What is love? Writers and poets have tried for centuries to define it, to capture its essence. Even the biblical writers were captivated by it. 1 Corinthians 13 has been called the love chapter. There, Paul extols the virtues of love. It is patient. It is kind. It is forgiving. It doesn’t remember wrongs, and on he goes. John has been called the apostle of love. For him, love is part of the very essence of God Himself, for he says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
But in all this, what is love?
The New Testament uses two words to describe love: agape and philos. Most Bible teachers define agape as “God’s kind of love” and philos as “brotherly love.” Based on that, they take passages like John 21:15-18 and preach that our love for God must be of the highest order, and that poor Peter at that point in his life had mere philos for Jesus, rather than the agape Jesus desired.
It is certainly true that we should love God completely. We should love him with our heart, soul, and mind. But I think the distinction between agape and philos is overstated. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, Amnon “loved” (agape) his sister Tamar. In fact, his love for her is asserted twice, in 2 Sam. 13:1 and 2 sam. 13:15! Clearly, agape, at least in those verses, do not mean “God’s kind of love.”
In fact, both words are much like the English word “love.” They have a range of meanings that includes everything from attraction to affection, parental to friendly concern, and everything in between. Love can be positive when directed at God. It is negative when directed at evil. The best way to understand love is not to look at a definition, but to look at how God Himself, who is love, demonstrated it to us.
Most translations render John 3:16 as “For God so loved the world.” But we agree with the NET Bible, which offers this translation “This is the way God loved the world . . .” Love is not an emotion. Does anyone think that God had the warm fuzzies for the creation that had turned its back on Him and declared Him its enemy? When Jesus demanded we love our enemy, was He saying we should like them a lot? Of course not. Love is an action. How did God love us? By doing for us what we could not do for ourselves: by sending His Son to take our place on the Cross.
Love is that which looks to its object and in grace seeks the best for it. It is distinguished from mere duty in that it is accompanied by an emotion, but that emotion has nothing to do with liking someone. That emotion is concern or compassion. We see that clearly in John 3:16. God looked on lost and dying world, and desiring what was best for us, in His mercy, compassion, and grace, He bankrupted heaven on our behalf. He gave the one thing that only He could give.
Whatever word we use to describe this, be it love, agape, or philos, the command to love is a command precisely because it is something we choose to do. We can put the needs of our enemies before our own and seek their best. Love, then, is grace in action. Of course, if God is love, then we cannot give love until we know Love, and the only way to know love is to accept the love He gave us in His Son. It is only when we come with completely open hands, offering nothing to God but receiving His grace, that we can understand the unconditional acceptance that is the very essence of the most powerful force in the world.