There are probably fewer words in the modern English language that have been more distorted, misused, abused, and overused than the word “love.” We have a tendency to take this word and then "stuff" it with our own meaning. We define it as we choose for the moment. We use this word to express our affectionate feelings for the family pet, our wife, or our favorite food.
But what does God mean by "love?" When I am told to "love my enemies" or to "love my neighbor" what does that mean? What does that look like? If we take the Bible seriously it is important to align our definition with God's. Love is Biblically depicted, as the greatest of Christian virtues. Paul, in his introduction to his treatise on the subject in I Corinthians 13, refers to love as “the most excellent way.” He concludes with the statement: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Jesus says that love is the distinguishing mark of all of His disciples (John 13:35). In addition, we are commanded to love one another as He has loved us. John tells us that the possession of true love is a means of determining if we are actually in the faith. He says, “Anyone who does not love remains in death” (I John 3:14).
Unfortunately, the English language is less definitive and distinct, in its use of words than "Koine" Greek, the language in which the New Testament is written in. The Greeks had four different words, each denoting a different type of "love." These four words, Eros, Storgos, Phileo, and Agape have different meanings. (For a significant study of this I would recommend The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis). But the word used most often by Jesus, and the other New Testament writers, is the word Agape. It is this word that is used by Jesus when He says to "love your neighbor." We cannot understand what Jesus meant by this without examining that word.
Agape love is the very nature of God Himself (See I John 4:8). It is not something He possesses, it is who He is. God cannot be anything other than agape. Everything that God does is an act of His agape. He never acts contrary to agape, because to do so would be contrary to His very being. This love is depicted to us as covenantly faithful, unconditional, and self -giving. It is self-motivated, in that it is not motivated by us. God does not love because there is something lovely in us. He loves because that is who He is.
The agape of God, the Father, is revealed in the death of Christ. Some people have the mistaken notion that Christ “rescued” us from God the Father. God the Father is viewed as vengeful and full of wrath, but Jesus stepped in with love and mercy, to “save” us from the Father. Nothing could be further from the Biblical truth. The Scripture tells us that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (II Cor. 5:19). John 3:16 declares the Father’s agape for the world by His giving of the Son.
Dr. Sinclair Ferguson has said, "When we think of Christ dying on the cross we are shown the lengths to which God’s love goes in order to win us back to Himself. We would almost think that God loved us more than He loves His Son! We cannot measure such love by any other standard. He is saying to us: I love you this much. The cross is the heart of the gospel. It makes the gospel good news: Christ died for us. He has stood in our place before God’s judgment seat. He has borne our sins. God has done something on the cross we could never do for ourselves. But God does something to us as well as for us through the cross. He persuades us that He loves us.”