All You Need Is … Agapao, Phileo, Stergo, Eros … Love?

One of the earliest introductions to the Greek language for most Bible students comes through a study of the word “love.” As most Greek students are quick to point out, there are different words in the Bible for different flavors of the word “love.” We all understand that “I love ice cream” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as “I love my wife” or even, “I love God.” In each of those sentences, the word “love” is being used with a different connotation. The Greek language didn’t just have one word for “love;” it had several words. In this article, I want to call attention to each of those words, briefly define them, and place them in their Bible context.
Perhaps most familiar to us is the Greek word “agape.” “Agape” is the noun form of the word, the verb form being, “agapao.” The verb form is found 117 times in the New Testament and the noun form, 109 times, according to The New Englishman’s Greek Concordance and Lexicon. It is the most used word for “love” in the New Testament and may be used in regard to God’s love for man (John 3:16, Romans 5:8), man’s love for God (Matthew 22:37, 1 John 2:5), and man’s love for his fellow man (Matthew 22:39, Romans 13:10). In the New Testament, it is used primarily regarding these relationships, though, the word is sparsely used to describe strong personal desires for some things (Luke 11:42, John 3:19, 12:43). I believe that it is fair to conclude that this word indicates the kind of love we have for someone or something upon which we are willing to base our principles for determining right and wrong; it includes the intention to act upon those principles regardless of what the consequences may be. This kind of love is the deep and abiding respect that we have for another. It is the kind of love that commands our intentions and directs our daily decisions.
The second most used word in the New Testament for “love” is the word “phileo.” The verb form is found 24 times in the New Testament. The adjective “philos” is as close as we get to a “noun” form in the New Testament. It is used 28 times in the New Testament substantively as a noun simply meaning, “friend” (Matthew 11:19, John 11:11, John 15:13). The verb form is used to describe man’s love for other men (Matthew 10:37, Titus 3:15), God’s love for the Son (John 5:20), God’s love for the disciples (John 16:27), and Jesus’ love for those who need rebuking (Revelation 3:19). Interestingly, the word is used in Matthew 26:48 and Mark 14:44 for “the kiss” that Judas gave to Jesus. The word also may be used to describe man’s love for other things (Matthew 6:5, Revelation 22:15). I believe that we can conclude that this word describes intimate and personal affection toward others or things that we may have. The word seems to reflect strong personal preference for something, similar to our word “like” in English. The word is never used to describe God’s love for mankind, although it is used to describe God’s love for Christ and the apostles (John 5:20, John 16:27). This is the kind of love upon which we base our personal preferences which may or may not be consequential to our decisions.
A related word to “phileo” which deserves some attention is “Philadelphia.” This word is used six times in the New Testament with the meaning “brotherly love.” It exclusively refers to the kind of love that one Christian should have for another. It is a compound word composed of the base from “phileo” (love) and the word for “brother,” “adelphos.” Hence it’s meaning, “brotherly love.” It is found in Romans 12:10, 1 Thessalonians 4:9, Hebrews 13:1, 1 Peter 1:22 and 1 Peter 1:7 (twice).
Finally, there are two additional words that may be translated “love” from the Greek. These words, however, are not found in the New Testament. These are the words “stergo” and “eros.” The word “stergo,” while not found in the New Testament, is found in other literature during the time of the New Testament. The word indicates natural affection that one might have toward another, such as a husband toward a wife. The negative of the noun form of this word is “astorgos” and is found in the New Testament in Romans 1:31 and 2 Timothy 3:3. One could correctly infer from these passages that God expects us to have “stergo” (natural affection) for our families.
The word “eros” on the other hand, is a word that simply refers to passionate, carnal, type love. It is not used in the New Testament at all, nor any other form of it, as far as I know. It is, however, used in the Septuagint in Proverbs 7:18 and 30:16. (The translation in the Hebrew is different in 30:16, so you will need to look at a translation of the Septuagint in that passage to get the meaning.) Both passages indicate carnal/fleshly appetites.
We tend to confuse the word “love” with emotionalism today, but that’s not really the way the word is used a majority of the time in the New Testament. When we think of “love” in the New Testament, we should think of a deep, abiding, personal commitment to principles, as opposed to the fickle emotion that we so commonly consider in our society. In this regard, the Greek language really helps us to parse out the various flavors of words and enlightens us to consider definitions which we may not consider simply studying English.

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Kevin Cauley

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One thought on “All You Need Is … Agapao, Phileo, Stergo, Eros … Love?

  1. Pease send to me Greek spiritual Songs. For example “WHAT A FRIEND WE HAVE IN JESUS” and etc. Thank you. Sincerely in Christ Mariam Grigorian

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