham thy friend" and in Isaiah 41:8 "the seed of Abraham my friend." These same Scriptures are quoted in The New Testament at James 2:23 where Abraham is further called the friend of God as denoted there by the Greek PHILOS, used also by John the Baptist when referring to himself as the friend of the Bridegroom. Our Lord also used the same word for a very close relationship which He felt especially toward His disciples near the end of His earthly ministry (John 15: 15).
This is something we may better appreciate if we first pause to realize that the word "friend," both in the Old Testament and the New, has a much closer, more intimate meaning than our conventional use of the term may suggest. We often say “just a friend" to indicate someone perhaps not really as close to us as one of our own family or other near relative. In Scripture the word friend may in some exceptional instances closely resemble the force of AGAPE which we have conveniently called "the greater love;" as for example God's friendship for Abraham; or as we read in Proverbs 18:24, "There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” In such exceptional cases as these or, in the mutual friendship between our Lord and John the Baptist, the friendship may well denote something greater than natural affection between husband and wife, parents and children.
Yet returning now to what we have called "the greater love" which the Greek AGAPE invariably denotes, we observe that it signifies a spontaneous love, not aroused or invited by some quality or appeal in the person or persons on whom it is bestowed. It does not depend on any recognition or response from one or more beneficiaries. It is a totally unselfish love which goes out freely and uninvited from the one who loves to those on whom that love may be lavished. It is a love which consists in loving rather than in being loved. It is never in jeopardy of being withdrawn by the one from whom that love proceeds or of being lost to those on whom it is graciously bestowed. It is like the sun from which the light and warmth radiates daily, not only when the atmosphere is clear but often when clouds may come between. It is not like the moon which shines only when it is shone upon.
In its highest sense that "greater love" is true only of God alone Who loves even the humanly unlovable; and though it would not be untrue to say that He too is most tenderly "fond" of His loved ones in the sense denoted by PHILEO, still that "lesser love" is best known to us by its human manifestations. There are exceptional instances in Scripture where even the greater love has been manifested, at least to some limited degree, by the love of one person for another or the mutual love between the two; and it is mainly because we can better understand what we have seen humanly exemplified that a few such examples will be cited here later to facilitate our own appreciation of God’s unspeakable love in the person of His Son when God in Christ was conciliating a world to Himself (II Corinthians 5:19). Dearly as the Father loves the Son, it is not here that the greater love is displayed at its maximum, because the Son does always what is pleasing to the Father (John 8.29), so He truly invites the Father’s love where we may not. Therefore it is rather on the unlovely and humanly unlovable that "the greater love" is best reflected by way of contrast; just where it is least deserved.
This was indicated, for example, in some of the last words of Moses to Israel:
On the other hand, there are numerous accounts in Scripture describing notable examples of human relationship where the love of one person for another has proven to be a selfless devotion; perhaps the nearest possible human resemblance to what we have called the greater love.
One such example may be found in the case of Jonathan and David where Jonathan occupied the role of the selfless benefactor and David enjoyed the favor of Jonathan's self-denying love. A mere stripling then, David had just returned from his own immortal victory over the giant Goliath of the Philistines; and Saul, the king, admiringly inquired, "Whose son art thou, thou young man?" to which David modestly answered, "I am the son of thy servant Jesse the Bethlehemite" (I Sam. 17:58). Standing alongside and hearing the well deserved acclaim of David was Jonathan, the son of Saul the king; therefore heir to the throne by all earthly considerations. Jonathan might well have had much reason to be jealous of David's fame and valor, but here we note strangely a most self-denying love went out from him to David. Jonathan was perhaps the first of all to realize—and to assent from the heart—that he was right there gazing upon a young man who was destined to be king of Israel in his own place. Thus we read:
Another such notable example of what we have called the greater love is found in Ruth' s self-denying devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi. While Orpah, the other daughter-in-law, also loved Naomi, she afterward yielded to that lesser love of a fond attachment for her kinsmen in the land of Moab, her native home. There came at last a parting of their ways when Orpah kissed Naomi and returned to her own people, but not so with Ruth. Her devotion to Naomi was based upon an unselfish greater love far surpassing any natural affection for one's near of kin. Even in the face of Naomi's lovely entreaty that Ruth should remain with her own kinsmen, she insisted on going with Naomi to a strange land and a strange people. "Intreat me not," she said, "to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge, thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God, where thou diest I will die, and there will I be buried" (Ruth 1:16-17).
By that very noble decision to forsake her own people and go along with Naomi to the land of Israel, though Ruth did not know it then, she became a progenitor in the ancestral lineage which had descended from Abraham, the friend of God through many generations, to bring forth God's Anointed, Friend above all other friends. We recall that Ruth as the wife of Boas became one of the ancestors of David from whose lineage our Lord was born out of Mary as the promised Son of God (Luke 1:35).
The love of Ruth for Naomi was quite unlike much natural human love; it was most unnatural; it was a selfless love, motivated strictly by principle, directly opposed to what might have been her natural tendency to remain with her own people. Orpah loved Naomi too, but she was fond of her own people and of Moab her native land. Ruth had equal reason to remain in Moab as Orpah did but her love for Naomi was motivated by something more than mere self-interest. It was the love of a self-denying friendship, recognizing and preferring another rather than one's self, much as when John the Baptist gladly acknowledged that he himself was not the Bridegroom but rejoiced to be His friend, saying "He must increase but I must decrease."
One further example of such self-denying love may be found in Peter's strange allusion to "our beloved brother Paul" (II Pet. 3.15). We are reminded that this was the same Paul from whom Peter at a previous time, and for very good reason, had received a severe public rebuke (Gal. 2:14-18). To many ordinary human circumstances he might have had much reason to nurture a feeling of resentment against Paul yet here at some later time we note that Peter encouraged his own disciples to honor Paul and to study his epistles; much as when John the Baptist sent some of his disciples to our Lord, saying "Behold the Lamb of God.”
It seems Peter was graced to realize how his own evangel for Israel had been supplanted by Paul's special evangel for Gentiles until some distant prophetic day (future to our day also) when a new generation of Israel will be restored to divine favor under a NATIONAL covenant, and then they will be eligible for Peter's distinctive evangel, quite different from Paul’s present evangel for Gentiles. It seems Peter recognized that important distinction and honored Paul, though few ever since have heeded this counsel.
According to the author of the book which became the incentive for this paper, there is an enormous cost to be borne because of the greater love of a selfless friendship; a cost nonetheless which is self-rewarding, not in some earthly gain but in spiritual treasure.
We are told this is a three-fold cost; first the cost of self-surrender as when Jonathan in love for David surrendered the throne and his royal glory. There is also the cost of suffering for or suffering with a friend. We are reminded that no other suffering can be nearly so painful as that which the friend of a loved one feels even more than does the victim of the pain.
Yet we are further reminded that there can be a more exhaustive cost than either of those first two; not only the cost of suffering with another or for another but even BECAUSE of another. That may occur, for example, when estrangements arise because of convictions which the two can no longer share alike, and thus a mutuality long enjoyed may currently cease to endure.
That understandably saddens the heart, and it necessarily inflicts a wound which lingers painfully in the memory; though, because of the greater love, it never becomes incurable. Even though it may appear that a fond fellowship of many years is spent and vanished, a true friend never can be untrue to the memories, inspirations and obligations of a former mutual love; the hopes and aspirations which each had long cherished for the other. Thus the greater love suffers a grievous loss yet it never ceases to pray for a healing of the wounds through eventual reconciliation.
While this, in human terms, may serve to illustrate the greater love of divine dimensions, it can be no more than a faint shadow of that transcendent love which God in Christ has lavished even on us. When He seeks all our devotion while only part of ours may be for Him and part for someone else...or SOMETHING else...there too the former mutuality tends to fade, though this is on our part only, not on God's part. It is true that He remains faithful though we may be faithless; 'tis true that His love never lapses though we may cause sorrow to the Spirit whereby we are sealed; yet meanwhile we DO suffer some manner of loss. For a time we lose something of that "boldness and access with confidence through His faith.” Our own peace becomes less than it was in our first love, until at length we are graced to pause, reconsider and regret our unworthy walk. It is then we are graciously reminded that sorrow according to God is producing repentance for unregretted salvation; and with mercy He covers our offences (II Corinthians 1:10; Ephesians 2:4-6).
We recall then anew, as we did in our first love, that before we had any will or wish; when as yet we had drawn no breath; long before sin had appeared on earth; it was then so infinitely long ago that God set about to seek us, bringing His own oblation, the precious gift of His dearly beloved Son whom He in His purpose had offered beforehand, to woo our hearts and win our love while we were yet His enemies; all this so that we could share the peace He made for us in the Blood of the Cross.
If that peace should yet involve sorrow, suffering or sacrifice on our part, may we seek ever to be faithful even in the midst of unforeseen affliction and adversity. May it be our constant prayer to imbibe that faith, trust and confidence whereof Job in his afflictions once said, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him."