Love Is Greatest

By Pastor Doug Batchelor

An Amazing Fact: The term “bucket list,” a list of things a person would like to do before he or she dies, harkens back to the phrase “kicking the bucket.” In medieval times, criminals were executed by hanging. On the gallows, they would often be made to stand on a bucket as the rope was tied around their necks. The executioner would then kick the bucket out from under their feet. One Stanford survey found that more than 91 percent of respondents had a bucket list.

The top 12 items that people put on their bucket lists are: see the Northern Lights, run a marathon, go on an African safari, spelunk caves in Central America, climb Mount Everest, visit the Great Wall of China, learn to play an instrument, zip line through a rainforest, snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, skydive, see the Great Pyramids of Giza, and raft the Colorado River.

I’ve been blessed to do many of these things. But the prime thing on my bucket list is actually none of these things. It’s a Bible passage:

That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:17–19).

You can have hobbies; you can have goals. But the supreme directive for every Christian is to experience the love of God. Nothing is more important. But it is just as important to know why love is the greatest.

Defining Love

One day, I was walking through a parking lot, and a lady called out to me, “Don’t you love it?”

I looked around, confused.

“Your car,” she explained. “I’ve got one just like it! Aren’t they great?”

Nowadays, we utter the word “love” so casually that it has nearly lost its impact.

Different terms interpreted as “love” in Scripture are used more than 500 times! The first time it appears in the Bible is the Hebrew term ahab, when God said to Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, … and offer him there as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2). This means that the first time we encounter the word love in the Bible is in sacrifice. To God, what constitutes love is anything but casual. And as we will see, this verse is but an introduction to God’s own expression of love.

The Greek language has four words to express different types of love:

Storge: a feeling of affection, such as between parent and child or a strong friendship

Eros: romantic feelings or sexual desire

Phileo: a feeling of loyalty or attachment to friends, family, and community

Agape: selfless, unconditional love

The two primarily used in the New Testament are phileo and agape. There’s a big difference between agape and phileo. Whereas phileo tends to be an involuntary feeling, agape is voluntary. It’s the choice to love someone.

The Love of Jesus

Though rarely used in ancient Greek and only a few times in the New Testament, agape is nonetheless the essence of our Christian doctrine.

In Galatians 5 is a list of “the fruit of the Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (vv. 22, 23). The very first one is “love,” agape. All the other fruits come after it; I believe it’s because all the other fruits are produced from it. And in Peter’s second epistle, the apostle lists the growth of a Christian like climbing a ladder, and love is the top rung:

For this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love (2 Peter 1:5–7).

Love, agape, is the last one listed. It is the ultimate culmination, the end goal. The Bible is defining agape as the zenith of what you can experience as a person.

So it follows that agape is the love championed by Jesus; it is the basis of His character. Agape is the word used throughout 1 Corinthians 13. The Bible’s famous “love” chapter describes God’s unconditional love for you. (Try this: Read the whole chapter and wherever you see the word “love,” exchange it with “God.”)

You will discover that God’s love for you is an unending love: “The LORD has appeared of old to me, saying: ‘Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you’” (Jeremiah 31:3). In our relationships, our love for one another often changes. The feelings can go up and down due to the weather, to hormones, even to diet. But God’s love is not like that. God didn’t say, “When you start behaving better, then I’ll love you”; He didn’t say, “When you’re saved, I’ll love you.” God loved us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8)—which means He loves us now. God’s love for us is consistent, unchanging, eternal. He “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Look at the apostle Paul. God loved him even when he was a killer. And the understanding of that led Paul to write:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35, 37–39).

Wow. No one else in the universe can promise that.

Experiencing His Love

So how do we experience this matchless love of Christ? As you would with any relationship, get to know our God. Communicate with Him. Spend time with Him. Learn what He does and what He doesn’t do. If you are not doing this, that very well may be the reason you are struggling in your relationship with the Lord.

How do you spend time with God anyway? No, you can’t just call God on the phone, but in a way, you have a direct line to Him through prayer. Prayer is the soul’s conversation with the Almighty.

Read His Word. God gave us the Bible so that we could get to know Him. Through the Bible, you will learn the best expression of love ever given: the life and death of Jesus Christ.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).

In Christ was manifested the love of God toward us: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Christ said, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:32). Realizing what Christ did for us elicits a response from us. Abraham never had to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:12–14)—because God Himself took his place; Christ took the death we all deserve.

What were Christ’s apostles like before the cross? And what were they like after? Once arrogant (Matthew 26:35), ruthless (Luke 9:54), quarrelsome, and competitive (22:24), these men, excepting Judas, were transformed by the experience of their Savior lifted up on that object of death. Notice how the apostles are described after Christ’s ascension into heaven: “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication” (Acts 1:14).

Beholding Love

It works the same way today. Even though we were not eyewitnesses during Christ’s time upon this earth, the same power of His life and death reaches us just as effectively.

It is a plain fact that people become like what they look at. People, even professed Christians, are watching graphic violence, pornography, unimaginable sin at an alarming rate. What is that doing to their hearts and minds? In contrast, what happens when we behold the Savior, “the Word [who] became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14)? It produces love in us. “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The more you get to know Christ—the more you get to experience His love for you personally—the more His transformational love begets love in you.

“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (3:1). Notice what a personalized, individual experience it is to behold God. John can’t even describe it; all he can do is invite you to do the same. “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (4:8). A well-known Christian author put it this way: “To know God is to love Him.” Love for God is not just emotion—it’s cerebral. You have to be the one who makes the choice—daily. You have to be the one to devote the time—daily.

Only then can God do His work. You “are … transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18, my emphasis). You don’t change your own heart; you allow God to change your heart. It is then that “you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5).

It’s All About Love

But beholding Christ doesn’t just end with you. Before His ascension into heaven, Jesus asked Peter one question three times: “Do you love Me?” (John 21:15–17). One of the Savior’s final conversations with His disciple was about love. Each time, Peter responded, “You know that I love You.” And each time, Jesus told him the next step, the result that came from loving Him: “Feed My lambs”; “tend My sheep”; “feed My sheep.”

If we love Jesus, it leads us to love other people. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). We are to love one another in the same way that we love the Lord. It is, in fact, the way we demonstrate our love for God. Loving others is the criterion to knowing God. “Come to Me,” Jesus said (Matthew 11:28). Learn about the love of God from Christ Himself, then tell it to the world (28:19, 20). This is God’s great commission to us.

Jesus was once asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” (22:36).

He answered: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets (vv. 37–40).

This is Jesus’ synopsis of the Ten Commandments. The first four commandments concern our love for God; the last six, our love for our fellow men. You cannot keep the last six without keeping the first four. Love for God begets love for people. The entire Ten Commandments is really all about love; it’s the great commission in written form. This is the full experience of God’s love.

Wear It on Your Sleeve

And so it follows that love is how we are to be identified as believers. Love—not the steeple on a church or the cross on a neck—is the badge of a Christian: “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

There once was a boy who started showing up regularly to renowned evangelist Dwight Moody’s church in Chicago. The boy was notably poor, dressed in rags, but without fail, he would trek a full four miles on foot to make the service, passing at least a dozen other churches on the way. One day, Moody asked him why. The boy replied, “I want to come here because this is where they know how to love a fella.”

People will go out of their way to experience genuine agape. They will come to church if it’s a place where God’s love is demonstrated.

Have you noticed that it’s easier to be more confident in God’s love for you than it is to be confident in your love for others? If anything, the polarization during this past year has made abundantly clear the lack of love some people have in their own homes, at work, in our society in general. Jesus predicted that in the last days, “The love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). Indeed, it has.

Haven’t we at times seen this behavior even inside our own churches? “For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” (1 Corinthians 3:3). “For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there” (James 3:16). 

Nothing grows a church faster than when members put away their differences and make up their minds to love others, starting with their church family. That love naturally grows from the inside out into their community. Take the prime example of the early Christian church. After Christ’s ascension, the apostles continued to cultivate the love of God among themselves. The Bible records that these early Christians “[continued] daily with one accord in the temple, … having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:46, 47). What was the consequence of such behavior? “The Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

Just like loving God is a choice, so is loving others. Loving your church family can seem difficult at times. It’s not always natural; it’s not always phileo. It means choosing to behave in a certain way even though you may not feel the emotion. And when you do choose to exercise that agape love toward those you don’t get along with, you might be surprised at the outcome. They might just change how they act toward you. That’s what the love of God does to people. It transforms them—and you. But it starts with the decision to love one another, not with the character change.

The Bible tells us, “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7). As we draw ever nearer to the end of time, here is what is prescribed: “Above all things have fervent love for one another, for ‘love will cover a multitude of sins’” (v. 8). Soon, we are all going to reach the end of the road, wherein each person will be judged either saved or lost. The world is not going to get better; there will be only more sin and less love. But our course as God’s last-day people has already been charted in the Word. We need this lifesaving, life-giving love. We need to choose it and use it because it will be the difference between life and death.

The Greatest Love

During World War II, a group of Scottish prisoners of war was tasked with building a railroad bridge over the River Kwai, an Axis effort to connect Thailand to Burma, now Myanmar. The conditions at the camp were notoriously inhumane, sometimes producing a similar evil spirit in the POWs.

One day, the Japanese guards took an inventory of the tools and came up short one shovel. The guards lined up all the Scotsmen and demanded to know who stole the shovel. No one answered. The chief officer flew into a rage and ordered the execution of the entire group unless the thief confessed. Finally, one man stepped forward. The captain grabbed a shovel and beat the man to death right then and there.

Not long after, the POWs learned that none of the shovels had actually been stolen. The guards had simply miscounted. That man, their fellow prisoner, had been innocent and had sacrificed himself so that their lives would be spared. That knowledge transformed the behavior of everybody in the camp. Where there had once been a self-serving antagonism, there was now brotherly love. Everything changed because of that single act of agape.

Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends (John 15:13).

So many are filling their bucket lists with “the best,” most exciting experiences the world has to offer. But in so doing, they are really planning their life around their death, as though this life were all there is. And in the end, what was it all worth? What value is climbing the highest mountain or taking a zip line through the forest compared to knowing God and His love for you?

The love of God is the greatest objective of life because it is the cornerstone upon which the plan of salvation was built. You can know that love brings you eternal life and infinite time and opportunities to fill the most ambitious bucket list.

If the only thing you accomplish in this lifetime is to experience the love of God, you would live a life wider, longer, deeper, higher than anything else this world has to offer. You would experience the greatest love, the one that lasts for eternity. 


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