What are the characteristics of agape love (1 Corinthians 13)? What kind of love is agape? It is unconditional and sacrificial like God’s love for man (John 3:16). Read or listen to this chapter from Your Marriage God’s Way to find out.
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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.
The biggest problem with this incorrect understanding is that it completely contradicts the way Scripture presents love (agape – for the Greek). It’s not a feeling or emotion. Agape is a choice, an act of the will. We choose whether we do or don’t love. God can command us to show this kind of love because we do, in fact, have control over it. Two of agape’s characteristics make this clear.
Agape Is Unconditional
Phileo is conditional. Two friends might have phileo for each other because of qualities they share or circumstances that bring them together, but if those qualities or circumstances change, their phileo for each other might also change.
In contrast, agape is unconditional. It 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.
Hosea Pursuing Gomer
The Old Testament provides a beautiful picture of agape’s unconditional nature. In fact, if a husband asked me, “Pastor, how far should I be willing to go in my love for my wife?,” I would tell him to read the book of Hosea (chapters 1 and 3 specifically). The prophet Hosea’s story began when God told him to marry a woman named Gomer as an object lesson about God’s relationship with Israel: “The Lord said to Hosea: ‘Go, take yourself a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry, for the land has committed great harlotry by departing from the Lord’” (Hosea 1:2).
We don’t know whether Gomer was already a harlot when Hosea married her or she became one later, but at some point, Gomer left Hosea—either to resume her career as a harlot or to pursue adulterous relationships. Eventually she found herself destitute and she either sold herself or someone else sold her into slavery. We know this was a sexual slavery, akin to human trafficking today, because God commanded Hosea, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by a lover and is committing adultery” (Hosea 3:1). Notice the present—versus past— tense of the verse. Hosea was to love Gomer even while she was in an adulterous relationship.
In obedience to God, Hosea purchased Gomer back from slavery and restored her to her position as his wife. It is significant that God not only instructed Hosea to return to Gomer. He commanded him to love her: “Go again, love a woman.” Going back to Gomer after her unfaithfulness would have required an unimaginable amount of forgiveness and grace, but Hosea had to go above and beyond and love her as well. This is unconditional love. This is agape.
Did Hosea obey? Did Gomer respond? The context would indicate that they did because the account is presented as a parallel to the love story between God and His people. Let’s see how the story ends: “Afterward the children of Israel [represented by Gomer] shall return and seek the Lord their God…I [God] will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely” (Hosea 3:5; 14:4). The parallel shows a repentant bride and a husband who liberally loves and forgives. It is a wonderful picture of what can take place in even the most broken marriages when a husband will agape his wife. Let me give you an example of such a situation.
A Modern Day Hosea and Gomer
Katie and I have some dear friends I’ll call Brian and Jennifer, and they gave me permission to share their Hosea and Gomer story. Much of their testimony revolves around Jennifer’s unfaithfulness to Brian early in their marriage before they were Christians. Jennifer was running around on Brian, even living with other men for stretches of time. Days went by when Brian didn’t know where Jennifer was or how she was doing.
As Brian and Jennifer share their testimony, there is one point at which Jennifer always becomes emotional. She shares how she had been with a man for a period of time and came home hoping to have pushed Brian far enough that he would divorce her. Jennifer didn’t know that while she was gone, Brian had become a Christian. Though Brian recognized the sin in Jennifer’s life, he also recognized the sin in his own life. He knew he needed a Savior just as much as Jennifer. As a result, he was willing to forgive her. When Jennifer walked in, Brian was sitting in a chair reading his Bible. Looking up at her, he said, “I’m so glad you’re home, because I was so worried about you.”
Just as Hosea’s unconditional love for Gomer finally won her back, Brian’s unconditional love for Jennifer won her back. She became a Christian and is one of the godliest women we know. Over the decades of their marriage, this couple has faithfully served Christ and furthered His kingdom. God used Brian’s agape to redeem Jennifer and make her an instrument for His glory.
Agape Is Sacrificial
Agape is an action. It’s about what we are willing to do. First Corinthians 13 is known as the Bible’s love chapter, and in verses 4-7 we read,
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.
How many words here describe feelings and emotions? None! How many words are verbs or action words describing what love is willing to do? All of them. Love is what love does.
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 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 clearly strangers. So why did the Samaritan help him? Was it all the good times they had shared together? All the wonderful things the injured man had done in the past for the Samaritan? Some expectation 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
Up to this point we have discussed the positive elements of agape, but for a full understanding of this term, we must be aware of the fact it is used one other way in Scripture. Interestingly, 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 little man will not sacrifice for sin.
Agape Love for the World
First 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 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 Is God’s Love for Man
First 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 be worded: 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, 1 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.
Becoming a Father Helped Me Understand Agape
I never understood the extent of God’s unconditional, sacrificial agape until I became a father. Children can be cruel. When they rebel against their parents, how do most parents respond? Do they stop loving their children? No. I remember a conversation with our oldest child, Rhea, who was seven at the time. She asked me if I would still love her even if she did certain things she considered to be terrible. Each time she asked a question, she started out, “Would you still love me if I…?” Finally, I told her, “Yes, I love you so much that there is nothing you could ever do that would make me love you any less. Truthfully, I love you so much I don’t know how I could even love you more.”
When I said this to Rhea I meant it, and I know other parents would say the same to their children. That is agape. And the depth of God’s agape becomes more vivid to us when we contrast our agape with God’s. If I, a fallen, sinful, selfish man with imperfect love, can demonstrate this kind of love toward my children, how much greater must God’s agape be for us, considering His perfection? Considering He is love?
I love Rhea because she is my daughter, but the far greater unconditional and sacrificial nature of God’s agape was demonstrated when He was willing to sacrifice His Son for unloving sinners who lived in active rebellion against Him and adopt them so they could be His sons and daughters. That is agape; that is the kind of love God has for us.