The Two Greek Terms for Love in New Testament


Oh, love to some is like a cloud,
to some as strong as steel.
For some a way of living,
For some a way to feel.
And some say love is holding on,
and some say letting go.
And some say love is everything,
And some say they don't know.

Perhaps love is like the ocean,
Full of conflict, full of pain.
Like a fire when it's cold outside,
Or thunder when it rains.
If I should live forever,
And all my dreams come true,
My memories of love will be of you
Perhaps Love, by John Denver)

For the song and lyrics see The Greatest of These is Love Under the category, Original Research


 The following is one of a three-part series on the doctrine of love in the New Testament:

  • The Two Greek Terms for Love in the New Testament

In this article, listed under the category Bible Exposition, I present the exegesis and exposition of the topic. I draw the conclusion that there are only two terms together with their cognates, agape and philia, that define biblical love.

  • Agape: The Love of Responsibility

In this article listed under the category, Christian Living, I apply to abiding principles of agape to the Christian life.

  • Affection in an Age of Disaffection

In this article listed under the category, Current Issues, I apply the principles of philia, to current issues facing the Christian in an age that not only experience alienation of affection but promotes it.


The Two Greek Terms for Biblical Love
The New Testament

Table of Contents


Greek Terms Often Associated with Love






Postscript: My Personal Journey


The postscript following this article is an account of my journey, the reason, and the urgency for it. It is my hope that you will take the time to read this and by reading it will find answers and encouragement for your own journey.

There is much confusion as to the meaning of Love in society today. God's Word leaves no doubt as to what is meant by biblical love. This article is an adaptation of the third part of a three-part book I wrote regarding the doctrine of love in the New Testament. The title of the book, CAN WE TALK…about matters of this life, is currently out of print. The book presents an in-depth look at relationships among believers. I begin this article with a personal testimony of how I came to research and write about the doctrine of love in the New Testament. Here are the three parts of the book:

Part I     The Importance of Relationships and Communication to Matters of this Life
Part II    Philosophies that Destroy Relationships
Part III   A Better Way: The doctrine of love in the New Testament


Greek Terms Often Associated with Love

Since that time, forty-five years ago, I have had the privilege of researching in depth the doctrine of love in the New Testament and have come to see love as the central theme of God’s message to us.  It is through love as God revealed it to us in His Word and through His Son, Jesus Christ, that we are able to build healthy relationships.  Love should form the foundation of every relationship so that in spite of failures in those relationships, we are able to stay together and overcome those failures.

In this article on love, I want to share with you some principles from God’s Word that have helped me and my family to overcome many difficulties.  Our love is not perfect.  We have a long way to go but what I am about to share with you does work because it is what God intends for each of us to help us survive matters of this life on this side of heaven.  At the outset, it is important for you to know that you do not have to understand everything in this article.  What you need to know is that if you will walk in the Spirit as God’s Word commands us to do, you will love with God’s love.[i]


In many studies on love, five Greek terms are usually mentioned: storge, epithumia, eros, agape, and philia.  We do not have to look very far to realize that both storge and epithumia are not reflective of God’s love and should not be of ours.  Storge refers to natural affection and is used only twice in the New Testament, both times in the negative, astorge, and is translated as “without natural affection.”[ii]  It is used once in combination with philia and is translated in the King James as “kindly affectionate.”[iii]  It is never translated, as love.


Another word group often associated with love, epithumia (the noun) and epithumeo (the verb), is used frequently in the New Testament.[iv]  This is the first of a list of five given by Dr. Ed Wheat, M.D. in a taped message he titled “Love Life for Every Married Couple.”  Of this term, Dr. Wheat states:

When it is used in the Bible in a negative way it is translated as “lust.”  When it is used in a positive way it is translated as “desire” and this is the way we will be using the word.  For in your marriage, you and your mate should have a strong physical sexual desire for each other.  You may not have this at the present time simply because other aspects of your relationship are not working as they should.[v]

We need to carefully compare this teaching with that of the New Testament.  Of the fifty-nine times epithmia and its cognates are used in the New Testament, it is used only eight times for a positive desire.  It is never used positively for the physical appetites of the body.[vi]  It is curious that Dr. Wheat begins by defining this term as something to be promoted.  He calls it “love” even while admitting that it is never referred to as such in the New Testament.

A background of the term will help us to better understand the issues here.  Epithumia comes from two Greek terms, “epi, meaning “upon” used intensively, and thumos, meaning “passion.”[vii]  “Thumos…(it) fundamentally denotes violent movement.”[viii]  To this Buchsel adds, “From the sense of to well up, to boil up…[ix]  A further comparison of the use of this term will give an overall picture of why the New Testament does not use it either for love or for the sexual relationship legitimately expressed in marriage.

In Greek philosophy, epithumia is the waywardness of man in conflict with his rationality…In the OT and Judaism epithumia is an offence against God, who demands of man total obedience and love from the whole heart, Dt. 5:5.[x]

In Paul…epithumia is evil, not because it is irrational, but because it is disobedience to the command of God…the essential point in epithumia is that it is desire as impulse, as a motion of the will.  It is, in fact, lust, since the thought of satisfaction gives pleasure and that of non-satisfaction pain.  Epithumia is anxious self-seeking…In epithumia man is seen as he really is, the more so because epithumia bursts upon him with the force of immediacy.  Even after the reception of the divine Spirit, epithumia is always a danger against which man must be warned and must fight.[xi]

Paul equates epithumia with the reign of sin in the body and forbids such for the Christian.[xii]  The believer is to “make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.[xiii]  Paul writes, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; {that is}, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor.”[xiv]  Concerning this passage Leon Morris writes:

The God-empowered man rules his body.  He is not caught in the grip of lustful passions he is quite unable to control…It is a solemn thought that those who reject the knowledge of God which has been afforded them thereby make it inevitable that they will be given over to evil passions.[xv]

Therefore, epithumia, as a term used in the New Testament, should not be used as a positive synonym for love.  One last quote will help to settle the issues.  Paul, in his testimony in Romans 7 wrote:

What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting (epithumian) if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET (epithumesies).”  But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting (epithumian) of every kind; for apart from the Law sin {is} dead”[xvi] (Parenthisies mine).

Note that Paul quotes from the Old Testament Law a portion of the Ten Commandments.  Paul does not state what it was that he coveted.  However, it is clear from this passage that the basic meaning of the term refers to an overwhelming desire to have more or to have something one does not already possess.  Since it is a command, God assumes that we have a choice and requires that we make the right choice or suffer the consequences.  This annuals Behaviorism with all of its nuances. It is not a correct view of the life of a godly Christian.  Instead, Christians are commanded to, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire (epithumian) of the flesh”[xvii] (Parenthesis mine).


A third term often used for love is eros.  While this term is not found anywhere in the New Testament, it is probably the best-known of the Greek terms for love.  We find it in our English term “erotic.”  The meanings that have been attached to it down through the years are about as numerous as our English term “love.”  It is important to again note that eros never occurs in the Greek New Testament and only occurs once in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.  In the book of Esther, we read:

The king loved Esther more than all the women, and she found favor and kindness with him more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.[xviii]

Arndt and Gingrich define eros as “passionate love.”[xix]  Stauffer comments:

Eros is a general love of the world seeking satisfaction wherever it can…eros is determined by a more or less indefinite impulsion toward its object…eran in its highest sense is used of the upward impulsion of man, of his love for the divine…eros seeks in others the fulfillment of its own life’s hunger.[xx]

From this, we see a similarity to epithumia.  Yet there are important distinctions.  Epithumia to the Greek mind overpowered and pulled men down.  Eros, on the other hand, did not necessarily pull one down but instead could lift him up.

Anders Nygren, in his monumental work, traces for us Plato’s attempt to elevate eros to the level of religious love or “’heavenly Eros,’ a love for the bright world of ideas, a longing to participate in the Divine life.”[xxi]  Dr. Nygren’s purpose was to present eros and agape in contrast so that no one would confuse the two regardless of how hard some philosophers might try.  He points to the fact that the two stem from two opposing fundamental motifs.  Nygren concludes:

There cannot actually be any doubt that Eros and Agape belong originally to two entirely separate spiritual worlds, between which no direct communication is possible.  They do not represent the same value in their respective contexts, so that they cannot in any circumstances be rightly substituted for one another.[xxii]

Debating with Plato’s definition of eros as love for god or the divine principle is not our problem today because eros has once again returned to the language of passion and pleasure.  Eros in Greek mythology was the god of love, son of Aphrodite, and identified by the Romans with Cupid, the little imp characterized on Valentine’s Day. [xxiii]  Plato’s monumental effort to change the minds of men was a virtual failure.  Men still think of eros as “sexual pleasure.”[xxiv]

Bishop Trench writes concerning this:

Eros might have fared as so many other words have fared, might have been consecrated anew, despite the deep degradation of its past history; and there were tendencies already working for this in the Platonist use of it, namely, as the longing and yearning desire after that unseen but eternal Beauty, the faint vestiges of which may here be everywhere traced; ouranios eros, Philo in this sense has called it…But in the very fact that eros…did express this yearning desire…this longing after the unpossessed…lay its deeper unfitness to set forth that Christian love[xxv]

Usually today, love is viewed as passion or pleasure.  Arthur Colman defines love as “the experience of ecstasy in an interpersonal relationship.[xxvi]  A. H. Maslow writes concerning love:

The core of the description of love must be subjective or phenomenological rather than objective or behavioral.  No description, no words can ever communicate the full equality of the love experience to one who has himself never felt it.  It consists primarily of a feeling of tenderness and affection with great enjoyment, happiness, and satisfaction in experiencing this feeling (if all is going well).  There is a tendency to want to get closer, to come into more intimate contact, to touch and embrace the loved person, to yearn for him…This feeling of pleasure in contact and in being with, shows itself also in the desire to be together with the loved one as much as possible in as many situations as possible: in work, in play, during esthetic and intellectual pursuits.[xxvii]

James W. Davies takes Anders Nygren to task for failing to see eros as sexual love when he writes:

Nowhere in his book does Nygren deal substantially with common eros, that is, with libido.  Instead he passes over it, treating it as an unworthy representative of Platonic eros, considering instead the heavenly eros of Plato as being the better match in the context between eros and agape.  He is not unaware of the elements of common eros in the heavenly eros of Platonic philosophy…It is a serious shortcoming of Nygren’s presentation that vulgar Eros (as Plato termed what Freud calls the libido) is regarded as unfit for competition with agape because Nygren thereby overlooks what Freud came to discover as a basic drive of the human self.  Of course, Nygren would simply write off libido, so-discovered, as egocentric, sensual, and sinful.[xxviii]

Dr. Wheat defines eros as that love:

…which more than any other kind carries with it the idea of romance.  It is not always sensual, but it does include the idea of yearning to unit with and the drive to possess the object of one’s love.  Eros is romantic, passionate and sentimental.[xxix]

For our purpose in this discussion, we will use eros in its basal meaning, that is, to draw toward with a view to an intimate relationship.  This relationship need not be sexual in nature and in fact, by failing to speak out more about godly intimacy between individuals, male and female and same-sex, the church has lost an opportunity to help build healthy, godly, biblical, intimate relationships.  Of course, in this highly charged culture so steeped in Behaviorism, there is a danger that intimacy between individuals of the same sex or between individuals of the opposite sex who are not married will deteriorate into sinful passions and behavior.  Still, as we shall see when we put all of what we know about the biblical view of love together, individuals who walk in the Spirit and learn to discipline themselves can enjoy intimate relationships without falling into sin.  The one example in the Bible of godly intimacy between individuals that comes to mind is the relationship between Jonathan and David:

Now it came about when he had finished speaking to Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself.[xxx]

Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself.[xxxi]

Jonathan made David vow again because of his love for him, because he loved him as he loved his own life.[xxxii]

We will have more to say about godly intimacy later on.  We will retain eros with this meaning as one of the Greek terms for love, but not of biblical love.  This intimacy may or may not include sexual overtones. However, since it is not found in Scripture, we must not see it as biblical love.


A fourth Greek term referred to in discussing love is philia.  Morris makes the following notation:

Robert Flaceliere sees considerable variety in philia: “The term philia designates any feeling of attachment and affection between two persons, but the philosophers distinguished four kinds: the natural or parental philia (physike), uniting those of the same blood; the philia between host and guests (xenike), which indicates the importance of the virtues of hospitality; the philia between friends (hetairike), which alone corresponds to friendship, strictly speaking; lastly, the amorous philia (erotike), between persons of the same sex or of different sex.[xxxiii]

This serves to point out that men have seen in this term a variety of connotations.

The New Testament does not use this word group in such a broad sense.  While the noun, philia, is found only once in the New Testament,[xxxiv] the verb and its cognates are used numerous times.  Since this term is a New Testament term, and because we are seeking a definition that expresses the authoritative teaching of the Bible, we must exercise care in coming to a conclusion about its meaning.  The thoughts of others can guide us, but ultimately how it is used in the New Testament must be the final arbiter.

Stahlin writes concerning the common Greek usage:

If the most likely basic sense of the stem phileo is “proper to,” “belonging to,” the original sense of the verb phileo is to regard and treat somebody as one of one’s own people.  It thus denotes natural attraction to those who belong, love for close relatives[xxxv]

Stahlin notes, “In the first instance philos is the ‘friend’ as ‘one who is close or well-known.’”[xxxvi]  “Elsewhere, too, unrestricted self-impartation is a mark of genuine friendship.”[xxxvii]  Jesus taught,

For the Father loves (phileo) the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and {the Father} will show Him greater works than these, so that you will marvel[xxxviii] (parenthesis mine). 

In the upper room, Jesus comforted His disciples with these terms,

No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends (philous), for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.”[xxxix]

Therefore, we conclude that the starting point in understanding phileo is that it is the act of self-disclosure.  From this comes attraction when individuals or groups recognize a commonality.  From this, in turn, comes affection for one another within the sphere of that commonality which leads to friendship.  Phileo is an important aspect of church life because it forms the basis of Christian fellowship.  The essential aspects of phileo can thus be diagrammed:

Self-disclosure - Attraction - Affinity - Affection

Because phileo stems from self-disclosure, attraction, affinity, and affection, it will ultimately involve exclusion.  This exclusive love is seen when Jesus Teaches,

for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father.”[xl] 

This does not mean that God does not love the world.  Jesus has already set forth this truth,[xli] but the reference there is to agape rather than philia.  God is never said to phileo the world in the New Testament sense of the term.  But the Father has a special love (phileo) for one who believes in His Son and loves (phileo) the Son.

Luke is fond of recording the times when Jesus used philos to illustrate principles about the kingdom.  A friend is one who can be counted upon to come to one’s aid in time of need.

Then He said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend (philon), and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend (phile), lend me three loaves; for a friend (philos) of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him;’ and from inside he answers and says, ‘do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you {anything.}’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him {anything} because he is his friend (philon), yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.[xlii]

A friend is one who will share our joys with us because they will hold dear what is dear to us.  Jesus taught regarding the one who found a lost sheep and the woman who found the lost coin.

And when he comes home, he calls together his friends (philous) and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!”[xliii]

When she has found it, she calls together her friends (philas) and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!”[xliv]

A tragic picture of this affinity is found between former enemies,

Now Herod and Pilate became friends (philoi) with one another that very day; for before they had been at enmity with each other.”[xlv]

It is not difficult to see how phileo and its cognate philema come to be used to express the physical display of friendship, to kiss.  The terms reflect strong affinity and deep affection.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the betrayal of Christ by Judas which was made more despicable because he used the sign of deep friendship.  Paul concludes four of his epistles by exhorting the brethren to greet one another with a holy kiss.  Peter concludes his first epistle with the exhortation to greet one another with a kiss of love.

The concept of phileo is indeed an important concept when seeking to understand love in the New Testament.  Its importance will be seen ever more clearly when we come to the application in this article.


The last term we need to consider in our study is agape.  Because this and its cognates are used so extensively in the New Testament, we must examine it from several different angles to gain a clear understanding of its meaning.  Cremer writes:

Now, we find agape used to designate a love unknown to writers outside of the New Testament…love in its fullest conceivable form; love as it is the distinguishing attribute, not of humanity, but, in the strictest sense, of Divinity.[xlvi]

Bishop Trench writes:

For it would not be forgotten that agape is a word born within the bosom of revealed religion: it occurs in the Septuagint (2 Sam. xiii. 15; Cant. ii. 4; Jer. ii.2), and the Apocrypha (Wisd. iii. 9); but there is no trace of it in any heathen writer whatever, and as little in Philo and Josephus.[xlvii]

Some are now disputing the exclusivity of this term prior to the Septuagint and the New Testament.  However, no one has been able to establish a wide use of the term until the New Testament.  Its frequency in the New Testament seems to be of greater significance than the lack of frequency before the New Testament.

Concerning its meaning, Leon Morris writes,

Agape is spontaneous love, love freely given and not elicited by anything in the loved one.”[xlviii] 

Wuest appears to differ with this when he writes:

“Agapao” speaks of a love which is awakened by a sense of value in an object which causes one to prize it.  It springs from an apprehension of the preciousness of an object.  It is a love of esteem and approbation.  The quality of this love is determined by the character of the one who loves, and that of the object loved.[xlix]

What is important to see in this statement is that of all of the terms, agape is the one that most reflects the nature of the one who expresses it. Jesus taught:

But I say to you, love (agapate) your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on {the} evil and {the} good, and sends rain on {the} righteous and {the} unrighteous.[l]

He rebuked the unbelieving Jews,

Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love (eegapate) Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God.”[li]

Not only does agape reflect the nature of the one expressing it, agape is foremost an act of the will.  Cremer writes,

“Agapan is used in all places where the direction of the will is the point to be considered.[lii] 

It is important to note that phileo is never commanded because it does not stem from an act of the will but from attraction.  When our Lord was asked, “What commandment is the foremost of all?”  Jesus answered:

One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?”  Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; AND YOU SHALL LOVE (agapeeseis) THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’  The second is this, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE (agapeeseis) YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”[liii]

Agape, therefore, involves an act of the will.

If God commands agape, then agape involves a choice on the part of the one who expresses it.  It is helpful to observe this when seeking to understand the full import of any statement.  For instance,

“If you love (agapate) those who love (agapoontas) you, what credit is {that} to you? For even sinners love (agapeoontas) those who love (agapoosin) them.[liv]

In each occurrence, love is a choice. In Luke 11:43, the Pharisees:

love (agapate) the chief seats in the synagogues and the respectful greetings in the market places.”[lv] (parenthesis mine)

In each of the above contexts, the one who loves has made a choice. It is curious to note that Luke records another instance (Luke 20:46) when Jesus said,

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love (philountoon) respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.[lvi]  

In the first instance in Luke 11, Jesus was emphasizing that the Pharisees had decided as an act of the will.  In the second instance, Luke 20, Jesus was emphasizing that the scribes find the respectful greetings attractive to them.  The former is a condemnation delivered to the guilty parties for a wrong choice.  The latter is a warning given to the people not to be like the guilty parties who become attracted to recognition and prestige.

It is a small step from agape as a choice to agape as an act of obedience.  Yet further reflection will show that it is a giant step theologically.  Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”[lvii]  In this statement agapao is seen as an act of obedience.  Love for Jesus means a willingness to obey Him.  However, the context of this statement is future; it is to apply after the cross and after the ascension.  The obedience referred to here and hence the love enjoined will require a knowledge of the Master’s will.  If Jesus will no longer be present, how can they or future disciples obey Him?

The answer is found in the same context.  The Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, will come to make known the will of Jesus to them.  In this way, Jesus said to the disciples “you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.”[lviii]  It will be possible to both have and keep His commandments and thereby love Him.[lix]

So, we see that when the New Testament speaks of love as obedience, it assumes that the individual expressing the love has the knowledge of the Divine will, and has the Holy Spirit who enables conformity to the Divine will.  In other words, the person who is obedient is born again.  We see this repeated by Paul when he teaches that the fruit of the Spirit is love.[lx]  John expresses this in a different way when he writes, “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”[lxi]  Clearly, in this final passage, the concept of agape has progressed from a matter of personal choice to conformity to the Divine will made possible only by rebirth.

Masumi Toyotome calls agape “the ‘in spite of’ kind of love.”

The person is loved “in spite of,” not because of, what he is.  One may be the most ugly, most wretched, most debased person in the world and would still be loved when he meets this “in spite of” kind of love…He may seem absolutely worthless, and yet he would be loved as though he were of infinite worth.[lxii]

Undoubtedly this writer had in mind verses such as Romans 5:8 where Paul writes, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”[lxiii]

Nygren sheds light on this aspect of agape when he delineated the content of Divine love.  He gives the following outline:

  1. Agape is spontaneous and “unmotivated” (i.e., not out of self-need)
  2. Agape is “indifferent to value” (i.e., not regarding the value of the object loved)
  3. Agape is creative (i.e., that agape loves and imparts value by loving)
  4. Agape is the initiator of fellowship (i.e., that God’s love is the only way for man to enter into fellowship with God)[lxiv]

Agape will often be expressed toward an object in spite of the unworthiness of the object receiving it.  However, this is not always true of Divine love.  Jesus said, “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again.”[lxv]

Concerning this Robertson writes:

For this reason (dia touto).  Points to the following hoti clause.  The Father’s love for the Son is drawn out (John 3:16) by the voluntary offering of the Son for the sin of the world (Romans 5:8).  Hence the greater exaltation (Philippians 2:9).[lxvi]

One cannot, therefore, press Nygren’s outline in every context.  His point is better seen as a secondary rather than a primary meaning of agape; the primary meaning being the expression of one’s nature as an act of the will.

Agape is often depicted as sacrificial.  Many today are laboring under the misconception that in order to love with agape, one must give up something dear on behalf of others.  This is not only a misconception of the Biblical concept of sacrifice, it is a misconception of agape.  A sacrifice in the Bible is not something that one gives against his will or at great personal expense.  A sacrifice is giving something willingly out of a heart of obedience to God. John wrote,

For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.”[lxvii] 

It is possible that God may choose for some to pay a great price or even die for their faith.  At times agape is manifested in this way.  However, when this happens it is not because the essence of agape is self-denial or personal loss.  It is because, for the believer, the essence of agape is obedience to God.

Carl Henry writes:

Unrecompensed loved is to structure the whole of life as the Divine command.  The moral agent will promote at the same time his own best interest and that of his fellow man by doing the will of God.  In love the supreme interests of all men coincide…Ewing rather humorously evaluated it: “In sharp contrast to even the higher egoism and still more to egoistic hedonism the ethical view properly preached in Christian countries has usually been that the primary virtue is unselfishness viewed as the readiness to sacrifice oneself for other men.  But this view cannot, any more than egoistic hedonism, be carried to its absolute extreme.  A society in which everybody spent his life sacrificing all his pleasure for others would be even more absurd than a society whose members all lived by taking in each other’s washing.”  A major weakness of this stress on self-sacrifice is its lack of assurance that the individual’s own interests are really preserved in the promotion of those others…Love holds the interest of the self and of others together.[lxviii]

Therefore, the primary meaning of agape is that it is a love of the will which reflects the nature of the one who expresses it.  As an act of this will it involves a choice.  For the believer, this choice is based upon knowledge of and obedience to the Divine will of God.  Additional considerations such as the unworthiness of the object or the self-sacrifice of the giver are secondary to the primary meaning.

The Greek Terms for Love in the New Testament

In this article, we have given the definition of five Greek terms often referred to when discussing love in the New Testament.  Of the five, two—stroge and epithumia—may be eliminated from further consideration. Storge may be eliminated because it is insignificant as used of love in the New Testament.  When reference is made to storge, it can be called by another name.  Husbands are commanded to love (agapao) their wives, wives are to submit to their husbands, children are to obey their parents.  Any instruction necessary in the matter requires other words: Obedience, submission, etc., which are foreign to storgeStroge will allow one to take another for granted and will encourage failure at being conscientious and concerned in the relationship.  Christians are called to a higher level in their relationships than that express as stroge.

Since the New Testament studiously avoids using epithumia as a term for love and when used of sexual gratification always in the negative, it is questionable that we today should once again be promoting such a concept.  This is not to say that the physical relationship in marriage is evil.  Quite the contrary.  The Christian husband and wife are commanded to engage in their relationship physically on a regular basis.[lxix]  It is sufficient to say that the New Testament does not present physical desire as epithumia.

Consistent, conscientious attention to the physical relationship in marriage will help to avoid epithumia rather than promote it.  The spiritual Christian who is diligent in his/her marriage relationship will learn a balanced, self-controlled expression of physical needs and will do nothing to encourage for epithumia to take control of life.  This will be true of all physical appetites: sexual, and otherwise.  Paul writes,

All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.[lxx]

At its best, epithumia is only temporary and will pass away along with the rest of the world.[lxxi]  At its worst, it enslaves the believer with cruel slavery never intended for those whose master is the Lord Jesus Christ.  To encourage epithumia is both contrary to the Scriptures and confusing to any serious student of God’s Word.  The marriage counselor would be well advised to use a different term.

This leaves us with three terms that are purported to express the New Testament concept of love: eros, philia, and agape.  Since eros only occurs in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is unwise to include it in any discussion of biblical love.

Philia refers to the act of self-disclosure which leads to attraction which in turn leads to affinity followed by affection. It is never commanded. In any text where love is commanded, the Greek term is not phileo but agape.

The most prevalent word group is agapeAgape expresses one’s nature and is essentially a willful decision.  For the Christian, agape is a moral choice based upon obedience to God’s revealed will.  This love may take the form of a love for the unworthy and may be expressed as “self-sacrifice.”  But both of these are only manifestations of agape based upon the revealed will of God.  Agape, while it can be expressed by the unregenerate, is a reflection of God’s love only when expressed by one who is born again, controlled by the Holy Spirit, and has a working knowledge of God’s Word.


[i] Galatians 5:16.

[ii] Romans 1:31; 2 Timothy 3:3.

[iii] Romans 12:10.

[iv] Epithumia is used approximately thirty-eight times and epithueo is used eighteen times in the Greek New Testament.

[v] Ed Wheat, “Love-Life for Every Married Couple,” taped message.

[vi] W. F. Moulton and A. S. Geden, A Concordance to the Greek Testament, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1967), 367.

[vii] W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, (Old Tappan, N. J.: Fleming H. Revel Co., 1966), 252.

[viii] Hermann Cremer, Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1962), 287.

[ix] Friedrich Buchsel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 9 vols. Ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. And ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), 3:167.

[x] Ibid., 169.

[xi] Ibid., 171.

[xii] Romans 6:12.

[xiii] Romans 13:14.

[xiv] 1 Thessalonians 4:3, 4.

[xv] Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), 124-126.

[xvi] Romans 7:7, 8.

[xvii] Galatians 5:16.

[xviii] Esther 2:17.

[xix] William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gengrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 311.

[xx] Ethelbert Stauffer, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 9 vols. Ed. Gerhard Kittel trans. And ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), 1:37.

[xxi] Anders Nyugren, Agape and Eros, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1953), 173.

[xxii] Ibid., 31.

[xxiii] Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, ed. David B. Guralnik, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), s. v. “Eros,” 475.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Richard Chenevix Trench, Synonyms of The New Testament, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), 44.

[xxvi] Arthur D. Colman, M.D., Love and Ecstasy, (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), 1.

[xxvii] A. H. Maslow, The Meaning of Love, ed. Ashley Montagu (New York: The Julian Press, Inc., 1953), 60.

[xxviii] James W. Davies, “An Investigation of the History of Agape and Eros from the Perspective of the Psychoanalytic Phenomenon of Transference,” Encounter, vol 28 (1967), 155.

[xxix] Wheat, Love-Life for Every Married Couple.

[xxx] 1 Samuel 18:1.

[xxxi] 1 Samuel 18:3.

[xxxii] 1 Samuel 20:17.

[xxxiii] Leon Morris, Testaments of Love: A study of Love in the Bible, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981), 117.

[xxxiv] James 4:4.

[xxxv] Gustav Stahlin, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 9 vols. Ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. And ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), 9:115.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 9:159.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 9:166.

[xxxviii] John 5:20.

[xxxix] John 15:15.

[xl] John 16:27.

[xli] John 3:16.

[xlii] Luke 11:5-8.

[xliii] Luke 15:6.

[xliv] Luke 15:9.

[xlv] Luke 23:12.

[xlvi] Hermann Cremer, Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek, (Edenburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1962), 14.

[xlvii] Richard Chenevix Trench, Synonyms of The New Testament, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), 43.

[xlviii] Leon Morris, Love, Christian Style, (Portland: Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1976), 11.

[xlix] Kenneth S. Wuest, “Golden Nubbets,” Wuest’s Word Studies From the Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966), 60

[l] Matthew 5:44, 45.

[li] John 8:42.

[lii] Hermann Cremer, Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek, (Edenburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1962), 12.

[liii] Mark 12:28-31.

[liv] Luke 6:32.

[lv] Luke 6:32.

[lvi] Luke 20:46.

[lvii] John 14:15.

[lviii] John 14:20.

[lix] John 14:21.

[lx] Galatians 5:22.

[lxi] 1 John 4:7.

[lxii] Masumi Toyotome, 3 Kinds of Love, (Madison: InterVarsity Press, 1961), 8.

[lxiii] Romans 5:8.

[lxiv] Anders Nyugren, Agape and Eros, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1953), 75-81.

[lxv] John 10:17.

[lxvi] Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1932), vol. 5, 182.

[lxvii] 1 John 5:3.

[lxviii] Carl F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957), 170.

[lxix] 1 Corinthians 7:3).

[lxx] 1 Corinthians 6:12.

[lxxi] 1 John 2:17.


Postscript: My Personal Journey

After I left the farm to attend a nearby community college, I kept in touch with my adopted mother.  I was a Christian by then and sincerely wanted her to come to know Jesus Christ as I did but did not know how to witness to her.  Little did I realize then that the best witness I could give was a changed life.  She saw the changes taking place in my life including my ability to learn, which had been doubted by others in the family as well.  From the very beginning of my college career, I began to earn some decent grades.

After my first year at the nearby community college where I studied general engineering, I was recommended for a summer job working for a company in my hometown.  In the fall I transferred to a university on the other side of the state to study architecture.  Following that first year in architecture, I did not go back to college and instead worked full-time in my hometown hoping to earn enough money to go back to college the following year.  At first, I lived on the farm with my mother.  This was a time for us to draw closer together.  My relationship with my adopted father was one of distant toleration.  He was heavily involved in politics and was seldom home.

On New Year’s Eve that year, my parents attend a New Year’s Eve party and came home drunk.  I was upstairs in bed and could hear them fighting in the kitchen downstairs.  My father was involved with another woman and was demanding a divorce.  My mother refused to give him one.  As the fight grew louder, I could hear them hitting each other.  I became alarmed when I did not hear my mother anymore but could hear him slapping and kicking her.  It was at that point that I decided to intervene.

I raced down the stairs and found her unconscious on the floor with him continuing to pummel her.  I quickly pulled him off her and pushed him out the front door.  He went to his county car, he was chairman of the Board of County Commissioners at the time, and using the car radio, he was chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, called the county sheriff who was a personal friend.  When the sheriff arrived and sized up the situation, he made my father leave.  The next day, after my mother sobered up, I told her what had happened.  She never allowed him to move back home again and also never granted him a divorce.  He moved into a hotel in town and I saw little of him for more than a year.

Because of the strained relationship between my parents, I decided it was better for me to move out and rent a house in town.  After missing the fall semester, I realized that it was costing me as much to work and rent my own place as it was to go to college and so decided to return to school in the spring.  My mother loaned me $300 for tuition.

That year my father came to the university on business.  As Dairy Products Commissioner for the State of Washington, he was involved in the dairy science department.  He also came another time for a road builder’s clinic held for county commissioners and county engineers.  Even though our relationship was strained, we did get together, and I attended some of the dinners and events with him.

That year I invited my mother to join me on campus at the university for Mother’s Weekend.  We attended a concert by one of her favorite pianists and went to church together on Sunday.  It was a wonderful time and we drew closer together.  I believe she was proud of what I was accomplishing.

I stayed at the university that summer and worked in the area.  Sensing that God wanted me in full-time Christian service, I transferred my major from architecture to education and, in the fall, moved to another college to complete my degree.  That fall I began to date the girl who was to become my wife.  Holidays at home had become drunken brawls so when Thanksgiving break came, I did not go home but decided to stay on campus and spend the holiday with my girlfriend and her family.

Later I learned that I was the only member of the family who was not at the Thanksgiving gathering back on the farm.  Even my father was there.  There was little drinking and no fighting, as had been the case so many times before.  After everyone left except my mother and brother, my mother laid down on the couch for a nap.  The next morning my brother found her still lying on the couch in a coma.  She had had a stroke.  Friends reach me by phone at the dorm that night.  I raced to her bedside and, with others, prayed for her recovery.  She never regained consciousness and was taken off life-support two days later.

The only ones present in her room when she died beside a nurse and the doctor was a neighbor, my father, and me.  My father began to cry. The neighbor told me to comfort him.  I looked my father in the eye and replied, “My father can go to hell,” and walked out.

Not knowing what else to do, I drove to my pastor’s home.  I told him what I had said and done and how much I hated my father.  He was wise enough not to correct me at that time.  I stayed at the family farm the remainder of the week and, after the funeral, went back to college.  During that time, I hardly spoke to my father and he was seldom sober.  Later, when classes resumed, my pastor wrote me a letter.  In it, he told me that I had every right to hate my father, but I also had the power to love him.  I took this as a challenge and began to pray that God would teach me how to love my father.

The next year my fiancée and I were married.  My father’s drinking had gotten worse.  A few days before the wedding, he collapsed on the courthouse steps and was rushed to the hospital with an alcohol-related illness.  Because of this, he missed my college graduation and the wedding.  He even missed the wedding reception held for us the next week at my home church.

That fall I enter seminary to study for the ministry.  Since classes were not held on Mondays, I often drove up to the farm to be with my father.  We seldom talked, and he was drunk most of the time.  He did seem to enjoy watching me work. We had a ritual we would go through.  He would load a small trailer with equipment and he and I would go down by the river to cut wood.  Cutting wood meant he would cut the logs to length with a chainsaw and then would sit down with his bottle and drink while I split and stacked the wood.  My prayer was that those times would be my witness to him of my faith in Christ.  I also continued to pray that God would help me love him.

While I was still in seminary, my father came to visit us in our home and stayed overnight.  I told him that we did not want him drinking in our house and he promised to honor that.  That evening he seemed quite nervous and frequently went out to the car.  We knew what he was doing.  He kept his bottle in the car.  On one trip, he did not come back for some time.  Concerned, my wife went to the door to see if he was all right and found him standing at the curb urinating into the street.

During that time my father was trying to raise my brother with little success.  He was always into trouble and frequently needed to be bailed out of jail.  On one occasion my father seemed particularly distraught.  When I returned to seminary, I wrote a letter to my pastor telling him that I thought my father might be ready to accept Christ as his savior but that he would not allow me to talk with him about it.  The pastor made an appointment with my father to have lunch with him the next Friday.

That night, after my wife and I had gone to bed, my father called me and, in tears, asked me to come home because he needed me.  I asked if it could wait until morning.  He said no.  So, we got out of bed and drove to the farm arriving about sunup.  He told us that he had prayed to receive Christ and intended to go to church the next day.

By then Dad had married the woman he was seeing before Mom’s death and she and her children also attended the church services.  It made quite a stir in that little Baptist church seeing the man who was so much in the public eye walking into church the first time.  Following the morning worship service, the pastor announced that there were two men who had something to say.  My father and my brother both went forward and announced to the congregation that they had received Christ as their savior.  My wife and I could hardly contain ourselves as we drove back to the seminary that afternoon.

I did not see my father for a couple of weeks but when I did, I also wanted to visit with the pastor whom I also had not seen since the Sunday my father and brother had made a public profession of faith.  Dad did not want me to see the pastor.  When I asked him why he reluctantly told me that the pastor was out of town.  I pressed him on the issue and he said the pastor had been accused of immorality and had gone away for counseling.

I could not believe my ears and decided to go and find out the truth for myself.  The pastor’s wife met me at the door and inquired as to the purpose of my visit.  At first, I did not want to tell her, but she insisted.  When I told her what I had heard she told me it was true.

My father never went back to that church again.  Instead, he tried to go back to the church his family had been members of by tradition.  Because he had never completed catechism, the pastor of the church insisted that he complete the classes and be baptized.  The first night the pastor, a friend, my father, and several other catechumens were present.  The second night the pastor, his friend and he were present.  The third night it was only he and his friend, the pastor did not show up.  As a result, he was never able to join the church.  Yet the financial committee of the church took it upon themselves to find out his financial worth and sent him a letter instructing him on how much money he should give to the church.

Upon graduating from seminary, I accepted a call to pastor a church in a small town.  My father would not allow me to talk to him about the Lord but loved to hear me preach.  One time he and his drinking buddy showed up on the doorstep of the parsonage.  They came to fish and proceeded to set up his travel trailer on the front lawn and have a drinking party with loud music and all.  Their presence did not escape the notice of the neighbors or the church.

On one of his visits, the week after our first child was born, he told me he was going to die and asked me to preach at his funeral.  Of course, I told him I did not believe he was going to die but promised anyway.

Shortly after that, I resigned from the church, and my family and I moved back to the farm to live with my father until another ministry opened up.  He continued to drink heavily and began to pick on my wife, so we moved out and into a small two-room house not far away.  We kept in touch with him and it was during that time that he was killed in a traffic accident.

As I look back on those events, it was a very difficult time in my life.  Yet I believe that God answered my prayers.  I believe that I genuinely loved my father at the time of his death and that he, in his own way, loved me.  In spite of his failings and inability to overcome his drinking problem in this life, I expect to see him in heaven someday.

I did not learn to love my father by reading a self-help book.  It came through searching the Scriptures and through prayer and asking God for that love.  It came through learning to walk in the Spirit.  It came in spite of my own bitterness and inability to forgive.  It came as God’s healing balm to enable me to let go of that bitterness.  It gave me the ability to love and forgive my father before his tragic death so that I could stand in the pulpit at his memorial service and preach a message of genuine love and forgiveness.