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What Kind of Love? Misunderstanding the Greek Words

There is no doubt that we use the word “love” very broadly.  We love everything from pepperoni pizza to our spouse!  Sometimes I’ve heard people claim that the Bible is far clearer in this area because there is a hierarchy of words in the original language.  This person may claim that there are three words in Greek for love, with erao referring to a fleshly love (not used in the New Testament), phileo referring to a brotherly love, and agapao referring to a selfless, Godly love.  This sounds good.  Unfortunately, it is completely wrong.

In fact, there are four Greek words for love. Many people overlook the Greek word storgeo, used only in the negative sense in the New Testament. However, it is much more significant to realize that apapao and phileo do not have consistently distinct uses in either the New Testament or other contemporary Greek writings.  There are many places in the New Testament where someone may expect one word to be used, only to discover that it is the other.  In Love in Hard Places, D. A. Carson states, “Not for a moment am I suggesting that there are not different kinds of love.  All I am denying is that specific kinds of love can be reliably tied to particular Greek words.”  Several examples from scripture serve to illustrate this point.

First, both agape and phileo are used to describe God’s love.  In John 5:20, the word phileo is used when John writes, “For the Father phileo-ed the Son…”  Again in John 16:27 he writes, “For the Father himself phileo-ed you, because you have phileo-ed me, and have believed that I came out from God.”  In John 11:36 this word is used to describe Jesus’ love for Lazarus.  Clearly, this word often described as “a human or brotherly love” can also be used to describe the love of Jesus Christ and God the Father.

Secondly, the word agapao is something that a sinner naturally has for people who show them love, as seen in Luke 6:32.  In 2 Timothy 4:10, Paul lamented that Demas forsook him because he had agapao for this present world. It appears obvious from the passage that Demas did not leave Paul and his ministry because of a God-given, selfless love! Examining other Greek writings reveal that phileo was more popular in classical works, while apagao was gaining in popularity when the New Testament was being written.  One scholar summarized the situation by writing, “At some time or other, for some reason or other, one verb went out of fashion and the other verb came in.”  These two words were actually used interchangeably, and have roughly the same meaning in the Bible.

In conclusion, it is important to realize that words don’t “have” meaning, but are given meaning through usage.  The way to determine what a word means is to look at how it is used within a culture. The English word villain is an example of this.  Today the term generally referrers to a bad person, but it originally meant nothing other than that a person was a commoner or peasant.  The meaning of the word has shifted over the centuries based on how it was used by English speakers.  Other times, words can completely go out of use, like the archaic term “wot” that essentially means to know.  Like the primary words for love in Greek, there was a time when these two English words would have been used interchangeably and in the same way.  Thus, the evidence suggests that ancient Greek speakers would not have thought of agapao and phileo as referring to distinct types of love. Neither should we. 


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