Love – Biblical Words For Love

Bible Words for Love

In his classic treatment of the subject, CS Lewis identifies four words for love: érōs, storgḗ, philía and agápē. In the Bible, however, we only find two of these regularly used, philía and agápē, so we shall add chesed to our list, a central Old Testament word meaning God’s ‘loving-kindness’.

Chesed is, as we said, central to the Old Testament revelation of who God is. It derives, scholars think, from a word meaning ‘eager zeal’, ‘desire’, and by extension, ‘kindness’. Words associated with it include chāsīd: ‘saint’, ‘righteous one’ – we may be familiar with Chassidism, a branch of Judaism. It is regularly translated in the Septuagint by éleos ‘mercy’.

Moving to the New Testament, philía is the love shared between friends and lovers. The word philéō means ‘kiss’ as well as ‘love’, hence phílēma ‘kiss’. Philía is very much something that takes two to complete. It cannot exist without a response in kind.

The word agápē was hardly used in Classical Greek, and it is likely to have been completely new to speakers of Greek as a second language. In the New Testament the word refers distinctively to the love of God, as shown in Christ Jesus, by which he gave his life for us while we were yet at enmity with him. It is the love that gives itself expecting nothing in return. Thus it exists even where it is not reciprocated.

The difference between the words agápē and philía is starkly drawn by Jesus in his recommissioning of Peter in John 21:15ff. Jesus makes the divine demand of agápē clear to Peter, who cannot yet answer in kind because he has yet to receive the Spirit. So when Jesus asks Peter if he “loves” him, using a form of “agapân”, Peter can only reply weakly with “phileîn”. How glad we are that Jesus loves us with both philía and agápē love!

Leave a Reply