‘The Greatest of These’

A few years ago, I walked into an assisted living facility one evening to find several workers in the hallway crying. I had come to say goodbye to my grandmother for the last time, and they had just wheeled my grandfather into her room so that he could say goodbye to his wife of 70 years. Although she was legally blind and almost deaf, the way she and my grandfather loved each other until death affected those workers deeply.

Genuine love often moves both believers and unbelievers. While love hasn’t been important to every culture, it’s always been the Christian virtue, and with love we arrive at the end of the list in 2 Peter 1:5-7. If faith is the foundation of the virtues, then love is the crown. To quote Michael Green, faith and love are the “indispensable root and fruit” of Christian living. What do the Scriptures teach us about love as we seek to follow Peter’s command to add love to our lives?

First, we need to beware of one common misconception. Peter uses the Greek word agape. While it’s true that the Greeks had different words for what we call love, we shouldn’t make too much of the word itself. The Greek translators of the Old Testament use the verb form of agape to describe what Amnon felt for Tamar in the tragic story of the children of David (2 Samuel 13:1). His actions show the opposite of Christian love.

What’s unique about Christian love is not what the word agape means; what’s unique about Christian love is Christ. We learn what love is through His life and His death on the cross for our sins. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, emphasizes Christ’s love perhaps more than any other biblical writer. Before Jesus’ ministry even begins, Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin.” Before Jesus begins the degrading task of washing feet (and the further dehumanization of crucifixion), John explains, “having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1). The newness of the command for Jesus’ disciples to love is not merely in loving; the newness is in loving others as Christ has loved them (John 13:34-35; cf. Lev. 19:18). Jesus asks Peter three times — corresponding to Peter’s three denials — whether Peter loved Jesus. Some note that Peter and Jesus are using different words for love (agapao and phileo). While this observation is true, the point is not in the words. The point is that Peter should demonstrate love by feeding Christ’s sheep and loving Jesus the way Jesus loved him: by dying (John 21:18-19). Is it a coincidence that Peter, knowing that death was imminent, crowns his list of virtues with love (2 Peter 1:7, 14)?

The temptation is to doubt that God will make Christian love worth the sacrifice that it demands. Is giving yourself for others not wasting your life? Peter’s opponents thought so as they indulged themselves (2 Peter 3:4, 2:14). Many years earlier, however, a bride exclaimed, “Love is as strong as death” (Song of Solomon 8:6). Jesus rose from the dead after His great work of love and showed that love is not only as strong as death; Christian love is stronger than death.

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