Word Study #87 — Debunking the “Love” Myth

A favorite theme of the crowd who try to flaunt their superior wisdom by thundering authoritatively, “THE GREEK SAYS…..” is the canned, neatly-sorted lecture on “different words for different kinds of love”. The only problem, other than the fact that this represents nobody’s original first-hand study, is that it is flat-out mistaken, as even a minimal perusal of New Testament usage makes abundantly clear.

Agape, which such speakers effusively characterize as “self-giving, Godly, sacrificial love”, is the word used (in verb form) in Lk.6:32-35 and parallels – “even sinners love those who love them”; in Mt.6:24 – a slave juggling two masters; and in Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees (Lk.11:43) “loving the highest seats in the synagogues,” and (Jn.12:43) “the praise of men rather than God!” So let’s back off from the artificially created stereotypes, and take a sober look at the background of the words. Incidentally, only two words, not three, are used in the New Testament.

L/S lists, for agapao, “to greet with affection, to show affection” (Homer), “to caress or pet” (Plutarch), “to be fond of, to prize, or to desire” (Plato),“to be pleased or contented” (Homer), “to tolerate or put up with” (Plato), and “to be fond of doing something” (Aristotle). The noun form, agape, which some “scholars” mistakenly insist “never occurs in pagan writings”, according to the same lexicon has “the love of husband and wife” (Philodemos, 1st Century BC) as its first entry; and then moves on to (LXX and NT) “the love of God for man or man for God, brotherly love, charity, or alms”, but notes that it was also a title for the Egyptian goddess, Isis!

The same reference work lists for the other word, phileo, (the one supposed to mean “only friendship”), includes “to love or regard with affection; the love of gods for men, or men for children or animals; to welcome or entertain a guest; the love of man and wife; to be fond of doing something”. If these lists look nearly parallel, it just might be because they are! The noun form, philos, in the New Testament occurs only as “friend” (W.S. #22). This may be applied casually, but L/S also quotes Aristotle, “A friend is another self!”

Both words are used by Jesus in the gospels of the mutual love between Father and Son (agape – Jn.17:26, 3;35, 15:9; phileo – Jn.5:20); of Jesus’ love for his disciples and others (agape – Jn.13:1, 14:21, chapters 15 and 17; phileo – Jn 11:3,36); and of Jesus’ admonitions regarding his people’s love for him (agape – Lk.7:47, Jn.8:42, 14:15, 24; 17; phileo – Mt.10:37, Jn.16:27). However, phileo is far less common (only 22 x total) than agape – 86 x as “love” and 27 x as “charity” and agapao 135 x.

Instructions regarding the love of one’s neighbor (Mt.19:19, 22:33-39, Rom.13:8-10, Jas.2:8), one’s enemy (Mt.5:44, Lk.6:27), and “the brethren,”or “one another” (Jn.13:34-35, 15:12, 15:17; Rom.12:9, 13:8; Gal.5:13, Eph.1:15,4:2; Col.1:4, 2:2; I Thes.3:12, 4:9; Heb.10:24, I Pet.1:22,2:17, and most of I Jn.) consistently use a form of agapao.

One rather surprising observation – also involving both words – is the choice of the tenses of verbs and participles. References to the love of either the Father or Jesus toward people are almost exclusively in the aorist tense. I’m not sure what to make of this. In some cases, it is a historical reference, which is understandable; or mentioned as the motivation for some action, as in “because he loved” (aorist)…he gave his Son…” But I was surprised to discover only four places where this “godly love” is expressed in the present (continuous) tense: Jn.16:27, Heb.12:6 and its parallel in Rev.3:19; and Rev.1:5. I think it is significant that two of those four declare, “Those whom I love, I discipline!” (Heb.12 and Rev.3) – where both words are present (continuous) tense.

When disciples are instructed to love, however, the forms are almost uniformly present. Is this because such love (again, both agapao and phileo) requires constant effort and attention? Because it is the consistent response of a permanently transformed life? Or simply because it is expected to become a character trait, a habitual behavior? Or have you another suggestion?

Another frequent theme is the appearance of these words in conditional clauses: a grammatical structure introduced by “if” (ei, ean), “in order that” (hina , hos) , or “because” (dia touto, hoti). In fact, I have found no reference at all to the popularly-touted phrase “unconditional love.” I’m sure that its perpetrators mean well: they intend to be “welcoming”, and they are correct that Jesus called many folks whose lives were less than exemplary. But they forget that Jesus himself also says plainly, “This is why the Father loves me, because I am laying down my life” (Jn.10:17), and (Jn.16:27) “The Father loves you because you have loved me!” In the longer discussion in Jn.14:15-24 he repeatedly predicates the promise of his own and the Father’s presence and love upon “following my instructions”! And in Jn.15:9-17, it depends upon the disciples’ replicating his love in their own interaction. Paul (I Cor.2:9, 8:13, II Cor.9:7), James (1:12), and John (I Jn.3 and 4), all assume that the life Jesus offers must be reciprocated with loving obedience in order to be actualized.

Love in the brotherhood is to be patterned after Jesus’ own example (Jn.13:34, 15:12,17; Eph.5:2, I Thes.4:9, I Pet.1:22, 2:17, and all of John’s first letter). The same pattern is to be seen in Christian marriage (Eph.5:25-33, Col.3:19). Is the church’s failure to “love as Jesus loved” partly responsible for the failure of so many homes? The church was intended to set the example for husbands and wives to follow! Where else can anyone learn “another kind of love?” It may be easier (for churches and families) to “split” than to commit to the hard work of faithful love – but it does not follow the New Testament pattern.

Like so many things we have examined before, perhaps here too we need to check our focus: to replace nit-picking the non-existent intricacies of the words with careful attention to the object we choose for either agapao or phileo. Is it directed toward “the praise of men” (Jn.12:43), “the highest seats” (Lk.11:43), and other elements of “this present world” (II Tim.4:10), or toward the Lord Jesus, his Father, and his Kingdom?

In I Thes.4:9, Paul writes that “you yourselves are being taught by God to love each other.” Jesus, of course, provided the ultimate example (Jn.14 and 15), and much later, John (II Jn.6) succinctly defines the “kind of love” he was talking about. This is how the Body is created (Eph.3:17), and is intended to grow (Eph.4:15-16; Col.2:2), and function (Gal.5:13 and Eph.4:2).
“May the Lord guide your [our] hearts into the love of God, and the endurance (supplied by) Christ!” (II Thes.3:5)


One Response to Word Study #87 — Debunking the “Love” Myth

  1. terry welborn says:

    Thanks, Ruth, for this treatise. It is much needed today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: