As a young christian I was told that the love God has for us, and the love he wants us to have for others, is a self-giving love, for which the New Testament writers used the Greek word agape. This understanding was reinforced by reading the CS Lewis book, The Four Loves, which spoke about the following Greek words:
- eros – romantic or sexual love (this word isn’t found in the New Testament);
- storge – natural affection, as in a family (not used in the New Testament in this form, but used 3 times in compound words);
- philia – friendship (this word and its derivatives is used many times in the New Testament);
- agape and agapao – self giving love (by far the most common word for “love” in the New Testament).
Preachers, authors and bloggers still have the same understanding today, and sometimes build take-home lessons on the difference between philia and agape.
But it seems that the meaning of agape may not be as distinct as we have been told, and the two words may not have had very different meanings back then.
In John’s gospel, the two words are often used apparently interchangeably. For example, when speaking of the Father’s love for the Son, John 10:17; 15:9 use agapao while John 5:20 uses phileo.
Then in chapter 21 of John’s Gospel, Jesus three times asks Peter if he loves him. The first two times he uses agapao, but the third time he uses phileo, while Peter uses phileo in each reply. Some preachers draw conclusions from these differences, but the experts say that John, who is after all translating Jesus’ original Aramaic words into Greek, is simply using different words for variety, as he does with other words in this passage.
And so two authoritative Greek lexicons (Louw & Nida and Danker & Bauer) argue that phileo and agapao are close to synonyms, a view supported by Don Carson, who says (Exegetical Fallacies, 1996):
“αγαπαο (agapao) does not always refer to a “good” love or a sacrificial love or a divine love”
Self-giving love in the New Testament
This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t offer us self-giving love, or ask us to show this love to others. After all, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 still sets the bar very high:
“Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
So that is the love God wants us to live by, to offer to fellow christians (John 13:34-35), neighbours (Matthew 22:36-40), enemies (Matthew 5:43-44) – in fact everyone we meet.
But we shouldn’t base our thinking on the supposed exact meanings of Greek words, but on the clear commands of scripture, to love God, to love our neighbour and love our enemies with a 1 Corinthians 13 type of love.
Photo: Pexels (modified by unkleE