A lot of people know the Biblical verse 1 John 4:8, even if they aren’t aware of it. In that verse is a simple yet deeply significant phrase: “God is love.” We read that affirmation and like it. After all, who doesn’t want a loving God? If we pause for a moment, however, we might begin to wonder exactly what that phrase means.
The comment that God is love is tucked into a larger verse about how we should treat each other:
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
The passage is written as if God’s love is almost contagious. Because God is love, I love others. This causes me to examine what might be meant by the word “love.” “Love” is an interesting word in the 21st century English language. I love my wife. I love my friends. But I don’t love my friends in the same way I love my wife. I also love our dog Tizzy, but I certainly don’t love my dog the same way I love my wife and friends. Anyone who knows me well knows that I love apple pie! Yet my love for apple pie isn’t remotely in the same realm as my love for my family. Such is our English word “love.”
The ancient Greeks had a better system. They had a number of different words that we often translate as “love.” These words had different nuances of meaning, however. Because the New Testament section of the Bible was written in Greek, examining the Greek words for love is helpful to understanding this trait of God’s as a “loving” God. Phileō – the friend love One Greek verb for love is phileō (φιλέω). If I lived in Biblical times and spoke everyday Greek, the kind of Greek used in the New Testament, this is a word I would use a good bit. When I spoke of a good buddy, someone I felt a kinship or bond with, I might speak of my phileō love for him or her. This word is the root of the city “Philadelphia,” whose motto is “the city of brotherly love” – the “Phila” part of the name is the “brotherly love” part of the motto.
In the Bible, this kind of “love” is used not only in the sense of love for a friend, but also of certain things one might have an “affection” for. Some people “loved” the better seats at the synagogue. Phileo is used for that love (Mt. 23:6). love is used for “loving” Then, as today, some people loved being popular. An example of such popularity was having folks recognize you and greet you in public.
If I were to say, “I love it when people see me and say, ‘Hi Mark!’ in public, I could use the phileō word for love (Lk. 20:46). Jesus used this idea of “love” when speaking of the priority of our affections.
If I have a greater affection (phileō love) for my family than I do for God, I have misplaced affections (Mt. 10:37). If I have a greater affection for my own life than I should, then I will suffer and “lose” my life (Jn. 12:25).
Erōs – the passion love
Another Greek word for love is the noun erōs (ἔρως). Erōs love is the root of our modern word, “erotic.” The word doesn’t mean erotic, but it comes close! Erōs refer to a deep fondness or passion for someone or something. It comes from a verb (erōmai) that implies a lust or passionate desire for someone or something.
While erōs wasn’t used in the New Testament, the Jewish writers of the time just before Jesus used it twice in translating the Old Testament into Greek. In Proverbs 7, the prostitute calls to the naïve to come to bed with her and to “delight ourselves with love [erōs].” Later in Proverbs 30:15-16, the writers list, “Three things are never satisfied; four never say, ‘Enough.’” The Hebrew lists four things that aren’t ever sated:
1. Sheol (aka death)
2. The womb, which desires to bear children
3. Land in need of rain, and
4. Fire, which constantly needs more fuel to keep burning.
This is what we read in our English Bibles. So, the English Revised Version reads, three things are never satisfied; four never say, “Enough”: Sheol, the barren womb, the land never satisfied with water, and the fire that never says, “Enough” (Prov.30:15-16).
However, when the Jews in Alexandria translated the Hebrew of Proverbs into Greek, they changed “the barren womb.” The Greek translation of the Old Testament reads gives the four things that are never satisfied as:
1. Hades (aka death)
2. The erōs love of a woman
3. Land in need of rain, and
Agapē – the interested love
A third Greek word for love is commonly known in its noun form – agapē (γάπη). Modern writers often define agapē love as “unconditional love.” That makes for some good ideas of how we should love others and can even be found in ideas behind the word, but it isn’t the fairest of definitions for the word itself.
The idea behind the Greek agapē love is based on a regard for others that is demonstrated in being interested in the other’s welfare or good. Agapē love can still denote affection as well as a special bond between those sharing the love.
When Jesus told his disciples that they would be known by their love for each other, he spoke of agapē love. (“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love [agapē] for one another” Jn. 13:35.) Jesus spoke of a bond of caring that shows interests in the welfare of others. This is the kind of care for others interests that is shown in its most extreme measure through an ultimate sacrifice.
Thus, Jesus said, Greater love [agapē] has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (Jn. 15:13).
Or as Paul put it in Romans 5:8,
God shows his love [agapē] for us in that while we were still sinners,
Christ died for us.
Agapē love is Paul’s choice for the fact that in spite of anything the world may throw our way, we can be confident that Christ is still interested in our good.
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love [agapē] of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39).
Paul uses agapē love a lot in his writings. Paul is laser-focused on God’s interest in us, as well as the interest we should have for each other. Agapē love is Paul’s choice for the love he writes of so famously in 1 Corinthians 13. Read the entire chapter with “agapē” inserted where it is written, rather than the English “love.” Do so with the idea of “agapē” as a “deep and sincere interest in the welfare of others.”
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not agapē, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not agapē, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not agapē, I gain nothing. Agapē is patient and kind; agapē does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. Agapē bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Agapē never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.
Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and agapē abide, these three; but the greatest of these is agapē.
Storgē – Another word from ancient Greek that can be translated as “love” or “affection” is storgē (στοργη). This word was especially used when speaking of the love of a parent for a child. It denoted the kind of feelings and heart a parent typically has (and should have, although not all parents are normal!)
While storgē is found in an “intertestamental book” (one that was written between the Old Testament and New Testament), it is not found in the Bible. Still, the concept of God loving us as a parent loves a child is readily present in the Bible.
In Old Testament prophet Isaiah, we read of God speaking to Israel. God addressed the people who were wondering whether or not God had forgotten them.
In reply, God explained his love and commitment to his people ran deeper than the love of a mother to her child.
Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands (Isa. 49:15-16).
This recognition of God loving his people as a parent is found also in the New Testament. Paul spoke frequently about God’s people being “adopted” children who call God the familiar “Abba,” the familiar word for a father used also by Jesus in addressing God.
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15). And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:6). And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mk. 14:36).
An important aspect of love, especially used in the Biblical sense of God’s love needs to be noted. This is rooted in the real-life truth that every coin has two sides. The love of God seems and feels nice to us. It fits into our desires of who we want God to be. But almost every trait we “like” in God has a side that we might perceive negatively. It is the proverbial “other side of the coin.”
Stay tuned for Part II – Hatred