When the divine Word (Jesus Christ) entered the world as a baby (Jn. 1:1, 14), he encountered an environment of harshness and cruelty.
One has only to recall that the vicious Herod, fearing regal competition, commanded that all the males (two years and under) within the borders of Bethlehem be slain (Mt. 2:16). The Roman world was one of brutality and disrespect for human life.
Greek and Roman Cruelty
Both Aristotle and Plato favored infanticide (the killing of newborn infants). At Sparta it was the law that newborns be subjected to government inspection and any deformity in the child made it subject to immediate death.
The cheapness of human life is seen in the fact that men were thrown to wild beasts for the bizarre amusement of the aristocracy. Josephus says that when the Roman ruler Titus was at Caesarea, he honored his brother with a birthday party at which 2,500 Jews were killed, fighting with animals and in battles with one another (Wars 7.3.1; cf. 1 Cor. 15:32).
The institution of slavery was another token of man’s inhumanity to his fellows. There were some 60,000,000 slaves in the Roman empire. A slave was not viewed as a person. Rather, he or she was property to be disposed of at the master’s will. If a slave ran away he could be crucified, or, at the discretion of the master, merely be branded on the forehead with the letter “F” (for Fugitive).
In view of these attitudes and actions, it was clear that the religion of the meek and lowly Savior would have an uphill struggle in a world rather barren of philanthropy.
The term “philanthropy” derives from two Greek roots,
philos (love, affection), and
anthropos (mankind). The word thus reflects that disposition wherein one is inclined to love his fellow man, apart from self-interest.
Forms of the Greek term
philoanthropy are found three times in the New Testament.
Citizens of Melita
In the record of the Acts, Luke employs the noun of the disposition of the citizens of Melita (Malta). These benevolent folks demonstrated uncommon “kindness” (
philanthropia) to Paul and his sailing companions when they were thrust ashore on the island during a violent Mediterranean storm (Acts 28:2).
An examination of the context provides a commentary on the meaning of the term. The people of Melita were: generous (vv. Acts 28:2,7,10), courteous (Acts 28:7), hospitable (Acts 28:7), nondiscriminating (Acts 28:22), and endowed with a sense that there is a justice to which human beings are accountable (Acts 28:4) — though they were without a clear understanding of the ultimate Source.
These people were unable to speak Greek (thus were called barbarians in Acts 28:2). However, they did speak the language of human kindness.
A Roman Guard
An adverbial form of the term is found in Acts 27:3. It describes the demeanor of a military centurion whose name was Julius.
Julius had been dispatched to guard Paul as the apostle was transported to Rome for the appeal of his case to the imperial “supreme court.” Julius treated Paul “kindly” (
philanthropos — humanely), permitting him to visit with Christian friends who would see to his needs.
When the vessel wrecked and certain soliders wanted to kill the prisoners (including Paul), Julius stepped in and thwarted the plot, “desiring” to save Paul (Acts 27:43).
Likely he was a pagan man, yet he had a sense of philanthropy.
The Ultimate Philanthropist
The Greek noun reaches its zenith when it is used of the “kindness” (
chrestotes — goodness of heart) exhibited by God in his “love toward man” (
philanthropia) as reflected in the rich and unselfish gift of “Jesus Christ our Savior” (Tit. 3:4-6). What an act of generosity that was (cf. Jn. 3:16)!
To some extent the flame of philanthropy is innate to the human spirit, as a result of man’s reflection of the image of God. But across the centuries sin has significantly reduced that light to but a flicker in many instances.
It was only the influence of Jesus Christ that brought back its brilliance. His interest in “every creature” among “all the nations” packs the authority of his own example — in loving the poor (Mk. 12:41ff, the despised (Lk. 10:30ff), and the wicked (Lk. 7:36ff).
The goal of love-for-man rises to its greatest heights in John’s writings by his use of various forms of
agape (the exalted love of total dedication). John’s works contain one-third of all the New Testament references to the
agape word family.
Truly, he earned the appellation, “the apostle of love.”
One of the most burning passages from his pen are these instructive words:
“We love, because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).
A more motivating truth was never written.