Sermon February 23

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

February 23, 2014

“God Is Love”

I John 4:7-12

In these verses I think the letter of I John reaches its zenith, its highest point, its most profound teaching. If we had nothing else of this letter, this would be enough. I’ve known verses 7 and 8 by heart for years because the words have been made into a song. The subject is love. That word instantly makes a connection with us. We may think first about people we love – family and friends. We may think of love as we see it all around us – in songs and poems, books and movies. We don’t have to be convinced of its importance. The experience of love brings the greatest joy, and to be unloved may be the worst tragedy.

The word “love” is forced to carry many different meanings. We say – “I love chocolate ice cream” or “I love my new car” or “I’ll love you for the rest of my life”. It gets treated like an all-purpose word to fit a wide variety of circumstances. In this passage John is going to help us to understand love in a new light. Concerning these verses, Earl Palmer wrote that they “… make up some of the most profound and exciting teaching in the whole of the Bible.” William Barclay wrote: “In this passage there occurs what is probably the greatest single statement about God in the whole Bible, that God is love.”

In these six verses John uses the word “love” fifteen times. I don’t usually do a great deal of this in sermons, but let me engage us in a word study of this word “love”. In the Greek language, the original language of the New Testament, there are several words for love. There are two words that were most commonly used – philia and eros. Philia was the most prevalent. It is the love we have for people who are a part of our life: our family, our circle of friends, our tribe, our nation. It describes a natural instinctive attraction for what is an extension of ourselves.

We’ve brought that word over into the English language. When we combine philia with the Greek word for brother, adelphos, it becomes Philadelphia – the love of a brother or sister. If we attach philia to the Greek word for wisdom, sophia, it becomes philosophy. When we put together philia with the Greek word for man, anthropos, it becomes philanthropy – the love of mankind.

Philia love expresses some marvelous qualities, especially in terms of relationships and kinships. Philia is often found in the New Testament, but only in a secondary way. It’s not the word for love which John uses in this passage. It is inadequate to explain the profound depth of love that John is describing.

The other word commonly used for love in classical Greek is the word eros. Eros is the love of all beautiful things. It is not the instinctive love of philia, but a love based on the merits of the object. It is a love which captivates by the compelling excellence of a person or thing. Eros is the romantic love which falls in love with the desirable object of its affection. This is also the word the Greeks used to express religious love.

In the English language it is limited to the narrow connotations of sexual attraction. However, eros expresses the yearning for things which uplift the human experience. It describes the love of beauty and wonder. It is the love of art and music. Eros, with its religious connotation, with the idea of being intoxicated and overwhelmed by the object of its desire, was not considered an appropriate term to describe God’s love. The biblical writers purposely refrained from using the word eros, and John avoids using it in this passage.

Both philia and eros are words that convey important meanings embodied in our English word “love”. However, they both contain an inherent weakness. Though it incorporates very fine qualities, philia is a love that puts up boundaries. We love people who are like us: our family, our race, our nation. By its very nature, philia is not universal. It doesn’t apply to all people equally.

Eros is even more limited in its definition of love. Eros loves the beautiful, the worthy, the lovable. Eros is a love that is earned by a person or object of surpassing beauty or value. By its nature, eros avoids that which does not merit its love. It avoids pain and unpleasantness, and that which is simply plain and ordinary. In the final analysis, neither philia nor eros were adequate to describe God’s love.

When the Jews translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek, what is called the Septuagint, they looked for a word that could translate the rich Hebrew words for God’s love. What they did was to take a little used Greek word for love, agape, and adapt it to express their concept of divine love. The writers of the New Testament did the same thing. They took the word agape which was little known and had an imprecise meaning and loaded it with their own meaning.

Agape is the word John and other New Testament writers used for love. Agape love is an unconditional love. It is not based on the value of the one loved. Paul writes in Romans: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” It is a love that is freely given, freely bestowed on us. We have done nothing to earn it. Indeed, we don’t deserve it.

Notice what God says to Israel in Deuteronomy – “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you – for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you.” Did you catch that? In other words – Why does God love you? Because he loves you. God loves you – just because.

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