Agape (ah GAH pay) is a foreign word. It is the Greek word for love in the New Testament, but it was foreign to the Greeks, too. Surprising as it may seem, agape has never been found in any of the classical Greek literature. A verb form was used a few times, but the noun was not used at all.
The Greeks had other words to say what they felt about love. They wrote much about eros (EH roce), the passionate sexual love. They wrote about storge (stor GAY), the loyal love for family, and about philia (fih LEE ah), the friendship love. All these loves were conditional. Eros said, “I will love you IF you gratify my desires.” Storge said, “I will love you IF you are a loyal member of my family.” Philia said, “I will love you IF you are attractive and lovable.” All three of these loves were temporary, lasting only as long as the IF lasted. All these loves kept a tight circle of those who were loved, because spreading love too widely would dilute its intensity.
God’s kind of love was foreign to most men. God does not love IF men are lovable enough, but in spite of the fact that they are not. God’s love does not jealously guard its tight little circle, but grows stronger as it reaches out. God’s love never counts the cost, nor calculates its own profit. God’s love is a matter of choice and will, not just fleeting emotion. It is the only kind of love that can be commanded.
Agape was also foreign to the disciples, such as John. He was more at home with violent resentment (Luke 9:54-55) and selfish ambition (Mark 10:35-45). But agape came naturally to Jesus. He demonstrated what real love is all about, for his nature was the very same as that of his Father in heaven. And the ultimate picture of love—real agape love—is God himself.