The Christian Graces (Introduction)

And now these three remain:  Faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.

(1 Corinthians 13:13)

What are the Christian graces?  Paul consistently sums up all of the virtues of the Christian life under three particular virtues – faith, hope and love.  But in his first letter to the Corinthians he emphasizes the necessary supremacy of love over the other two.  Why?

A study of love might begin with a look at the Greek terminology.  There are basically two words translated “love” in the New Testament – agape and philos.  The verb forms are agapao and phileo.  It must be emphasized pointedly that agape does not signify divine love” and philos does not signify “human love.”  It is unfortunate that many who refer to the Greek in preaching or teaching tend to oversimplify or exaggerate.  The distinctions often drawn between agape and philos are just one example of this.

 simple examination of the use of both words in the New Testament will show how much these distinctions are overdrawn.  For example, agapao, the verb, is used to describe the love of unrighteous wages (2 Peter 2:15), of the world (1 John 2:15), and of darkness (John 3:19).  Phileo, on the other hand, is used to describe love in the faith for Paul (Titus 3:15), Jesus’ love for men (John 11:3,36; Revelation 3:19), and God’s love for Jesus (John 5:20).  Both words are used the same way of the Pharisees’ love for places of honor at banquets (agapao, Luke 11:43 and phileo, Matthew 23:6).

Some would point, however, to a passage like John 21:15-17 where Jesus asks Peter twice if Peter loves him (agapao) and Peter twice responds that he loves Jesus (phileo).  The third time Jesus asked if Peter loves him (phileo) and Peter responds with phileo, also.  Of course, different commentators have drawn different distinctions from the usage here.  Some find phileo the more personal and strong term, others think agapao the stronger term.  Actually, John is merely showing that the words were used interchangeably.  In fact, throughout this passage and the whole of John there is a strong tendency to use synonyms to provide variety (for example, in this passage, “Feed my lambs,” “Take care of my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep,” none of which would be supposed to mean that Peter has three different ways to obey Jesus).

The words for love in Greek are just like our words for love in English or any language.  We use these words in many different ways, to refer to family love, selfish love, marital love, divine love, or anything that pretends to be love.  But we know what we mean, most of the time, that is.

Is it possible to love someone and not like them?  What is the Biblical standard of love?  Can love be defined?  These are some of the questions we will deal with in this series on the Christian graces.  But the question for ourselves right now is, “Do I love Jesus?”  If I do I will be willing to obey him.

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