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An Analysis of 
Agape Love

Part I - Incentives

The Bible speaks of different kinds of love. Perhaps the most dominant usage of the word "love" in Western society refers essentially to sexual love but is not found in the New Testament. One kind of love which the Bible does speak of is a friendship sort of love. This is expressed by the greek word "phileo". It is a preferential type of love and not much different than a person saying that they love chocolate icecream. "Agape" love however is the most common form of love in the Bible. It might be more likened to the sacrificial love a parent has for their child regardless of whether such love is reciprocated. It is the love which drives one to save the helpless, even driving one to help one's enemies. Phileo love tends to be focussed on how you feel about someone else. But Agape love focusses on how you can meet the other person's needs.

After his resurrection Jesus visited Peter who had denied him three times prior to the crucifixion. Peter, ashamed of his unfaithfulness, couldn't bring himself to acknowledge agape love towards Jesus. The exchange went as the following:

Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love (agape) me more than these?"
"Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love (phileo)you."
Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love (agape) me?"
He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you."
Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."
The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love (phileo) me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love (phileo) me?"
He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love (phileo)you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."
Peter could only admit to preferring Jesus as a friend, for he felt that he failed to demonstrate agape love towards him. However Jesus did provide a way for him to show his love - through obedience. One way our Agape love is revealed to the Lord is by our obedience. Jesus said, "Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me." John 14:21

Agape Love is self-sacrificial.

John 15:13 "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."

What is implied is that such love is not based upon personal incentives. Such a person is not asking "what do I get out of it". Notice for example the Apostle Paul's attitude towards his unbelieving Jewish brethren:

"I speak the truth in Christó I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spiritó I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race,  the people of Israel." Romans 9:1-4
Which also reflects Moses' attitude as well saying, "please forgive their sinó but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written."Exodus 32:32

If it were possible for you, as a Christian, to give up your salvation and go to hell on behalf of someone else, would you do it? That's agape love.

The fact is that most Christians, not to mention the rest of the people in the world, fail to have that degree of love. Nor does God really expect you to have that degree of love. Certainly not as developing disciples. For we notice throughout the gospels and the letters many incentives are given to motivate people towards a faith and lifestyle pleasing to God. In fact Biblical faith is described thusly, "without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." Heb 11:6 Such "rewards" are positive incentives for seeking God. Many of Jesus' parables speak of the positive incentives of seeking God such as the Parable of the hidden treasure, "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field." Mat 13:44 And he also uses negative incentives warning people of the judgement to come and the potential of going to hell fire, such as in his parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man or the parable of the Dragnet. What is apparent is that he is trying to draw out people through their desires for personal gain and self-preservation. However consider his parable of the unworthy servants which I paraphrase in the following from Luke 17:7-10

Suppose you had a slave working all day
And when he comes in, is this what you'd say,
"Come along now and sit down to eat"?
Would he rather not say, "Prepare me some meat,
Get yourself ready and wait on me
For you're my slave and not my employee.
After I've had enough to eat and drink
You can eat too and wash the dishes in the sink"
Would he thank the servant cause he did what he was told?
He certainly would not. (At least in days of old)
So when you've finished working, make this declaration:
"We are unworthy servants; we've only done our obligation."

The rewards that God gives in service to him are not based upon his obligation to us as if we were employees. For we are not employees but slaves. We should serve God not because of some incentive but rather because that is what we were meant to be - servants of God. God does reward us, but it is done graciously and not out of obligation. Shouldn't we behave as children of God because that is what we are? Yes indeed. But such an attitude is perhaps born of maturity. For even parents need remind children to "act their age."

And what of the negative incentive of the fear of going to hell? We notice John mentions, "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." 1 John 4:18  The person with perfect agape love is not driven by their fear of condemnation. Though it may be driven out of a fear for the well-being of others.  "For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship." Romans 8:15 And indeed "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" anyway. Rom 8:1 But let us not equate having no fear with agape love. For many have no fear of God and no fear of condemnation and yet will go to hell. But as we've seen in the case of Paul and Moses above that if they could help those they love such love overcomes even fears of eternal condemnation.

Thus incentives whether positive or negative are unnecessary to motivate the one with agape love to do what is right.

See also Christian Hedonism

The Berean Christian Bible Study Resources