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.”
Christian love is the hope of the world, and it is the only hope for peace and understanding that we all desire. The greatest love is agape.
— John N. Clayton © 2021