Perhaps the most abused word in the English language is the word “love.” We hear that word used in every kind of situation. “I love that song” certainly is different from “making love.” In English, you have to look at the entire context of a statement about love before you know what the person who said it is talking about. The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Greeks had multiple words that we translate with our one word, “love.” In today’s world, the greatest love is agape.
In the Greek language, sexual love was the subject of the word “eros.” “Thelo” was used when the love was a desire or wish. “I love that kind of perfume” would be an example of that use. The prefix “phileo” indicating an emotional or material kind of love and had multiple uses. “Philargurix” was the love of money. “Philanthropia” was human love. “Phildelphos” was the love of brethren and is familiar to us today in the name of the city Philadelphia. “Philedonos” was the love of pleasure.
The New Testament presents a unique concept of love. The Greek word is “agape,” a noun, or “agapao,” a verb. These words were used 114 times in the New Testament and especially by Jesus Christ. In John 21:15-17, Jesus repeatedly asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Jesus used the word “agape,” but Peter kept responding with “phileo.” The greatest love is agape, but Peter did not understand that yet.
Many people struggle with the teachings of Christ because they don’t understand Jesus’ concept of love. How can I love my enemy (Matthew 5:43-44)? How can we love one another (John 15:12) when many of us are not lovable? Ephesians 5:25 tells husbands to love their wives as Jesus loved the Church. This is not a sexual reference any more than is Jesus’ discussion with Peter. A marriage based solely on sex is doomed.
The familiar passage in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love” is another reference to the unique form of love that God calls us to. Christians have help in their capacity to love as 1 Corinthians 2:11-16 tells us that an unbeliever: “…cannot accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” The passage goes on to say that Christians “have the mind of Christ.” So do I have the capacity to love my enemy? Not in a physical sense or a sexual sense, but I have grown to love in a spiritual sense. This is a growth process, and I am closer to it now than I was 50 years ago.
Read Matthew 5-7 and pay attention to the fact that Jesus is talking about loving the spiritual nature of all humans. When you read 1 John 4:12-13, you see a great picture of what Christian love is all about: “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us. We know we live in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.” Read the rest of the chapter and especially verse 20: “If a man says that he loves God and then hates his brother, he is a liar, because he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen.”
The Bible describes godly love:
“God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God and God in him. It is through this that love has attained its perfection in us in our being fearless on the day of judgment, for we realize that our life in this world is actually His life lived in us. There is no fear in love, for love, when perfect drives out fear because fear involves punishment. If a man fears, there is something imperfect in his love.” 1 John 4:16-18
I believe that the most misunderstood word in the English language is “love.” For most of our 21st-century population, love refers to sexual activity, and more and more, the music industry fosters that idea. Young people today speak of “making love” because the sexual concept is all that they have ever heard. The Bible is unique in its presentation of what love is about. You can’t make sense of “love your enemy” (Matthew 5:43-44) or “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) if the sexual notion of love is all you understand. The whole idea of loving God cannot be comprehended by a culture that has a sexual fixation on the word love.
The Greek language is far more useful in focusing on the complexities of love. There is a sexual connection to “love” in the Greek word “eros,” but that word is never used in the Bible. When discussing a wish or want, the Greek word “thelo” is used in Mark 12:38. When talking about the love of brethren, the Greek word “phileo” is used as in 1 Peter 3:8. The word “phileo” is used to describe something material or emotional. For example, “philarguros” refers to the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10), while “philedonos” refers to the love of pleasure (2 Timothy 3:4) and “philautos” refers to the love of self (2 Timothy 3:2).
The most unique and spiritually important word for love in the New Testament is the noun “agape” and the verb form “agapao.” This is godly love—a love that values and esteems, an unselfish, serving love that has no sexual implications. This word is used 114 times in the New Testament and is described in passages like 1 John 4:7 to 5:3 and 1 John 3:16-18. The most touching example of the use of this word is in John 21:15 – 17, where Jesus keeps asking whether Peter loves Him by using the word “agapao” and Peter keeps answering with the word “phileo.”
One of the most abused and misunderstood words in human terms is the word “love.” Both non-believers and Christians use the word carelessly. Many non-believers use the word love only in a sexual context. “Making love” to many is a synonym for sexual intercourse or at least some kind of sexual experience. The ancient Greeks had multiple words for love, while we have only one.
The Greek language in which the New Testament was written had different words to describe various aspects of love. “Eros” refers to an erotic form of love while “phileo” refers to a friendship. “Philadelphos” deals specifically with loving one’s brethren as in 1 Peter 3:8, Hebrews 13:1 or Romans 12:10. “Thelo” refers to a wish and is seldom used in the scriptures. An example is Mark 12:38 where it refers to loving to go out in public wearing long clothing.
In the Christian belief system, the word “agape” (the noun) or “agapao” (the verb) is called “the characteristic word of Christianity.” It is used 114 times in the New Testament. “Phileo,” the next most common of the words for love, is used 18 times. “Phileo” is never used in a command for people to love God. (See the use of “agapao” in Matthew 22:37, Luke 10:27, Romans 8:28, 1 Corinthians 8:3, 1 Peter 1:8, 1 John 4:21.)
The classic example of the use of the different Greek words for love comes in John 21:15-17. Vines Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words says, “The context itself indicates that agapao in the first two questions suggests the love that values and esteems. It is an unselfish love, ready to serve. The use of phileo in Peter’s answers and the Lord’s third question conveys the thought of cherishing the object above all else, of manifesting an affection characterized by constancy, from the motive of the highest veneration.”
Passages like 1 John 4:16 “God is Love,” use “agape.”We struggle with “agape” love because outside of Christianity we do not experience it or see it in the lives of others. When “phileo” is used in scriptures, the object of that love is always something material or emotional in nature. Consider these examples: Matthew 6:5 “love to pray standing in the synagogue…” Matthew 10:37 “he that loves father or mother more than…” Matthew 10:37 “he that loves son or daughter more than…” Matthew 23:6 “loves the uppermost rooms at feasts …” Luke 20:46 “love greetings in the markets, and …” John 11:3 “Lord, behold, he whom thou love…”
When “agapao” is used, the object to be loved is spiritual in nature – either a soul or God. Matthew 5:44 “I say to you, Love your enemies…” Matthew 22:37, 39 “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all …” Mark 10:21 “Then Jesus, beholding him loved him…” John 3:16 “God so loved the world, that he gave…” John 13:24 “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another…” Hebrews 1:9 “You have loved righteousness and hated evil..”
The New Testament uses these various words for love. When a person has no concept of love except brotherly (“phileo”) or erotic (“eros”), much of the New Testament becomes too strange to believe. The reason Christianity can change people is that they can learn and be guided to act on “agape” love that allows them to live out the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7). This leads to the “new life” as described in passages like Romans 6. Seeing a person who was dead in sin changed into a loving, serving “new creation” is the strongest apologetic of all. We frequently quote Romans 1:20 in which Paul says, “We can know there is a God through the things He has made.” One of those things is a New Person in Christ.