People frequently express their thoughts on the subject of love—whether in word, songs, or even in prayers. For example, last week, within which Valentine’s Day occurred, was filled with syrupy thoughts of love. Dionne Warwick sang about the need for love in a 1960s song written by Burt Bacharach entitled “What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love.” The song’s lyrics went on to say, “It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” This semester, Interim President D. Jeffrey Bingham has, on more than one occasion, concluded his closing prayers in chapel with the petition: “Lord, let us love one another.” The church of Jesus Christ could indeed use some “love”—love for one another—which in turn is very attractive to the world. Indeed, Christians are commanded to love one another (1 John 4:7–12). However, before we can know what it means to “love one another” as the Bible tells us, we need first to talk about love.
What is love? The word for “love” in 1 John 4:7–12 is agapē, one of several Greek words meaning “love.” Other words denoting “love” include philos, usually a loyal or fraternal love, love for family, friends, or those dear to us. Erōs (not in the New Testament) is an intimate, sensual type of love. Agapē is a godly type of love, referring to a volitional choice to meet the needs of others whether or not there is any reciprocation. Agapē love is distinguished by an unconditional attitude of love not necessarily related to feelings like pleasure or excitement, etc. That being the case, we can be commanded to love one another. Our feelings, however, cannot be commanded. No one can command you to be thrilled about something or someone—say, the New England Patriots—you either are or are not. However, our will or volition can be commanded because agapē love is an action, which explains how we can love the unlikeable and the unlovely in an agapē manner. We may not feel any emotional attraction toward others. Sometimes we may feel the opposite way. All of us can think of people with whom we perhaps cannot stand to be in the same room over the course of 30 seconds. But, we can “will” to meet their needs and “love” them by treating them as precious people for whom Christ died. Now, a feeling of fondness and attraction often develops when loving in this way, but this aspect is not particularly characteristic of agapē love. An illustration of this occurs in Ephesians 5:25, where Paul commanded husbands to “love” their wives (agapaō, the verb form of agapē). What did his command mean? In this case, the imperative “love” is further spelled out by the words “just as also Christ loved (agapaō) the church and gave Himself for her.” The agapē love command here is to love like Christ did. Jesus committed to do the will of the Father (Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). His love, despite our sin, took action: He went to the cross on our behalf to die for our sins.
Couples having marriage difficulties will often say, “I just don’t love him/her anymore.” That expression reflects a misunderstanding of what it means to “love” someone. When airing such sentiments, people usually mean that they no longer feel any attraction or thrill for their spouse. However, they have altogether missed the point. A Christian is to “love” whether or not there is any emotional or physical attraction or response. You can still love in this sense: to want the very best for others regardless of their attitude toward you. Christians need to obey the Word of God, and if you love in the agapē sense, maybe the feelings will also eventually follow.
To be sure, true Christians love God and one another (1 John 4:7-12). The Apostle John emphasized the criterion of loving fellow believers as a necessary mark for assurance of genuine Christian profession (cf. 5:13). He commanded his readers to “love one another” because “love is from God” (4:7). That is to say, agapē love comes from God; He is the source of all true love.
John maintained that believers must love one another because this is God’s nature (4:8). Anyone who does not display this nature of love does not know God. The Greek construction of “God is love” (4:8b) makes love a description of God—not a definition. In other words, “love” is not all that God is. He is also holy, righteous, sovereign, etc.
Moreover, John urged his readers to love others because God demonstrated His love for them in the death of Christ (4:9–11). Believers can know that God loves them because He sent His Son to be the propitiatory sacrifice (hilasmos: “satisfaction”) for their sins (2:2). And because of that act of love, they ought also to love others.
Furthermore, John instructed his readers that if they loved each other, they would make the presence of God, whom no one can see, a visible reality to others (4:12). That is to say, when believers in Jesus love one another, it shows that God has indeed come to dwell in them, and that is how God’s love is being perfected, i.e., brought to its goal or proper end (4:12). When followers of Christ practice loving one another, it is evidence that God is at work in their lives because agapē love is God’s love fulfilling its ends and bearing fruit.
People talk a lot today about love, but unfortunately, much of it is superficial. We need to guard against such superficiality. Even a person outside of Christ can recognize phony love. I have visited many churches over the years. Several folks in those churches would describe themselves as a loving church, or as a church whose members love one another. If that’s indeed true, then that is laudable, because you are practicing what Scripture teaches! For love involves action, not just talk. If you really love folks in an agapē manner, you will not quit loving and caring for people the first time they displease you, because whether they please you is not the reason for your love. Remember that agapē love seeks to meet the needs of others and loves them without reciprocation. We love because Christ first loved us (cf. 4:10) despite our sin, quirks, and faults, and despite our displeasing Him. Know this: people are profoundly impressed whenever they meet a group of believers in Jesus who truly love one another and genuinely love them. This should come as no surprise, because Jesus said, “All people will know by this that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Lord, may it be so in our lives. Amen.
 This essay greatly reflects the excellent teaching on 1 John of my friend and former professor, William E. Bell, Jr. He loved his students, and we loved him.
 All Bible translations in this article are mine.
 In Greek, the word agapē does not occur with the definite article.
 The last four paragraphs were borrowed from a section written by me on 1 John in my co-authored book, Faithful to the End: An Introduction to Hebrews through Revelation, with J. Daryl Charles and Kendell Easley (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 194–95.