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The Greek words for 'love' in the New Testament

Of the four words for 'love' in Greek, only three are used in the New Testament: stergein, philein, and agapan. Before we explore the background and New Testament use of these words, let us just briefly consider the fourth Greek word: eran. This word is best translated as 'passion.' It is passion seeking satisfaction. It was used in pagan Greek writings of sex love.

1. Stergein

This means a natural affection, like that between members of a family, or even in the love of animals for their offspring. This kind of love binds any social unit together. It is used twice in the New Testament with an 'a'-prefix (astorgos), which negates the meaning, and is translated as "without natural affection." [1] It is used once, compounded with philein, where it is translated as "brotherly love." [2]

2. Philein (noun form philos)

This means an unimpassioned love, more a liking, affection or fondness. It is the love between friends, the mutual attraction of similar interests and characteristics. It is the appreciation of the qualities of another person. The Greeks valued friendship very highly, and philein  is the most commonly used word for 'love' in the classical writings. It is used 45 times in the New Testament.

3. Agapan (noun form agape)

This means the highest form of love which sees something infinitely precious in its object. It is a love of esteem and of prizing for the values ascribed to the beloved. It was very seldomly used in classical Greek, but it occurs about 320 times in the New Testament. The reason for this is that, during the period of the Greek Empire, Greek became the international language. At about 280-250 BC the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into the form of Greek then spoken in Alexandria. By this time agapan had replaced philein as the most commonly used word for 'love', and therefore the Greek translation used it extensively. By the time the New Testament was written, the word had acquired the additional meanings found in the Old Testament.


The sacrificial love of God

The Greeks had no concept of a sacrificial love for the benefit of the object loved, and this is most clearly demonstrated in the New Testament at Calvary. However, the Old Testament does hint at it, in that Yahweh chose Israel because He already loved her [3] with an everlasting love. [4] This love is spontaneous, not produced by any intrinsic worth in its object but rather creating that worth. [5] This love is best illustrated in Hosea chapters 1-3 where the relationship of the prophet and his unfaithful wife portrays the love of God for disobedient Israel. This is a love that is willing to suffer, and cannot be altered  no matter what Israel does, because it is part of God's personality. [6]

The New Testament meaning of agapan

This idea of sacrificial love only hinted at in the Old Testament, is fully developed in the New.
"For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." [7] Each lost soul in the world is precious in God's sight because man was made in God's image. Although this image is marred by sin, God knows that it can be restored again through salvation. He was willing to sacrifice Himself for the sake of the beloved, thus adding to the classical meaning of agapan the element of sacrifice.

Moreover, one could perhaps conceivably sacrifice oneself for the sake of a precious friend, but no one would do that for the sake of an enemy. And yet, " ... When we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son ..." [8] This is the amazing love of God: Jesus Christ willingly bore our sins on the cross, and died for us while we were still His enemies.

In 1 Corinthians chapter 13 the apostle Paul gives a complete description of this kind of love:
Love is ...patient and kind; it always protects, trusts, hopes, perseveres; it rejoices with the truth and never fails.
Love is not ... rude, self-seeking, proud and easily angered; it does not envy, boast or delight in evil; it keeps no record of wrongs.

The apostle John tells us that God first loved us and that we should therefore love one another. "God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him." [9] Paul adds that this is possible, "because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us." [10]


The place of philein in the New Testament

As the normal word for "love" at this time was agapan, the inspired writers used philein to point to a different kind of love. Jesus denounced the "hypocrites" because "they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men." [11] Philein is used here because it is a love of liking; it is part of their nature and they take pleasure in it. That is why Jesus added, "they have received their reward in full."

"Everyone who loves and practices falsehood ..." [12] He who loves a lie loves it because he finds a reflection of himself in the lie. The personal affinity with the false leads to its outward practice. "The man who loves his life will lose it ... " [13] Again, the man finds such pleasure in life that it becomes a fixed attitude, and nothing else is of much importance. "If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own." [14] Again, the use of philein, points to an inner affinity or a similarity of nature. Because the Christian has been made a partaker of the divine nature, [15] the world can find no affinity and therefore hates Christians.

A good comparison is made between the meanings of philein and agapan in the conversation between Jesus and Peter after the resurrection. [16] Jesus asked Peter three times whether he loved Him, using agapan twice and philein the third time. Peter answers yes all three times, but he uses philein every time.

So actually Jesus asked Peter twice if his love for Jesus was based on his perceiving Jesus as precious; a love of deep devotion that is sacrificial in its essence; a love that is willing to die for the beloved. But Peter could only offer Him a love of friendship, fondness, affection and personal attachment.

Take note also that Jesus' first question is "do you truly love me more than these?" The second question is merely "do you truly love me?" without reference to the other disciples. In the third question, "do you love me?" He uses philein as Peter did, and actually means 'Do you have any true affection for Me at all?' Then Jesus tells him that, when he is old, he will have a true sacrificial love for Jesus and die a martyr's death.


1.  Romans 1:31; 2 Timothy 3:3
2.  Romans 12:10
3.  Deuteronomy 4:37; 7:6f; 10:15
4.  Jeremiah 31:3
5.  Deuteronomy 7:7
6.  Hosea 11:1-4, 7-9
7.  John 3:16
8.  Romans 5:10
9.  1 John 4:7-21
10. Romans 5:5
11. Matthew 6:5
12. Revelation 22:15
13. John 12:25
14. John 15:19
15. 2 Peter 1:4
16. John 21:15-19


1.  Douglas, J.D. (ed.) New Bible Dictionary, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982.

2. Richards, L.O. Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, Michigan, U.S.A.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985.

3. Thayer, J.H. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Tennessee, U.S.A.: Baker Book House Co., 1977.

4. Vine, W.E. Vine's expository dictionary of New Testament words, Massachusetts, U.S.A.: Hendrickson Publishers, ?

5. Wuest, K.S. Wuest's Word Studies for the English reader (Vol.3), Michigan, U.S.A.: Eerdman's Pub. Co., 1940.


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Posted in: Bible by on February 25, 2011 @ 3:39 am

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