agapeo (to love, to feel and exhibit esteem)
agape (love, brotherly love, affection)
agapetos (beloved, esteemed)
Perhaps the one major word group in the New Testament whose origin and use is misunderstood by many are the Greek words for love agape (noun) and agapeo (verb). Preachers often assert that agape, in particular, is a unique Christian word created specifically by the Holy Spirit to express the love of God.1 Some even assert that it was not in common use before the birth of the New Testament. These assertions do not seem to be supported from the use of the noun and the corresponding verb in pre-biblical Greek, the Septuagint (LXX) and the papyri.2 Nevertheless, we should be cautious in this area of linguistics as ultimately words are known and understood by the company they keep.
In pre-biblical Greek, agapan – present active infinitive of the verb agapeo – was not a hugely popular word, but it was part of the vocabulary of the ancient world. It occurs infrequently in classical Greek to denote friendship between equals, the love of money3 and it is even used by the Greek philosopher Plutarch of Caesar, who denounced certain women in Rome ‘who squander on animals that proneness to love and loving affection … which is due only to our fellow-men’.4 In Xenophon’s Memorabilia, the author makes a clear distinction between the Greek verb phileo and agapan when he states of Aristarchus that ‘the women loved (phileo) him as a protector, and he cherished (agapan) them as beneficial’. This suggests, therefore, that the word group was already in usage before the New Testament, and also indicates that it did not always have a positive meaning, i.e., it depended wholly on its context.
In the Septuagint (LXX) the verb agapeo is chiefly used to translate the common Hebrew verb ahab, which expressed familial love as in Genesis chapter 22 verse 2, where Abraham is told by God to take his only son ‘whom thou lovest’. Contrast this with the use of the same word to describe the incestuous lust Amnon had for Absalom’s sister Tamar that ended in rape, in 2 Samuel chapter 13. And in Proverbs chapter 20 verse 13 the sluggard is told not to love sleep, because ultimately it would lead to impoverishment. In David’s thanksgiving prayer in 1 Chronicles chapter 29, the word is used in verse 17 of God, who desires or takes pleasure in righteousness. God’s love (agapeo) for His people is not only eternal, Jer. 31. 3, but is also expressed through discipline; Prov. 3. 12; cp. Heb. 12. 6. Hence His choice of them was not motivated by any external factor, but entirely on the basis of intuitive love, Deut. 7. 6-8. So, whilst the objects of love can vary, the context here again dictated as to whether the word was used in a positive or negative way.
By the time of the New Testament there were at least four Greek words being used to describe the senses of love. In English we only use one word to cover many forms of ‘love’; hence our difficulties in understanding the various nuances of these Greek words. As Moule has written, ‘without using intolerably cumbrous and pedantic methods, it is nearly impossible to define a particular phrase of some language with strict accuracy’.5 The four main Greek words were erao (eros), storge, phileo and agapeo.
The word eros does not occur in the Septuagint (LXX) or the Greek New Testament, but it does occur in some early Christian literature. Greeks used it generally to describe unreasoning or overmastering passion, which could lead to degenerate love, hence our English word erotic. Critically, eros was predicated upon being attractive in some way to someone else. It had the notion of giving, but only to receive; thus, it was always a conditional form of love. The second word, storge, generally referred to family affection or love of relatives, in essence natural affection through relationship. The word is only used, however, three times in the New Testament and in two of these occurrences it is prefixed by ‘a’ (astorge) to produce negative statements of those who are ‘without natural affection’, Rom. 1. 31; 2 Tim. 3. 3. In the other occurrence, it is combined with phileo to describe the natural affection or mutual love that should exist between believers, the family of God, Rom. 12. 10.
The verb phileo in its various forms occurs some forty-five times in the New Testament. Whilst it is a synonym for love, it has more to do with the love of emotion and friendship than the selfless love that is usually typical of the words agape/agapeo. So, for example, the relationship between David and Jonathan would exemplify the meaning of phileo. It is used in a negative way in James chapter 4 verse 4 as a warning to us that ‘the friendship of the world’ puts us at enmity with God. The verb can also be translated as cherish and includes physical love, as the warmth of real affection such as a kiss – positively of social etiquette, Luke 7. 45, or the kiss of believers, 1 Thess. 5. 26 – negatively of the kiss of Judas when he betrayed the Lord, Matt. 26. 48. But, interestingly, it can also refer to divine love, as in John 5. 20; 16. 27. The message sent to the Lord by Lazarus’ sisters confirms that the Lord had great affection for Lazarus, 11. 3. The love of the brethren/brotherly love is also expressed in the derivative word philadelphia, e.g. Heb. 13. 1; 2 Pet. 1. 7. Phileo, then, can be understood as affection for others based upon the intrinsic qualities that one individual sees in another.
The main word used in the New Testament for love is agape and with its derivatives it occurs in excess of 300 times – agapeo occurs most frequently in the writing of the Apostle John. There is no doubt that this is the finest word that could be used for love, especially the love of God, as it reflects an emotion of the heart that is not based upon the merits of the person who is being loved, Rom. 5. 8; 1 John 4. 10, but keeps on loving even when the loved one is unresponsive, unkind, unlovable, and unworthy, Luke 23. 34. It not only delights in giving freely to others, but also desires the well-being of others, 1 Cor. 13. 4, 5; thus, it is self-sacrificing to such an extent that it is unconditional love because it is based upon the love of God, John 3. 16; Rom. 5. 5. This is why John makes that profound statement in 1 John chapter 4 verse 8 that ‘God is love’. In other words, God not only epitomizes everything that love is, but it is an essential and intrinsic part of His whole being. Those who practise such love, give evidence of the fact that they are ‘born of God’, and ‘know God’, 1 John 4. 7. The converse can also, sadly, be true, v . 8. But the impetus for us to love one another is solely based upon the unconditional love that has been extended to us through the death of Christ, vv. 10, 11. And loving one’s neighbour, in addition to loving God, is now also incumbent upon us because of the transcendence of the love of God, Mark 12. 30, 31. As Spicq writes, ‘Only Mark comments “There is no other commandment greater than these”. The union of the singular “no other commandment" and the plural “than these" maintains the distinction between the two precepts, but puts both of them into a special category. No other commandment equals them in importance, in excellence, or, consequently, in force of obligation’.6 However, forms of the word are used in a negative context, as in John chapter 3 verse 19, John chapter 12 verse 43 and 2 Timothy chapter 4 verse 10.
Finally, just a brief comment on the alternation of the words for love agapeo and phileo in John chapter 21 verses 15 to 17. Interestingly, for those who argue that there is a distinction being made between the two words, our Lord only uses agapeo in His first two questions, vv. 15, 16, but in the third question, v 17, He uses phileo! Despite the volume of literature that has been written on this exchange, it does seem to me that the difference is more apparent than real, and as Schnackenberg writes, ‘it is artificial to read a distinction into Jesus’ questions. The two verbs are also used elsewhere in John’s gospel synonymously’.7
Let us, though, rejoice in the love of God, which has flooded our inmost heart through the Holy Spirit, Rom. 5. 5, and daily seek to show that love to others, John 15. 12.
‘Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky’.
A similar claim by a German scholar in the nineteenth century that the Greek of the New Testament was ‘a language of the Holy Spirit’ was shown to be incorrect.
‘But this argument has been overturned by the diachronic study of Robert Joly, who presents convincing evidence that agapeo was coming into prominence throughout Greek literature from the fourth century B.C. on, and was not restricted to biblical literature’. D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, pg. 53.
Cp. Eccles. 5. 10; 1 Tim. 6. 10.
The Life of Pericles, 1.1
An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek, pg. 1.
Agape in the New Testament – Volume 1, pg. 64.
The Gospel According to St. John, pg. 363
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