The time of year is upon us again in which the tradition of gift giving is lavishly underway. Of course, with last Christmas very solidly behind us and the next comfortably far off, the gifts during this particular season are predominantly candies, flowers, and cards, all enthusiastically adorned by red and pink hearts. School aged children across the land are enjoying the giving and receiving of decorated foil or paper suggesting that the recipient is a special friend, indeed each one providing a tiny spark of thrill as the recipient opens it to see who the sender is and what they say (or don’t say).
Husbands and wives search industriously for new and meaningful ways to communicate the special worth of their spouses and express their love for each other. Considering how widely the topic of love is being discussed on internet blogs, published in popular media editorial pieces, and serving as the themes and plots of our television shows, men and women everywhere, awash in our collective fascination with love and romance, find within themselves either warm-fuzzy thoughts of someone special or aches caused by the absence of one.
Of course, today’s traditions have very little to do with the actual person that is their namesake. Valentine (or Valentinus) was a Christian who lived during the third century. Claudius II (also known as Claudius Gothicus or Claudius the Goth) was the Roman emperor at the time and had such a particularly nasty disdain for Christians that he outlawed conversion to Christianity and endorsed the persecution of those who were Christians. Valentine, in the habit of being helpful to other Christians, was subsequently imprisoned and eventually brought before the emperor after he was caught being “helpful.”
Ancient accounts suggest that Claudius was impressed by Valentine’s dignity and loving character. But Valentine had the audacity to be authentic in his relationship with God and was convinced that Claudius also ought to seek out the eternal life that Jesus Christ brings to those who place their faith in him. Claudius, who failed to be convinced, preferring the worship of the Roman pantheon of “gods,” gave Valentine the ultimatum to either renounce Jesus Christ or be executed. For love of his Savior, Valentine declined the “last chance” that Claudius gave him. Tradition says that he was sentenced to die the next day, February 14th, by clubbing, then stoning, and when neither of the first two methods worked, by beheading.
Given that Thursday is St. Valentine’s Day and that so much of what so many are thinking is turned towards the subject of “love,” it seems only fitting to spend some time reflecting on the topic, not only because it is what motivated Valentine but is also the paramount theme of the Bible. In fact, genuine Christian faith cannot be in any way truly “Christian” unless it finds as its central theme the subject of love.
Another little tidbit of trivia that escapes many today is the Biblical understanding of love. The New Testament was written in a colloquial (everyday) form of ancient Greek. The Greek words for “love” in the language used by the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ earthly ministry and those who comprised the Church in its infancy did not have as much of the ambiguity that English seems to have… at least when the word “love” is used. We use it to describe the passion of a young man and woman who are perhaps preparing to marry as well as the life-long commitment and promise of husbands and wives who have spent their lives together. We then use it for the earnest devotion of father or mother and his or her child. But we also use it for describing the affection we have for our fondest flavor of ice cream or our favorite place to shop.
But only two of those Greek words appear in the Scriptures. The first is “philéo.” Philéo is the love of strong friendship. It is a stronger form of love than all other Greek concepts of love (with one exception). It is the love of dear and committed friendship that has us both throwing ourselves into the welfare of another but also supplies us the rewards of security, comfort, and the warm sandy beach of acceptance.
The other kind of love, however, doesn’t supply us with any obvious return. It’s called “agape.” Agape love is the love that one decides to lavish on another, no matter what, and is not dependent on being returned. Agape is often called “gift” love because it has no strings attached and is based, not on reciprocity (getting something back), but on the persevering choice of the one who is doing the loving. In other words, agape is a self-sacrificing love and not an emotional one. Someone might think that I’m describing “co-dependence” but this love isn’t co-dependence. It is a secure kind of love that is capable of a steadfast concentration upon the welfare of another, and, for the sake of the loved one, draws boundaries and makes tough choices when it is in the loved one’s best interests.
If the thought of that kind of love is new to you, or your vision of what love is limited merely to concepts of romance (in the Greek called “eros”), fondness (Greek: “storgé”), or even solid and meaningful friendship (“philéo”), take a look at the kind of love that God has for you!
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.…. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (John 3:16, 1 John 4:10 ESV).
This is a strangely profound kind of love to many of us. It’s so profound, in fact, that we tend to revolt against it. He sent His Son? To die for me? So that MY sin could be forgiven?
The truth is “sin”, which is rebellion against God’s will in our lives, makes us unlovable. But God doesn’t love you because you’re a superstar. Nor does He love you because you’re just really cool to be around. He doesn’t even love you because you’ve done some pretty neat things and… well, you’re just a lovable kind of person! He loves you because He is love and in spite of some pretty ugly things in your heart, He has chosen to make incredible sacrifices for you. And He has done it for you whether you accept it or not.
Now… what you do with it (whether or not you will choose to place your faith in His Son) has everything to do with whether or not it has power for blessing in your life. My hope and prayer, of course, is that you’ll receive His forgiveness, embrace His love, and celebrate the hope to which He calls you through Jesus, His Son. I hope that this St. Valentine’s Day will be more than just a romantic holiday for you and your loved ones, but an incredible time in which your eyes are opened to how precious and dear you are to the One Who created you and sent His Son to redeem! May you, like Valentine, become convinced that there is something so genuinely amazing about God’s love that you want it more than anything else in the world.
(Thom Mollohan and his family have ministered in southern Ohio the past 23 ½ years, is the author of The Fairy Tale Parables, Crimson Harvest, and A Heart at Home with God. He blogs at “unfurledsails.wordpress.com”. Pastor Thom leads Pathway Community Church and may be reached for comments or questions by email at [email protected]).