Making the Heart Grow Fonder (Love’s Overlexicalization part 2)

You hear this passage a lot in church.

Jesus, after His resurrection, stands on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias (more of a lake really) and calls out to Peter. Peter, in a ship with six other disciples, fishing by net. It’s early morning. John (“that disciple who Jesus loved”) realizes it’s Jesus before anyone else, and Peter, full of the same vim and vigor he displayed on the Sea of Galilee, jumps out of the ship, leaving the other disciples to row to shore, while he swims to Jesus. He arrives first and Jesus has, around a fire, laid out breakfast for them. “Come and dine”, He says (John 21:12). After eating, Jesus decides to grill (kindly) Peter regarding the depth of his love for Him. The funny thing about the next part of this passage is that, rendered in English, one is likely to miss what the text is meant to convey. Jesus asks Peter: “Lovest thou me more than these?” (verse 15, referring to the other disciples) Before we go any further, it’s an interesting question for Jesus to ask. He’s not playing favorites, He’s more-or-less having Peter eat his words. In Mark’s gospel (14:29), Peter boldly declares, “Although all shall be offended, yet will not I.” It was foretold that all would forsake Jesus prior to His crucifixion. It’s the nature of the beast, join the club. Now Jesus wants to see if Peter knows what it means to love through thick and thin. So He asks Him: “Lovest thou me more than these?” To which Peter responds in kind: “Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee.” Jesus answers: “Feed my lambs”. Jesus asks a second and a third time and by that time, it says that “Peter was grieved because He said unto him the third time Lovest thou me?” (verse 17) Anyone would be perturbed were they asked the same thing three times in a row, had they given, what they thought, was the correct answer.

And this is where an English translation doesn’t do the text justice. Jesus asks “do you love me?” The Greek word for “love”, in this case, is agape. It’s a broad and deep word befitting the love that Jesus has for us. Jesus is essentially asking if the depth of Peter’s love includes “heart, soul, mind and strength” as enumerated by Jesus in Mark’s Gospel (12:30) That’s what the word entails: loving with all of you. It’s what God gave, it’s what God requires. The next verse (12:31) uses the same: “Thou shalt love (agape) thy neighbor as thyself.” But when Peter answers Jesus, seated around the fire on the shore, (“yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee.”) Peter’s using a weaker, more watered-down pseudo-synonym: Fileo. It means “fondness”. It’s as if Jesus is asking Peter if he loves Him, to which Peter is responding, “Yes, Lord, you know that I like you a lot.” Maybe he feels he can’t use a stronger word? Who knows.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man (or woman) lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Who knows why Peter couldn’t say it outright. Admittedly, they weren’t speaking Greek, they were speaking Aramaic. Though a literal Aramaic-to-English translation doesn’t really help in this case because it reads “love” in both instances as well. And this brings up an interesting point as the word “love” means so many things to different people. Just like “truth”, love is defined as God defines it. You know it when you see it and when you feel it. “Hereby shall all men (and women) know…” (John 13:35, emphasis mine) Another true test of love is its staying power. “Charity (agape) never faileth…” (1 Corinthians 13:8) You know it’s love after you’ve thrown everything you can at it (them) and they choose to remain. They choose to continue loving selflessly. Three times does Peter answer and three times Jesus tells him, “feed my sheep”. Okay, the first time it’s “feed my lambs”. They’re growing, you understand. So are we.

Then after another brief conversation, He tells Peter “follow me.” (verse 19) Loving Jesus means giving up everything to serve and follow Him. Beginning with our own notions of what love is and what it should be.

He’ll show you.

Love’s Overlexicalization

A linguistic term that means the overabundance of synonyms for one thing. As applied to the Bible you might say that God’s love is elucidated and translated as love, lovingkindness, compassion, charity, et cetera. Admittedly, they are different words (in English), from different Hebrew and Greek words, but when you consider that they apply to one person (and only one), and “God is love” (1 John 4:8), then I think the definition of overlexicalization applies to this topic.

Whereas you have things like grace, mercy, light, peace, salvation, etc., as things that God bestows (yes, you could argue that He is the light, humor me), every synonym of love could well be seen as another way of describing who God is. Do you follow me?

Overlexicalization generally has a negative connotation in that it refers to an aspect or group of society that has overused a traditional term and then proceeds to create new words to describe the same thing. To neologise, as it were. The thing is, the synyonymity of the word love as applied to God, has nothing to do with the fact that we’ve outgrown our need to reference, and therefore live, the love of God. At least it shouldn’t mean that.

“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.” (1 John 4:7)

“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:34-35)

How do we know how Jesus loved and loves us unless we get to know Him? Sadly, there are Christians who don’t truly know Jesus. And their love is shallow, stilted and contrived. The outcome of this “love” facsimile is the reverse of what Jesus describes in the above verse. People who aren’t Christian won’t see through us, the One whom we represent. Love Himself.

And pontification about these topics is a dangerous thing too. It’s not enough to simply talk about these things. Love, like many things in life, is learned by doing. On the job training as it were. If you ask God to not only help you love where you are, but to make you a conduit for His love in this world at large, He will. But this is a commitment, a vow that once made, is not something you want to conveniently forget having applied for. Because God will take you at your word–“As I have loved you…”–and arrange for you to experience, not only a fuller revelation of His love for you, but also engineer circumstances to play into your newfound understanding of His love. And therefore live it out.

Love. Lovingkindness. Compassion. Charity. Jesus.

“…and the life which I now live in the flesh (my body) I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

See, any synonym with which we live out the love of God is to be that very thing: lived out. When we choose God’s will over our own, choosing to live selflessly toward Him and others, these ways of love become part of us. It’s a journey that everyone who truly loves God should undertake, and will undertake if they truly love Him.