Expositors will often speak of heavenly love as agape, and probably the best-known passage on love in the Greek scriptures is found Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, 1 Corinthians 13.
1 Corinthians 13
In this chapter, Paul describes the nature of agape as
- generous-hearted in a way that conveys trust and loyalty,
- ever hopeful,
- and longsuffering.
The apostle began his discourse on love by outlining all the things Christians admire and often vie for—charismatic gifts, prophetic powers, understanding all mysteries and having all knowledge, or exercising the kind of towering faith that literally moves mountains. But, no matter how generous we are with our possessions, even if we give our lives to the work of God, if we do not have love then we do not have anything.
Paul placed love as preeminent over all other qualities, what will last into eternity when even faith and hope have been fulfilled.
The Gospel of John explains it is by the inspiration of this love, agape, that God the Father sent God the Son into the world in order to restore the world. (John 3:16-17)
These biblical passages aside, there is still no better book in the Bible than 1 John to learn the qualities of agape love in Christians. Some form of the verb ἀγαπάω| agapeō, “to love,” is found 143 times in this small book, the noun agape (ἀγαπῇ) 116 times, and the title agaptos (ἀγαπητός), “beloved,” 61 times. It seems John was profoundly affected by Jesus’s final words to His disciples the night of His arrest.
A new commandment I give to you, that you all would love one another, just as I loved you, so that you all would love one another. In this all would know that you are my disciples, when you all have love in one another.John 13:34-35
After washing their feet, Jesus had explained to them the greatest comfort they would have was each other’s love. Jesus showed the full extent of His own love for them by being vulnerable with them, showing them tender and humble care, taking time with them, eating with them. Jesus was also open with them, sharing His inner thoughts and feelings, and praying with them.
A little later, Jesus addressed a rupture that would soon happen in their relationship with Him.
I will not forsake you, I am coming to you. Yet a little [while], and the world no longer is seeing me, but you all are seeing me, because I live then you all will live.John 14:18-19
They would not lose Jesus when the Spirit came to them. Jesus was telling them, “When the Holy Spirit comes to you, I will come with the Spirit.”
But there was more.
In that day you all will know that I am in my Father and you all in me even as I in you.John 14:20
How do you describe a being Who is like an Eternal Community of three fully connected persons, more fully connected than you and I could ever imagine, because though they are three, they are also one? Yet, by design, you and I are to connect with God and with other people, to be in community, as Jesus had explained, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Union in Communion
God’s deepest joy is in connection with God-Three-In-One (cf. John 5:19-29, John 17), and God created us to enjoy the pleasure God enjoys by connecting with God and also by connecting with each other as one body with one head, Jesus. That is the fullest, deepest joy you and I can know—what our hearts were made for (cf. Genesis 1:26-27) to be truly seen and accepted, to be fully known and loved. This is the very apex of human existence, and was described in breathtaking simplicity by the writer of Genesis:
And they are both naked, the man and his woman, and they are not ashamed.Genesis 2:25
Let us see these two people representing every kind of relationship, for they are friends, family, and lovers. They were both completely transparent with each other, yet loved each other so much it was as though they were two souls in one body. There was no shame, no guilt, no dark past or hidden agendas, no personality disorders or relationship flaws. They were in perfect union with each other, with all creation around them, and with God, loving relationships that delighted and filled both God and humankind with joy.
Darkness in Disunity
The knowledge of good and evil begins with understanding how vulnerable we are, so we learn how to cover ourselves, how to hide. The crushing reality is that every person also fears being truly seen, for it could mean judgment, and to be fully known, for it could prompt rejection (cf. Genesis 3:7-8).
For as perfect the union so was the perversity and pain of the explosion that splintered it all apart in Genesis 3.
From that moment when their eyes were opened, but the light and glory went dark, to this day for every one of us, shame, guilt, separation, and rejection have become our reality.
We long for union, but we fear it as well.
From the first moment we are mocked or scorned by another, shut down, abandoned, neglected, or actively pushed away, we become ashamed of the very thing that would bring us the greatest joy and life fulfillment. We mistakenly believe there is something wrong with us, and we do whatever we can, whatever is within our power, to subdue and suppress this longing to love and be loved.
Restoration In and By Christ
Jesus lifts up our longing and honors it as sacred.
He taught his disciples how to move forward toward fulfillment, rather than to move away in shame, fear, and self-protection.
The one who has my commandments and gives heed to them, that one is one who loves (agape) me, and one who loves me will be loved by my Father, even as I will love that one and I will manifest myself to that one.John 14:21
The love Jesus loved His disciples with, agape, is the kind of love that opens our lives to our beloved. Love is, as Jesus demonstrated, humble, generous, self-giving, transparent, vulnerable, and trusting.
All the apostles spoke of it, and Paul included this meaning of love in his prayers and words of affirmation, understanding that if reverence for God is the beginning of wisdom, then love of God and for God, and for each other, is the completion of wisdom.
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what really matters, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.Philippians 1:9-11 (NRSV, emphasis added)
 For a deeper study of shame, see the works of Curt Thompson, MD, particularly The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves, (InterVarsity Press, 2015).