We often use the word love in different contexts and meanings. We say, “I love chocolate” and “I love you.” Our love for a significant other, a favorite food, and a friend are all different. However, English doesn’t lend itself well to making these distinctions.
How does the world think about love? Cupid comes to mind. As popular culture states, he shoots people with his arrows and they fall in love. Society has also made it “normal” for people to fall out of love because supposedly love is an emotion over which we have no control. It’s as though people are walking along, they trip, and the next thing they know, they’ve developed feelings for someone.
According to this understanding of love, a man could tell his wife that he was at work and he didn’t mean to develop feelings for his coworker. They just kept running into each other in the hallway and the break room, and before he knew it, he “fell” in love with her. A man could also tell his wife, “I’m sorry, but I no longer love you. I don’t know how or when it happened, but I just fell out of love with you.” Feelings come and go, and because so many people today define love as a feeling, they assume that love comes and goes.
However, the Greek language used in the Bible does make those distinctions. Even though the various Greek words for love are all translated into the same English word in most instances, they held different meanings for Greek-speaking readers.
What Is Agape Love?
“Agape” is the term that defines God’s immeasurable, incomparable love for humankind. It is his ongoing, outgoing, self-sacrificing concern for lost and fallen people. God gives this love without condition, unreservedly to those who are undeserving and inferior to himself.
“Agape love” differs from other types of love in the Bible. It is the highest, most pure form of love as a choice, not out of attraction or obligation. Agape love is beautifully described in 1 Corinthians 13.
This differentiation can be helpful for us to think about what love means, especially in discussing the highest form of love, agape love.
In Christianity, Agape is “the highest form of love, charity” and “the love of God for man and of man for God“.
In the New Testament, Agape refers to the covenant love of God for humans, as well as the human reciprocal love for God; the term necessarily extends to the love of one’s fellow human beings.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Another meaning of agape in the Bible was “love feast,” a common meal in the early church expressing Christian brotherhood and fellowship:
These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; (Jude 12)
Agape Love Examples
As has been noted, the New Testament references agape over 200 times.
- Matthew 22:37-39 also known as “The Greatest Commandments,” instructs us to love God and our neighbors, while Matthew 5:43-46 instructs us to even love our enemies.
However, a person can also agape or wholeheartedly love the wrong things. 1 John 2:15 warns believers not to love the things of the world.
- 1 Corinthians 13 lays out a list of things that define agape. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
True Life Experience Of Agape Love
Karl and Edith Taylor lived in a small apartment in Waltham, Massachusetts. They lived happily for 23 years and they loved each other very much. Karl was a government warehouse worker. In February 1950 the government sent Karl to Okinawa, Japan for a few months to work in a warehouse there. Although he was in the habit of sending to his wife some small gifts and postcards wherever he was sent to work, a short time after Karl went to Okinawa, hardly any postcards or gifts reached her. Also, his assignment, which was supposed to have been only for a few months, got extended and extended mysteriously. Edith thought, her husband must be very busy; now he may have to work, cook, do shopping, clean his place of stay, etc. Perhaps he did not have time to write. In the meantime, Edith, who was a deeply committed Christian got an idea; why not give a surprise to Karl when he gets back? She worked hard and gave a down payment to buy a small house.
However, after a short time Edith got a letter from Karl: “Dear Edith, I wish there were a kinder way to tell you that we are no longer married…” Karl married a 19-year-old servant girl called Aiko, from Okinawa. Edith was 48. Although it was surprising and shocking to Edith, she took the whole matter to the Lord in prayer. Instead of getting filled with anger and hatred towards Karl, she felt compassion for Karl, a lonely man who always leaned on Edith for help. She felt compassion for Aiko too, a penniless, perhaps illiterate girl who desperately needed a life partner.
Karl wrote one day that he and Aiko were expecting a baby. Marie was born in 1951; then Helen in 1953. Edith felt compassion and sent little gifts for the children. After some time she got a letter to say Karl was in the hospital dying of lung cancer; he had hardly any money for the hospital bills. Edith sent some money. Also, she did all that she could do so that Karl could die in peace.
After his death, Edith offered Aiko’s two girls education in America, as all the money Karl saved for the children was spent on hospital bills. Although it was very hard to part with the children (they were the only reason for her to live on this earth), she finally accepted the offer and sent the children to Edith. Edith worked hard to take care of the children and their education. In a few years, she became very weak and sickly. She realized, she was getting old and the girls needed help. She decided to bring Aiko from Japan. However, Aiko was still a Japanese citizen and the immigration quota had a long waiting list of many more years. By this time, newspapers published this wonderful story of forgiving love. Many petitions were forwarded to Congress. A special bill speeded through Congress and in August 1957 Aiko Taylor was permitted to enter the United States.
As Aiko came down the stairs from the plane at New York Airport, what happened? Naturally, Edith had every right to hate and to be furious and take revenge against Aiko. She could have told her, “You are the one who destroyed my marriage of 23 years. You destroyed my life, my family, my future, my happiness, my health, my wealth, my husband” etc. etc. Instead, Edith went and warmly hugged Aiko and Aiko wept on Edith’s shoulders! Aiko found in Edith a love and compassion that she could not get even from her late husband.
That story is such a testimony of exactly how we are to show Christ’s love, even in the worst of situations.
Three Biblical Stories Of Agape Love
- The Good Samaritan:
- Jonathan And David:
- Ruth and Naomi:
Characteristics Of Agape Love
Agape Love Is Unconditional:
Agape Love is not affected by a person’s actions, looks, or possessions. People might successfully create phileo for someone else by being a better friend, but agape cannot be earned or merited. Nothing can be done to increase or decrease agape. It can only be given. Agape does not demand reciprocation and it is independent of how it is treated in return. Agape loves even when rejected, mistreated, or scorned. That is what makes this form of love so unique and distinguishable.
Agape Love Is Sacrificial:
Agape is an action. It’s about what we are willing to do. 1st Corinthians 13:4-7 reads,
“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
The Good Samaritan’s Agape
Jesus told a parable in Luke 10:25-37 that perfectly illustrates the active and sacrificial nature of agape. The prelude to this story is that a lawyer sought to test Jesus when he inquired, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the law?” Jesus asked.
In response, the lawyer loosely quoted two well-known Old Testament passages: “You shall love [agape] the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5), and “love [agape] your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
“You have answered rightly,” Jesus assured the lawyer. “Do this and you will live.”
The lawyer understood that to receive eternal life, he needed to have agape for God and his neighbors. But nobody can exercise agape perfectly, which may explain why the lawyer tried to justify himself by asking another question: “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus never specifically answered the question. Instead, He told the parable of the good Samaritan to illustrate what agape looks like. A Jewish man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by thieves who robbed him of his clothes and left him half-dead. A Jewish priest and Levite passed by but did not bother to help. Then a Samaritan, both a foreigner and a historic enemy to the Jewish people, saw the man. With compassion, he tended to the man’s wounds, set the man on his donkey, and took him to a nearby inn, where he left funds to help provide for the man’s care.
Jesus then asked the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” His question could as easily be phrased, “Which of these three do you think showed agape?” Let’s consider how this parable depicts agape.
Three Ways the Good Samaritan Demonstrated Agape
The Samaritan’s love was not conditional on anything the wounded man had done for him. In the story, the two were strangers. So why did the Samaritan help him? Was it all the good times they had shared? All the wonderful things the injured man had done in the past for the Samaritan? Some expectation that the man would pay back the Samaritan in the future? No. The man had done absolutely nothing for the Samaritan, and the Samaritan did not expect anything in return. That is the unconditional nature of agape.
The Samaritan’s agape is shown in that he loved a man who despised him. The Jewish people of that day refused to interact with Samaritans, but the Samaritan was willing to help the man anyway. Agape loves even when it is rejected.
The Samaritan’s actions reveal the sacrificial nature of agape. He bandaged the man’s wounds. There were no first-aid kits in those days, so he must have made the bandages from his clothes. He used oil and wine to clean the wounds. He put the man on his animal and took him to an inn, where he paid the man’s bill and promised to pay even more in the future if needed. All this took time, effort, and money. Agape is demonstrated not by words but by actions and sacrifice.
Agape Is Man’s Love for Sin:
Agape also describes man’s love for sin. This usage occurs in the same passage that mentions God’s agape in John 3:16. The setting is a late-night meeting between Jesus and a Pharisee, Nicodemus. After explaining God’s agape for the world in John 3:16, Jesus says just three verses later, “This is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved [agape] darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (verse 19).
Considering what we have learned so far, this usage for agape should make perfect sense:
Agape loves even when the love is not reciprocated. Man loves sin even though sin does not love in return. In fact, sin does the opposite: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Sin’s response to those who love it is death.
Agape loves unconditionally. It is a love that is completely independent of how the object of the love acts toward or treats the one loving it. Thus, man continues to love sin regardless of the guilt, punishment, suffering, or discipline he experiences as a consequence of engaging in it.
Agape loves sacrificially. Think of everything people are willing to give up for sin: health, dignity, jobs, finances, children, parents, marriages, friendships, churches, and even relationships with the Lord. The tragedy is that there is a little man who will not sacrifice for sin.
- Agape Love for the World:
1st John 2:15-16 instructs us, “Do not love [agape] the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves [agape] the world, the love [agape] of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world.” When we give in to these lusts, we choose sin over our spouses. What does this look like? Let’s consider some examples.
A husband gives in to;
- the lust of the flesh when he gets drunk
- the lust of the eyes when he looks at pornography
- the pride of life when he does his work with the motive of receiving praise
A wife gives in to
- the lust of the flesh when she makes purchases behind her husband’s back
- the lust of the eyes when she covets her friend’s home
- the pride of life when she embraces the flirtations of a man who is not her husband
When we satisfy these and other lusts, we demonstrate a greater love for sin than for our spouse. The motivation behind sin is always selfish, whereas the motivation behind loving one’s husband or wife is always in the best interests of the spouse. Sinning is an act of the will, but so is agape love. We choose to agape love our spouse when we choose not to agape love sin.
- Agape Love Is God’s Love for Man:
1st John 4:8 and 16 tell us, “God is love [agape].” He is the embodiment of agape. As we saw earlier, one of Scripture’s most famous verses describes God’s agape for us: “God so loved [agape] the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
Think of the other ways this verse could gone: God so loved the world that He…created a beautiful planet for people to enjoy. Or He…gave us the wonderful gift of marriage. Or He…blesses us with children. Or He…established the church so His people could be part of a spiritual family. All these are true statements, but they are not examples of God’s agape because they lack one of agape’s required characteristics: sacrifice. The sacrificial nature of God’s agape is made evident in “that He gave His only begotten Son.”
Likewise, 1st John 4:10 says, “This is love, not that we loved [agape] God, but that He loved [agape] us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” This communicates the unconditional nature of agape in that God loved us even when we did not love Him. The words “sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” communicate the sacrificial nature of God’s agape.
Romans 5:8 reveals the same two characteristics of God’s agape toward us: “God demonstrates His own love [agape] toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The unconditional nature of God’s agape is revealed in the words “while we were still sinners.” God loved us even when we were in rebellion against Him. Just as God sent Hosea back to Gomer to love her when she was committing physical adultery, so God loved us even when we were in rebellion against Him and committing spiritual adultery. The words “Christ died for us” reveal the depth of the sacrificial nature of God’s agape.
Agape Love may seem like an impossible ideal, a mountaintop too high to scale. But like any journey, the first step is the most crucial. Let us open our hearts, embrace vulnerability, and choose to love beyond expectation, beyond condition. When we do, the world around us, and within us, might just be bathed in the warm, radiant glow of agape love.