There are several words for love in the New Testament, we briefly look at them, but first focus on agapē.
Let’s get started.
The noun agapē (pronounced ah-gah-pay and appears 116 times in the NT) is used here in this verse. Secular literature long before, during and after the New Testament did not absorb this noun, except in one reference. So the early Christians latched on to it and turned it into God’s love in himself, his love for us, and our love for him and each other.
The verb is agapaō (pronounced ah-gah-pah-oh and used 143 times). It is fairly frequent in secular literature before, during, and after the NT writings, but it is synonymous with the other Greek words for “love” or “like.” Only in Christ does it have the quality of divinity and God’s love in the Spirit.
Let’s look at a representative passage. The greatest passage on agapē is the “Love Chapter”: 1 Cor. 13:4-8). It is recited at wedding ceremonies. It is a list of verbs in the present tense. Here is my tentative translation:
4 Love shows patience; love shows kindness; love does not envy; love does not brag; it does not display arrogance; 5 it does not show rudeness; it does not self-seek; it does not show anger; it does not keep an account of the wrong; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth; 7 it passes over all things in silence, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things; 8 love never fails. 1 Cor. 13:4-8, my tentative translation)
These verses are in the Christian community, and we should not take the wonderful ideas to excess, like the clause “passes over all things in silence.” In some instances, it is wise to speak up and out. But the general rule here is not to point out past sins and failings, but to let them go.
Let’s quickly cover other words for love.
The noun philia (pronounced fee-lee-ah and used 1 time) and the verb phileō (pronounced fee-leh-oh and used 25 times) means “friendship” and “friendly love” and “affection”; “love” (Liddell and Scott). Agapē can be a synonym, but usually agapē goes more deeply and more extensively. As noted, the NT writers seized on it and broadened and deepened its meaning. For us today, it has deep theological and relational meaning. It is divine.
The noun storgē (pronounced stohr-gay) means “love, affection of parents and children” (BDAG), and it is used in the negative way astorgos (adjective), which means “unloving, without affection” (the prefix a– is a negation) (see Rom. 1:31; 2 Tim. 3:3). It also appears in the compound philostorgos (pronounced fee-loh-stohr-gohss) in Rom. 12:10. The NIV translates it as “be devoted”; KJV and NKJV: “kindly affectioned”; NLT: “love each other”; Message: love deeply.”
The Greek noun erōs, which means strong (sexual) love and desire, is not used in the NT, and neither is the verb eraō.
In light of the preceding information, we are now ready to define agapē.
The standard Greek lexicon (BDAG) is not very helpful. It simply says of the noun, “the quality of warm regard for and interest in another, esteem, regard, love.” That does not go far enough. It also says the noun is the agape-feast (not covered here), in which the first Christians shared a common meal together in connection with their gathering to worship, for the “purpose of fostering and expressing mutual affection and concern, fellowship meal, a love feast.”
The DNTT says that the LXX, (3rd century BC Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible and pronounced sep-too-ah-gent) translated the Greek verb agapaō in a variety of ways and can stand in even for eraō “strong desire.” Jonathan and David expressed friendship love that went deeper than a man’s love for a woman (2 Sam. 1:26; 18:1, 3, 20; 20:17).
The noun agapē is divine. It starts with God, flows from him, and is offered back to him with our lives. We cannot finger it up with our own efforts.
The noun agapē is sacrificial. Out of his agapē, God sacrificed his Son for us, and now we sacrifice our lives to him.
It means a total commitment. God is totally committed to his church and to the salvation of humankind. Surprisingly, however, total commitment can be seen in an unusual verse. Men loved darkness rather than light (John 3:19), which just means they are totally committed to a dark path of life. Are we willing to be totally committed to God and to live in his light? Can we match an unbeliever’s commitment to bad things with our commitment to good things?
Agapē is demonstrative. It is not static or still. It moves and acts. We receive it, and then we show it with kind acts and good deeds. It is not an abstraction or a concept. It is real.
It is transferrable. God can pour and lavish it on us. And now we can transfer it to our fellow believers and people caught in the world.
How does this post help me grow in my knowledge of God’s love and my capacity to show it to others?
God’s love is real. It is not an abstraction or a concept. It can be experienced. It is poured out and lavished in our hearts. If you don’t believe God loves you, then pray, asking him to show you and shower you with his love. Also, sometimes you have to speak out loud that God loves you, even when you don’t feel like it. In doing so, you are totally in harmony with Scripture. Let Scripture guide you, not your feelings, which can be tossed around like waves in a swimming pool where kids are playing. Scripture is steady and stable. Love is not feelings-based.
Once you receive the love of God, only then can you share it. You do this by being kind and doing good deeds for your brothers and sisters in the church and to those trapped in the world system. Love moves and acts. Love does. Love is practical. Show it.
Written by James Malcolm
Do I Really Know God? He Is Love, which covers love in the Old Testament.