The Most Important Thing–Love

Grandfather Laney

My thoughts take me back to a conversation I had with my grandfather when I was a young man preparing for the ministry. Grandfather Laney was a strong Christian and taught Sunday School at the United Methodist Church in Kennewick, Washington. My conversation with him on this occasion centered on what was the most important thing for a Christian. Grandfather argued that the most important thing to believe and practice was Christ’s law of love. As a young seminary student I agreed that Christ’s command to love one another was important, but a notch above that was sound doctrine. I argued that knowing and teaching the truth of God’s Word was the highest and ultimate priority for a Christian leader. Well, I didn’t convince grandfather of my viewpoint, and he didn’t convince me of his. But over the last 40 years of my teaching career, I have wondered if grandfather Laney might have been right.

What is love?

Love means different things to different people. In fact, there are four different words for love in the Greek language. The Greek noun eros is used to refer to a love between lovers—a sexual love. This is the kind of love we read about in the Song of Solomon. A different Greek word is used to describe the relationship between parents and children. The Greek word storge speaks of a family affection. The Greek word philia is the most common word for love in the Greek language and refers to the affection between friends. It is a friendship kind of love. This word describes the love that Jesus had for his friend Lazarus.

The most frequent word for love in the New Testament is agape. This word is used 120 times in the Bible as a noun and 130 times as a verb. Writers of the New Testament pretty much abandoned the other words for love in the Greek language and focused on agape. This is the love described in John 3:16, which reads according to the Laney paraphrase: “For God loved the world in such a manner as this, that he gave His unique, one of a kind son, so that everyone who trusts and relies on Him might not perish forever, but have abundant and eternal life.”

The reason that the early Christians fastened onto the word agape is that it describes a love not just for lovers, family, or friends. It is a love which extends beyond the most familiar relationships to our neighbors, to our enemies and to the whole world.

Agape love is God’s kind of love because it is from Him and characterizes those who know Him (1 Jn. 4:7). I define agape as an unconditional acceptance; a deliberate and sacrificial commitment to the ultimate good of another person. Jesus commanded his followers to demonstrate this agape toward one another. Using the verbal form of the word, He said, “agape one another, just as I have agaped you” (John 15:12).

Jesus further explained that this agape love would be the distinguishing mark of the Christian. He said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have agape for one another” (John 13:35). My study of this Greek word and its use in the New Testament returned my thoughts to the words of Grandfather Laney. Was Christ’s law of love the highest Christian priority? Could grandfather have been right?

The Priority of Love

I thought of my grandfather again as I studied 1 Corinthians 13. In this classic text on agape love, Paul informs us that whatever gifts one has and sacrifices one endures, it all adds up to zero if agape is lacking (1 Cor. 13:1-3). In describing the nature of agape, Paul uses 14 descriptive statements to demonstrate that love is not just an emotion or feeling. Agape love is a sacrificial commitment to the ultimate good of another person (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

Contrasting the permanent gifts with the temporal gifts, Paul informs us that agape love is the only thing that never fails or fades (1 Cor. 13:8). Paul concludes in 1 Corinthians 13 by declaring that while tongues will cease and prophecy will come to an end, agape love is to be expressed throughout eternity. And while love will share a place with faith and hope, the greatest of these three virtues is agape. Chalk up another point for Grandfather Laney!

The Pattern of Love

Since agape love is so important, we need to know how to practice it. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians provides us with some helpful instruction on the pattern for agape love. In Ephesian chapter 4 Paul gives the believers a series of imperatives on how to live a God honoring life. Then he sums it all up with an exhortation, “Walk in agape love, just as Christ loved you and gave Himself up for us as an offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). Paul is telling believers to practice the pattern of love exhibited in Jesus Christ when he laid down His life as a sacrifice for our sins. Once again, we see that this agape love is not a mere feeling or even an affection.

Agape love is a sacrificial love—a sacrificial commitment to the ultimate wellbeing of another person. And Paul emphasizes that those who have benefited from Christ’s sacrifice, are called to sacrifice themselves for others. Grandfather Laney, I am beginning to see a theme here.

The Goal of Love

Another text came to my attention as I was reflecting on my grandfather’s words. Paul left his young protégé Timothy to lead the church at Ephesus he went on to Macedonia. But Paul’s concerns for Timothy led him to write the young pastor a letter. And in First Timothy 1:5 Paul told Timothy, “The goal, (the telos) of our instruction is agape, from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”

Now Paul, isn’t the goal of our instruction “sound doctrine”? Certainly with all the false teaching going on at Ephesus, sound doctrine has to be the number one priority. But for Paul, this is not his number one objective! While sound doctrine is certainly important and should not be neglected, Paul’s ultimate goal—the telos of his instruction—is agape.

Notice that Paul’s goal is not that his disciples will become expert exegetes. Now I hope many of my students will become expert exegetes and won’t be saying ten years from now, “I have forgotten all my Hebrew and most of my Greek!”

And notice also that Paul’s goal is not that you all become powerful preachers. Now I hope that some of my students will become powerful preachers. I hope they will be preaching sermons that are exegetically based, expositionally delivered and practically applied.

Notice too that Paul’s goal is not that seminary graduates become mission minded. But of course I hope that all Christians will be mission minded, seeing the world as God sees it, with an attitude of love, compassion and the offer of forgiveness.

And finally, Paul’s stated goal is not that Western graduates will be caring and compassionate counselors. But I certainly hope all those trained in Western Seminary’s counseling program will be caring and compassionate as they listen to their clients, offering them support and understanding.

All these skills and abilities I have mentioned are good and can be useful in the ministry. But they are not Paul’s stated goal. They are not his ultimate objective. For Paul, the goal of his instruction is agape love – a sacrificial commitment.

Paul wants us to know something of the source and character of agape love. Paul knows that this kind of agape love can come only from “a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith.” A pure heart is one that has been cleansed by the “washing of regeneration” (Tit. 3:5). A good conscience is a conscience that is unfettered by an unconfessed accumulation of sin (1 John 1:9). A sincere faith is a genuine faith, a faith that is without hypocrisy, reflecting an attitude of the heart, not merely the movement of the lips.

I have been thinking about these words: a pure heart, a good conscience, a sincere faith. What Paul is talking about here is character. My colleague, Dr. Norm Thiesen commented recently that with some people their talent exceeds their character. Don’t let that be said of you. Character always trumps talent over the long haul.

Whom shall we love?

If the goal of Paul’s instruction is love, to whom should this love be expressed? Jesus taught, “Love God with heart, soul, and mind” (Matt. 22:37). Paul wrote, “Husbands, love your wives” (Eph. 5:25). Christians are called to love one another (John 13:34-35). And we are to love our neighbor as yourself (Lk. 10:27) And Jesus taught that we should love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44).

I spent my career at Western Seminary teaching the Bible. And I’m confident that my students will remember some of the things I have shared with them. But I hope they always remember, that the telos, the ultimate goal of our instruction is love. Tops on the list of course objectives and curricular competencies is agape love. And while there are many gifts and virtues we honor in our Christian community, I join my grandfather Laney in saying that the greatest of them all is love.

St. Jerome records that in his old age the Apostle John used to be carried in the arms of his disciples into church. And the only thing he would say to the congregation was, “Little children, love one another.” Finally, they asked the aged John, “Master, why do you always say this?” He replied, “Because it is the Lord’s command, and if this only is done, it is enough.” Wherever God leads you in your life and ministry, take with you God’s love with you.

And as Paul wrote to Timothy, the goal of our instruction has been, and will always be agape love, from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.

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