Love is a major theme throughout the Old and New Testaments. The two Great Commandments are about love—love for God and love for one another (Deuteronomy 6:5 Deuteronomy 6:5And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
American King James Version×; Leviticus 19:18 Leviticus 19:18You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
American King James Version×). God is love! (1 John 4:8 1 John 4:8He that loves not knows not God; for God is love.
American King James Version×, 16). Therefore it’s essential that we understand, teach and practice godly love in our thoughts, words and actions.
“Love” is a very general English word used in many ways. On the other hand, godly love is specific and spiritual, far superior to any other love. Because it is a special and profound subject, it’s natural for us to want a simple, shorthand way of referring to it, a sort of code word that attempts to sum it up. And we naturally want to use a word that sounds pleasant and “spiritual.”
This partly explains the widespread popularity of the Greek word agape ! This word is used in countless sermons and articles, including many in United Church of God. Some churches and other religious organizations also use the word as part of their titles.
Agape —pronounced ah-gah’- pey or ah’- guy-pey —is a nice-sounding Greek noun for love. The corresponding verb is agapao (pronounced ah-gah-pah’-o).
The Greek noun agape should not be confused with the English word agape (pronounced uh- geyp ’), meaning “with mouth wide open, as in surprise, wonder, or eagerness.”
The fact the Greek word agape has been adopted as a popular English word creates some confusion. An English dictionary (Dictionary.com) defines agape as: 1. The love of God or Christ for humankind. 2. The love of Christians for other persons, corresponding to the love of God for humankind.
But those are not the definitions in the Greek language!
The purpose of this article is not to thoroughly explain godly love. If that were the purpose, it would address scriptures in the Old Testament almost as much as the New Testament. The purpose of this article is to clear up the misconceptions about the Greek noun agape as well as the Greek verb agapao.
Is Agape a Special and Spiritual Type of Love?
When we see the word “love” in the New Testament, it is most often the translation of agape or agapao . And since many of those scriptures are telling us how great is godly love, it is not surprising that we would assume that those Greek words refer to a superior kind of love, a spiritual godly love.
However, that assumption is not accurate. When the New Testament was being written, the Greek noun agape and verb agapao were the most common and general words for “love.” They were used in a wide variety of contexts just as our English word “love” is used in a variety of contexts. So when we say “ agape love,” we are virtually saying “love love.” It’s like saying “ amor love” (Spanish), “ amour love” (French) or “ amore love” (Italian).
To understand the attitudes and actions of godly love requires far, far more revelation than knowing the definitions of a couple of Greek words and a couple of Hebrew words.
Godly love is a spiritual love that God through His Holy Spirit enables us to have (Romans 5:5 Romans 5:5And hope makes not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given to us.
American King James Version×; Galatians 5:22 Galatians 5:22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,
American King James Version×; 1 John 4:7-13 1 John 4:7-13 7 Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loves is born of God, and knows God. 8 He that loves not knows not God; for God is love. 9 In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. 10 Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. 12 No man has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwells in us, and his love is perfected in us. 13 Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
American King James Version×). The confusion arises because many people assume the same thing about agape/ agapao. We will see from several scriptures that this assumption is not true.
Examples of Agapao by Carnal and Evil People
Luke 6:32 Luke 6:32For if you love them which love you, what thank have you? for sinners also love those that love them.
American King James Version×—“For even sinners love [ agapao ] those who love [ agapao ] them.”
John 3:19 John 3:19And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
American King James Version×—“Men loved [ agapao ] darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
2 Timothy 4:10 2 Timothy 4:10For Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed to Thessalonica; Crescens to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia.
American King James Version×—“Demas has forsaken me, having loved [ agapao ] this present world.”
2 Peter 2:15 2 Peter 2:15Which have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness;
American King James Version×—“They have forsaken the right way . . . following the way of Balaam . . . who loved [ agapao ] the wages of unrighteousness.”
1 John 2:15 1 John 2:15Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
American King James Version×—“Do not love [ agapao ] the world or the things in the world.”
You see? The Greek words agape and agapao do not imply a spiritual or righteous love.
Let’s Clearly Distinguish Between the English and Greek Words
The purpose of this article is not an effort to put a stop to mentioning agape in our messages. We can reduce the confusion by thinking of agape as both a Greek word and an English word (since it has been adopted into the English language). As a Greek word, it has no inference of anything spiritual. But when used as an English word, it is commonly viewed as a spiritual love. So no misrepresentation of the Bible is done when someone speaks of “ agape ” if he clarifies that he is using it as an English word for spiritual love and not stating or implying that agape and agapao mean spiritual love in the New Testament.
Other Greek Words Meaning Love
Two other Greek words are usually translated as “love” in the New Testament. Philos (noun) appears 29 times, and phileo (verb) appears 25 times. Many of our English words are based on the root Greek word philo , such as philadelphia , which means brotherly love.
However, agape appears 116 times and agapao appears 137 times in the New Testament, so we see how much more prevalent is this pair of words compared to philos and phileo .
Two other Greek words that can be translated as “love” ( eros and storgos ) are not in the Bible.
Agape/ agapao and philos / phileo have slightly different meanings. Some people think of agape and agapao as decisive love from the mind (head) while they think of philos and phileo as more spontaneous and emotional love from the heart, like affection. However, the New Testament frequently uses them synonymously and interchangeably, as we shall now see.
Synonymous Uses of Agapao and Phileo
“That disciple whom Jesus loved [ agapao ] . . . ” (John 21:7 John 21:7Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher’s coat to him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea.
American King James Version×, 20; 19:26).
“The other disciple, whom Jesus loved [ phileo ] . . . ” (John 20:2 John 20:2Then she runs, and comes to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, They have taken away the LORD out of the sepulcher, and we know not where they have laid him.
American King James Version×).
“Woe to you Pharisees! For you love [ agapao ] the best seats” (Luke 11:43 Luke 11:43Woe to you, Pharisees! for you love the uppermost seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets.
American King James Version×).
“Beware of the scribes, who . . . love [ phileo ] . . . the best seats” (Luke 20:46 Luke 20:46Beware of the scribes, which desire to walk in long robes, and love greetings in the markets, and the highest seats in the synagogues, and the chief rooms at feasts;
American King James Version×).
Here we see that agapao and phileo are used interchangeably! As Canadians would say, interesting, eh?
Phileo Used for Godly Love
When the New Testament speaks of godly love, it does not always use agape or agapao .
John 5:20 John 5:20For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all things that himself does: and he will show him greater works than these, that you may marvel.
American King James Version×—“For the Father loves [ phileo ] the Son.”
John 16:27 John 16:27For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me, and have believed that I came out from God.
American King James Version×—“For the Father Himself loves [ phileo ] you, because you have loved [ phileo ] Me.”
1 Corinthians 16:22 1 Corinthians 16:22If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha.
American King James Version×—“If anyone does not love [ phileo ] the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed.”
Thus we see that the Greek language does not make a major distinction between agape/ agapao and philos / phileo .
However, Something Significant About Agape/Agapao
Agape/ agapao has a shade of meaning which is significant: It implies a decision to love even when there is no expectation of a reciprocal response. It often is not a mutual, two-way love.
To illustrate, God loved all people (who were generally unlovable!) before anyone loved Him in return, and when there was no guarantee that anyone would love Him in the future (John 3:16-17 John 3:16-17 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
American King James Version×). Consider Romans 5:6-8 Romans 5:6-8 6 For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. 8 But God commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
American King James Version×: “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love [ agape ] toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Let’s Not Forget the Old Testament
Love is taught throughout the Old Testament as well. Many New Testament scriptures about love are quotes from the Old Testament. The Hebrew language expresses love very well. “Love” in the Old Testament is most often the translation of ahab (pronounced aw-hab ’), which appears 250 times in varied forms, the verb far more frequently than the noun.
Consider the two Great Commandments. “You shall love [ ahab ] the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5 Deuteronomy 6:5And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
American King James Version×). “You shall . . . love [ ahab ] your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18 Leviticus 19:18You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
American King James Version×).
Also be aware of hesed (or xi, pronounced kheh ’-sed), a profound and inspiring Hebrew word with various shades of meanings. It is in the Old Testament 248 times. It indicates steadfast and compassionate love and mercy. Some of the translations are mercy , lovingkindness and goodness .
Hesed most often is referring to the love of God toward His people. Plus, hesed is often the keyword in important passages about God’s love for all people, including Psalms 36:5 Psalms 36:5Your mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens; and your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.
American King James Version×, 7, 10 and Psalms 103:8 Psalms 103:8The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.
American King James Version×, 11, 17.
Godly Love Far Exceeds Agape!
To understand the attitudes and actions of godly love requires far, far more revelation than knowing the definitions of a couple of Greek words and a couple of Hebrew words. We need the entire Bible, God’s book of love!
1 Corinthians 13 is the “love chapter,” the chapter that most succinctly sums up godly love. This one chapter reveals far more than any definition of agape/ agapao. To imply that we can sum up God’s love with one word or a few words is an insult to God and His love.
It’s unfortunate that some have tried to separate godly love from obedience to God’s Ten Commandments. A major way that we express our love for and loyalty to God is by obeying His Commandments (1 John 2:4-6 1 John 2:4-6 4 He that said, I know him, and keeps not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
5 But whoever keeps his word, in him truly is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him.
6 He that said he stays in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked.
American King James Version×; 5:2-3; 2 John 6). This heresy is reinforced by modern society’s portrayal of love as emotional feelings , while the Bible portrays love primarily as one’s actions —the labor of love in how we treat God and other people. The Greek words agape/ agapao do not imply anything about obeying God, which further demonstrates that they do not represent godly love.
A “New Commandment”—the Sign of a Disciple!
John, the “apostle of love,” preserved for us Jesus’ critically important statements about love.
Jesus said, “I’m giving you a new commandment: Love each other in the same way that I have loved you” (John 13:34 John 13:34A new commandment I give to you, That you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
American King James Version×, God’s Word). The Old Testament teaches love, so how could a commandment to love be “new”? Jesus taught and demonstrated a much higher level of love than the world had ever known! It was a completely unselfish, unreserved, self-sacrificing love.
Jesus went on to say, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 John 13:35By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.
American King James Version×). This is the sign that is unique and most convincing—the Christ-like love that God’s people have for each other.
Godly love is selfless and sacrificial. Jesus said: “This is My commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13 John 15:12-13 12 This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you.
13 Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
American King James Version×, New Living Translation). See 1 John 3:16-18 1 John 3:16-18 16 Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But whoever has this world’s good, and sees his brother have need, and shuts up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwells the love of God in him? 18 My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.
American King James Version×.
The apostle Paul also taught humble sacrificial love: “Don’t be jealous or proud, but be humble and consider others more important than yourselves. Care about them as much as you care about yourselves” (Philippians 2:3-4 Philippians 2:3-4 3 Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.
4 Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.
American King James Version×, Contemporary English Version).
The apostle Peter also emphasized a special deep love for fellow disciples: “Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren [ philadelphia ], love [ agapao ] one another fervently with a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22 1 Peter 1:22Seeing you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit to unfeigned love of the brothers, see that you love one another with a pure heart fervently:
American King James Version×).
Godly love is amazing! It does not seek retaliation (Matthew 5:38-39 Matthew 5:38-39 38 You have heard that it has been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say to you, That you resist not evil: but whoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.
American King James Version×) It is willing to go beyond one’s duty in serving others (verses 40-42). It even means loving one’s enemies! (verses 43-48). The perfect example of these virtues was the earthly life of Jesus Christ!
Let’s be very careful about the words we use. If we speak of agape as a spiritual love, it would be good to clarify that we are using it as a popular English word and not as a Greek word.
As humans, we can never fully comprehend God’s love, although it is our duty and joy to strive to understand it better and better. It is our duty and joy to increasingly internalize that same love and exercise it toward God and toward one another.
Perhaps the Bible’s greatest tribute to God’s profound and awesome love is in Ephesians 3:16-19 Ephesians 3:16-19 16 That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man;
17 That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love,
18 May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;
19 And to know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge, that you might be filled with all the fullness of God.
American King James Version×. The New Living Translation words it this way: “I pray that from His glorious, unlimited resources He will empower you with inner strength through His Spirit. Then Christ will make His home in your hearts as you trust in Him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep His love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.”