There are two words for “love” used frequently in the New Testament. One is the Greek word phileo, usually translated into the Latin amare, a word used roughly twenty times throughout. The other is agape,or the Latin diligere. This word is the word for love which we find in John 13.
What is the difference between these? Well, phileo/amare means affection, fondness, attachment, even strong desire or yearning in a certain context. So there is a definite personal and emotional overtone in its use. It denotes friendship in verses such as John 11:3,36 and Titus 3:15; it refers to the love among family members in Matthew 10:37, John 5:20 and John 16:27; and it is even used to speak about the attachment one might have to a chosen way of life in verses such as Matt.6:5, Luke 20:46 and John 12:25.
Agape/diligere, on the other hand, is used over one hundred times in the New Testament. This is the love which implies esteem, appreciation, respect. It suggests the value of the one who is loved, and it also strongly implies the constancy and generous self-giving of the one who is doing the loving (like God himself).
I have heard a number of sermons and teachings where it was claimed that agape is unconditional love, which in turn means doing what needs to be done for someone no matter how you feel and whether or not they deserve it. The thing that bothers me about such an explanation is the apparent heartlessness connected with this way of understanding the word, unconditional. I believe the use of the Latin diligere helps to correct what can be erroneously affirmed as a properly detached attitude while serving certain people. Diligere/agape is what we see when we watch Jesus act, then listen to him explain what he has done, and then finally hear his command to his disciples in John 13:1-16,34-35. Diligere, in suggesting the value of the person being shown love, will not allow an interpretation of love involving total emotional detachment to be acceptable to Jesus’ followers. And in this respect, we see a unity between what Jesus is requiring of his disciples in John 13 and his lengthy teaching concerning God’s final judgment of his followers in Matt.25:31-40. In this latter passage we recognize that it is Jesus himself whom we are feeding, welcoming, clothing and visiting when we extend love to those in need. Is it even possible to give love in a way which does not involve the heart when we see the face of Jesus in these people we are serving?
One the other hand, we should note that in the John 13 context Jesus is not requiring the kind of love denoted by phileo/amare, because as human beings we are created to feel a special closeness to our dearest friends and family; this is something that simply cannot be extended to all. The Scriptures describe some special relationships which the Son of Man himself enjoyed with his family and very close friends such as John, Peter and James, as well as Lazarus and his sisters while he walked the earth.
But it is clear that the heart is always involved in Jesus’ interactions. And a growing union of our own hearts with his Sacred Heart is a great gift he offers to all of us. It is this which finally makes the new commandment in John 13:34,35 one that is possible for us to obey, that new commandment which would turn the world upside down in coming centuries.
Dietrich von Hildebrand, in his book, The Heart (chapter 2, Amare in Deo), states this so well: “The first step in the transformation of the heart is overcoming all hardheartedness. Every bit of hardness, whatever its source, must be dissolved under the spell of the Sacred Heart. Our heart’s indifference toward all true values, toward the welfare of our neighbor, toward offenses against God, this indifference which is the tragedy of so many lives, this bluntness and insipidity of heart, must be dispelled under the impact of the infinite love of Christ. Hodie si vocem ejus audieritis, nolite obdurare corda vestra, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.’ ”
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“…and it was night.” These four little words in verse 30 contain a pathos which we feel throughout the first half of this chapter in John’s gospel. Time and again, while Jesus is acting, teaching, loving, we are given a glimpse into his aching heart, because his disciple Judas has come to a point of betrayal (verses 2, 10, 18, 21, 26,27). Notice that it is not until Judas has left that Jesus gives the eleven his new commandment, that which will be, above anything else, the unmistakable sign of Christian discipleship.
In verses 36 -38 we find the conversation with Peter which will relate so powerfully to another conversation we will discuss later in John 21. There is an interesting overlap in John 21 of agape and phileo which we will be able to ponder a bit when we get to that point.
Keep on readin’ chapters 13 and 14–they’re amazing! JC