Agapé, and its verb counterpart agapaō, are the Koine Greek words for love. The meaning of these words takes on a unique form in the New Testament, compared to meanings found in secular Greek of the time.
agapé (ἀγάπη), n. – divine love, benevolence
What Agapé Love Is
The well-known “love passage” in 1 Corinthians 13 underscores the difference between agapé and human love.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Agapé love is completely selfless. It is the love of Jesus Christ toward us, expressed profoundly in His willingness to die on the cross for our sins. Agapé and agapaō are used to express:
- God’s love toward us (Romans 5:8)
- God’s love toward Jesus Christ (John 17:26)
- How God wants His children to love one another (John 13:34, Romans 13:10)
- An expression of God’s nature (1 John 4:16)
Thomas Aquinas succinctly sums up the difference between human love and agapé love when he writes that agapé is “willing the good of the other.”
How can humans live agapé love when its very definition is divine love? Simply put: we can not love this way without Jesus. Agapé love is love-your-enemies kind of love. This is dying-to-self love. You-before-me love.
“Christian love has God for its primary object, and expresses itself first of all in implicit obedience to His commandments… Christian love, whether exercised toward the brethren, or toward men generally, is not an impulse from the feelings, it does not always run with the natural inclinations, nor does it spend itself only upon those for whom some affinity is discovered.” W.E. Vine
The King James Version often translates agapé as “charity.” In a way that term is helpful because it somewhat distinguishes this kind of love from the brotherly philos love also found many times in the bible.
“We are all receiving Charity. There is something in each of us that cannot be naturally loved.” – C.S. Lewis
What Agapé Love Is Not
There are actually four Greek words that can be translated to the English word “love.” Three of them are found in the New Testament. This linguistic distinction between different aspects of what we simply call “love” helps explain what agapé love is not.
agapé – divine love, benevolence
philía/philos– brotherly love; the love between friends
storgē – family love; love of parent to child and vice versa
érōs – romantic love; this word is not found in the New Testament.
The interaction between Jesus and Peter described in John 21:15-17 highlights the difference between two of the Greek words for love.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (philō) you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (philō) you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love (phileis) me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love (phileis) me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (philō) you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. John 21:15-17
The nuances of this passage become significant when we realize that Jesus and Peter were using different Greek words as they discussed Peter’s love for Jesus. This was the first face-to-face interaction they had had since Peter had denied Jesus three times. In a sense, Peter admits his guilt and his inability to love in the way Jesus has called him to, simply by refusing to use the word agapé.
We know that later Peter goes on to be a tremendous example of demonstrating agapé love. I always find that fact to be so encouraging – no matter where I am today in my ability (or lack of ability) to live agapé love, God is growing me toward something more holy.
It is interesting to note that agapé is the only of the four loves that does not really denote feeling. As W.E. Vines wrote:
“Love can be known only from the actions it prompts. God’s love is seen in the gift of His son. (1 John 4:9-10) But obviously this is not the love of complacency, or affection, that is, it was not drawn out by any excellency in its objects. (Romans 5:8) It was an exercise of the divine will in deliberate choice, made without assignable cause, save that which lies in the nature of God Himself.”
Agapé love is not based on merit or emotion. Agapé is a choice; a choice that God made when we least deserved it, and a choice that He asks you and I to make every day.