The New Testament describes a rather unique understanding of love with the Greek term, agape. It is particularly helpful to note some seven distinctives in contrast to the normal understanding of the English word, “love”.
1. Agape acts: In 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, Paul described agape all in verbs in the original language, although most English translations may use adjectives in places in the passage. It was demonstrated toward believers according to Romans 5:8 by Jesus doing something: “But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that in our being set sinners Christ died for us.”
2. Agape is unconditional: It is nondiscriminating. It is held the same toward everyone equally, since it is based upon the character of the one doing the loving and not upon the worthiness of the one or ones being loved. This is a key to its use in John 3:16. Whether this love of God is accepted or spurned by any given person, God loves everyone equally and alike. Further, only this kind of love can be a love toward enemies, as Jesus commanded in Matthew 5:44. It is an unconquerable goodwill which seeks the highest good for another person no matter how either warm or hurtful the relationship may be.
3. Agape thinks: It can be well translated “esteem” and denote love that comes from reason. It is loving someone because of what you know about him or her (or in spite of what you know.) It recognizes worthiness, if it is there. It is a thoughtful, constant, and dependable kind of love that is stabilized in one’s thinking and not in the emotions only. It starts in the mind and then expresses itself emotionally.
4. Agape decides: Since a believer is commanded in Matthew 5:43-44 and 1 Peter 1:22 to love others, he or she must decide to do it. This involves volition, that is, one’s free will. Agape makes a decision to love. This offers tremendous security to the one being loved, since it is not based upon changeable circumstances but upon commitment of the one who is loving. Such love is not “fallen into”, as some regarding “falling in love” that has no choice about it. This is the kind of love a husband is commanded to have toward his wife in Ephesians 5:25 and Colossians 3:19.
5. Agape sacrifices: It involves selfless giving, even when there is no response from the one being loved. Even when affection is not returned, agape continues to give. This also can be seen in John 3:16. It gives to fulfill basic needs of others without any motive of person reward.
6. Agape believes: Since it “believes all things” (1 Cor.13:7), it is not “natural” to the fleshly nature but requires faith. Love of enemies requires faith in Jesus Christ and His words.
7. Agape communicates: It does not stay silent (except perhaps for wrongs done against it). Someone with genuine agape will say “I love you.” Jesus sought to teach this to Peter in John 21:15-17, when He used the verb for agape in the first part of verses 15 and 17. Peter’s response was to use the more passionate and broader term, philia (in its verb form). In verse 17, Peter found Jesus using his term and was grieved, as it began to dawn upon him what Jesus was trying to say in His purpose for using agape with these seven distinctives.
Agape is a positive, constant mental attitude of willfully choosing to love another unconditionally with “no strings attached” and sacrificially. A great amount of feelings and emotions will come from it but are not used to produce. Emotions can shift and change, come and go, but agapenever comes to an end.
This genuine, Christian agape is God’s motivation and basis for salvation for all who believe. It can only truly be known and experienced by believers in Jesus Christ, and “he that does not love [with agape-love] does not know God,” because God is best characterized by agape (1 John 4:8). Hence, agape toward God and others is true evidence that one has genuinely found faith in Jesus Christ and eternal life.