At the heart of the Gospel lies Agape Love.
God is Agape Love (1 John 4:8), his very substance is Agape Love. Therefore, he loves everyone with Agape Love (John 3:16). God revealed his Agape Love through Jesus Christ and it is most clearly seen in Jesus sacrificing himself for us (Rom 5:8). Agape Love is greater than hope and faith (1 Cor 13:13). Agape Love is what we should seek above all else (Col 3:12-14). Agape love is the summary of the whole Old Testament law (Rom 13:8; Gal 5:14). Jesus summarized his teaching in Agape Love (Mt 22:37-40).
What makes Agape Love special?
In the time of Jesus a few Greek words for love existed (e.g. phileō, epipotheō). The authors of the New Testament chose the rather uncommon Greek word Agape (ἀγάπη) to avoid the common Greek words for love which were associated with Greek and pagan ideas, which were primarily emotional or sexual (Thiselton 2015:558). They filled Agape with new meaning and thereby defined Agape Love as the love they saw revealed through Jesus Christ. They not only understood love to be one among many attributes of God (e.g. holy, just) but rather understood Agape Love to be the essence of God and all other attributes as secondary manifestations of Agape Love. God’s holiness, his righteousness, his justice, his mercy are all expressions of him being Agape Love in his essence. Everything God does (no matter if it is reigning, judging or something else) is characterized by his Agape Love.
But what is Agape Love?
Jesus demonstrated through his life how Agape Love looks like in action. Everything Jesus did was driven by Agape Love. Paul defined Agape Love in his first letter to the Corinthians with 15 Greek words. While reading his description of Agape Love we should keep two things in mind:
- God is Agape Love. Therefore, by defining Agape Love Paul describes the character of God at the same time. God is like Agape Love.
- Jesus calls us to love others with Agape Love. Therefore, we should love others with this kind of Agape Love as described by Paul.
After reading many commentaries of leading modern scholars and of the church fathers about Agape Love I wrote my own paraphrased version of 1 Cor 13:4-8. Every single one of the 15 Greek words is rich in meaning. My hope is that this paraphrased translation will help highlighting some of the nuances that often get lost in mainline translations.
Agape Love patiently bears hurts, inflicted by others, without retaliation (makrothymei).
Agape Love intentionally treats others with respect and compassion (chrēsteuetai).
Agape Love does not begrudge the status and success of another, but delights in it for the sake of the other (zēloi).
Agape Love doesn’t heap praise on itself (perpereuetai).
Agape Love doesn’t behave arrogantly and is not inflated with its own importance (physioutai).
Agape Love doesn’t treat others indecently, but shows honor and consideration for others (aschēmonei).
Agape Love doesn’t seek its own advantage, but the good of others. Agape doesn’t insist on its own way (zētei ta heautēs).
Agape Love doesn’t react with offended bitterness, aggressive insults, or quick-tempered anger when offended by others (paroxynetai).
Agape Love keeps no record of wrongs (logizetai ou to kakon).
Agape Love does not take pleasure in unjust, sinful behavior, neither in others nor in oneself, it does not praise injustice or behavior that contradicts the will of God and the example of Christ. But it joyfully celebrates truth, which makes it honest and open because it has nothing to hide (ou chairei epi tē adikia de synchairei tē alētheia).
Agape Love always bears the faults of others (stegei).
Agape Love never ceases to have faith in God’s ability to bring good out of evil (pisteuei).
Agape Love refuses to take failure as final and always trusts in the ultimate success of God’s plan (elpizei).
Agape Love endures through all kinds of challenges and never dies (hypomenei).
Agape Love never comes to an end. Agape Love never fails (oudepote piptei).
While many people might see love like this as weak and stupid or a noble and unreachable ideal, this is the kind of love which characterizes God and should characterize his children (John 13:35). God invites us to join his mission to redeem this broken world through being people filled with and guided by Agape Love.
Thiselton, A. C. (2015). Love. In The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (p. 558). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.