Agape is perhaps the most commonly known Greek word among Christians today, and rightfully so. Many sermons and devotionals have been written on the subject, and it jumps off the pages of the New Testament. Central to the Gospel is the call to love others, expressed in various ways. Understanding these commands and teachings on love requires grasping the word family to which agape belongs.
Most Christians are familiar with two other related Greek words: phileo and eros. Phileo pertains to affection and friendly attachments. For instance, Philadelphia is known as the city of brotherly love because its name is derived from phileo (affection) and adelphos (literally “of the same womb,” referring to siblings). Eros is clearly connected to erotic and sensual intimacy. A third, less commonly known word is storge, which refers to familial love. In contrast to these, agape stands apart.
While eros represents sexual love and storge symbolizes familial love, and phileo denotes friendship love, what distinguishes agape is the recipients of its love. In Matthew 5:43-46, Jesus stated: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”
The call of agape is to love anyone, even our enemies. Pause and reflect on that for a moment. Jesus wasn’t instructing you to like your enemies, be nice to them, ignore them, or occasionally do something kind for them. He calls us to love them. In fact, he shows that “love” is nothing extraordinary in this world. Everyone loves someone. Everyone, even the people you may hate and despise. Remove yourself from your environment, upbringing, and the foundational belief system you hold as true. Put yourself in the same situation as the people who drive you crazy, and you’ll realize that they also “love” and probably love just as many people and different kinds of people as you do. “Even IRS agents do the same.” Or “Even your ex does the same.”
What sets agape apart from the other loves that come naturally to humans is that we love not only those who have given us no reason to love them but also those who have provided ample reasons not to love them. Jesus’ words in Matthew carry more weight and have a deeper impact than we often allow. After 2000 years of familiarity with Jesus’ words, and despite the numerous sermons and devotionals, most people (if they’re honest with themselves) haven’t indeed allowed these words to confront and shape them.
This is why agape is often defined as “unconditional love.” It’s a fair definition, but we must fully grasp its implications. To love unconditionally means that nothing someone you love can do will jeopardize your love for them. Similarly, it also means that there is no reason (condition) for you to withhold love from someone. Regardless of the nature of their life, the culmination of their choices, their treatment and assumptions about you, or their political preferences, nothing, no matter how many justifiable and authentic reasons there may be, no matter the destruction and hurt they have caused, is enough to justify not loving them.
Of course, we all like to think we are good at this, that we love everyone as they ought to be loved. But Jesus seemed to see things differently. He lived among people drenched in Scripture. The people he engaged with were all familiar with the common debate of the time about what the greatest commandments were. Practically every Jew agreed that loving God with all of ourselves was the highest command. The debate then centered around, however, what was of next importance. The idea, I think, was, “Alright, we all agree on that, but what is the next one that sets the course of what it looks like to love God on this physical plane of existence?” Jesus was clear that, of the 612 other Old Testament commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself” was the next most important. When answering this question, Jesus said loving your “neighbor” as yourself is “like” “loving God” and that “on these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40).
It’s striking to me that this discussion happened in chapter 22 of Matthew while Jesus first taught about loving your neighbor and enemies in Matthew 5:43-46. Jesus first tied agape to being like God: loving people you have no reason to. Throughout the Jewish scriptures, there’s the upward calling to be holy like God is holy, especially in Leviticus, a book all about what it means to be a priest (Leviticus 19:2; Leviticus 20:7; Leviticus 20:26; Leviticus 21:8). In Matthew 5, Jesus taught that to be like God means to ultimately love wholly those whom the rest of the world would justify not loving because that is what God is like. Jesus’ parables often depict this, perhaps no better depicted than in his parables like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan (or perhaps a better variation for our time to better understand the compelling nature of Jesus’ teaching, The Good Socialist).
Setting aside our systematic theologies and social contexts for a moment, we can clearly see that this teaching is more than a supplement to Jesus’ ministry. It was the essence of Jesus’ work in this world. God incarnate went out of His way to express His love for humanity, all of it, by loving His enemies as He would love His neighbors as Himself. While hanging on the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In the midst of excruciating, unjustified suffering at the hands of the people He loved, forgotten, denied, and betrayed, Jesus still saw people as people. While they may have perceived Him as a threat, he refused to reciprocate and instead remained steadfast in loving them. Even while they were killing him, he was praying for their forgiveness.
This, I believe, is what the Gospel is actually about. Not atonement or getting out of hell or church growth. It’s about changing how we view, approach, and treat the humans on this earth that we share our existence with. In John 13:34, Jesus gives his one and only “new commandment” – “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” This is eerily similar to “loving your neighbor as yourself.” What Jesus did was change the target from your neighbor to “one another” and from the comparison of how we love ourselves to how Jesus’ love looked like.
In fact, the New Testament goes out of its way to define agape as exactly this. The Apostle Paul said in Romans 5:8, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” John clarifies what he wrote in John 13:34 in his epistle when he says, “By this we know love (agape), that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). In that same epistle, he even states that if you claim to love God but don’t love someone, then you’re lying to yourself: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20). In James’ epistle, he emphasizes that claiming to have faith in God means caring for others:
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).
The implications of such a kind of love, if we were to really trust and live it, are terrifying. It means the grudges and judgments we often use to justify our distance and retaliation no longer hold any weight. It means that there is no reason not to forgive someone. It means that we should always be open to those who are not open to us. It means that amid mistreatment, we still hold onto our love for others and pray for their redemption. It means that we act like God does and do what He did. And if we’re not sure what that looks like, then we look at the Gospel and embody Jesus just as God incarnated with us.
This kind of love is terrifying because it means we have to figure out what to do with all of the what-if’s and yeah-but’s. It means our lack of love for someone is more about us than them. But I think we all already knew this.