What is Love? Tis the question we often ask as we enter the month of February and remember that Valentine’s Day is peering around the corner. Retail stores are filled with isles of cheap chocolates made with oils and lard, overpriced sentimental cards by Hallmark, and a variety of flowers that will wilt within the week. The consumerism of the holiday aside, love is a powerful word that demands our attention. This small, four letter word brings with it so much meaning and emotion.
Love may be one of the most used and abused words in the Bible. As we search the scriptures we see different usages of the word, different terms used to try and define love. Hesed, Philos, Eros, Agape all seek to bring clarity to a single word Love that we use in our English language.
Did you ever think about when the first time that the word love shows up in your bible? At first thought, you would assume that it would be in the Garden of Eden. After all, isn’t that is the place where God originated the concept of marriage, bringing together a man and a woman for the sake of union? Lonely Adam, with nobody but the lions and tigers and bears to keep him company, awakens from a deep sleep and sees beautiful Eve standing before him in all her perfection. After he wipes the saliva from his face, of course the first words out of his mouth must have been, “I love you.” If not there then surly he must uttered them during the wedding ceremony with all the animals as witnesses and God as the officiant.
But the author of Genesis leaves those words absent; he doesn’t include them as part of the narrative. It appears that he is being intentional about not letting us believe that the word love is based upon romantic attraction or marital obligation. So where does it show up first in the text? For that answer you have to flip to Genesis 22 and discover an unlikely setting for the word to appear. God, after appearing to Abraham and making a covenant with him that he would be the father of nations, after informing him that his barren wife Sarah would give birth to a son, and after fulfilling that promise with the birth of Isaac, now calls out to Abraham and gives him the following instructions: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2).
The first time that word love appears in your Bible is when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his one and only son. That is fascinating to me because it goes against everything that culturally I have been led to believe about love. I turn on the radio and hear about romantic love, the kind of love that makes me feel good and happy and giddy. I watch movies and see that when two people “love each other” that they are passionate and affectionate towards one another. I’ve grown up thinking and believing that love is an emotion that I am to receive because of what another person will give me. And there God is, revealing to me in the first book of his Holy Scriptures that love is actually something much different than my feelings or passions. It is about sacrifice.
Paul reminds the church in Ephesus that the perfect example of love is Jesus Christ, who “loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). He calls us to be imitators of this love and to walk in it (v. 1). And then he comes to famous marriage section of Ephesians 5 in which he declares the marriage relationship between a man and woman is a “great mystery” (v. 32). There is a secret to this relationship, an amazing and profound truth to what makes a marriage work. What is it? Sacrifice. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v.26). We take the example of our Lord and Savior, who did not count “equality with God a thing to be grasped” but instead forsook his royal rights as the Son of God and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6,8).
Christ reminds us that true love is about giving, not receiving. Love is our willingness to give up our lives for the sake of another. It is not a matter of my feelings, but a matter of my will. Notice what we say in weddings when we make vows to each. “I do” or “I will”, not “I feel like it.” We must acknowledge that love is fundamentally more action than it is emotion, more promise than it is passion, more duty than it is feeling.
In this season of romantic love songs and sentimental Valentine cards, let us know lose sight of the biblical vision of love that is about sacrificial commitment between a man and a woman. Let us keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) and model to the world a picture of love that is willing to lay down our lives for another, not matter what the cost to ourselves. What is Love? It is God first loving us through the finished work of Jesus Christ and allowing us to love others as a result (I John 4:19).