The Words for "Love" in the Greek New Testament*

Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest

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.

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 the Christian.

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 toward womanhood.

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 spiritual equipment.

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 more accurately.

* From: Studies in the Vocabulary of The Greek New Testament, Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest