Everybody Needs a Little Love (Monday with Mounce 39)
I am a bit surprised I haven’t been asked this question earlier, but I did just receive one about the different words for love in Greek. How many youth talks have been given on the different types of love, based on the different Greek words? More than I can count, for sure.
There are four basic nouns meaning “love,” and many derivations from these. I am going to rely on my Dictionary for the basic presentation of the data. φιλεω was the general verb for “love.” It has a wide range of meanings, stretching from hospitality to affection to love, even “to kiss.” It is not necessarily a softened form of love, and is used of God’s love for his Son and our love for God. For example, “the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does” (John 5:20). Paul warns the Corinthians, “If anyone does not love the Lord — a curse be on him” (1 Cor 16:22). Jesus loved Lazarus (John 11:3). εραω (ερως) was basically sexual love between a man and a woman. BDAG lists it’s gloss as, “to feel passionately about, have a longing for, feel fervently about.“ It does not occur in the New Testament.
στεργω is more the idea of affection and is used for a person’s affection for others, for their god, or even their dog (see Verbrugge’s Abridged Dictionary of New Testament Theology). It does not occur in the New Testament except in compounds. αγαπαω (αγαπη) was a colorless word without any great depth of meaning.
Perhaps it is because the word was so colorless that the New Testament writers chose it to express a specifically Christian kind of love, most importantly God’s love for his unlovely creation. All those great talks you have heard about αγαπη love being an undeserved love for the unlovely really has nothing to do with what the Greek word meant in the Koine. Rather, the word was infused with God’s love and so after the first century carried the biblical nuances of God’s love.
φιλεω overlaps in meaning with αγαπη so care needs to be exercised in assuming there are always specific differences in meaning between these two words. One of the famous passages is John 21:15-17 where the risen Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, switching the words for love (as well as other words that appear to be in parallel, e.g., “feed”).
- Peter, do you αγαπαω me? Yes, I φιλεω you. Feed my lambs.
- Peter, do you αγαπαω me? Yes, I φιλεω you. Tend my sheep.
- Peter, do you φιλεω me? Yes, I φιλεω you. Feed my sheep.
The fact of the matter is that Leon Morris has proven that John likes to use synonyms, and variations do not necessarily have any meaning other than stylistic concerns. And the variations here make no sense if φιλεω is a watered down form of love (e.g., “like”). B.B. Warfield’s, The Terminology of Love in the NT (PTR 16, 1918, 1–45, 153–203) is the classic work on the meaning of these words.
So what is love? I had a great morning. (Today is Sunday.) We didn’t go to church (since you can’t go to what you are), but a group of us were the church. We meet to share, sing, encourage, challenge, and finally pray for one another. Then we ate. This is the essence of what Christian love looks like on the human to human level as we reflect God’s love for us to one another. It is this bond of love that unites us and so shows the world that God the Father sent God the Son to earth (John 17:23). As long as we “go” to church and envisage our religious duty in terms of a corporate structures, Jesus’ prayer for us and the world will go unanswered.
A Barna report a few months ago predicted that in 15 years 30% of the true evangelical church will no longer meet in traditional buildings — traditional, I should say, for western Christianity but not for the world. Maybe that is what it is going to take for us to start being the church and stop going to church, and truly love one another.
We received horrifying news this afternoon that a good friend of ours (John) collided with his brother (Hunter) on a jet ski, and Hunter died a few hours later. He was 17 years old. Even though we have lost a daughter at birth, I cannot begin to imagine the pain of losing an older child, or especially in John’s case of living with the fact that he ran over his little brother. The only thing that can possibly salvage his life is an understanding of God’s love reflected off the faces of their good friends as they all walk together in the years to come. John will learn in new ways that God’s love for him is not based on who he is of what he has (or has not) done, but is based on the fact that God loves.
Please pray for John and his family that he come to know God’s love in ever-deepening and more powerful ways.
William D. Mounce (PhD, Aberdeen University) lives as a writer in Spokane, Washington. He is the president of Biblical Training, a non-profit organization offering the finest in evangelical teaching to the world for free. See BillMounce.com for more information. Formerly he was the preaching pastor at a church in Spokane, and prior to that a professor of New Testament and director of the Greek program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestselling New Testament Greek resources, Basics of Biblical Greek, and served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version translation of the Bible.
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