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.
–John N. Clayton © 2019
For more on love, see yesterday’s post.