Love is difficult to define. Everyone wants ‘love’, but what is love? Leaving aside the sexual aspects of love for the moment, the dictionary attempts to define this special person to person relationship as:
a profoundly tender, passionate and intense affection for another person
Great minds have also attempted to define it, link:
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind [Shakespeare] … Love is a fruit in season at all times, and within reach of every hand [Mother Teresa] … Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up [James Baldwin] … Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give — which is everything [Katharine Hepburn]
Katharine Hepburn’s definition is close to the biblical understanding of love (see below). But in the end even Albert Einstein gave up trying to explain it:
How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?
A Biblical Definition of Love
To answer the question ‘What is love?’, the best place to look is in the Bible. Whilst the world defines various types of love, it turns out that the Bible majors on one type of love – a sacrificial, selfless type of love. Another biblical form of love is that found in intense human-human relationships.
Old Testament: The love of JEHOVAH God for mankind abounds in the Old Testament. For example, Psalm 139 shows God’s intimate knowledge and tender care of each individual, whilst Isaiah 53 describes God’s sacrificial and selfless act for all mankind. And much of the Old Testament is concerned with God’s care and love for His people Israel (see later).
New Testament: perhaps the most famous of Bible passages on love is 1 Corinthians chapter 13:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends (1 Cor 13.4)
In the original Greek, the word ἀγάπη agape (translated ‘love’) is used throughout this chapter and conveys affection, good will, benevolence, and brotherly love, link, link. Put simply, agape is love because of what it does, not because of how it feels. It is sacrificial rather than self-gratifying – a concept in rare supply in Western society. These attributes of agape love can be paraphrased as, link:
Unconditional love that is always giving and impossible to take or be a taker. It devotes total commitment to seek your highest best no matter how anyone may respond. This form of love is totally selfless and does not change whether the love given is returned or not.
Clearly, whilst applicable on a human-human level, chapter 13 also describes God’s agape love toward us. But our agape love is only a shadow of that shown to us by God.
Deep Human-Human Love
There is a love, born in heaven and blessed by God, that embraces all human physical desire – and more. Its holy origin and purpose makes it beautiful, pure and uplifting, the pinnacle of human sexual attraction and something to be sought. When a man and a woman seek first to love God and His kingdom, this love can bind them together in an intense natural desire that transcends secular human relationships. Their love for each other is strengthened since they have a common objective beyond themselves – an objective to know their God and serve Him together in His kingdom. They are bonded together with a transcendent purpose.
The loving marriage of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot is a good example. As Christians they shared the vision of serving God together as a married couple in Ecuador. And when Jim was killed by Aucas Indians, Elizabeth continued his work by living among the very people who had speared him to death, link. This surely is an example of agape love blended with the deep human desire to be with each other, even in the most difficult of places.
Perhaps the deepest and most passionate description of human-human love in the Bible is found in the book Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs). For centuries this book was interpreted allegorically (spiritually), but in modern times there has been more interest in a literal approach to the book, link. Solomon, chosen by God to build the First Temple for worshiping Him, describes such beautiful and uplifting physical desire for a shepherdess whom he loves:
How beautiful are your feet … O daughter, the curves of your thighs are like jewels …your navel is a rounded bowl … your belly is a heap of wheat … your two breasts are like two fawns … your neck an ivory tower … your eyes are pools in Heshbon … your nose is like a tower of Lebanon … your head crowns you like Carmel … a king is held captive by the tresses of your hair
(Song of Solomon 7.1-5)
He goes on to describe the strength and endurance of this natural, holy, God-given love that can sometimes be achieved between a man and a woman:
Love is as strong as death … its flames are flames of fire … many waters cannot quench love
(Song of Solomon 8.6,7)
In verses 6 and 7 the Hebrew word for love is ‘ahabah, which can be the intense romantic love between a man and a woman [Strong’s H160]. The same Hebrew word is used for Jacob’s intense love for Rachel (Gen 29.20). The Bible also uses this Hebrew word for the strong non-sexual relationship between two people of the same sex (1 Sam 18.3), and for the intense love between God and His people Israel (Hos 3.1).
God’s Love for His People Israel
The Old Testament often speaks of JEHOVAH God and his love for mankind, and a prime example is seen in His relationship with the nation Israel. Although the Israelites repeatedly rejected God and His laws, He continued to love them. After all, starting with Abraham, God had chosen them as a special people to be a blessing to all nations (Gen 12.3) and to be His witness and servant in the world (Isa 43.10).
The relationship between God and His people Israel is like a marriage, with God as her husband (Isa 54.5). But, as with some marriages, there were issues of marital fidelity. So when Israel went away from her spiritual husband by rejecting His word and His laws and embracing other gods, God saw this as spiritual adultery:
And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel (the northern ten tribes of Israel), I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah (the southern kingdom) did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also … ‘return, O backsliding children,’ says the Lord; ‘for I am married to you’ (Jer 3.8,14)
Surely, as a wife treacherously departs from her husband, so have you dealt treacherously with Me, O house of Israel, says the Lord (Jer 3.20)
So there was spiritual divorce and Israel was scattered amongst the nations (Deut 28.64). But, as in human relationships, there is room for forgiveness in this spiritual marriage. Just as a man longs for his unfaithful wife to return to him since he still loves her, so God longs for His “wife” Israel to return to Him. And she does! At the end of this age God forgives and “remarries” Israel as she returns to Him through traumatic times (Jer 30.7, Zech 12.10-14)):
I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you. Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed … (Ezek 16.60,61)
For as a young man marries a virgin, so shall your sons marry you; and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you (Isa 62.5)
The restoration of Israel as Jehovah’s Wife is described in Isaiah 54:1-8. Although scattered Israel became like a forsaken wife, at the end of the age Jehovah God gathers her to Himself and forgives her. The shame of her wayward youth is forgotten, link. That is true love and it can be seen today as God gathers His people out of all the nations and places them in their own land, link.
God: The Source of All Love
The Bible suggests that all love is deeper than just ‘a biological phenomenon’. We may not recognise it, but the Bible implies that the source of all love is spiritual, and that source is God. Love is a key attribute of the one, omnipresent God of Israel: He is the source and cause of all love:
Love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God (1 Jn 4.7)
Put another way, love is a communication between God and man in which God’s essence is revealed, link. But what sort of love is it? The word ‘love’ in 1 Jn 4.7 is a translation of the Greek word ‘agape’, a selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love, and the highest of the four types of love in the Bible. The implication here is that those who practice such love person to person are using a gift from God, even though they may not acknowledge it – or God! The ultimate sacrificial love is seen in the gospel:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3.16)
And, ultimately, God wants us to return such love to Him by serving Him. This was God’s will for Old Testament Israel (but they failed) and is His will for the church today (but she fails).
The Ultimate Demonstration of Love
The unique and most amazing message of the Bible is that God, in the human form of Jesus Christ, came to earth to show His love for man. The ultimate act of love is seen in the death of Christ on the cross – yes – God suffered on a Roman cross to show His love for mankind. To believe this requires an act of faith, but that is all God requires of us. Believe, and be reconciled to God.
The cross is of course, empty. Christ rose from the grave and is soon returning to earth as King. What will He say to us if we reject His demonstration of extreme love?