Traditional understandings are hard to overthrow. There are strongholds that have the appearance of legitimacy so they are honored and accepted without question. They tend to provide emotional security which is really only the security of the familiar.
What does Biblical agape mean? Is it a high and holy love that is an act of one’s will? Is it the God-type of love which only God has and which we can only experience as it unconditionally comes from God?
To answer this question, let’s take a look at John’s Gospel. In John 3 there are three verses which have the word agape in them. Here they are:
The Father loved (agape – egapesen) the world:
John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
The world loved (agape – egapesan) darkness:
John 3:19 “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.
The Father loves (agape – agapa) the Son:
John 3:35 “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand.
Each verse uses agape (love) as a verb. Yet, the objects of the love are dissimilar and the effects of the love differ. In 3:16 a holy person, God, loves (agape) an alienated and wicked cosmos. Motivated by holy love, God redeems it. Three verses later (3:19) rebellious humanity loves (agape) darkness and, motivated by misplaced (bad) love, rejects the light. John the Baptist testified in 3:35 that the holy Father loves His holy Son. Motivated by holy love (agape) the Father invested authority in Him.
Agape, the common thread, refers to the same emotion: love. This same emotion is provoked by, and directed towards, three separate objects: the world, darkness, and Jesus. Note that love motivates two very different types of beings: God is holy (3:16,35), lost humanity is not (3:19).
It is the same emotion: agape.
Is John 3 An Anomaly?
No, it is not. The same truths are discovered in the Scriptures as regards other emotions. Take a look at the way anger, fear, joy, and jealousy are described in the sacred writings.
A righteous and loving person may get angry at the right thing, something over which a righteous and loving person should get angry..
They were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and come forward!” And He said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” But they kept silent. After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored. (Mark 3:2-5)
A wicked and selfish person may also get angry, but for the wrong reasons.
This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20)
The same is true with the emotion of fear. We hate fear, but some types of fear are good. Here’s an example of good fear that needs to be embraced:
I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him! (Luke 12:4-5)
This is a verse describing a fear that should be overcome:
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. (1 John 4:18)
Consider joy. In the following verses you can see perverse joy and holy joy:
Who delight in doing evil and rejoice in the perversity of evil (Proverbs 2:14)
Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles (Proverbs 24:17)
Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)
The same is true with the emotion of jealousy.
For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. (2 Corinthians 11:2)
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. (James 3:14-16)
Now, let’s see if we can agree to this: both good anger and bad anger feel like anger; good fear or bad fear feel like fear. So also does good joy or bad joy feel like joy, and good jealousy or bad jealousy like jealousy. In the same way, good love and bad love feel like love.
The agape in John 3 is speaking of the same emotion whether it is from God towards the world, or from God towards His Son, or if it is humanity loving darkness rather than the light because their deeds are evil.
All emotions can vary in intensity. There can be great joy, or little joy; great anger or little anger, great love or little love – but they feel the same although the strength of the emotion may differ. A grain of salt tastes the same as a pinch of salt, but one is easier to recognize as salt. Moving air can be a refreshing breeze or a destructive hurricane, but it is still air in motion.
Love may differ in degree, but the “taste” remains the same. The amount of love can be measured by the actions that love provokes. Humanity’s misplaced love of darkness is so strong that it causes them to reject the light. God’s overwhelming agape for us provoked Him to give His only Son for our redemption. The Father’s rich appreciation for His Son motivated Him to invest authority in Jesus.
God’s agape for you is strong. It feels like “love” to Him and provokes actions that reveal His heart. By faith receive the answer to the conundrum: agape means “love” and God’s omnipotent love is triggered by you.
Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)