Greek can help us understand an overused English word.
God’s will is for us to be reconciled to Him, and He has done this through His Son, Jesus — all because of love. God in Christ is the epitome of pure love, and only by it can we become a part of His family. Anything less is sin, the opposite of love, and sin leads to death rather than to fullness of life.
All Christians must understand this important word, as we have been commanded to “love one another” as Jesus has loved us (John 15:12, 13, 17). This love shows humanity that we’re the children of God, Christians living in an ungodly society yet shining brightly as a beacon for the world to see.
What is love, then?
God is love (1 John 4:16). We may also define it in three more words: “unselfish, outgoing concern”; love is sacrificial. Biblically defined, love is of God. First Corinthians 13 says it is kind and never selfish. Anything else is not true, godly love.
In the English language we use the word love all the time. But to understand the meaning of the word, we must know the context in which it is used. For example, simply saying, “I love you” in English can refer to affection for a friend, relative, or lover. Or love can mean passion for a variety of objects, like cars. Love can also apply to something deeper — spiritual love. This is why context is so important to understand the different loves. Sometimes even the tone in which the word is said is needed to perceive the intended meaning.
Not so in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written. There our single love is differentiated by several Greek words. Let’s look at three — agape, philia, and eros — in light of the biblical concept of love as being “unselfish, outgoing concern.” While these three can and do overlap, their basic distinctions are helpful:
Agape: Divine love between God and creation
Philia: Devoted love between friends and family
Eros: Romantic love between a husband and wife
While the verb agapao is common in Classical Greek, the noun agape is rare. Agapao is often a synonym for the verbal forms of philia and eros and conveys the idea of favor or fondness. This favor, on rare occasions, can refer to a generous act of one for another. But the distinctive character of agape love, as we think of it, is almost entirely derived from its particular New Testament use as the love of God or the love of Christ.
In John 3:16, for instance, we read, “God so loved [agapao] the world, that He gave. . . .” God’s gift of His only begotten Son expresses this special agape love, God’s unselfish, outgoing concern for the whole world. This is the same love that Christ exemplified in giving Himself for us on the cross and the same love He has for His church (Ephesians 5:2, 24). It’s also the love that Jesus commands us to have for one another (John 13:34). So agape is God’s love in Christ toward us and that love reciprocated to Him. Though common in Paul’s epistles, it is most plain in the writings of John, where 79 of the New Testament’s 215 instances of agape/agapao appear.
In Classical Greek, the verb phileo referred to a natural affection among relatives and friends. This sense can be found in the New Testament. A good example is 2 Peter 1:7, where the compound word philadelphia is used to refer to brotherly love now reenvisioned by the faith (cf Romans 12:10). In Luke, the more general sense of friendship is often conveyed by the noun philos (“friend,” 11:5-8). It is not much used in Paul’s epistles (but note 1 Corinthians 16:22), yet in John’s writings the philia word group can not only carry basic brother-friend connotations but also serve as a synonym with the agape word group (5:20; 11:3, 5, 11; cf 19:26; 20:2).
John 21:15-17 is an interesting case. Twice Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love [agapao] Me. . . ?” Twice Peter answers “Yes, Lord; You know that I love [phileo] You.” The third time the distinction breaks down, and both Jesus and Peter say phileo (v. 17). So is a distinction or equivalence to be discerned here? It is not clear, but overall the New Testament makes a basic distinction: Philia love is unselfish, outgoing concern toward others.
The verb erao and the noun eros do not appear in the New Testament. In Classical Greek, eros referred to romantic, sexual love between a man and woman. This love involves the desire and craving to have and possess. This, combined with common pagan excesses in regard to ecstasy and fertility, are probably why the New Testament doesn’t utilize the word.
Nevertheless, the distinction is helpful. God is no prude. The Bible is full of sexual encounters, but God instructs us to keep sexual eros love, which is not dirty but part of His good creation, between a husband and wife (Proverbs 5:18, 19; Song of Solomon; 1 Timothy 3:2). God’s first commandment to Adam and Eve was to be fruitful and multiply, becoming one flesh in marriage (Genesis 1:28; 2:24). When Paul talks about marriage and the love husbands should have toward their wives in Ephesians 5:25-33, agapao is his word of choice for love. So with these biblical amendments in mind, pagan eros being appropriately tamed by God’s will for sex, we can think of eros love as unselfish, outgoing concern toward a spouse.
Can we imagine a world where all people live by agape, philia, and eros? Can we imagine a world where all love is defined and lived as “divine unselfish, outgoing concern,” total agape love of God and man for each other? Can we imagine a world where friendship, or philia love, is defined and lived as “unselfish, outgoing concern” for our neighbors? Can we imagine a world where in marriage, sexual eros love is defined and lived as “unselfish, outgoing concern” for one’s lover and spouse?
Imagine a marriage in which both husband and wife practice all three kinds of love — as God’s children, as best friends, and as committed lovers. There would be no arguments or divorce, only complete and loving harmony. Imagine a world where all people practiced agape and philia love for one another. There would be no war, no murder, no theft, lying, or coveting. Imagine a world where everyone loved God fully with His complete agape love, whereby He loved us.
A bigger love
When we expand our definition of love from the English to a better understanding of these three Greek words, we can expand our concept of godly, unselfish, outgoing concern toward all. This is how the kingdom of God on earth starts: through the fulfillment of His love.
Jesus says, “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Truly we should all practice this love. What a wonderful life it would be. This love is what makes the world go around!