Words for "Love" in the Greek New Testament*
THERE ARE four words in the Greek
language for "love."
Stergein is used in the New
Testament in its noun form, with the letter
"Alpha" prefixed which negates the word, that is, makes it mean the
opposite to what it meant in itself. It occurs in Romans 1:31 and 2
Timothy 3:3, and is translated in both instances by the words "without
natural affection." The word appears also in Romans 12:10 with the word
philos, "love", compounded with it, and is translated, "kindly
affectioned." Stergein designates "the quiet and abiding feeling within
us, which, resting on an object as near to us, recognizes that we are
closely bound up with it and takes satisfaction in its recognition." It
is a love that is "a natural movement of the soul," "something almost
like gravitation or some other force of blind nature." It is the love
of parents for children and children for parents, of husband for wife
and wife for husband, of close relations one for another. It is found
in the animal world in the love which the animal has for its offspring.
It is a love of obligatoriness, the term being used here not in its
moral sense, but in a natural sense. It is a necessity under the
circumstances. This kind of love is the binding factor by which any
natural or social unit is held together.
love that has its basis in one's own nature. It speaks of the
constitutional efflux of natural affection.
is a love
that has its
basis in passion, and its expression takes the form of a blind impulse
produced by passion.
love that has its basis in
pleasurableness, and is the glow of the heart kindled the perception of
that in the object loved which affords one pleasure.
is a love
that has its basis in preciousness, a love called out of one's heart by
an awakened sense of value in the object loved that causes one to prize
The word astorgos (Rom. 1:31;
2 Tim. 3:3) which denotes the absence of
this kind of love, designates "the unfeeling and hard, whose heart is
warmed by no noble sentiment; it is applied particularly to inhuman
parents, but also to animals who do not love their young." It is used
in pagan writings, of women who have many love affairs and as a result
do not have that nobler love for their husbands which they should have.
Eran is a word that is not
found in the New Testament. The word
"passion" describes it. It is passion seeking satisfaction. It is not
intrinsically a base word. In its use it is found at the two extremes
of low and high. It was used in pagan Greek writings of sex love. It
was used in Christian writings of divine love. It was used of the love
of children to their mother. This love is "an overmastering passion
seizing upon and absorbing into itself the whole mind."
philein is used forty-five
times in its various forms of verb and noun.
This is an unimpassioned love, a friendly love. It is a love that is
called out of one's heart as a response to the pleasure one takes in a
person or object. It is based upon an inner community between the
person loving and the person or object loved. That is, both have things
in common with one another. The one loving finds a reflection of his
own nature in the person or thing loved. It is a love of liking, an
affection for someone or something that is the outgoing of one's heart
in delight to that which affords pleasure. The Greeks made much of
friendship, and this word was used by them to designate this form of
mutual attraction. "Whatever in an object that is adapted to give
pleasure, tends to call out this affection." It is connected with the
sense of the agreeable in the object loved. The words which best
express this kind of love are "fondness, affection, liking." "It shows
the inclination which springs out of commerce with a person or is
called out by qualities in an object which are agreeable to us." As an
outgrowth of its meaning of fondness, it sometimes carries that
sentiment over into an outward expression of the same, that of kissing.
agapan is used in its verb,
noun, and adjective forms about three
hundred and twenty times in the New Testament. It is a love called out
of a person's heart by "an awakened sense of value in an object which
causes one to prize it." It expresses a love of approbation and esteem.
Its impulse comes from the idea of prizing. It is a love that
recognizes the worthiness of the object loved. Thus, this love consists
of the soul's sense of the value and preciousness of its object, and
its response to its recognized worth in admiring affection."
In contrasting philein and agapan, we might say that the former is a
love of pleasure, the latter a love of preciousness; the former a love
of delight, the latter a love of esteem; the former a love called out
of the heart by the apprehension of pleasurable qualities in the object
loved, the latter a love called out of the heart by the apprehension of
valuable qualities in the object loved; the former takes pleasure in,
the latter ascribes value to; the former is a love of liking, the
latter a love of prizing.
As to the reason why philein occurs only forty-five times in the New
Testament in all forms, while agapan is found three hundred and twenty
times in its various forms, the following can be said. The principal
reason for the more frequent use of agapan in the New Testament as over
against the infrequent use of philein is that philein was a commonly
used word for "love" in the classics, and agapan was used most
infrequently, and when Attic Greek was spread over the world by the
conquering armies of Alexander the Great, and remained in its
simplified and modified form as the international language of the
period between Alexander and Constantine, agapan suddenly sprang into
the ascendancy. Because it was the common word for "love" during these
centuries, the New Testament writers naturally found it not only
desirable but necessary to use it. It became the general word for love
in the New Testament.
But this does not mean that both words are used indiscriminately, the
one for the other, without any conscious sense of the differences
between them. Whenever philein is used, it means that the writer goes
out of his way to use a word that was not in common use, and because he
desired to convey a thought which agapan did not contain. There was
always a reason for such a selection although we may not always be able
to see it. The writers (1 Cor. 2:13) claim that their choice of words
was taught them by the Holy Spirit. This being the case, we have an
infallible use of the Greek words in their content of meaning and
general usage in the Roman world at that period. The Holy Spirit used
agapan and philein advisedly in the places where they occur, and it is
for us to find His reason and the truth He wishes us to have from His
use of the terms.
But there is another reason why agapan is used so frequently. agapan
never was a common word in classical literature, although it was in use
from the beginning and occupied a distinctive place of its own. In
Homer it is used only ten times, in Euripedes but three. Its noun form
agapesis is rare. The form agape, so frequently found in the New
Testament, does not occur at all. Its first appearance is in the Greek
translation of the Old Testament. It conveyed the ideas of
astonishment, wonder, admiration, and approbation when connected with
the word agamai which meant "to wonder at or admire." It was used in
classical literature in the same sentence with philein and had its
distinctive sense of "a love of prizing" as contrasted to philein, "a
love of liking." But owing to the very in frequency of its use, it was
an admirable word which could be put to use to convey the new and
higher conception of divine love which the New Testament presents. Its
relative emptiness, so far as the general knowledge of the person was
concerned who spoke Greek as his second language, made it the ideal
receptacle into which the new moral and ethical content of Christianity
could be poured.
The pagan Greeks knew nothing of the love of self-sacrifice for one's
enemy which was exhibited at Calvary. Therefore they had no word for
that kind of love. They knew nothing about the divine analysis of this
love which Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians 13. So the New Testament
writers seized upon this word as one that would express these exalted
conceptions. Therefore, the word agapan in the New Testament is to be
understood in its meaning as given above, but also in the added meaning
which has been poured into it by its use in the New Testament, the
context of such passages as John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 13; 1 John 4:16,
and Romans 5:5 giving us an adequate conception of its New Testament
content of meaning.
The English reader can see from this study the importance of knowing
what Greek word lies back of the English word "love." While the English
student is able to come to a good understanding of the passages in
which the words occur, yet a full-orbed view of the scripture under
consideration is only possible when one knows what the distinctive
Greek word for "love" is. It is to help the student who does not have
access to the Greek New Testament, that this study has been written. It
is impossible within the brief compass of this chapter to comment upon
all of the passages, but a representative list will be treated, leaving
the student the delightful task of studying the others for himself. It
should be kept in mind, however, that all the shades of meaning in each
word will not be applicable on each occasion of its use. A study of the
context will guide one in ascertaining just what distinctive meaning
the word will have in each passage. For this groundwork in the study of
the Greek words for "love," I am indebted to Benjamin B. Warfield's
excellent articles, "The Terminology
of Love in the New Testament," which appeared in The Princeton
Theological Review of January and April of 1918.
agapan occurs in John 3:16. The love exhibited at Calvary was called
out of the heart of God because of the preciousness of each lost soul,
precious to God because He sees in lost humanity His own image even
though that image be marred by sin, precious to God because made of
material which through redemption can be transformed into the very
image of His dear Son. While it is a love based upon the estimation of
the preciousness of the object loved, this from its classical usage, it
is also a love of self-sacrifice, complete self-sacrifice to the point
of death to self, and that for one who bitterly hates the one who
loves. This latter is its added New Testament meaning. Include in that
the constitutent elements as analyzed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 where
"charity" should be translated "love," and we have the full content of
this love which should always be kept in mind when interpreting
passages in the New Testament in which this word occurs, and where the
love is shown either by God to man, or by the Christian to others.
For instance, in interpreting "Husbands, love your wives" (Eph. 5:25),
the love of John 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 13 is meant. They already have
a Stergein and philein love for them. These latter should be saturated
and thus elevated, purified, and ennobled by agapan. But these
Christian husbands are not left helpless in an attempt to obey this
exhortation, for this very love is shed abroad in their hearts by the
Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5) and is one of His fruits (Gal. 5:22). When
saints are exhorted to love one another (1 John 4:11) it is with this
kind of love.
When we come to "men loved darkness rather than light" (John 3:19), and
"love not the world" (1 John 2:15), we come to some isolated instances
where the classical meaning which has been brought over into the New
Testament, can only be applied. Here it is no love of self-sacrifice
for the benefit of the object loved. It is a love for sin and for the
world system of evil that is called out of the sinful heart because of
the estimation which that person puts upon the preciousness of the
object loved. The saints are exhorted not to set a high value upon the
world and thus love it. Aside from such exceptional cases like these,
agapan is to be given its full-orbed New Testament meaning.
In order that the reader can make a study of agapan in the New
Testament, we append the following list containing the places where its
verb occurs, and where the word "love" is in the translation. Matthew
5:43, 44, 46, 6:24, 19:19, 22:37, 39; Mark 10:21, 12:30, 31, 33; Luke
6:27, 32, 35, 7:5, 42, 47, 10:27, 11:43, 16:13; John 3:16, 19, 35,
8:42, 10:17, 11:5, 12:43, 13:1, 23, 13:34, 14:15, 21, 23, 24, 28, 31,
15:9, 12, 17, 17:23, 24, 26, 19:26, 21:7, 15, 16, (first occurrences
only in verses 15 and 16), 20; Romans 8:28, 37, 9:13, 25, 13:8, 9; 1
Corinthians 2:9, 8:3; 2 Corinthians 9:7, 11:11, 12:15; Galatians 2:20,
5:14; Ephesians 1:6, 2:4, 5:2, 25, 28, 33, 6:24; Colossians 3:12, 19; 1
Thessalonians 1:4, 4:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 16; 2 Timothy 4:8, 10;
Hebrews 1:9, 12:6; James 1:12, 2:5, 8; 1 Peter 1:8, 22 (second
occurrence only), 2:17, 3:10; 2 Peter 2:15; 1 John 2:10, 15, 3:10, 11,
14, 3:18, 23, 4:7. 8, 10, 11, 12, 19, 20, 21, 5:1. 2; 2 John 1, 5; 3
John 1; Revelation 1:5, 3:9, 12:11, 20:9.
The noun form agape occurs in the following places where it is
translated either by "love" or "charity." Where the word "charity"
appears, the translation should read "love." There is no good reason
for the change to "charity." Matthew 24:12; Luke 11:42; John 5:42,
13:35, 15:9, 10, 13, 17:26; Romans 5:5, 8, 8:35, 39, 12:9, 13:10,
14:15, 15:30; 1 Corinthians 4:21, 8:1, 13:1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 13, 14:1,
16:14, 24; 2 Corinthians 2:4, 8, 5:14, 6:6, 8:7, 8, 24, 13:11, 14;
Galatians 5:6, 13, 22; Ephesians 1:4, 15, 2:4, 3:17, 19, 4:2, 15, 16,
5:2, 6:23; Philippians 1:9, 17, 2:1, 2; Colossians 1:4, 8, 13, 2:2,
3:14; 1 Thessalonians 1:3, 3:6, 12, 5:8, 13; 2 Thessalonians 1:3, 2:10,
3:5; 1 Timothy 1:5, 14, 2:15, 4:12, 6:11; 2 Timothy 1:7, 13, 2:22,
3:10; Titus 2:2; Philemon 5, 7, 9; Hebrews 6:10, 10:24; 1 Peter 4:8,
5:14; 2 Peter 1:7; 1 John 2:5, 15, 3:1, 16, 17, 4:7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 16,
17, 18, 5:3; 2 John 3, 6; 3 John 6; Jude 2, 12, 21; Revelation 2:4, 19.
The adjective form agapetos, translated "beloved" is found in Matthew
3:17, 12:18, 17:5; Mark 1:11, 9:7, 12:6; Luke 3:22, 9:35, 20:13; Acts
15:25; Romans 1:7, 11:28, 12:19, 16:5, 8, 9, 12; 1 Corinthians 4:14,
17, 10:14, 15:58; 2 Corinthians 7:1, 12:19; Ephesians 5:1, 6:21;
Philippians 2:12, 4:1; Colossians 1:7, 4:7, 9, 14; 1 Thessalonians 2:8;
1 Timothy 6:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Philemon 1, 2, 16; Hebrews 6:9; James
1:16, 19, 2:5; 1 Peter 2:11, 4:12; 2 Peter 1:17, 3:1, 8, 14, 15, 17; 1
John 3:2, 21, 4:1, 7, 11; 3 John 1, 2, 5, 11; Jude 3, 17, 20.
We come now to a consideration of philein in the New Testament. We will
examine a few representative passages. The hypocrites love to pray
standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets (Matt.
6:5). philein is used here rather than agapan because the inspired
writer wishes to show that they take pleasure in that sort of thing,
that it is part of their nature to desire to be seen of men. They love
to do it. "Everyone that loveth and maketh a lie" (Rev. 22:15) uses
philein in order to show that there is "a personal affinity with the
false, inward kinship with it, leading to its outward practice."
philein is a love of liking. One likes someone because that person is
like himself. The one loving in this way finds in the object loved a
reflection of himself. Thus the one who loves a lie, loves it because
he finds in a lie that which is reflected in his own bosom. "He that
loveth his life shall lose it" (John 12:25). It is a love that finds
such pleasure in life that it becomes a fixed attitude in one's
outlook, and nothing else comes into consideration in comparison with
it. "If the world hateth you, ye know that it hath hated me first; if
ye were of the world, the world would love its own" (John 15:19).
philein is most appropriate here. The words "the world would love its
own," speak of an inner affinity. They speak of a community of nature
between the world and its own. philein is a love of liking, and we like
that which is like us. But the world finds no community of nature in
itself and the Christian, for the latter has been made a partaker of
the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), and for that reason the world hates
philein is used of Jesus' love for Lazarus (John 11:3, 36), the
emphasis being upon the love of friendship which existed between the
Man Christ Jesus and His friend Lazarus. It is the human heart of Jesus
which we see here. philein shows the personal intimacy of the affection
existing between them. How wonderful, that, included in the
self-humbling of God the Son in the incarnation, there should be this
capacity for human friendship. Of course, our Lord loved Lazarus with
an agapan love also, for He died for him on the Cross. But here the
inspired writer wishes to present this particular kind of love. It fits
the context. The appeal of the sisters was upon the basis of the mutual
friendship existing between our Lord and Lazarus. When John speaks of
Jesus' love for Martha, and Mary, and Lazarus, he uses agapan, the
general term for love. They were precious to Him. The non-use of
philein is a good commentary upon the reserve which our Lord maintained
In the conversation between our Lord and Peter (John 21:15-19), our
Lord uses agapan twice and philein the third time, while Peter uses
philein three times. Of the use of these two words for love in this
passage, Warfield says, "That anyone should doubt that the words are
used here in distinctive senses would seem incredible prior to
experience." He quotes Moulton and Milligan as saying that it is
"supremely hard in so severely simple a writer as John, to reconcile
ourselves to a meaningless use of synonyms, where the point would seem
to lie in the identity of the word employed."
Our Lord said to Peter twice, "Simon, son of Jonas, dost thou have a
love for Me that is called out of thine heart because I am precious to
thee, a love of deep devotion that is sacrificial in its essence, a
love that would make thee willing to die for Me?" Three times Peter
said, "Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I am fond of Thee, thou knowest
that I have an affection for Thee that is called out of my heart
because of the pleasure I take in Thee."
Jesus asked for a love of complete devotion. Peter offers Him a love of
personal heart emotion. Jesus asked for a love of surrendering
obedience. Peter offers Him a love of personal attachment.
Peter at the crucifixion had denied his Lord even in the face of his
statements, "Though all men should be offended because of thee, yet
will I never be offended." "Though I should die with thee, yet will I
not deny thee" (Matt. 26:33, 35). Peter had compared himself with the
other disciples. Now our Lord asks, "Peter, dost thou have a personal
devotion to Me to the point of self-sacrifice which is stronger than
the personal devotion of these your fellow-disciples?" Peter answers in
deep humility, remembering his denial of his Lord, and without
comparing his love for Jesus with that of the other disciples. In our
Lord's second question the comparison is omitted, and Peter has the
opportunity to tell of his personal devotion for Jesus without
comparing it with that of the other disciples. But he only speaks of
his personal friendly affection for Him.
The third time Jesus questions Peter He uses philein, and asks with
sharp directness and brevity whether Peter has any real affection for
Him at all. Peter was grieved because Jesus used philein, yet he only
asserts his fondness and friendly affection for his Master.
Then Jesus tells Peter that some day he will exhibit an agapan love for
Him in that he will die a martyr's death for Him, for He tells him that
he will die by crucifixion for his testimony to his Saviour.
philein is used in John 16:27 where God the Father takes pleasure in
and loves those believers who take pleasure in His Son and therefore
love Him. It is a love of friendly affection. The Father finds the same
kind of love for the Son in the hearts of the saints that is in His own
heart for His Son, a love called out of the heart because of the
pleasure one takes in the object loved. This is a natural love of
complacency as agapan in John 3:16 is a love of pity (John 16:27,
5:20). These instances of the use of philein will suffice as
illustrations to guide the Bible student in his study of those places
where philein occurs.
philein in its verb form occurs in Matthew 6:5, 10:37, 23:6, 26:48;
Mark 14:44; Luke 20:46, 22:47; John 5:20, 11:3, 36, 12:25, 15:19,
16:27, 20:2, 21:15, 16, 17; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Titus 3:15; Revelation
3:19, 22:15, and is translated by the words "love" or "kiss."
Its noun form philos is found in Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:6, 34, 11:5, 6,
8, 12:4, 14:10, 12, 15:6, 9, 29, 16:9, 21:16, 23:12; John 3:29, 11:11,
15:13, 14, 15, 19:12; Acts 10:24, 19:31, 27:3; James 2:23, 4:4; 3 John
14, where it is translated by the word "friend." Interpret these
passages in the light of the meaning of philein.
In 2 Timothy 3:4, 3 John 9, "love" is from philein. In James 4:4,
"friendship" is from philein. "Hospitality" (Rom. 12:13), "entertain
strangers" (Heb. 13:2), "given to hospitality" (1 Tim. 3:2), "lover of
hospitality" (Titus 1:8), "use hospitality" (1 Peter 4:9) are from a
word made up of the word philein and "stranger," thus, "showing one's
self friendly to those who do not belong in our own home." "Philosophy"
(Col. 2:8) and "philosopher" (Acts 11:18) are from a word made up of
philein and "wisdom," thus "a love of" and "a lover of wisdom." "Be
kindly affectioned" (Rom. 12:10) is from philein and a form of
stergein, speaking of that natural friendliness which should be shown
by the saints toward one another. "Love their husbands and their
children" (Titus 2:4) uses philein.
"A lover of good men," better, "a lover of that which is good" (Titus
1:8), is from philein and the word for "intrinsic inner goodness."
"Brotherly love" and brotherly kindness" are from philein and the Greek
word for "brother" which latter literally means "from the same womb"
(Rom. 12:10; 1 Thess. 4:9; Heb. 13:1; 1 Peter 1:22; "love of the
brethren;" 2 Peter 1:7, 1 Peter 3:8, "love as, brethren,"). "Kindness"
(Acts 28:2), "love toward man" (Titus 3:4), "courteously" (Acts 27:3)
are from philein and the word for "man," the Greek word for "man" here
being the racial term for man, really, "love for mankind." Our word
"philanthropy" is a transliteration of this Greek word. "Lovers of
their own selves" (2 Tim. 3:2) is from philein and the pronoun
"himself." "Love of money" (1 Tim. 6:10) and "covetous" (Luke 16:14, 2
Tim. 3:2) are from philein and the word "money."
"So have strived" (Rom. 15:20), "labor" (2 Cor. 5:9), and "study" (1
Thess. 4:11) are from a verb which is made up of philein and time,
"honor," literally meaning, "to be fond of honor, to be actuated by a
love of honor." In later Greek it came to mean "to strive earnestly, to
make it one's aim," which latter two meanings we must understand for
the three passages quoted above. But because Paul in other places uses
terms taken from the world of athletics when he is speaking of intense
effort, we conclude that in the background of his mind there is that
thought of the maintenance of his honor and his testimony as an apostle
of the Lord Jesus, and that was one of the motivating factors in his
service for his Lord, as it should be of ours.
"Courteously" (Acts 28:7) and "courteous" (1 Peter 3:8) are from a word
made up of philein and a Greek word speaking of "the faculty of
perceiving and judging." The courtesy spoken of here is that rare and
beautiful combination of friendliness and tactful and delicate sense of
perception and judgment which should be a part of every Christian's
We have in this section listed every occurrence of both agapan and
philein in the New Testament in all their forms and where they appear
in composition with other words. The Bible student who is not
conversant with Greek can thus know just what Greek word for "love"
lies back of the English word, and can therefore interpret the passage
* From: Studies in the Vocabulary of The
Greek New Testament, Dr. Kenneth