I remember a hit song called “What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love,” sung in 1966 by Dionne Warwick. Unfortunately, her plea has gone unnoticed in today’s world. However, the Bible has much to say about human love and God’s Love. The word love appears in the Bible as a noun, verb, or adjective between 310 times and 801 times. Within its pages, you will find cataloged comments on the full extent of human love: family love, friendly love, neighborly love, romantic love, sexual love, and dysfunctional love.

Perhaps the best way to understand what the Bible says about love is to study the various Hebrew and Greek words translated as love. Most of those are three words: two Hebrew and one Greek. But, first, of the two in Hebrew, one is ahavah, whose definition most closely matches the English word loveAhavah generally refers to the affection or care one person shows another.

Ahavah can be used to describe a wide variety of loving human relationships. For instance: The King of Persia had ahavah for beautiful Esther. Abraham had ahavah for his son Isaac. Jonathan had ahavah for his friend David. The Israelites had ahavah for their King David. The foreign King of Tyre also had ahavah for King David, so he wanted to help David’s son Solomon build the temple.

Thus, ahavah is not just a term to describe our love for others; it’s also God’s ahavah for us! For example, Moses tells the Israelites: “Adonai didn’t set His ahavah on you or choose you because you numbered more than any other people.[1] God’s ahavah isn’t a response to goodness; it originates from God’s character.

This is why the prophet Jeremiah says God’s love is “everlasting.”[2] God’s love is just an eternal fact of the universe. In the scriptures, we also discover God’s ahavah is more than an emotion. It’s something that God expresses through action. For instance, Moses says, “because of His ahavah for your ancestors, He brought you out of Egypt with great power.”[3] God’s love isn’t just a nice sentiment but expressed through action.

And how are we supposed to respond to God’s active, everlasting ahavah for us? With our ahavah towards God and others. That’s why Moses offers this famous command, “You are to ahavah Adonai your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your resources.”[4] God wants us to love others as He loves us! Similarly, we read, “He secures justice for the orphan and the widow; He has ahavah for foreigners, giving them food and clothing. Therefore, you are to ahavah foreigners since you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.”[5] And so, at the end of the day, this whole web of loving relationships – God to us, us to God, us to each other – is rooted in God’s eternal, active ahavah.

The second Hebrew word translated as love in our English Bible is khesedUnfortunately, this is one of those words that is difficult to translate because it combines several ideas into one: love, generosity, and enduring commitment. As the Bible Project translators explain it, “Khesed describes an act of promise-keeping loyalty motivated by deep personal care.” More succinctly, one could describe khesed as “loyal love.”

The Jewish Rabbis wrote in the Midrash and Talmud that the Book of Ruth is the Bible’s most profound illustration of human khesed. Naomi told Ruth that she should go back to her people. Ruth refused, promising to stay by Naomi’s side and take care of her. As people observed Ruth keep this promise through thick and thin, they called Ruth’s faithfulness an act of khesed – loyal love.

Khesed is more than just something humans can show each other. It’s also something that God reveals to us. The Book of Exodus recounted when Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites in Egypt. He made good on a promise to Abraham’s generations – as a contract with his family, God would restore his blessing to the nations – God raised Moses to liberate the Israelites and lead them into the promised land. And in the story, this is called an act of khesed because it was about God keeping his word.

The journey to the promised land was not easy. Enemies on every side beset the Israelites, and they grew weary of eating the mana God provided each day. Their anger eventually explodes, and they threaten to kill Moses and appoint a new leader to take them back to Egypt. God is understandably angry. But Moses steps in and says, “Please! Forgive the offense of this people according to the greatness of your khesed.”[6] Notice that Moses asks God to forgive not because the people deserve it but because it’s consistent with God’s character.

Last, we arrive at the Greek word most often translated as love in the New Testament: agápē. Fascinatingly, the earliest followers of Jesus who wrote in Greek didn’t learn the meaning of agape by looking it up in ancient dictionaries. Instead, they observed Jesus’ teachings and His life to redefine their concept of love! First, Jesus was asked about the foremost commandment in Torah. In response, Jesus quoted:[7] “You must agapaō the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”[8] Jesus then quickly appended another commandment, “Agapaō your neighbor as yourself.”[9] Which of these two commandments is the most important – loving God or loving your neighbor? For Jesus, they’re two sides of the same coin. Your love for God will be expressed by your love for people and vice versa. They are inseparable.

So, unlike ahavahagápē is not a feeling; it’s an act of our will. It’s choosing to seek the well-being of others with no expectation of anything in return. According to Jesus, this kind of generous, self-give love reflects the very heartbeat of God: “Love your enemies and do good to them. Lend to people without expecting to get anything back. If you do this, you will have a great reward. You will be children of the Most-High God. Yes, because God is good even to the people full of sin and not thankful.”[10]

This is how Jesus lived. Jesus was constantly helping and serving the people around Him in practical and tangible ways. And He consistently moved towards poor and hurting people who couldn’t benefit Him in return. And when Jesus eventually marched into Jerusalem, He made Himself an enemy of the leaders of God’s people by accusing them of hypocrisy and corruption. But then, instead of attacking His enemies to overthrow them, He allowed them to kill Him. Jesus died for the selfishness and depravity of His enemies because He loved them.

Following Easter, Jesus and His followers claimed that God’s love for the world was revealed in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As the Apostle Paul put it, “God showed His agápē to us. While we were still sinners, the Anointed One [Messiah] died for us.”[11] Or, in the words of the Apostle John, “God so agapaō the world that He did not send His only begotten Son into the world to find everyone guilty but to save the world from sin’s punishment.”[12] And for John then, this naturally leads to the conclusion, “That is how much God loved us, dear friends! So, we also must love each other.”[13]

Thus, Christian faith involves trusting that at the center of the universe is a Divine Being overflowing with love for His creation, which means that the purpose of human existence is to receive this agápē that has come to us in Jesus and then to give it out to others, creating an ecosystem of others-focused, self-giving agápē. (Courtesy of a sermon preached at Hillside Community Church Enumclaw. WA)

So, the next time you say you “love” God or someone else in its Hebrew or Greek meaning, think twice about whether that’s exactly how you love them or Him. Remember what the Apostle John said, “If you say something you know is not true, it makes you a liar.”[14]

[1] Deuteronomy 7:7 – Complete Jewish Version

[2] Jeremiah 31:3

[3] Deuteronomy 4:37

[4] Ibid. 6:5 – Complete Jewish Bible

[5] Ibid. 10:18-19 – Complete Jewish Bible

[6] Numbers 14:19 – Complete Jewish Bible

[7] Mark 12:30-31

[8] Cf. Deuteronomy 6:5 – New Life Version [NLV]

[9] Leviticus 18:19

[10] Luke 6:35 – Easy to Read Version [ERV]

[11] Romans 5:8

[12] John 3:16a-17 – Seyda Paraphrase

[13] 1 John 4:11

[14] Ibid. 4:20

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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