What Does Agape Love Really Mean in the Bible?

“Agape” is one of several Greek words for love. When the word “agape” is used in the Bible, it refers to a pure, willful, sacrificial love that intentionally desires another’s highest good.

Alyssa Roat
What Does Agape Love Really Mean in the Bible?

“I love chocolate,” we say, and, “I love you.” Obviously, the love we have for a significant other, a favorite food, and a friend are all different (hopefully). However, the English language doesn’t lend itself well to making these distinctions.

The Greek language used in the Bible, however, does make those distinctions. Even though the various Greek words for love are all translated to the same English word in most instances, they held different meanings for the Greek-speaking readers. 

This differentiation can be helpful for us to think about what love means, especially in discussing the highest form of love, agape love.

Types of Love

C. S. Lewis identified four types of love in the Bible in the 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

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 it can also be very powerful.

Eros 

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

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 it 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 that there is no greater agape than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Agape

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 agape can be accompanied by other types of love, 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 are able to 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. Her passions for Biblical study and creativity collide in her writing. Her debut novel Wraithwood releases Nov. 7, 2020. She has had 150+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.


Originally published December 20, 2019.