This word begins the list in Gal. 5:22-23. From it flows all the other virtues. Here is a basic word study of the noun, with application to your life.
Love is a fruit or produce or result of living in the Spirit. It should be growing naturally-supernaturally out of your heart and soul and mind. Here’s what the reality behind the word means in your life.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (NIV).
“Fruit” is singular, which means each fruit grows together and feeds from the same life-source. They are united, one collective. But it is okay to enumerate them one at a time, as nine fruits (plural). Just don’t separate them by highlighting one and ignoring another one in your life. They all grow equally strong together, as a unit, by the indwelling and power of the Spirit.
We now look at this wonderful term and the reality behind it, point by point.
1.. The basics
The noun agapē (pronounced ah-gah-pay and appears 116 times in the NT) is used here in this verse. Secular literature long before, during and after the New Testament did not absorb this noun, except in one reference. So the early Christians latched on to it and turned it into God’s love in himself, his love for us, and our love for him and each other.
The verb is agapaō (pronounced ah-gah-pah-oh and used 143 times). It is fairly frequent in secular literature before, during, and after the NT writings, but it is synonymous with the other Greek words for “love” or “like.” Only in Christ does it have the quality of divinity and God’s love in the Spirit.
Out of this virtue or fruit flows all the others in Gal. 5:22-23. We will define it after we look at its contexts in the New Testament (see section no. 7).
Let’s see how the noun (and sometimes the verb) is used in the rest of Scripture.
2.. The source of love is God
In two verses in one chapter, the great apostle of love, John, says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). The NT does not say, “God is goodness” nor does it say, “God is patience,” nor “God is kindness.” Yes, God is good and patient and kind, but only the noun love is used as the predicate nominative to describe God; those other wonderful virtues are predicate adjectives. This is the greatest revelation of his attributes and character. No, we should not say those other attributes are somehow a tiny, minimal step inferior, because God’s attributes are full and complete and perfect and not at all “less than” other attributes. But there is something striking about the sentence “God is love.” It best describes the interrelationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are all three righteous and holy and merciful, but love is how they relate to each other at the core.
Agapē reveals his heart for humanity and you personally. Never doubt his deep nature, even when you go through tough times. He was and is and always shall be love. Whoever lives in love lives in God and God lives in him (1 John 4:16). The “love circuit” in our action and soul is complete when we are immersed in his love.
Jesus said that as the Father has loved him, so he has loved his disciples. Now we are to remain in his love (John 15:9). So we are part of the chain of love. The Father loves the Son, and in that way the Son love us. Now all we have to do is receive it and remain in it. This implies that we can walk away from it (cf. Jude 21). No, you should not believe God has stopped loving you just because you don’t feel it on this or that day, but the meaning of v. 9 is much more serious. The clearest way you know that you are not remaining in his love is when you become mean and unkind. Watch out that you don’t develop a hard heart towards your family members and neighbors.
In perhaps the most famous verse in all of the Bible, love is expressed in God giving his greatest and most significant gift: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only and unique Son” (John 3:16). Without God’s initiative, all of humanity would be lost except for a few moral laws here and there, which guides people to not kill themselves, for example. However, they violated his moral law daily, and conflicts and wars and slavery and oppression ensued. They needed a special revelation, and they got it in the greatest revelation of all—His Son, Jesus Christ.
Next, we could not even have his love in the first place until he pours out his love in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). It all starts with God and will climax with him in the eternal kingdom.
God demonstrates his love for us in this way: while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). Someone may die for a good man, but a bad man? Not likely. God’s love was demonstrated. So God loved us while we were bad and were constantly kicking him in the shins (so to speak). Recall that Saul fought against the church of Jesus Christ, until the Lord walloped him on the side of his head. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He had been persecuting the church, and Jesus so identified with his own body (church) that he rebuked Saul as if he had been persecuting Jesus himself.
Nothing shall separate us from the love of God—”neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor nay powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:39, NIV). The words that strike me is “neither present nor future.” Our past has already been dealt with, so don’t dwell on it (Is. 43:18-19). Our present and future need not be feared. This famous section of the epistle to the Romans begins with the timeless claim that we are more the conquerors through him who loved us. God is the source, and then we can have conquering faith that overcomes those beings and things (Rom. 8:37). The love of God must be in Christ Jesus, not by people who talk about his love, but then omit Jesus.
God’s love must be demonstrated. His love is so rich that he is rich in mercy for us, which is demonstrated by his making us alive with Christ Jesus, even while we were dead in our transgression—it is by grace we have been saved (Eph. 2:4-5).
Paul calls us to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of God. However, we are to explore and search for the love of Christ with God’s holy people, not by ourselves. We will know his love that surpasses knowledge so that we all can be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Eph.3:18-19). Once we grasp the love of Christ, God’s fullness fills us. The result of our community search is the highest of all—God himself.
Paul calls us to live the life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice. We can only live the life of love when we realize he loved us first (Eph. 5:2).
Finally, John, says that the Father lavished his love on us, so that we should be called the sons and daughters of God (1 John 3:1). Our new identity as Christians come from God’s love.
3.. Our love for God
It is stunning to me that rarely does the NT say we should initiate our love for God. But it does say it, in a very important verse, and a few others.
The verb “to love” is used in the imperative (command) form, in the most famous summary verses of all the commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matt. 22:37, 39 // Mk. 12:31-33 // Luke 10:27). Jesus said all of the commandments in the Sinai covenant, now obsolete (Heb. 8, 9, 10), are summed up in those two commands, all built and flowing from love.
In John 8:42, Jesus told the antagonistic Jews (not every Jew was antagonistic) that if God were their Father, they would love Jesus, for he came from his Father. So a proper response to belonging to the Father is to love Jesus.
Finally, Jesus asked Peter after the apostle had betrayed his Lord, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” (John 21:15). And “again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” The verbs agapaō and phileō are used in those verses, and they appear to be synonyms, so we should not read too much into them. The point is that Peter was required to love Jesus, and then to feed Jesus’s sheep. Love acts. Love does.
4.. Showing God’s love towards our neighbors.
We cannot show the love of God until we receive it into our hearts. That’s the main point of the second section (no. 2). For example, we cannot show God’s love for our wives until we are married to them. When we are in covenant with them, then we can love them more profoundly and divinely as wives than just as friends.
Yes, John says God is love, but whoever does not love does not know love (1 John 4:8). We are to love our brothers and sisters (in the church) because love come from God. So love first starts with God; he is the source, as noted in the second point.
As noted in the previous section (no. 3), the culmination of our love for God is to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37, 39 // Mk. 12:31-33 // Luke 10:27). Love God first, focus on him, and then it will be easier to love your neighbor.
Paul agrees when he lists some of the Ten Commandments and then points out the obvious: love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:10). If we love our neighbor, we will not commit adultery on him or covet our neighbors’ things.
Jesus denounced the Pharisees for focusing on the smaller things of the law, but neglecting justice and the love of God (Luke 11:42). This is our love for God, which manifests in doing good deeds, like justice or bringing fairness and equity to a condition that favors the privileged and wrongdoing elites.
Jesus said that his new command was that we should love one another, as he has loved us (John 15:12). His command is this: Love one another (John 15:17). Jesus prayed that the Father would love the disciples even as the Father loved the Son (John 17:23). So God’s command to us to love flows from the Father’s love for us.
The greatest expression of agapē is to lay down our life for our friends (John 15:33). John repeats this theme in another famous 3:16: We know what love is because Jesus Christ laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16). So love acts and moves. It is not static and still. That’s the definition of love down here on earth, person to person. Jesus laid down his life for us, and we are expected to do the same for each other. We may not be called to die for each other, but we have to live sacrificially. Alternatively, a soldier may lay down his life for his fellow-soldiers. A soldier flings his body on a grenade to absorb the blast and save his friends, though he was killed. Jesus did that for us. He laid down his life for his friends and absorbed the blast of sin and judgment.
Paul commands us simply to do everything in love (1 Cor. 16:14). If love does not motivate you, be careful. Selfishness may be your moving force, and it can be destructive.
Paul attaches the modifier “sincere” to love (Rom. 12:9; 2 Cor. 6:6; 8:8). It is the adjective anupokritos (pronounced ah-noo-poh-kree-tohss and is used 6 times). It literally means “no hypocrisy” or “without hypocrisy” (the an– prefix is a negation). It is being “without pretense, sincere, genuine” (BDAG). Does this imply that love can be insincere? Yes, but then it ceases to be the love of God but is a counterfeit that merely looks like it. Love can be lost in our broken and distorted humanity if we are not careful. We are under construction. Let his love build you.
Finally in this section, the greatest expression of love for others is in the “Love Chapter”: 1 Cor. 13:4-8. It is recited at wedding ceremonies. It is a list of verbs in the present tense. Here is my translation:
4 Love shows patience; love shows kindness; love does not envy; love does not brag; it does not display arrogance; 5 it does not show rudeness; it does not self-seek; it does not show anger; it does not keep an account of the wrong; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth; 7 it passes over all things in silence, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things; 8 love never fails. (1 Cor. 13:4-8, my tentative translation)
These verses are in the Christian community, and we should not take the wonderful ideas to excess, like the clause “passes over all things in silence.” In some instances, it is wise to speak up and out. But the general rule here is not to point out past sins and failings, but to let them go.
5.. Real love
Love has to be surrounded with other biblical virtues, or else the world system and psychologies would confuse it. Love has righteous and godly and Spirit-filled and Christ-centered contexts.
Love is found in other lists than Gal. 5:22-23 (the following words come from the NIV).
Women will be saved through child-bearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety (1 Tim. 2:15).
Timothy is to set an example in speech, in life (conduct), in love, in faith and in purity (1 Tim. 4:12).
The man of God is to flee vices, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness (1 Tim. 6:11).
The next list is difficult because of the persecutions and sufferings: Paul tells Timothy to know his entire teaching and his way of life, his purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings (2 Tim. 3:10). Are we willing to go through persecutions and sufferings? If we do, we need those other virtues, particularly patience and endurance. Yes, love is important too, because we need to show love during tough times.
Titus was to teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled and sound in faith, in love and endurance (Tit 2:2). We need to be sound or whole in our love. The Greek word for “sound” is the verb hugiainō (pronounced hoo-gee-i-noh [the “g” is hard], and we get our word hygiene from it, and it is used 12 times). It means to be in good physical health, be healthy, to be sound or free from error (BDAG). It can also mean “safe” and “sound.” Our love must be healthy, not toxic or dysfunctional or misguided.
Peter states a long list. We are to make every effort to add to our “faith, goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection, and to mutual affection, love” (2 Pet. 1:5-7, NIV). Paul’s list in Gal. 5:22 begins with love, here Peter build to it. The noun “mutual affection” is the one word philadephia and is used only six times (Rom. 12:10; 1 Thess. 4:9; Heb. 13:1l, and twice here). Sometimes it is translated as “brotherly love, “loving each other as brothers,” “love for your brothers,” and “brotherly kindness.” Then Peter says we can have all those qualities in increasing measure, and they will keep us from being ineffective and unproductive in our knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 8). If we don’t have them, then we are near-sighted and blind, forgetting that we have been cleansed from their past sins (v. 9).
That passage in 2 Pet. 1:5-7) is profound. I’m not clear how that list is compounded and built up on one virtue after another. I could stretch things, but instead I will just accept it. What interests me is that when we don’t have those moral and intellectual virtues, then we will waste our time in our ministries. Most intriguing of all, we will act as though we have forgotten that our past sins have been cleansed. Draw for yourself the connection in the links in Peter’s chain in vv. 5-7.
6.. Other words for love in Greek.
This post is about the fruit of the Spirit and agapē, but let’s quickly cover other words.
The noun philia (pronounced fee-lee-ah and used 1 time) and the verb phileō (pronounced fee-leh-oh and used 25 times) means “friendship” and “friendly love” and “affection”; “love” (Liddell and Scott). Agapē can be a synonym, but usually agapē goes more deeply and more extensively. As noted, the NT writers seized on it and broadened and deepened its meaning. For us today, it has deep theological and relational meaning. It is divine.
The noun storgē (pronounced stohr-gay) means “love, affection of parents and children” (BDAG), and it is used in the negative way astorgos (adjective), which means “unloving, without affection” (the prefix a– is a negation) (see Rom. 1:31; 2 Tim. 3:3). It also appears in the compound philostorgos (pronounced fee-loh-stohr-gohss) in Rom. 12:10. The NIV translates it as “be devoted”; KJV and NKJV: “kindly affectioned”; NLT: “love each other”; Message: love deeply.”
The Greek noun erōs, which means strong (sexual) love and desire, is not used in the NT, and neither is the verb eraō.
7.. So how should we define agapē?
In light of the preceding information, we are now ready to define it.
The standard Greek lexicon (BDAG) is not very helpful. It simply says of the noun, “the quality of warm regard for and interest in another, esteem, regard, love.” That does not go far enough. It also says the noun is the agape-feast (not covered here), in which the first Christians shared a common meal together in connection with their gathering to worship, for the “purpose of fostering and expressing mutual affection and concern, fellowship meal, a love feast.”
The LXX, (3rd century BC Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible and pronounced sep-too-ah-gent) translated the Greek verb agapaō in a variety of ways and can stand in even for eraō “strong desire.” Jonathan and David expressed friendship love that went deeper than a man’s love for a woman (2 Sam. 1:26; 18:1, 3, 20; 20:17).
To make things clearer, let’s summarize the above verses.
The noun agapē is divine. It starts with God, flows from him, and is offered back to him with our lives. We cannot finger it up with our own efforts.
The noun agapē is sacrificial. Out of his agapē, God sacrificed his Son for us, and now we sacrifice our lives to him.
It means a total commitment. God is totally committed to his church and to the salvation of humankind. Surprisingly, however, total commitment can be seen in an unusual verse. Men loved darkness rather than light (John 3:19), which just means they are totally committed to a dark path of life. Are we willing to be totally committed to God and to live in his light? Can we match an unbeliever’s commitment to bad things with our commitment to good things?
Agapē is demonstrative. It is not static or still. It moves and acts. We receive it, and then we show it with kind acts and good deeds. It is not an abstraction or a concept. It is real.
It is transferrable. God can pour and lavish it on us. And now we can transfer it to our fellow believers and people caught in the world.
How does this post help me grow in my knowledge of God’s love and my capacity to show it to others?
God’s love is real. It is not an abstraction or a concept. It can be experienced. It is poured out and lavished in our hearts. If you don’t believe God loves you, then pray, asking him to show you and shower you with his love. Also, sometimes you have to speak out loud that God loves you, even when you don’t feel like it. In doing so, you are totally in harmony with Scripture. Let Scripture guide you, not your feelings, which can be tossed around like waves in a swimming pool where kids are playing. Scripture is steady and stable. Love is not feelings-based.
As noted in the other posts in this series, the fruit of the Spirit should flow out of you, like grapes grow from the branches that are connected to the vine (John 15:1-8). Some teachers say that fruit comes from the vine without effort, and that’s true, but Jesus also said that every branch that does not bear fruit gets pruned, so that it may bear more (and better) fruit. The Father must prune you, or else your fruit will be substandard, sour maybe. Pruning can be painful, but it has to be done. The fruit of the Spirit needs his tending and divine management. Accept it from your loving Father; he knows what you need.
Once you receive the love of God, only then can you share it. You do this by being kind and doing good deeds for your brothers and sisters in the church and to those trapped in the world system. Love moves and acts. Love does. Love is practical. Show it.
Written by James Malcolm