This week I thought we might consider one of the more famous verses in the Bible, namely John 3:16: “For God thus AGAPĒ-loved the KOSMOS, that He gave his only-begotten son…”
AGAPĒ is probably the most famous Greek word in the New Testament, and rightly so. Now, Greek lexicons (dictionaries of dead languages) are great, and essential, but in the end it’s seeing how a word is used in various contexts — in its natural habitats — that really helps to wrap one’s mind around what it means. And AGAPĒ is no exception.
Frequently one hears “AGAPĒ is ‘God’s Love'” and that’s true enough. But just a few verses after John 3:16 we have this: “For people AGAPĒ-loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were wicked.” (John 3:19) Whoa — what!? AGAPĒ-loved the darkness?!? Apparently AGAPĒ isn’t so simple.
I also note that we are frequently commanded to AGAPĒ-love, and one has little control over feelings — so it would seem that actions are primary with AGAPĒ.
AGAPĒ occurs hundreds of times in the New Testament, and having considered them all, as well as many occurrences outside of the New Testament, etc. I have this thought:
AGAPĒ seems to be about the benefit of the other being primary. When personal benefit is not the prime consideration. AGAPĒ is the opposite of “what’s in it for me Me ME”. When there’s little food and the parents forgo eating so their children can have something to eat — that’s AGAPĒ. When soldiers died on Normandy Beach to stop a very real threat to their countrymen (and women) back home — that’s AGAPĒ.
And furthermore, AGAPĒ makes no sense without something or someone to be its recipient. It’s a relationship word — you can’t AGAPĒ in isolation, you have to AGAPĒ someone or something, or it makes no sense. So when we read “God is AGAPĒ-love” (1 John 4:8) — why of course He had to create the KOSMOS in order to have something/someone on which to pour His AGAPĒ-love!
So how might this work in practice? When making decisions that affect more than just me personally, I could ask myself “What is the highest good for all concerned? For all affected?” Sometimes my best assessment of the ‘highest good for all concerned’ might not be particularly easy or pleasant for me personally. Not that I’m less important than those around me, but neither am I more important. “AGAPĒ-love your neighbor as yourself.” Right: I and neighbor get equal consideration.
Countless volumes have been written about just this one word AGAPĒ, and I can’t even scratch the surface in one little essay. I think of these words and verses as diamonds with many facets, and we’ve considered just one facet. Others consider other facets of this same diamond from their own unique perspectives — great, let’s have more!
I also note in passing that John 3:16 says “God so AGAPĒ-loved the KOSMOS” and not “loved humanity“. My lexicons all say KOSMOS can be just a synonym for ‘humanity’ — really? In most contexts KOSMOS is the Whole Enchilada of the Universe where humanity is just a tiny taco sauce molecule hanging off one end. So, what would it mean to say “God thus loved everything from galaxies to people to amoebas, that He sent His son…” That is certainly much less anthropo-egocentric! For me this remains an open question, but it definitely opens the aperture of the imagination!