What is the origin of the phrase agape love in Christianity? Does it accurately match the biblical usage? How does the Bible describe godly love?
Since the Bible twice tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16), it is not surprising that love is an important subject throughout God’s Word. God’s love for humans permeates both the Old and New Testaments.
The depth of God’s love for humanity is perhaps best expressed in John 3:16, where we read, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Agape love examples
- In this well-known passage about how God gave His Son for the world (John 3:16), the Greek word for “loved” is agapao. The noun form of this Greek word is agape, commonly pronounced uh-GAH-pay or AH-ga-pay (not to be confused with the two-syllable English word agape, meaning wide open, such as having one’s mouth agape).
The love God the Father displayed in giving His Son for a world filled with sinners (and all have sinned, Romans 3:23) is truly an amazing type of love. It’s a love that clearly surpasses the love that humans can express on their own. Other biblical passages show that God wants us to imitate Him by having this same type of love.
- In Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus teaches that there are two great commandments. The first is to love God, and the second is to love our neighbor. The Greek word for love in this passage is agapao.
- In John 13:34 Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love [agapao] one another; as I have loved [agapao] you, that you also love [agapao] one another.”
- In Galatians 5:22 we find that “the fruit of the Spirit is love [agape],” and Romans 5:5 (Revised Standard Version) says, “God’s love [agape] has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” It is this kind of love that can allow us to fulfill Christ’s command to “love [agapao] your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).
- John similarly expresses God’s expectations of us by writing: “Beloved, let us love [agapao] one another, for love [agape] is of God; and everyone who loves [agapao] is born of God and knows God. He who does not love [agapao] does not know God, for God is love [agape]” (1 John 4:7-8).
- In a reference to the love believers had for each other, Jude mentions “love [agape] feasts” that the early Christians held (Jude 1:12).
Agape love definition
Biblical passages using the Greek noun agape and verb agapao are the basis for what is commonly described as agape love—the godly love expected of Christians. (Study more about godly love in our articles “God Is Love” and “Love of God.”)
Although agape love is technically redundant (it is like saying “love love”), in recent years it has become the phrase commonly used in Christianity to describe godly love. In English agape is often used as a modifier to describe the type of love we are to have.
What does agape technically mean?
Given the importance of this teaching about love, some have mistakenly assumed that the Greek noun agape (and its verb counterpart agapao) are used exclusively in the New Testament to describe godly love.
The truth is that agape is the most common, most often used word for love in the New Testament, but it has a wide range of meanings, including meanings that are not godly.
Examples that show agape isn’t only used for godly love
- Luke 6:32: “But if you love [agapao] those who love [agapao] you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love [agapao] those who love [agapao] them.”
- John 12:42-43: “Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved [agapao] the praise of men more than the praise of God.”
- 2 Timothy 4:10: “For Demas has forsaken me, having loved [agapao] this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica.”
- 2 Peter 2:15: “They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved [agapao] the wages of unrighteousness.”
Bottom line: Although agape is the Greek word often used when biblical writers described godly love, this word has a variety of meanings that have to be determined by the context.
A more precise way for us to speak of the special love Christians are to have for God and each other may be to simply use the English phrase godly love.
Three Greek words for love in the Bible
There are several words for love in the Greek language. “As with other languages, it has been historically difficult to separate the meanings of these words totally” (New World Encyclopedia, “Agape”).
There are two primary Greek words for love that are used in the New Testament and a third word that is used indirectly. According to the New World Encyclopedia, these three words and their general definitions are:
- Agape “refers to a general affection of ‘love’ rather than the attraction suggested by eros; it is used in ancient texts to denote feelings for a good meal, one’s children, and one’s spouse. It can be described as the feeling of being content or holding one in high regard . . . When it is used in the New Testament, its meaning becomes more focused, mainly referring to unconditional, self-sacrificing, giving love to all—both friend and enemy.”
- Philia “means friendship and dispassionate virtuous love. It includes loyalty to friends, family, and community, and requires virtue, equality and familiarity . . . This, in its verb or adjective form (i.e., phileo or philos), is the only other word for ‘love’ used in the New Testament besides agape, but even then it is used substantially less frequently.”
- Storge “means ‘affection’; it is natural affection, like that felt by parents for offspring. The word was rarely used in ancient works, and almost exclusively as a descriptor of relationships within the family.” Although storge is not found strictly alone, forms of this word are found in the New Testament as astorgos, meaning without love in 2 Timothy 3:3, and as philostorgos, meaning kindly affectionate as family or kin in Romans 12:10.
Eros is a fourth word for love in the Greek language. This word comes from the name of the Greek god Eros and means erotic or romantic love. This word is not found in the Bible.
“Do you love Me more than these?”
What can we learn about the distinction between agape and philia by looking at Jesus’ conversation with Peter after His resurrection? In John 21:15-16 Jesus twice asks Peter if he loves [agapao] Him, and Peter responds, “You know I love [phileo] you.”
When Jesus asks Peter the third time, Jesus uses phileo instead of agapao. “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love [phileo] Me?” (verse 17).
The main point of this passage is how Peter would be able to demonstrate his love for Jesus. After Peter had denied Jesus three times, Jesus asked Peter to affirm his love three times. Then Jesus asked him to “feed My sheep”—to fulfill His role in serving the Church. Love is demonstrated by action. Christians are to be “doers of the word,” and Jesus said, “If you love [agapao] Me, keep My commandments” (James 1:22; John 14:15).
Here is how The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (ed. Frank Gaebelein) explains this passage in John 21:15-17: “The words translated ‘love’ have also raised considerable debate. Two different terms are used: agapao is used in Jesus’ first two questions and phileo is used in Jesus’ third question and in Peter’s three replies. Agapao is the same word ‘love’ that appears in John 3:16.
“It is used of divine love and usually carries the connotation of will or purpose as well as that of affection. Phileo implies affinity, friendship, and fondness. Both words represent a high aspect of love. Since they are used of both God (3:16; 5:20) and men (14:21; 16:27) in this Gospel, they seem to be interchangeable with no great difference in meaning . . .
“On the other hand, a good case can be made for a difference in Jesus’ emphasis. There was less doubt concerning Peter’s attachment to Jesus than there was concerning his will to love at all costs; and the change of term in Jesus’ third question makes his probing of Peter even deeper. If the latter alternative is adopted, it explains better Peter’s distress when questioned a third time, since Jesus would not only be challenging his love but would be implying that it was superficial. NIV brings out the nuance between agapao and phileo by translating agapao ‘truly love’ and phileo ‘love.’”
So, some highlight the distinctions of the words for love in this passage, and others believe the two Greek words are used interchangeably.
Agape and philia are sometimes used interchangeably
Here are a few passages where agapao and phileo (the verb forms of agape and philia) are used interchangeably to describe the same action or event.
- “That disciple whom Jesus loved [agapao]” (John 21:7, 20; 19:26). “The other disciple, whom Jesus loved [phileo]” (John 20:2).
- “For whom the Lord loves [agapao] He chastens” (Hebrews 12:6). “As many as I love [phileo], I rebuke and chasten” (Revelation 3:19).
- “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love [agapao] the best seats” (Luke 11:43). “Beware of the scribes, who . . . love [phileo] . . . the best seats” (Luke 20:46).
Philia used for godly love
We have already seen that agape is used in the New Testament in a variety of ways and that it is often used to describe the characteristics of godly love. But we should also understand that philia (and the verb phileo) is also used to describe the love God has for the Son and for us and to describe the love we are to have for Jesus and fellow believers.
- John 5:20: “For the Father loves [phileo] the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does; and He will show Him greater works than these, that you may marvel.”
- John 16:27: “For the Father Himself loves [phileo] you, because you have loved [phileo] Me, and have believed that I came forth from God.”
- 1 Corinthians 16:22: “If anyone does not love [phileo] the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed. O Lord, come!”
- Titus 3:15: “All who are with me greet you. Greet those who love [phileo] us in the faith. Grace be with you all. Amen.”
- Hebrews 13:1: “Let brotherly love [philadelphia] continue.”
Conclusions regarding agape love
Even though the distinctions between the Greek words used for love in the New Testament are not always as precise as we might like, there are occasional distinctions, and we can appreciate what the phrase agape love is trying to convey in English. After all, John did write: “Greater love [agape] has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends [philos]” (John 15:13).
This passage reflects the general sense of agape often meaning a higher level of love and phileo meaning brotherly love. Another passage showing a difference in these words is 2 Peter 1:5, 7: “add to your . . . brotherly kindness [philadelphia] love [agape].”
As additional support for using the phrase agape love as commonly understood, we should note that languages change over time, and agape love has become a widely recognized English phrase to describe the New Testament instruction for us to grow in our love for God and in our love for our fellow man.
The apostle John sums up the two great commandments in these two passages:
- 1 John 5:3: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.”
- 1 John 4:20: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”
These instructions are not complicated. Considering the context, we can understand what God expects of us without having to know that agape and agapao are the Greek words used in these passages.
Learning more about the languages that the Bible was originally written in can provide valuable insight. But we need to understand that simply knowing the primary Greek word that is used for love in the New Testament will not automatically cause us to fulfill all of God’s instruction on this subject.
As we strive to grow spiritually, we would do well to note that both of the primary words used for love in the New Testament—agape and philia—are used to give us a more complete picture of godly love.
For further study on how to apply these two great commandments, see “The Great Commandment.”