It is clear from even a cursory reading that the Bible stresses the importance of love. The Bible even says that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16 ESV). It would not be an overstatement to say that every action that is pleasing to God is motivated by love. In the English language today, we use the word ‘love’ in a variety of applications. We say that we love broccoli and we say we love our spouses.
Just as there are different meanings for the word ‘love’ in the English language, so there are different meanings in the language of the Bible, especially the New Testament. To keep this article down to a manageable size, I will concentrate on the New Testament words for ‘love’.
The Greek words for ‘love’
It appears that, in New Testament times, there were at least four different Greek words that we translate as the English word ‘love’. This variety actually helps us in the work of translation because each of the four different Greek words carries a slightly different definition from the other three. This makes it a little clearer as to what the original means. These words were:
- EROS: this Greek word was not used in the New Testament. It refers to sexual love and probably derived its name from the mythical god of love.
- STORGE: This is the type of love signifying the natural affection between kinfolk. This word appears only occasionally in the New Testament and only in compound form.
- PHILEO: This Greek word for love signifies, “…spontaneous natural affection, with more feeling than reason” (Elwell, p. 1357). Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance defines phileo as, “to be a friend to…fond of an individual or object; having affection for (as denoting attachment); a matter of sentiment or feeling”.
- AGAPE: This Greek word for love is by far the one that appears most frequently in the New Testament. It is, “…generally assumed to mean moral goodwill which proceeds from esteem, principle, or duty, rather than attraction or charm… [it] means to love the undeserving, despite disappointment and rejection…Though agape has more to do with moral principle than with inclination or liking, it never means the cold religious kindness shown from duty alone, as scriptural examples abundantly prove” (Elwell, p. 1357).
Norman Geisler offers this description of the different nuances of these words: “Erotic love is egoistic. It says, “My first and last consideration is myself.” Philic love is mutualistic. It says, “I will give as long as I receive.” Agapic love, on the other hand, is altruistic, saying, “I will give, requiring nothing in return.” (Geisler, p. 49).
It is the agape kind of love which God has for us, and for which we are commanded to have for one another. Even our expression of agape love is but a pale example of God’s agape love for us. Let us look at how this agape love is portrayed in the New Testament. Whenever the word ‘love’ appears in the following verses, unless otherwise noted, it is a translation of the Greek word ‘agape’.
Christ followers are commanded to love one another
Jesus said that loving one another is not an option for the believer; it is a commandment. However, His commandment came with an example of how it is to be fulfilled, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34 ESV, cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:9).
Love is a sign that we are Christians
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments” (1 John 5:1-2 ESV).
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jesus speaking in John 13:35 ESV). It has been, and continues to be, my experience that an almost tangible feeling of love exists wherever a group of Christians gathers. It can be no other way for a people who are filled with God’s love.
Love for Jesus inspires obedience to Him
Jesus said to His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ESV). This means that those who love Jesus will want to please Him. We should want to please God, not as a means of trying to earn our salvation, but out of gratitude for what He has done in forgiving our sins.
Other places in the New Testament tell us that this desire to obey Jesus is a natural reaction from those who are His followers, “Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23 ESV; see also John 14:21; 2 John 1:6). It follows therefore, that those who do not obey Jesus, do not love Him and are thus not saved.
The Greatest Commandment consists of love for God and love for our neighbors
In three of the four Gospels, Jesus tells us what He expects from us, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31 ESV; see also Matthew 22:37; Luke 10:27). It is obvious from this passage that love should be the motivation for everything we do; love for God first, then love for everyone else. How different would our culture look if everyone lived in this manner?
We are to love (agape) our enemies
The love of God transcends our anger or hatred; it allows us to forgive those whom we otherwise would be unable to forgive (cf. Romans 12:19-20). Jesus told His disciples, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 ESV; cf. Luke 6:27-28).
Sometimes love may seem harsh
True love must sometimes act in forceful ways. Agape love is a thinking, rational, kind of deliberate love that is motivated by what is holy and good. There are times when this kind of love results in less than pleasant actions. When speaking to the Corinthian church concerning a man engaged in unrepentant sin, the apostle Paul wrote these sobering words,“…you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5 ESV). Agape love says that this man’s eternal soul is more important than his temporal comfort, therefore actions should be taken to help him realize the depth of his sin.
Many more biblical examples could have been cited under each of the preceding headings. The love of God is apparent on almost every page of the Bible. However, His love is made clearest by His greatest gift to us.
Conclusion: the greatest example of agape love
In the New Testament, the Greek words that we translate ‘love’ have nuances that help us understand them a bit better. However, God has not left us to wonder what He views as love. He has given us the clearest example in His Son. The greatest example of love is Jesus Christ coming to earth in human flesh to die on a cross for our sin.
“… but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8 ESV; cf. John 15:13).
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV).
It is this love that we, as Christians, hope to share with a sinful, lost, and hurting world.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version
“Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV)
Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Walter A. Elwell, ed. Baker Book House, 1988.
Geisler, Norman L. Christian Ethics. Baker Book House, 1989.
YouTube video “You Love Me Anyway” by Sidewalk Prophets