Love is a central theme in the Bible, and it is essential to understand what it means. Two main types of love are described in the New Testament (Phileo and Agape), whereas in English, different kinds of love are expressed using the single word ‘love‘.
To better understand “Agape” as used in the New Testament, we also need to briefly understand the other types of love in Greek (note: there are a few more in Greek not listed below).
- Phileo: Refers to friendships or family relationships and is often translated to ‘brotherly love’ in English.
- Storge: Refers to a ‘familial love’ or an in-depth family relationship such as between a parent and children. ‘Storge’ is not used in the Bible.
- Eros: refers to romantic, sexual love, or passionate love, such as in a marriage relationship. ‘Eros’ is also not used in the Bible.
‘Agape‘ love, in the context of scriptures, is not a feeling but an action. It is a sacrificial love that willingly suffers inconvenience, affliction, and even death for the benefit of another without expecting anything in return.
John MacArthur explains, “Agape love is the greatest virtue of the Christian life. Yet that type of love was rare in pagan Greek literature. That’s because the traits Agape portrays—unselfishness, self-giving, willful devotion, concern for the welfare of others—were mostly disdained in ancient Greek culture as signs of weakness. However, the New Testament declares agape to be the character trait around which all others revolve. The apostle John writes, “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16)”. (MacArthur, J. The Power of Integrity: Building a Life Without Compromise, page 133. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books)
Agape is uniquely a Christian concept, not emotional, but one of action and not obtainable on our own. This love has been poured into our hearts by faith in Christ, through His Holy Spirit, and because of it, we are enabled to love others likewise. 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because he first loved us.” Agape describes the extraordinary love that is of God and is from God. The Bible teaches us that God is love (1 John 4:8). We are also to love God with an Agape love (Luke 10:27, Matthew 6:24, John 3:16-21).
Agape described in the Bible is not natural to us because of our fallen natures; on our own, we cannot produce such love toward God or others. God is the source of such incredible love, and it has been gifted to us through the Holy Spirit. Romans 5:5 “and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Agape is NOT characterised by nice feelings, emotions, warm affection, romantic feelings, etc., as it is common in the world or portrayed to us in social media, movies, and general relationships. Many of these kinds of love are actually “selfish”, wanting only to fulfil selfish desires or wants rather than being sacrificial and being more concerned about the welfare of others. In contrast, Agape is self-giving and sacrificial, requiring something of us to give rather than receive.
The Agape of God is part of His nature and is not determined by how good we are, or if we are deserving of His love, or of any works we do; instead, He loves us even if we are unlovable, not worthy of His love, or by any works we do. Romans 5:8 says, “…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Not only did God speak of His love for us, but He demonstrated it by sending His Son to die on the cross in the place of the undeserving sinner so that the punishment was on Christ, God Himself, so that we might be reconciled to God.
Ephesians 2:4-9 says, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Agape is the highest form of unconditional love and continually persists regardless of positive or negative events. It is sacrificial love, forsaking yourself for the benefit of others, even your enemies. As believers, we are to portray this same kind of love. Jesus Christ commands us to this love, not only to those who already love us or are fellow believers (John 13:34-35, 1 John 3:16) but to extend it to our enemies as well. Christ modelled this love for us, and we are likewise to replicate it for the benefit of others. Matthew 5:44-45 “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust”
Ultimately, Agape is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), and as those who belong to Christ, we are to crucify the flesh with its passions and desires – and if we live by the Spirit, then let us also keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:24-25). Scriptures warn us that we are not to use this Agape for the wrong things of this world, but it is to be of God, for God. 1 John 2:15-17 says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”
If you draw closer to God by being in a love relationship with Christ, hungering and thirsting after Him, then through His Holy Spirit, you can experience His majestic love and imitate it towards others. This is why two of the greatest commandments Jesus gave are in Matthew 22:37-40, saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”