It all began on a bleak and blustery midwinter night in early 1958. A young preacher in Philipsburg, PA was burning the midnight oil. During a study break he happened to pick up and browse through the current issue of Life magazine that had been buried under a stack of books piled high on his desk. As he turned a page his attention was immediately arrested by an artist’s sketch of seven boys who were on trial for murder in New York City some 100 miles away.
They were members of a gang called the Dragons. Beneath their picture was the story of how they had gone into Highbridge Park, New York, and brutally attacked and killed a polio victim named Michael Farmer. The boys stabbed Michael in the back seven times with their knives, then beat him over the head with Garrison belts. They went away wiping blood through their hair saying, “We messed him good!” (Life, February 24, 1958).
The young preacher was revolted by what he read. It not only brought tears to his eyes; it made his stomach turn.
Perhaps that was why he was so bewildered by the thought that suddenly sprang into his head. He felt convicted that he should go to New York City and help those boys. And that is precisely what Dave Wilkerson did.
What was it that so motivated Dave Wilkerson to search the back streets and alleys of Spanish Harlem and Brooklyn in order to reach the youth of New York City for Christ.
I believe that the answer to that question can be found in a simple, four-letter word. At least, it is a word that is simple to articulate with one’s lips, but not always so easy to demonstrate in one’s life.
The four-letter word I am referring to is love.
Although it is mentioned last in the list found in 2 Pet 1:1-11, it is certainly not because it is the least significant of the seven character traits of the Christian life that are catalogued in those three verses. In fact, I suspect the reason it is mentioned last is that it just may be the most important trait of all.
There are three main words in the Greek language that could be translated by our English word, love.
First, there is eros, from which we derive our English word erotic. It refers to a physical or sensual type of love. And by the way, it is never used in the NT.
Secondly there is philos, which is an emotional and relational love. It is a kinship and friendship type of love.
Finally, there is the Greek word agapē. This love is a volitional and intentional type of love. When we speak of agapē we are not talking about some mushy-gushy emotion, or some warm and fuzzy feeling. This type of love has much more to do with what you choose, instead of, and even in spite of, how you feel.
William Barclay defined agapē as “unconquerable benevolence.” If we love a person with agapē love, it means that nothing that person can or will ever do will make us seek anything but his highest good. In other words, if I say that I love you with agapē love, then no matter how you feel about me and in spite of anything you may say about me or do to me, even if you ignore me or avoid me, misquote me or mistreat me, malign me or undermine me, the way I will choose to respond to you is to seek only God’s greatest and highest good for you. That is agapē love.
Furthermore, agapē love is often necessarily a sacrificial type of love. Occasionally there is a price you have to pay. Hence, many couples say in their wedding vows that they are committing themselves to loving one another, “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” Someone once said, you can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving. That is most certainly true of agapē love.
That is probably why it is the word that is most often used to describe the love of God for the world of man. For example, in John 3:16, we read, “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.” Jesus knew from eternity past the price He would have to pay to redeem mankind. He loved the world of man with a wooden cross.
It was John who then added in 1 John 3:1, “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” Then he concludes, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16).
There is a sense in which agapē is like a precious, priceless, elegant and radiant jewel. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul painstakingly elaborates on some of its many lustrous and glorious facets.
First Corinthians 13 is often referred to as the “love chapter.” In this passage Paul enables us to bask in the gleaming beauty and enduring quality of this remarkable and valuable gem called agapē.
The contextual setting of this verbal gem is both elaborate and exquisite. In vv 1-3 the apostle Paul illustrates the preeminence of love. In vv 8-13 he elaborates on the permanence of love. However, sandwiched in between those two sections, in vv 4-7, Paul elaborates on those characteristics of agapē that contribute to its preeminence and permanence. Fourteen facts are highlighted, half of them negatively, the remaining positively.
The first facet of this gem mentioned in v 4 is patience. “Love suffers long…” The word the apostle Paul used here is makrothumeia. It is a compound word that literally means “long-suffering” with respect to both people and problems. It was the term for a man who was wronged, and who had it easily in his power to avenge himself, but refused to do it. Such patience, by the way, is not a sign of weakness, but of real strength.
The text goes on to say that “love is kind.” This is one of the words that we considered in our previous article: chrēstos. It literally means “serviceable.” In fact it originally denoted usefulness. It was used to refer to something that was suitable to meet a need. Therefore, to be kind is, literally, to make yourself useful. One could say that kindness is love in action.
Now, whereas patience is essentially passive, kindness is essentially active. It is the other side of the coin. In our previous article we said that it is to be…
• courteous and gracious in both word and deed,
• thoughtful and respectful,
• humble and gentle,
• sweet-tempered and mild-mannered.
Furthermore, the text goes on to say that love “does not envy.” In other words, it does not selfishly want or begrudgingly resent the possessions and/or position of others.
Also, “it does not boast.” Love is not a braggart. By the way, the Greek word that is translated “boast” is derived from a root that means “baseless chatter.” You see, love does not necessarily enjoy hearing itself speak. And it certainly does not need to have the loudest voice and/or the last word. It does not boast. It has been said that anyone all wrapped up in himself makes a very small package. Thus, the apostle Paul adds that love is not proud. It is not puffed up. In other words, it does not have an inflated view of its own importance. It is humble and unassuming. In the words of Phil 2:3, this loving person “considers others better than (himself).” Love is not proud.
Verse 5 adds that love “is not rude.” Love is not brutally blunt, but properly polite. It is considerate of the feelings as well as the rights of others. When it speaks the truth, it does so in love, which means that it speaks in the right way, at the right time, and in the right tone. Love is not rude.
Furthermore, “it is not selfseeking.” Love is not concerned with advancing and/or enhancing its own agenda. It will not use and abuse people, and manipulate and exploit them for personal gain. It does not always insist on its own rights. It is selfless, not selfish.
Next, “it is not easily angered.” On the contrary, it is long-tempered. It does not have a short fuse. A truly loving person is not likely to “blow his stack” suddenly and “flip his lid” quickly. He is not touchy and irritable. He does not throw a temper tantrum at the slightest provocation. Because, you see, love is not easily angered.
Now listen to this: “it keeps no record of wrongs.” In other words, it is always willing to forgive. And there is a sense in which when it forgives, it also forgets because love will not repeat the matter again. It refuses to scratch at the scab and force the old wound to reopen. In the words of Prov 17:9 (TLB), “love forgets mistakes; nagging about them parts the best of friends”—including husbands and wives, as well as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Peter quotes Prov 10:12 loosely, when he writes “above all, love each other deeply, for love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8). You see, love keeps no record of wrongs. Nor does it delight in and gloat over the misfortunes of others.
Verse 7 adds, “It always protects.” That, by the way, is a very interesting word in Greek. It literally means “to hide by covering.” In other words, this covering is an act of protecting. That is why, “love can bear any insults, any injury, any disappointment.” In fact, the verse goes on to say that love “always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
The apostle Paul concludes, in the first part of v 8, “love never fails.”
Now, without a doubt, one need look no further than the cross of Jesus Christ to find the best illustration ever of this unfailing love. For it says in the Scripture,
“In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. 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 4:9-10).
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). And that is exactly what Jesus did. A better illustration of love you cannot find.
So, how are we to respond?
Well, by a similar demonstration of love in our lives. For Jesus said, in John 15:12, “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And, John went on to say,
“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us” (1 John 4:11-12).
Paul said it like this,
“Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (Eph 5:1-2).
How is this love to be demonstrated in our lives? First of all, it is to be demonstrated in both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of life. In other words, it is to be fleshed out upwardly, as well as outwardly. It is to characterize not only our relationship with God, but also our relationship with others.
For it was our Lord Himself who said, in Mark 12:30-31,
“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
What does it mean to “love the Lord (our) God?” Jesus said in John 14:23, “if anyone loves me he will keep my word.” So it is no surprise to read in 1 John 5:3, “This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.” And again, in 2 John 6, “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands.” That is how we demonstrate our love for the Lord: by obeying his Word. You show me a person that willfully, intentionally, and flagrantly disobeys His Word, and I will show you a person that does not love the Lord.
Now, when it comes to loving others on the horizontal plane of life, we are told to love our neighbors, generally, and to love certain other people, specifically.
For example, we are especially commanded to love our enemies in Matt 5:44.
We are also commanded to love the members of our families in passages like Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3.
We are frequently commanded to love the members of Christ’s body, our fellow members in God’s family. In fact, we are told to “pursue…love…along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim 2:22).
You see, love does not happen in a vacuum. Love needs an object. And that object is often to be your brother and/or sister in Christ—other members of His body, the Church. For example:
Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another (Rom 13:8).
Serve one another in love (Gal 5:13).
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love (Eph 4:2).
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds (Heb 10:24).
Love one another deeply, from the heart (1 Pet 2:22).
Above all, love each other deeply (1 Pet 4:8).
And he has given us this command: whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:21).
In fact, Paul prayed frequently and preached fervently that the Christians in those congregations he served would love one another.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more (Phil 1:9).
May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love (2 Thess 3:4).
The goal of this command is love, which comes from the pure heart (1 Tim 1:7).
And it is John who went on to explain that this love on the horizontal plane must be demonstrated not only in word but also in deed (1 John 3:16-18).
You see, the fact of the matter is that when all is said and done, with respect to this kind of love, more is usually said than done. The apostle John says, “Do it!”
Oh, by the way, there is one other thing you really need to know: there is usually some risk involved. I don’t think anyone has explained it better than C. S. Lewis, when he wrote the following in his book, The Four Loves:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrong and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers…of love, is hell.
That is the place into which Dave Wilkerson must have felt he had just walked one day in early 1958. In fact, it was in the Fort Greene housing project in Brooklyn where he came face-to-face with one of the most feared of the Mau Mau war lords, a young man by the name of Nicky Cruz.
In his book The Cross and the Switchblade, Wilkerson explains that Nicky “was puffing away at a cigarette, shooting nervous little jets of smoke out the side of his mouth.” That was when he told Dave Wilkerson, in so many words, to get lost.
But the skinny country preacher from Philipsburg, PA responded, “You don’t think much of me, Nicky, but I feel different about you. I love you, Nicky.”
And as the preacher took one step closer, Nicky replied in a tortured voice, “You come near me, preacher, and I’ll kill you!”
“You could do that,” Wilkerson agreed. But then he said, “You could cut me in a thousand pieces and lay them out in the street and every piece would love you.”
What was it that motivated Dave Wilkerson to make the choice, to risk his life, and to pay the price in order to search the back streets and alleys of Spanish Harlem and the housing projects in the ghettos of Brooklyn in order to preach Christ to the youth of New York City.
Well, the answer in a simple, four letter word, is love.
It is a choice one has to make.
It is a risk one has to take.
There is often a price one has to pay.
But make no mistake about it, dear friends: it will be worth it all!
Editor’s note: David Wilkerson was not clear on the saving message, and held to Lordship Salvation. Joe’s point is that love moved him to go and reach these boys, not that his message was clear.