What Does Agape Love Really Mean in the Bible?
- Alyssa Roat Contributing Writer
- 2020 2 Jan
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 (hopefully). However, English doesn’t lend itself well to making these distinctions.
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.
"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.
Agape love is a sacrificial love that unites and heals. It is the love of God that we see through the cross of Jesus Christ. This love saves and restores humanity in the face of sin and death.
"Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)
- Agape is a Greek word pronounced ah-gah-pay
- Agape love is a love of choice, not out of attraction or obligation
- Agape love is what Jesus Christ displayed on the cross for us as he took our place for the sin
The word "agape" is used 106 times throughout the New Testament, with the most use in the book of 1 John. Read those verses here.
Types of Love
C. S. Lewis identified four types of love in the Bible in Greek. Though sources such as Psychology Today identify seven types of Greek words for love, we’ll focus on the four most commonly identified.
Storge might also be called affection or familial love. This word isn’t actually used in the Bible, but the concept is there. Storge is based on familiarity. A person will love their family regardless of whether they are people the person would be drawn to otherwise; family members often have nothing in common except familiarity and blood.
Storge is a comfortable affection that can be taken for granted but can also be very powerful.
Eros is romantic love. Eros also isn’t a word that appears in the Bible, though it plays a major role in a lot of Old Testament problems. Eros encompasses sexual and romantic love and is the root word of the English “erotic.” Lovers are often completely preoccupied with one another, filled with eros.
Eros is often associated with sexual desire and lust, but it can also be a good thing in a marriage relationship when accompanied by and bolstering with other kinds of love.
Philia is friendship love. This word is used in the Bible. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his book, The Four Loves, “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves.” Philia occurs from bonding over similar interests. Whereas lovers are both preoccupied with each other, friends are both preoccupied with the same things. Friends, of course, care about one another, but it is similar interests that attract them to one another. “Philia” is the opposite of “phobia,” literally meaning that those experiencing philia are drawn to one another.
Philia is often overlooked in modern culture but is exhorted in the Bible. In Romans 12:10, Paul urges the believers to be devoted to one another in brotherly philia. Philia can be strongly associated with agape as well. In John 15:13, Jesus said there is no greater agape than laying down one’s life for one’s friends.
Agape could be defined as charity. However, we often think of charity nowadays as giving away money or things, which doesn’t encompass all of what agape is about. Agape love is unconcerned with the self and concerned with the greatest good of another. Agape isn’t born just out of emotions, feelings, familiarity, or attraction but from the will and as a choice. Agape requires faithfulness, commitment, and sacrifice without expecting anything in return.
This is the type of love the Bible speaks about the most. The New Testament references agape over 200 times.
What Agape Means in the Bible
To the Greeks, proper agape meant a general empathy or lovingkindness for all people. Though in the Bible, Christians are indeed expected to care for all in the name of Christ, Christianity took this a step further. Biblical writers used God as the standard for true agape.
Agape love, in the Bible, is love that comes from God. God’s love isn’t sentimental; it’s part of His character. God loves from an outpouring of who He is. As 1 John 4:8 states, “God is love [agapos],” meaning He is the source of agape love. His love is undeserved, gracious, and sacrificial.
We are to love God and others with agape love. Agape is a choice, a deliberate striving for another’s highest good, and is demonstrated through action. God set the standard for agape love in sending Jesus to die for us while we were still sinners.
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 agapao God and our neighbors, while Matthew 5:43-46 instructs us to even agapao 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, 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).
Though other types of love can accompany agape, agape is not just a feeling but a choice.
What Agape Means for Us
Agape love does not come naturally to us in our sinful state. However, it does come naturally to God and is an integral part of Him. By drawing closer to Him and experiencing His love, we can begin to understand what this real love means. Only through Him can we show and experience agape love.
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Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.