Greek Word Studies
'Love' In The NT

By Theologue

Classic / Ancient Greek

Classical Greek is a robust language that is sometimes difficult to translate into English since both languages have various words with different shades of meanings. This sometimes makes interpreting difficult because translators may translate different Greek words with one English word. In order to understand what the text really says and means it is necessary to analyze the original language. An example is the word 'love' that is the translation of several Greek words that have important differences in meaning. 

In 'Classical' Greek  there were several different words for 'love' and affection, the four most significant are:
  1. agape - agape - voluntary love
  2. phileos - phileos - emotional love
  3. eros - eros - physical or sensual love
  4. storge - storge - (natural) affection
NT Words for 'love'

The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, the common street language of the time (whereas classical Greek was more of an 'academic' language). There are two primary Greek words that are translated 'love' in the NT:

1. Phileo (phileo): 'brotherly or familial', an emotional love [total KJV occurrences: 26]

2. Agape (agape): 'supreme' love, an 'unconditional love', always voluntary, esp. when referring to the love of God [Total KJV occurrences: 142]

NT Examples Of The Word 'love':

Both phileo and agape [phileo and agape] are used in John 21:15-17 (1):

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs."

He said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep."

He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep".  

Note that Jesus asks twice using 'agape', both times Peter responds with 'phileo':
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love [agape] me more than these?”  “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love [phileo] you.”  Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”  16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love [agape] me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love [phileo] you.”  Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

Jesus asks the 3rd time using 'phileo':

17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love [phileo] me?”  Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love [phileo] me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love [phileo] you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

Seeing the 2 different Greek words show a deeper richness of meaning to the passage.

An example of 'agape' used in reference to Love of God: Mat 22:37-40

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."


Adam Clarke’s Commentary On The NT; comments on Mat 22:37f:

It is remarkable that in these three questions our Lord uses the verb αγαπαω, which signifies to love affectionately, ardently, supremely, perfectly…and that Peter always replies, using the verb φιλεω, which signifies to love, to like, to regard, to feel friendship for another. As if our Lord had said, “Peter, dost thou love me ardently and supremely?” To which he answers, “Lord, I feel an affection for thee - I do esteem thee - but dare, at present, say no more.” 

Vines Word Studies In The NT; comments on the word translated 'love' in the NT:

To love is expressed by two words in the New Testament, φιλέω and ἀγαπάω. Ἁγαπάω indicates a reasoning, discriminating attachment, founded in the conviction that its object is worthy of esteem, or entitled to it on account of benefits bestowed. Φιλέω represents a warmer, more instinctive sentiment, more closely allied to feeling, and implying more passion.

Recommended Books For NT Greek Word Study:

1. Word Study Greek-English New Testament (McReynolds): a new work that is excellent. If you can only afford one Greek reference book this would be a good choice.
1. Vines Word Studies In The NT: an excellent tool that is use for students without a knowledge of OT Hebrew or NT Greek. CAVEAT: Vine is a dispensationalist and his bias towards that theology is stong in some articles.

2. Thayer's Greek - English Lexicon: an older work but is still one of the best lexicons available for general use.

3. The New Strong's Complete Dictionary Of Bible Words (Nelson Publishers): Strong's Lexicon is in the public domain and comes in a variety of versions. It has a numbering system that is used in a number of publications and software packages. A version of Strong's lexicon is a 'must-have' book.

4. Liddell And Scott Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford Press): the 'standard' lexicon for classical Greek and very useful for NT studies.

Copies of these books can be found at almost any Christian book store or distributor. Used copies can sometimes be found on or at a reasonable price. 

(1) All quotes from the English Standard Version (ESV).