As a language, I really like English. You can make up words, a process I like to call “enwordenate”. But for some reason English has only one word (love) to express a wide range of concepts. Greek had four words (storge, eros, philos, agape) to express that range. We translate all of these words as “love”. Needless to say, love can be confusing.
Why haven’t we come up with a new word to accompany love? We used to have one, actually. It was “charity”. It was probably the best way to translate the Greek word agape that we find in the New Testament. But then that became something else. And nothing else seems to fit the bill.
Coming up with a new word is a bit audacious, so I won’t try that. But I do want to help people understand what the New Testament means when it talks about [agape] love. 1 John 4:7-21 has, I’m guessing, the most agapes per capita of any passage in the Bible. But if we don’t know what that word really means, and we just fit it into our preconceived notions of what love is, then we’re probably going to miss the meaning. So I’m going to take “love” out of this text and put in something that might help you understand it better.
Dear friends, let us lay down our lives for one another, for self-sacrifice comes from God. Everyone who doesn’t demand his rights has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not lay down his life but clings to his rights does not know God, because God is the very definition of self-sacrifice. This is how God showed his willingness to lay down his life among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is self-sacrifice: not that we died for God, but that he died for us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so laid down his life for us, we also ought to lay down our lives for one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we surrender our rights for the sake of one another, God lives in us and his sacrifice is made complete in us.
We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the sacrifice God has made for us.
God is self-sacrifice. Whoever lives in self-sacrifice by surrendering his rights and even his very life lives in God, and God in him. In this way, the lifestyle of laying down our lives for one another is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in dying to yourself. But perfect sacrifice drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in self-sacrifice.
We lay down our lives and surrender our rights for others because he first laid down his life and surrendered his rights for us. If anyone says, “I would die for God,” yet wouldn’t give up anything for his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not lay down his life for his brother, whom he has seen, cannot lay down his life for God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever sacrifices everything for God must also sacrifice everything for his brother.
A bit wordy, perhaps. But it changes the game entirely, I think. Love is suddenly much more concrete. It’s easy to get around obeying this passage when we think of love as some inner feeling or warm sense of affection. But that’s not the love of the New Testament. That’s not agape. I hope this little exercise in rewriting the Bible (actually, just the NIV translation) helps you to take a new look at love.