Mamford Gutzke was a Presbyterian minister whose conversion was stark enough to mirror that of the apostle Paul. He clearly recalled crossing the road one day and stepping off the pavement into a street as an unbeliever and onto the pavement the other side as a believer. It was a radical conversion. He remembered the exact date and time—and expected that everyone would share his experience.
When he met the woman whom he would eventually marry, he was disturbed that she could not recall the precise moment of her conversion. He could not imagine that someone could have a different experience. When he pressed her, asking about the first moment she ever thought about Christ, she answered, “‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ That is the first thing I remember about Jesus Christ. I believed it then and I believe it yet and there never was a time I didn’t believe it.”
If you were raised in Sunday school, that will have been one of the first songs you ever learned. And though you believed it then, and would probably say you believe it still, there may be times when you have doubted it. Or, at least, there may be times when you have struggled to believe it.
When Lazarus fell sick (John 11:1–41), his sisters, Mary and Martha, immediately sent for Jesus, expecting that he would come to heal their brother. The message they sent was direct: “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (v. 3). Two verses later, we read, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (v. 5). The sisters believed that Jesus loved (them and) their brother. John, under inspiration, affirmed this. But there is an interesting truth that is somewhat hidden in translation.
In the New Testament, two different Greek words are translated as “love.” Phileo speaks of brotherly affection and usually describes close friendship. It is generous and affectionate love that seeks the happiness of the other. Agape describes deep, self-giving, sacrificial love. It is the most powerful and noblest sort of love. This love goes deeper than feelings to an act of the will.
When the sisters sent the message to Jesus, they spoke of Lazarus as “he whom you phileo.” John, on the other hand, writes that “Jesus agaped” his friends (v. 5). They believed that he loved them, but he loved them more than they knew.
The Bible tells us, in no uncertain terms, that Jesus loves his people. He loves his own to the very end (John 13:1). He loves and manifests himself to those who keep his commands (John 14:21). He loves us as his Father loves us (John 15:9). Nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:35–39). He loved us enough to give his very life for us (Galatians 2:20). Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Sadly, we sometimes doubt his love for us. Often, this is because we misinterpret providence. But his love is frequently displayed precisely in the things we don’t understand.
Think about it: When the sisters called for Jesus, because he loved (them and) their brother, what did he do? He delayed. He delayed until Lazarus died. Martha later cried, “Lord, if you had been here …” (v. 21). She struggled to reconcile Jesus’ love with his delay. But his love was, in fact, evidenced by his delay. The sisters wanted Jesus to heal their brother—and he could easily have done so—but he had something better for them. He was going to reveal himself to them in a greater way than they could possibly imagine. Seeing the “I am” was a far greater display of love than what they initially wanted.
Sometimes, we struggle to understand, even believe, Christ’s love for us because we don’t understand what he is doing. We think we know exactly what love looks like and we can’t possibly imagine that love may look different, and prove even more powerful, than we initially imagine. Sometimes God’s delay is far better than his immediate action, because it teaches us so much more than we would otherwise learn about his love. Sometimes, we are stuck on his phileo while he wants to shower us with agape.
I may not know your struggle, grief, or pain this morning. I know this: If you are a child of God, Jesus loves you—more than you know. I pray that you will believe and embrace his love this morning—and that, in the process, he will reveal more of himself to you.