A few weeks ago our Pastor mentioned God’s love – agape and claimed it was a word that was coined by the Apostle Paul, since the word didn’t exist in classical Greek. I let it ride, but then last week he said it again, so a red flag went up, and I decided to check the true origin of the word. My first reaction was: It can’t be so, all the Gospels, and all the letters of Paul, Peter, James, John and Jude and the book of Revelation contains the word agape. The only exception is the book of Acts. Now I was really curious.
Being a naturalized citizen of the U.S, even though I have been in this country 45 years, I still sometimes search for words in English that are better expressed in my native Swedish tongue. So I searched the internet to see if anyone else forwarded the theory that Paul was the one that popularized the term agape. Indeed there were, more than one, and they seemed scholarly enough.
How can that be, and what did then Jesus really say to Peter in John 21:15-17 if the term agape is new with Paul?
The Greek language have many words for love, English is poorer and is using one word for all kinds of love, be it of sunsets, McDonald’s cheeseburgers, my wife, friendship, my newborn grandson or God. Classical Greek has 4 basic words for love:
Mania – Love of McDonald’s cheeseburgers would fit well.
Eros – Love of sunsets and my wife. Besides sexual it has a connotation of intense longing.
Philia – Brotherly love, the mutual love you develop among friends, and also a sense of belonging.
Storge – Commonly translated A mother’s love, the sacrificial love of a mother for her children.
The New Testament contains one more word for love – Agape. It has the connotation of total allegiance, love no matter the consequences. All true love is costly, and agape is the love God has for us, even dying on the cross for our sins. But it is not always that positive. In 2 Timothy 4:10 Paul writes: Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me.
The so-called Koine Greek was the lingua franca in the Hellenistic empire after the conquests of Alexander the Great. It is also called Alexandrian Greek, and in around 280 BC the Old Testament was translated into Greek. So I checked what word it used for love in Deuteronomy 6:5
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
The word used is agape.
It is quite clear. Paul may have introduced the concept to a more general audience via his letters that were circulated throughout all the churches, but he was in no way the author of the word agape.
Now John 21: 15-18 makes sense again:
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love (phileo) you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love (agape) me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love (phileo) me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love (phileo) me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love (phileo) you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.
Peter felt hurt because he realized his commitment to Jesus up to that point had been of the friendship type, not unconditional. For the first time he grasped the full meaning of the difference between God’s love and human love.
Maybe we can trace back the decline of our understanding of agape in today’s society back to Sigmund Freud where he claimed the highest state of man is sexual man. Since he didn’t believe himself he couldn’t conceive there is one more development; spiritual man. This last development is a gift of God, and only then can we enter into God’s rest.
All this led to a limerick on Love.
Agape, a word that means love;
a precious and God – given love.
The Muslims deny it,
Progressives refuse it.
For Jesus is it, it’s His love.