Did you know this? I didn’t know this! In preparing for a study of 1 John, I was doing some word research to share with those in the study. As I studied the word love, which is so prevalent in 1 John, I came to see that John specifically uses one word for love in almost the entire letter – AGAPE. Ok, maybe you did know that…but keep reading.
I’ve heard this word many times, received teaching on it, and have shared on it myself. Agape is one of the Greek words for love in Scripture. There are four different words in the Bible for our one word in English and they each have a different meaning.
- Storge— think family love, or the love a pet. It’s a love anyone can feel and it’s comfortable and comforting. C.S. Lewis described it as a soft blanket that wraps around you.
- Philia or phileo—think friendship bond – community and care, at one level this can be a friendship born from shared experiences to that deep friendship you have with a friend you haven’t seen for years yet can pick up right where you left off.
- Eros— sexual, romantic love, which can be amazing but it’s also distorted at times, fluid at others, and is conditional. It’s still a beautiful thing, but often not a lasting state in a relationship.
- Agape—unconditional love – sacrificial, unbiased, limitless
One commentary pointed out something that I hadn’t realized before. He stated that Jesus used the word agape in the New Testament but the word agape is not found in this form in the Old Testament. Not that the word didn’t exist, but that it hadn’t appeared in Scripture up to this point. So I dove deeper and discovered that the word agape is first used in Scripture by Jesus as he spoke to his disciples. Before this, there isn’t record of it. Did Jesus introduce his disciples to a new way to understand this word for love?
John uses this new word often in his gospel along with the word phileo, while the other gospels don’t use it as much. For instance, Mark uses the word agape 4 times in his gospel but John uses it 27 times in his. Why? It made me wonder, did John call himself the one Jesus loved (agape) because he actually “got it”. Did he realize the incredible love Jesus had for them, that Jesus loved unconditionally, sacrificially, and fully while others were still didn’t quite see it like he did?
Agape is directionless, holds no biases. All the other “loves” have a direction to them but agape is love open to all. Agape is limitless, endless. The more we love, the more it expands. Agape is condition-less and is fully experienced when we let go of conditions and limits.
John didn’t write his gospel until much later in life, in fact he wrote his letters around the same time as his gospel. As he reflected on the story of Jesus, he seems overwhelmed with the thought of how much Jesus loved him. His identity isn’t John – apostle; it’s John – loved by Jesus. His first letter is FULL of the use of the word agape. He desperately wants the people to understand that Jesus’ love is what sets them apart.
As I got to thinking about this word and where we find it in the gospels, I was reminded of Jesus’ early morning conversation with Peter on a beach after the resurrection which is only recorded in John 21:15-17 . As Jesus asked Peter, do you agape me – Peter answers, I phileo you. This is often used against Peter but – think about it – agape is a such a big word. Peter had totally messed up and he doesn’t comprehend that Jesus could have agape love for him but he knows phileo love (a deep bond love) and that’s what he uses. (Keep in mind that Peter is the one that John Mark is writing for – and Mark uses agape only 4 times. Therefore, my impression is that Peter doesn’t relay this word often in his sharing with John Mark because he stayed true to his walk at that time.) It isn’t until he is filled with the Holy Spirit that Peter seems to fully understand the kind of love Jesus has for everyone.
As the conversation goes forward, Jesus closes with – Peter, do you phileo me? Jesus isn’t compromising, he’s speaking a word that Peter does understand. His three questions offset the three denials, yet Jesus is also reminding Peter how to love. Jesus is like that; he pushes us to new understandings yet he is willing to meet us where we are.
As John recounts the story, I think he shares the difference in the use of the words for love because it matters. John hits this home in 1 John as he seeks to help his readers know that agape love is the element that sets Jesus apart, it’s the love that changes lives, and it’s the love we are called to share as his followers.
Our love for others is our grateful response to the love God first demonstrated to us. 1 John 4:19 (TPT)
So, no, Jesus probably didn’t create a new word culturally, but he gave it a whole new intentional meaning that was meant to help us realize his deep love for us. He was the embodiment of Agape, living among us. His love is forgiving and open. No conditions, no limits, no biases. Just love. And He loves me and He loves you like this! This overwhelms me, humbles me, and challenges me to be more like Him. What about you?
Jesus loves you with full Agape – how does knowing that affect you?
You are loved.