One morning I listened to a news commentator explain how we are constantly adding words to our dictionary. He pointed out that whenever we add a new word, the speakers who make the word popular—especially newscasters—at first use the term to convey a very specific and definite meaning. But after a short while, listeners who adopt the new term tend to make it go in a hundred other directions.
That raises the question: What does God mean by the term “love”?
Unfortunately, English doesn’t do an adequate job of conveying everything God wants to express. I can say, for example, “I love my wife, Kay,” expressing my deepest feelings and emotions for her. Yet when I describe what I think about hot fudge sundaes, English makes me use the same word: “I love hot fudge sundaes!” Let me assure you, however, that even though I use the same word “love,” what I feel toward hot fudge sundaes differs profoundly from what I feel toward my wife! We use our single English word “love” to describe a wide spectrum of emotions and states of being.
Ancient Greek, on the other hand—the language of the New Testament—used three main words to express the idea of love. The Greeks understood that man existed on three levels: the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual. While the Greeks didn’t understand very well the spiritual level, they grasped the physical and the emotional.
They used the word eros to describe love on a physical level. In Greek mythology, Eros was the god of love and the consort of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of passion and physical love. Today, when Hollywood talks about love, usually it’s talking about the Greek idea of eros, focusing on the physical level of love, the erotic—which isn’t always love. Such love tends to be extremely self-centered and constantly seeks self-gratification. It could better be translated “lust.” So when a person on the silver screen purrs, “Let’s make love,” it isn’t necessarily love at all. It’s interesting to note that the New Testament doesn’t use the term eros even once.
The ancient Greeks usually employed the words, phileo or storge, to describe fondness or friendship. This is the natural affection a man has for his children, the love a mother has for her family, or the love you have for your friends. It describes a deep kinship and bond that ties human lives together. The name “Philadelphia” combines two Greek words: phileo (love) and adelphos (brotherly); therefore, Philadelphia is the “city of brotherly love.” When God tells wives to “love” their husbands, He uses the term phileo. Or when He tells older women to teach younger women to “love” their husbands, again He uses the term phileo—fondness, respect, love.
Phileo or storge is usually reciprocal. I love you because you love me. I love you because we get along well. We are able to relate to each other and understand each other. We like the same kind of music. We like the same kind of books. Since we have these affinities and seem to complement each other, therefore, I have this fondness for you in the phileo realm. It’s a reciprocal kind of love, a genuine give-and-take. The New Testament uses this term some twenty-two times.
But when you enter the realm of the Spirit—which neither the ancient Greeks nor the modern secular world knows—you find a depth of love that transcends basic human love. Agape speaks of a dimension of love far greater than emotions and much deeper than just physical attraction. It’s a spiritual love that comes from the deepest part of a person’s being. This love does not look for something in return. It does not seek reciprocity, but simply reaches out to embrace the object of its love.
Since such a divine concept did not exist at the time the New Testament took shape, its writers took a little-used Greek word and transformed it to express a depth of love that transcends physical love or emotional love—a self-sacrificing love. And thus, the New Testament writers essentially coined the word agape to describe a giving, selfless kind of love.
It is this word that the New Testament consistently uses to describe God’s loving, expansive attitude toward us. Think of it! His love for us is so deep, so great that the writers of the New Testament basically had to invent a word to portray the vastness of its depth, strength, and power.
- excerpted from Love The More Excellent Way by Chuck Smith