Over a month ago, I Tweeted this little hyperbolic jab:
"Agape means 'self-sacrificial God-like unconditional love.'" #SignsYourPastorDoesNotKnowWhatHeIsTalkingAbout— Dan Phillips (@BibChr) August 18, 2015
At the time, some folks asked for me to expand on the serious, chewy center. And now, I will. Ahem.
Anyone and everyone who's tried to get serious Bible teaching has heard it. It goes something like this:
There are four Greek words for love: erōs, storgē, phileō, and agapē. They have very different meanings. Erōs means sexual love, storgē means family love, phileō means the love of friendship, and agapē means God's love, a gracious, sacrificial love. Only the Holy Spirit can give agapē.Sometimes the folks who say these things are very dogmatic and categorical, saying things like "when reference is made to God’s LOVE, the word used is always agape" [Guy P. Duffield and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology (Los Angeles, CA: L.I.F.E. Bible College, 1983), 78].
You could probably supply your own; we've all heard them. But are they true?
First, I'll say as I've said before, if you don't know Greek, I'd encourage you — in as friendly and brotherly way as possible — not to talk about what "the Greek" says, unless you're directly quoting someone who does. I don't mean to be snotty or insulting about it, or to hurt any feelings; it's just the safest way to proceed. "A man's got to know his limitations," as a sage once observed.
For instance, someone who's studied Greek will wince at the statement that there are four words for "love." There may be four Greek words that have been translated by the English word "love," but there are more than four Greek words that mean "love." Or even just staying with the list, it's a mildly fingernails-on-the-blackboard experience to hear the list erōs (a noun), storgē (also a noun), phileō (hey, wait — the noun is philia; phileō is a verb), and agapē (oh, now we're back to nouns). The speaker might as well say "I don't actually know Greek, but this is a traditional list someone started at some point."
All that may seem like inside-baseball stuff, so let's just get down to this: does it hold true that "when reference is made to God’s LOVE, the word used is always agape," and that agapē means "God's love"?
Well no, not at all. For instance, John 3:35 says "the Father loves the Son, and has given all things in His hand." The verb is a form of the verb agapaō. So far, so good. But wait a minute, look at 5:20 — "the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things which He Himself is doing," and so forth. There, the verb is phileō. What? Two things: (1) it simply isn't true to say that "agape" is "always" used of God's love — unless you want to say that the related noun and the verb are unrelated (?!); and (2) agapaō and phileō are not like two distant continents, utterly dissimilar from each other in meaning.
While it is true that agapē and agapaō are the words characteristically used of God's love, it is not true that the terms themselves have as their own inherent meaning "God's love," or even "God's kind of love." For instance, if we consult uses in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which was current in our Lord's day, we find the verb used of Shechem's "love" for Dinah (Gen. 34:2). Ew. It also describes Samson's "love" for Delilah (Judges 16:4), Amnon's "love" for Tamar (2 Sam. 13:1, 4; again, ew), and Solomon's "love" for the pagan women who led him away from Yahweh (1 Kings 11:2). That's just a sampler.
Then in the NT, the verb is used of tax collectors' love for those who love them (Mt. 5:46; cf. Lk. 6:32), Pharisees' "love" for the first seats (Lk. 11:43), the "love" of the lost for darkness rather than light (Jn. 3:19), the Jewish leaders' "love" for human praise over God's glory (Jn. 12:43), Demas' "love" for the present age (2 Tim. 4:10), forbidden "love" for the world (1 Jn. 2:15), and so forth.
That's just the verb. The noun is also used of Amnon's sick infatuation with Tamar (2 Sam. 13:15). In the NT, however, the noun is used more exclusively of God's love or ours. But so are forms of phileō, alone or in combination. The verb phileō is used of the love we must have for Jesus in 1 Cor. 16:22. God's saving love for man is called philanthrōpia in Titus 3:4, shortly after which Paul refers to those who "love" him and his coworkers in the faith (3:15, using a form of phileō). Jesus' love for Lazarus is described with phileō in John 11:3 and 36; but His love for Lazarus and Mary and Martha is described with agapaō in v. 5.
I could go on, but I hope I've established: the verb agapaō is not a magic word used exclusively to describe God's love. It does not, all by itself, mean God's love, nor is it the only word used to describe God's love, nor does it necessarily describe God's kind of gracious, chaste, sacrificial love.
Having said that, I will say this, which may for a brief second seem contradictory, so stay with me: the agapē-words are the ones the Greek writers most readily reach for to describe God's love (shown and mandated), and they best serve those uses.
Let me illustrate by a question: Does the word "devotion" mean "a mother's committed, dogged, tireless, self-sacrificial love for her child"?
No, of course it doesn't. We could also speak of a drunk's devotion to the bottle, or a druggie's devotion to his crack-pipe, or a terrorist's devotion to his jihad, or a pagan's devotion to his false god (—did I just say the same thing, twice?). The word does not inherently mean "a mother's committed, dogged, tireless, self-sacrificial love for her child."
However, if you want to describe that kind of love, you may well reach for the word "devotion." Because it serves well in that use. You'll just have to check the context.
And so it is with the Greek words translated love. I don't think any two of them are completely synonymous in the sense that they are completely interchangeable. But you really get the meaning by examining the use.
So with agapē and (please!) philia. We know about God's love, not by reading a study bible or a word-study or a lexicon, but by studying passages using and illustrating the term's meaning, such as Romans 5:6-8 or Ephesians 2:4.