The Greek wordagapeis often translated "love" in the New Testament. How is "agape love" different from other types of love? The essence of agape love is self-sacrifice. Unlike our English word “love,” agape is not used in the Bible to refer to romantic or sexual love. Nor does it refer to close friendship or brotherly love, for which the Greek wordphiliais used. Nor doesagapemean “charity,” a term which the King James translators carried over from the Latin. Agape love is unique and is distinguished by its nature and character.
Agape is love which is of and from God, whose very nature is love itself. The apostle John affirms this in1 John 4:8: “God is love.” God does not merely love; He is love itself. Everything God does flows from His love. But it is important to remember that God’s love is not a sappy, sentimental love such as we often hear portrayed. God loves because that is His nature and the expression of His being. He loves the unlovable and the unlovely (us!), not because we deserve to be loved, but because it is His nature to love us, and He must be true to His nature and character. God’s love is displayed most clearly at the cross, where Christ died for the unworthy creatures who were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), not because we did anything to deserve it, “but God commends His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The object of God’s agape love never does anything to merit His love. We are the undeserving recipients upon whom He lavishes that love. His love was demonstrated when He sent His Son into the world to “seek and save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10) and to provide eternal life to those He sought and saved. He paid the ultimate sacrifice for those He loves.
In the same way, we are to love others sacrificially. Jesus gave the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example of sacrifice for the sake of others, even for those who may care nothing at all for us, or even hate us, as the Jews did the Samaritans. Sacrificial love is not based on a feeling, but a determined act of the will, a joyful resolve to put the welfare of others above our own. But this type of love does not come naturally to humans. Because of our fallen nature, we are incapable of producing such a love. If we are to love as God loves, that love—that agape—can only come from its true Source. This is the love which “has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us” when we became His children (Romans 5:5). Because that love is now in our hearts, we can obey Jesus who said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. As I have loved you, you should also love one another” (John 13:34). This new commandment involves loving one another as He loved us sacrificially, even to the point of death. But, again, it is clear that only God can generate within us the kind of self-sacrificing love which is the proof that we are His children. “By this we have known the love of God, because He laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). Because of God’s love toward us, we are now able to love one another.