Music, movies, and social media all contribute to shaping the world’s view of love. It is regularly confused with lust and usually driven by the quest to gratify our own selfish desires. As Christians we need to recognize the hypocrisy of that worldly mindset. The defining quality of God’s love is that He set aside what rightfully belongs to Him in order to benefit those who rightly deserve His judgment and have no right to ask for anything (cf. Romans 5:8; Philippians 2:1–8).
New Testament Greek uses the word agapē to describe that kind of love. It is completely unselfish, with no taking involved. It seeks another’s supreme good, no matter what the cost. Agapē was exemplified perfectly by Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. He demonstrated His great love by suffering God’s wrath as a righteous substitute for sinners who deserved that wrath (cf. Romans 5:8)—the ultimate selfless act. His call on us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him (Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23) reveals why agapē love is the greatest virtue of the Christian life.
The authenticating mark of our Christianity, before an unbelieving world, is our love for other believers. Jesus affirmed this when He said; “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
But what does this kind of love look like? A brief survey of the one anothers in the New Testament gives an excellent picture. We are commanded to: Build up one another (Romans 14:19); serve one another (Galatians 5:13); bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2); be subject to one another (Ephesians 5:21); forgive one another (Colossians 3:13); teach one another (Colossians 3:16); comfort one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18); rebuke one another (Titus 1:13); encourage one another to do good (Hebrews 10:24-25); confess our sins to one another (James 5:16); pray for one another (James 5:16); and be hospitable to one another (1 Peter 4:9-10).
That type of love was rare in pagan Greek literature because the traits agapē portrays—unselfishness, self-giving, willful devotion, concern for the welfare of others—were mostly disdained in ancient Greek culture as signs of weakness.
However, the New Testament declares agapē to be the character trait around which all others revolve. The apostle John writes, “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16). Jesus Himself attaches great importance to love in His answer to the Jewish lawyer:
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36–40).
It therefore makes sense that the first “fruit of the Spirit is love” (Galatians 5:22), and that love for other believers is the primary way people will know that we are believers (John 13:35).
Agapē love is so much a part of personal holiness that John asserts, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). A person who does not demonstrate real love in his life is not a believer. Without love we cannot presume to have eternal life, much less be a person of integrity.