Greek Words for Love in the New Testament

Good Morning!

I’d like to suggest that the word love is one of John’s favorite key words in his writings. We encountered this word many times throughout our study, What Love Is: The Letters of 1,2,3 John by Kelly Minter. Ancient Greek has four main words for love. Two of them are used often in the New Testament: agapao and phileo. Of the remaining two words, storge is used a few times and eros is not used at all in the Bible.

Agape

“The most common word for all forms of love in the New Testament is agape, agapao. This is one of the least common words in classical Greek, where it expresses, on the few occasions it occurs, that highest and noblest form of love which sees something infinitely precious in its object.” (1)

Agape [noun] and agapao [verb] according to Vine’s “are used in the New Testament

  • (a) to describe the attitude of God toward His Son, John 17:26; the human race, generally, John 3:16;… and to such as believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, particularly, John 14:21
  • (b) to convey His will to His children concerning their attitude one toward another, John 13:34, and toward all men, 1 Thessalonians 3:12 …
  • (c) to express the essential nature of God, 1 John 4:8.” (2)

“Love can be known only from the actions it prompts. God’s love is seen in the gift of His Son, 1 John 4:9,10. But obviously this is not the love of complacency, or affection, that is, it was not drawn out by any excellency in its objects, Romans 5:8. It was an exercise of the divine will in deliberate choice, made without assignable cause save that which lies in the nature of God Himself.”(3)

“In respect of agapao as used of God, it expresses the deep and constant “love” and interest of a perfect Being towards entirely unworthy objects, producing and fostering a reverential “love” in them towards the Giver, and a practical “love” towards those who are partakers of the same, and a desire to help others to seek the Giver.”(4)

Agape is also used of the love feast of believers in the New Testament. “Agape … is used in the plural in Jude 12, and in some manuscripts in 2 Peter 2:13… These love feasts arose from the common meals of the early churches. They may have had this origin in the private meals of Jewish households, with the addition of the observance of the Lord’s Supper.… In later times the agape became detached from the Lord’s Supper.”(5) 

Phileo

Phileo “is more naturally used of intimate affection, John 11:3,36 … and of liking to do things which are pleasant, Matthew 6:5, though there is considerable overlapping of usage between the two words.” (6)

From Strong’s Concordance, philéō means “to be a friend to (fond of (an individual or an object)), i.e. have affection for (denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling; while [agapao] is wider, embracing especially the judgment and the deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety: … the former being chiefly of the heart and the latter of the head; specially, to kiss (as a mark of tenderness):—kiss, love.” (7)

Phileo “is to be distinguished from agapao in this, that phileo more nearly represents “tender affection.” The two words are used for the “love” of the Father for the Son, John 3:35, 5:20; for the believer, John 14:21,16:27; both, of Christ’s “love” for a certain disciple, John 13:23, 20:2. Yet the distinction between the two verbs remains, and they are never used indiscriminately in the same passage; if each is used with reference to the same objects, as just mentioned, each word retains its distinctive and essential character. Phileo is never used in a command to men to “love” God; … The distinction between the two verbs finds a conspicuous instance in the narrative of John 21:15-17. 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.”(8)

“Again, to “love (phileo) life, from an undue desire to preserve it, forgetful of the real object of living, meets with the Lord’s reproof, John 12:25. On the contrary, to “love” life (agapao) as used in 1 Peter 3:10, is to consult the true interests of living. Here the word phileo would be quite inappropriate.”(9)

Storge

Storge is only used a few times. Below is one instance in the New Testament.

In Romans 12:10, “storge is used as part of a compound word with philos:” philostorgos “… is translated devoted or kindly affectionate. The breakdown of the word from Strong’s for philóstorgos: Phílos means “properly, dear, i.e. a friend; actively, fond, i.e. friendly (still as a noun, an associate, neighbor, etc.):—friend.” and “storgḗ (cherishing one’s kindred, especially parents or children); fond of natural relatives, i.e. fraternal towards fellow Christian.”(10)  Wikipedia records that “storge means “love, affection” and “especially of parents and children”… It’s the common or natural empathy, like that felt by parents for offspring… Rarely used in ancient works, and then almost exclusively as a descriptor of relationships within the family. It is also known to express mere acceptance or putting up with situations, as in “loving” the tyrant.”(11)

Eros

Éros means “love, mostly of the sexual passion.”[6] The Modern Greek word “erotas” means “intimate love.” Plato refined his own definition: Although eros is initially felt for a person, with contemplation it becomes an appreciation of the beauty within that person, or even becomes appreciation of beauty itself. Plato does not talk of physical attraction as a necessary part of love, hence the use of the word platonic to mean, “without physical attraction.” In the Symposium, the most famous ancient work on the subject, Plato has Socrates argue that eros helps the soul recall knowledge of beauty, and contributes to an understanding of spiritual truth, the ideal “Form” of youthful beauty that leads us humans to feel erotic desire…””(12)

Additional Material

McLean Bible Church has conveniently provided a helpful chart of these four Greek words for love adapted from Precept Ministries resource materials found here.

Blessings,

Mimi

Source materials
  1. The New Bible Dictionary  WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan 1962 p. 753
  2. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words  W.E. Vine p.381-383
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. The New Bible Dictionary  WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan 1962 p. 753
  7. Strong’s Concordance: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G5368&t=KJV
  8. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words  W.E. Vine p.381-383
  9. Ibid
  10. Strong’s Concordance: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G5387&t=KJV
  11. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_words_for_love
  12. Ibid

 

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