What is love?
We have asserted that God is love in some way that is essential to his nature but the obvious question arises: what does this mean? There are few concepts as notoriously difficult to precisely describe as that of `love’. The situation in English is particularly difficult. For instance, one can use the word love to speak both of a husband’s love of his wife as well as his wife’s love of chocolate — two very different, although related, meanings of the word `love’. Moreover, the English word `love’ encompasses a much wider variety of meanings than these.
In the Greek of the New Testament the situation is slightly different. There were four words in common use that would all come under the rubric of the English word `love’: eros, storge, philia and agape. The first, eros, was primarily used for physical or sexual love and does not appear in the New Testament. The second, storge, connoted family affection and particularly that of children for their parents although it could also be used, for instance, to denote the love of a people for their ruler. This word also does not appear in the New Testament although a related word does appear once.
The most common word for love in the Greek of the period surrounding the writing of the New Testament was philia. This is a complicated word which could be used for the love of a husband and wife or for the love of friendship — the verb philein can even mean `to kiss’. Philia and its related verb, are used several times in the New Testament — sometimes to describe important types of love.
However, the most common word for love in the New Testament and the word used by John when describing God is agape. The noun agape and the verb agapan are not common in pre-Christian classical Greek and when they do occur they do not have a particularly noble connotation. Yet the writers of the New Testament seemed to seize upon agape as a particularly Christian word for a particularly Christian conception of `love’. In fact, it is fair to say that, apart from a few exceptions, agape seems to have been adopted by the New Testament writers as a sort of technical term.
While a careful study of the word agape and its cognates would probably be illuminating, we need not get lost in such detail. If we take as our starting point that agape is being used as a technical term by the New Testament writers then we can turn to the New Testament itself to discern exactly what agape means and, in particular, what John means when he says `God is love’–ho theos agape estin.
In fact, John answers our question directly in the very same letter:
`We have come to know love by this: that Jesus laid down his life for us; …’
and also, famously, in his gospel:
`For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son …’
Jesus himself expressed the same idea:
`No one has greater love than this — that one lays down his life for his friends.’
Similar sentiment is found throughout the New Testament — Paul echoes it also:
`…live in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God.’
The emphasis here is clear: love is exemplified in Jesus’ sacrifice — in fact we have not really understood love until we have seen Jesus’ sacrifice. Love is self-sacrificial. Love is the laying down of one’s life for another.