“Love” in the Christian Greek Scriptures
AT THE time the Christian Greek Scriptures were written, Greek was the universal language. This fact made for their greatest possible distribution in the shortest time possible. Additionally, Greek is a very specific and exact language and the koine Greek of that time was highly developed, making it the best medium for the exact expression of thought. A case in point are its words for “love.”
In the English language we speak of “love” between the sexes, “love” of a mother for her child, “love” of friends and the unselfish “love” of God. In the Greek language, however, four separate and distinct words are used: éros, storgé, philéo and agápe. Because Eros was the name the later Greek poets gave their god of love, who was the son of Aphrodítē, éros came to be the name for romantic love, love between the sexes. The Roman counterpart to Eros is the more familiar Cupid, usually shown with a bow and arrow. Very significantly, not once is the term éros found in the Christian Greek Scriptures.
Storgé is the term used to describe natural affection based on blood relationships, accounting for the expression “blood is thicker than water.” It is found only three times in adjectival form in the Christian Greek Scriptures. In two of the instances it appears with the Greek negative prefix a meaning “without.” Thus both at Romans 1:31, in describing how far men fell away from original perfection, and at 2 Timothy 3:3, in prophesying about the critically wicked conditions of the last days, Paul describes men as “having no natural affection [aʹstorgos].” And when wishing to stress the close family relationship that should exist between Christians, Paul uses a compound term that combines philéo with storgé, saying: “In brotherly love have tender affection [philoʹstorgos] for one another.”—Rom. 12:10.
While the next highest form of love is philéo, it will help toward better understanding it to consider first the highest form of love, agápe. Strong’s Dictionary defines it as “embracing specifically the judgment and the deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety.” In contrast to éros, which does not appear in the Bible at all, agápe in all its various forms occurs well over 250 times in the Christian Greek Scriptures; three times as often as does philéo in all its forms.
Appreciating what agápe means, we can understand why the apostle John wrote, not that God is éros, storgé or even philéo, but that He is the very personification of principled, unselfish interest in others, agápe love. When we truly love (agápe) someone, we are concerned about that one’s welfare, interests and happiness. Thus God “recommends his own love to us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”—1 John 4:8; Rom. 5:8.
“The fruitage of the spirit is [this agápe] love.” “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have [this] love among yourselves.” It is this kind of “love [that] builds up,” and “covers a multitude of sins.” It is based, not on physical attraction, not on accident of birth, such as of the same family, nation or race, nor upon compatibility or similarity of mind, but solely on principle, unselfishness, and it is directed by our minds because God commands it.—Gal. 5:22; John 13:35; 1 Cor. 8:1; 1 Pet. 4:8.
It is this agápe love that Paul describes for us, and how ably he does so! Nothing we do will profit us unless the motive is love. It is long-suffering and obliging; it is not jealous, does not brag, get puffed up, behave indecently, get provoked, and does not look out for its own interests. It does not keep account of injuries, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices only with the truth. It bears, believes, hopes and endures all things. It never fails. No wonder that of faith, hope and love, “the greatest of these is love”!—1 Cor. 13:1-13.
Agápe love allows for degrees, and therefore Christians are commanded to have “intense love for one another.” They must work at it to perfect it so that they “may have freeness of speech in the day of judgment.” We are not only commanded to love (agapáo, verb form of agápe) God, but to do so with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves.—1 Pet. 4:8; 1 John 4:17, 18; Mark 12:29-31.
Coming now to philéo, or the friendship love or affection, it is at once inferior to and superior to agápe love. How so? It is inferior as to quality but superior as to its being a privilege. It is the first element of such words as Philadelphia, love of brother; philosophy, love of wisdom; philanthropy, love of mankind, as well as of many other words used in the Scriptures that have not been carried over into the English language, such as philarguría, love of money (silver), and philágathos, loving good or virtue. Jesus used this word when he said that the religious leaders liked the front seats in the synagogues and that the world was fond of its own. Indicating its inferiority to agápe love is Peter’s command to ‘add to our brotherly affection [philadelphía] love [agápe].’—Luke 20:46; John 15:19; 2 Pet. 1:7.
As to philéo, affection, being a privilege, note that, while God showed his agápe love for sinners, “the Father has affection for the Son.” That is why Jesus assured his followers that the Father had, not merely love, but affection for them: “The Father himself has affection for you.” And why? “Because you have had affection for me,” and not merely because of their need. Yes, God has affection, or treats as friends, only the deserving ones.—John 5:20; 16:27; Jas. 2:23.
Likewise with Jesus. He felt love (agapáo) for the rich young ruler, but he felt both love and affection (philéo) for John his preferred apostle. (Mark 10:21; John 19:26; 20:2) When speaking to Peter after his resurrection, the first two times Jesus asked Peter if he had love for him, but the third time he asked if Peter had affection for him. Each time, in reply, ardent Peter used the more intimate term: “Master, you know I have affection for you.”—John 21:15-17.
Today on every hand we see an overemphasis on sexual éros, while there is ever less and less natural affection, storgé. The world knows nothing of the agápe love that is the fruitage of God’s spirit and involves the mind and will, is wholly unselfish and is based on principle. Jehovah God is the very personification of this kind of love, and we are commanded to be like him in this. This is the love we must have for God, for our neighbor, our enemies, yes, and even for ourselves. But as Christians we may express philéo, affection, only for fellow Christians.—Matt. 5:44-48; 1 Cor. 15:33.