In our society, love is usually spoken of in passive terms. That is, love is something that happens to us over which we have little or no control. We "fall" in love. We speak this way chiefly because we associate love with a particular feeling or emotion. Such emotion cannot be produced by pushing a button or by a conscious act of the will. We do not "decide" to fall in love with someone.
The Bible, however, speaks of love in far more active terms. The concept of love functions more as a verb than as a noun. Love is a duty—an action we are obliged to perform. God commands us to love our neighbor, to love our spouse, and even to love our enemies. It is one thing to conjure up feelings of love and affection for one's enemies; it is another thing to act in a loving manner toward them.
The Bible has a complex concept of love that is expressed in relatively few words. The Old Testament predominantly used one Hebrew word, aheb, to express love. The New Testament primarily used two Greek words for love—phileo and agape. Phileo, from which the city Philadelphia derives its name (meaning the "city of brotherly love"), is the Greek word that is used to denote the affection shared by friends. By contrast, the term eros, which is not used in the Bible, refers more to sexual or erotic love. It is the kind of love we often associate with romance. These two types of love are common to all human beings. These types of love have a tendency to be motivated by self-interest, self-gratification, and self-protection.
The New Testament, however, describes a third kind of love. Agape stands in contrast to the more basic affections. Its most distinguishing feature is a lack of self-interest. It proceeds out of a heart of care and concern for others. Its characteristics are enumerated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. Agape love is patient and kind. It neither boasts nor envies. It is not proud, rude, self-seeking, or easily angered. It is quick to forgive; it seeks the good and the true. It protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres always. It never fails.
Biblical love is therefore more than a mere emotion. It is active. The calling of the Christian is not primarily to develop feelings of love for others. In many instances that is outside the Christian's control. However, we can control how we respond and act toward a given person. The Christian is to be loving, to mirror the selfless love of God.
Agape love, then, is the ultimate fruit of the Spirit. As Paul wrote, "now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Insofar as agape love mirrors and reflects the character of God's love for us, it may be called a steadfast love, a love that endures with loyalty. It is characterized by fidelity—the faithfulness that is built upon trust. Such love is incapable of being fickle; it is the love of permanent commitment.
(a) phileo = brotherly affection
(b) eros = sexual or romantic love
(c) agape = godly or spiritual love