On Unconditional Love
An overcomer is one who knows how to love unconditionally. There is more than one kind of love—or more accurately, there is more than one level of love. The level of love that we exhibit depends fully upon our ability to love. Our ability to love depends upon our level of maturity. Our level of maturity manifests our progression from Egypt to the Promised Land.
God has children. These children are not born as mature adults. They are born as spiritual babies who are in need of growth and learning. We would not allow a two-year-old child to drive a car on the Los Angeles freeway. Nor would we elect a ten-year-old to be president of the nation. Such responsibilities are for those who have become adults both physically and emotionally. But what about becoming an adult spiritually?
Will God allow a spiritual babe to rule in His Kingdom? If He allowed such a thing, I would feel sorry for those being ruled. Anyone who has studied history knows that most of the kings and other rulers of the past had reached physical maturity, and often even had reached emotional maturity—but very few had become spiritually mature. Because of their immaturity, the people often suffered injustice and tyranny under both civil and religious leadership. God has allowed mankind to experience this kind of injustice in order to make people desire something better. By seeing the oppressiveness of man’s kingdoms, God sets forth its contrast in the concept of the Kingdom of God, ruled by the Messiah and His mature body of overcomers. Haggai 2:7 says (KJV),
7 And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come; and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.
If there is anything that the nations desire today it is peace and justice. They have had enough bloodshed and injustice. They long for leaders that rule by love, rather than by fear. The problem is that their own civil and religious leaders promise them peace, but they are not capable of delivering it. They want peace, but only on their terms. All the tyrants in the world wanted peace—but they wanted to conquer all other nations in order to achieve that peace. Such tyrants do not know the love of God; they are selfish and self-serving. It matters not if those tyrants call themselves kings or popes. If their desire is to be served, rather than to serve, they know not the God of the Bible. All such men are disqualified from ruling in God’s Kingdom.
Another problem is that there are too many ambitious people and organizations who also want to rule. Each one has a set of followers who support their bid for power. This brings civil wars, assassinations, and continuous conflicts, and it causes the current rulers to pass restrictive laws and enforce them by military means. So the current rulers are not the only problem. The problem is caused equally by the would-be rulers, who make promises to their supporters, and if successful, they invariably become tyrants in their own way.
Three Levels of Love
The Greek language had more than one word to describe the various kinds of love. In this, their language was much more specific than our English language. We use the term “love” to mean having a sexual relationship (i.e., “making love”), or immature love (i.e., “puppy love”), or friendship, or parental love, or self-sacrificing love.
The Greek language, however, had at least three words to describe love. Eros was the most immature type of love, describing a mere physical attraction that could also turn into lust. The word eros is not used in the New Testament at all.
Phileo was on a higher level, describing brotherly love, or the proper love between brother and sister. Hence, Philadelphia means “City of Brotherly Love.” Yet we know that as siblings grow up together, their “love” is largely based upon a fifty-fifty relationship. It is a judicial love that seeks to establish its own rights and “fair share.” Thus, phileo love is conditional, and those who do not break past this barrier have not been perfected in love.
It takes a mature love called agape to be unconditional. This is the love of God that John presents to us as our goal of spiritual maturity. Agape is different from phileo love. As siblings grow, they begin to learn the principle of property rights. This is mine, and this is yours. Do not take your brother’s toy without his permission. This side of the room is mine, and this side is yours. Children often fight for their rights, and parents find themselves in the position of a referee, having to make decisions to settle arguments. The parent is the enforcer of the law, and every time he or she settles a dispute, the child learns something about phileo love. As time passes, they learn to respect the lawful rights of others and to treat others as they themselves would want to be treated.
This is good, but it is only a stage of child development. Ultimately, to be fully mature they must learn unconditional love that goes beyond one’s rights under the law. This gets into the higher concepts of mercy, grace, and forgiveness. It is not that we should despise property rights or forsake the ideas of treating others with justice for all. We are not called to fall short of the law, but to go beyond it into the principles laid down in the Gospels. Jesus said in John 13:34, 35,
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love [agape] one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.
The only sense in which this was a new commandment was because the law of Moses required phileo love, which is equal justice toward all. The law did not require anyone to give up their lawful rights. The law defined those rights and would always uphold any man’s right to what was lawfully his. But Jesus showed us by example how to give up everything—even how to go to the cross—in order to be a blessing to other people. That was agape love in action. And that is what Jesus said would distinguish His disciples from the rest of mankind.
The law of Moses requires me to love my neighbor as myself (Lev. 19:18). But the law does not require any man to lay down his life for another. Jesus’ new commandment requires me to love others more than myself, saying in John 15:13,
13 Greater love has no man than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.
Hence, we see that the law indeed defines love, but it is limited to phileo love. It guides us while we are growing in spiritual maturity. It lays the foundations of justice and respect for our neighbors that is so necessary in most of life’s relationships. Learning phileo love is a prerequisite to learning agape love, for how can a person love with an unconditional love if he has not first learned conditional love in the law? This is why God gave the law first. It was so that His people could learn basic justice before moving on to the higher principles of grace that came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17).
Israel’s Festivals Portray Levels of Love
The three festivals of Israel can be viewed as stages of spiritual development and also help us define each person’s level of love. When we experience the Feast of Passover by placing our faith in the blood of the Lamb of God, we become children of God on the first level. We are spiritual babes. It is a good beginning, but at this stage of development, the new Christian is often self-centered and ignorant.
We do not expect much out of a baby, except to look cute. To a baby, the world revolves around him. He only knows what he wants and has no thought about the needs of his mother or those around him. If hungry, he demands to be fed. If wet, he demands to be changed. If alone, he demands to be cuddled. He has no concept of putting himself in the shoes of his mother. If his mother is tired or busy doing other things, it is of no concern to him. He only knows his own need, and this is the most important thing in the world at that moment.
There are some adults who live their whole lives without ever straying far from this stage of development. Such people view other peoples’ property as their own and can steal it with no twinge of conscience. If they are placed in positions of power, they can steal with more efficiency, and so much the better. They honestly believe that others exist to serve them. They feel “privileged,” and despise the common people. If they happen to be religious, these spiritual babes justify their privileged status by claiming the divine right to rule.
Passover-level Christianity is characterized by eros love, which is self-centered. Such people are takers, not givers. In conversation, they have little or no interest in hearing, but in speaking. If they bother to ask about your welfare, you are lucky to get past a single sentence, which is then interrupted with, “That reminds me of myself. . .”
Such Christians are not yet perfected in love, and God will not entrust to them any authority to rule in His Kingdom, for they would certainly perpetuate injustice.
Pentecostal-level Christianity is characterized by phileo love. As we said earlier, this is a judicial love. Pentecost is a festival that celebrates the giving of the law. This is a necessary stage of development, but it is not sufficient to rule in God’s Kingdom. It is not the love of the overcomers. And yet Pentecost is where one lays all the preparatory foundations for agape love.
Those who hear the voice of the Spirit and learn obedience are also learning how to implement true justice, so that other people’s rights are not violated. The average person, of course, is not called to a position of authority and therefore is limited in his/her ability to establish justice in other people’s disputes. Most of us are limited to learning these things through family relationships—especially when we have children of our own. Settling disputes between our children is the most common way in which we learn phileo love and the divine law.
The Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles) portrays the goal, not only the goal of history but the goal of our individual spiritual development. It is the place of maturity where a person can discern how to rule properly. A simple example in the family would be if a child breaks a window in his neighbor’s house. The parent, of course, is held liable by law. But how would the parent handle the child?
Pure phileo love would say to the child, “You must work to pay back the entire cost of the window.” Agape love, however, would have additional options. The parent would discern how far to hold the child liable. Had the child done this deliberately, or was it really accidental? Had the child been told not to play with baseballs near that window? Is the child truly repentant, or making excuses? How old is the child? Should he have known better?
These are all considerations by which the parent might forgive part of the debt or even all of it. This does not put away the law—because the parent would still have to pay the debt owed to the neighbor. The parent satisfied the demand of the law, even as Christ satisfied the demand of the law for our own sins. But the question is this: Should the parent hold the child liable as well in order to teach him righteousness? If so, how much liability should the parent put upon the child?
You see, God does this with His children as well. 1 John 4:8 tells us that “God is love” (agape). But this does not mean that God will refuse to hold us accountable for our actions. Love and discipline are not contradictory principles. This is because God is also our Father, and He is responsible to teach us responsibility for our actions. If He were never to hold us accountable, we would not learn phileo love, and thus we could not learn agape love either. If all we saw from God was agape love, then we would soon believe that we could sin that grace may abound (Rom. 6:1). In other words, we would not learn obedience; we would become lawless.
On the other hand, if God never showed us grace, we would have no example to learn the principles of agape love. Hence, there is a balance that must be struck. To know when to exercise phileo love and when to exercise agape love requires mature spiritual discernment. Even as God Himself knows this balance, so also are we to learn the mind of Christ, so that we are able to do the same toward our children and others in general.
The mark of an overcomer, then, is that he/she is learning agape love.
Jesus’ Instruction in Luke 14
There are many Bible passages that could be quoted to illustrate agape love. But this is not meant to be an exhaustive study on the subject. And so we have chosen a little-read instruction in Luke 14:12-14,
12 And He also went on to say to the one who had invited Him, When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and repayment come to you. 13 But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
This instruction shows in simple terms the principles of agape love. Phileo love is a fifty-fifty relationship—you help me, and I help you. It demands an equal return, for that is its lawful right. But agape love is manifested when a person does good with no thought of recompense from man. In fact, perfect love does not even need the incentive of a heavenly reward. But such love will indeed be rewarded.
Note also that the reward “will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” We know that men will get their rewards at the time of the resurrection. But there are two resurrections mentioned in Revelation 20. The first resurrection, as we saw in Lesson 1, includes only the righteous, while the general resurrection a thousand years later includes both the righteous and the unrighteous (John 5:28, 29). And so we see in Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14 that those who manifest the unconditional love of God will be rewarded “at the resurrection of the righteous”—that is, the first resurrection.