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 Vol. 5, No. 2 

February 2003

~ Page 12 ~


By Hugo McCord

Hugo McCord An attempt at an in-depth study of agape, the greatest word in Spirit-inspired language ("God is agape," 1 John 4:8) ought to help the investigator and as many readers as are willing to study with him.

Words Related to Agape

Necessary to a knowledge of agape is an acquaintance with three other Greek words meaning "love":


For sexual love the Greeks used the word eros. From it is derived the English word "erotic." Capitalized, Eros becomes the name of the Greek god of sexual love. As a proper noun it is equated with the Roman god of sexual love, Cupid. A harlot, "wily of heart," told a potential customer, "Let us solace ourselves with loves" (Proverbs 7:10, 18). Her word "loves" in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) is a form of eros.

As misused as is the sexual nature, and with so many sins related to that misuse, some have concluded that a person's sexual nature is evil and must altogether be denied. However, when God had created all things, including the sexual natures of Adam and Eve, their Creator's appraisal was that the whole was "very good" (Genesis 1:31). If the human sexual nature is evil, the Creator himself must be blamed.

In marriage the bed is "undefiled" (Hebrews 13:4). The doctrine affirming the perpetual virginity of Mary, designed to exalt the Lord's mother above other women, actually slanders all mothers.


A second Greek word meaning "love" defines family and kinship loyalty. As eros in itself is one of the Creator's good provisions for the human race, so storge is divinely implanted. Only the worst of men (boastful, implacable, fierce) so pervert themselves as to be "without natural affection" (astorgous, Romans 1:31; 2 Timothy 3:1-3).


Distinct from sexual indulgence, and separate from kinfolks' affection, is friendship love, philia. John the baptist was "the friend" (philos, John 3:29) of the bridegroom Jesus. Jesus used the word philos in saying "our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep" (John 11:11). A form of phileo Luke wrote to tell how the centurion Julius treated Paul: "courteously" (KJV), "kindly" (ASV, Acts 27:3). A form of the same word he used to describe how, on the island of Malta, during a cold rain, "the barbarians showed us no common kindness" (Acts 28:2). And he used a form of the same word to tell how the island's chief official "entertained us three days courteously" (Acts 28:7).

A Study of Agape

Agape carries an unfailing regard for, and deeply cherishes, the object of its devotion. It is love with 100% commitment.

Devotion in Two Directions

When one is 100% committed to something or to somebody, the word describing such is agape. Even if that devotion is to darkness, to vanities (chief seats, salutations, praises of men), to money or to lying, it is agape (Psalm 52:3-4; LXX 51:5-6; Ecclesiastes 5:10; LXX 5:9; Luke 11:43; John 3:19; 12:43), a 100% devotion to self.

Then, in the opposite direction from a devotion to self, agape is good will and selfless giving even of one's life to help others. It involves a commitment without thought of gain or loss to the giver, or merit on the part of the receiver. Jesus "loved me," wrote a man who had been a blaspheming, injurious persecutor, and "gave himself for me" (agapao, Galatians 2:20; 1 Timothy 1:13). Consequently, that ex-hater of Christians praised God for his "great love (agapao) wherewith he loved (agapao) us" (Ephesians 2:4).

When one sees that the beneficiaries of agape are ungodly sinners and enemies, one can understand why the Scripture says, not that God is eros or storge or philia, but agape (Romans 5:6-10; 1 John 4:8, 16). I have come to believe that the Bible as originally written always had the right word in every place.

Agape Overlaps the Related Words

The towering superiority of agape above the three related words does not mean that it cannot be used to convey the lesser meanings of the related words.

The warm affection of phileo was embedded in Jesus' agape toward Lazarus his "friend" (philos, John 11:5, 11), and toward the only apostle who stood with Jesus' mother at the cross (John 13:26). Agape including phileo are in both the Father and the Son as they come to dwell with every one who loves (agapao) them and keeps their "commands" (John 14:21-23; 16:27). Among humans there is no greater love (agape) than to lay down one's life for his friends (philoi, John 15:13). Sad is the story of a "very rich" young ruler who loved his riches more than he loved Jesus though Jesus loved (agapao) him (Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23).

In family relations agape overlaps philia and storge, even for a person to die willingly for kinfolks, as Christ gave himself for his bride (Ephesians 5:25-28). No true happiness is present among family members unless an affirmation of love (agape, Romans 12:9) exhibits itself in tender affection (philostorgoi, Romans 12:10) "one to another."

Though it is clear that agape overlaps and encompasses both philia and storge, it is questionable whether agape includes eros. Thayer (p.653) denied that agape may properly be used of sexual love. If he is correct, the Septuagint translators improperly used agape in describing the exploitation of Shechem, of Samson, of Amnon, and even of legitimate sexual indulgence (Genesis 34:2; Judges 16:4; 2 Samuel 13:1-14; Song of Solomon 1:3; 2:4, 5, 7; 3:1-5; 5:8; 8:4, 7).

A Distinctive Word

Though agape overlaps meanings found in philia and in storge, and possibly in eros, in the New Testament agape at times is in a realm to itself, a sui generis, a monogenes. At times, as the sun outshines the stars, agape is more brilliant than all other words. In certain contexts it is unique, alone, solitary, a super-word, the greatest New Testament sign of an idea (1 Corinthians 13:13). Agape is "above all these:" "a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering" (Colossians 3:12-14). "Above all things" God's people are commanded to practice "fervent agape" among themselves (1 Peter 4:8). Seven noble attributes (faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness [philia]) by themselves are incomplete. They need to be supplemented, "adding on your part" agape (2 Peter 1:5-7). As Jesus was a monogenes (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9), the only being of his kind, so agape is the only word of its kind.

The distinctiveness and high excellency of agape are evident when the Good Samaritan saw a beaten, unsightly, bloody, half dead foreigner lying on the Jerusalem-Jericho road. Apparently the victim was not a kinsman (which would eliminate storge), nor was he a friend (which would eliminate philia). In this case only agape would bind up wounds, pour on oil and wine, lift him up and put him on his own beast, get the man to a bed in a hotel, care for him, and pay his bills (Luke 10:33-35).

When one understands the exalted position of agape he understands why Jesus did not use phileo in the command to love (agapan) one's enemies (Matthew 5:44). Enmity is the opposite of phileo (friendship), but agape includes both friends and enemies. It knows no limits ("never faileth," 1 Corinthians 13:8) in good will and sacrifice.

Some additional golden nuggets, clustered around the most meaningful word in the New Testament, ought to be considered.

Agape and Philia Further Distinguished

Sometimes Overlapping, Intrinsically Different

Though agape and philia in some contexts have much in common, there is an idea in each that remains separate. "Even in some cases where they might appear to be used interchangeably (e. g. John 14:23; 16:27) the difference can still be traced" (Thayer, p. 653). However, to this writer, it appears that Thayer makes three non-valid differences:

Friendship Love

A wife, determined to get a divorce, said, "I do not love him any more." She did not understand that what had died was her friendship love (philia) for him, for his attractiveness had disappeared. But committed love (agape), a care for him even more than a care for herself, apparently she had never had.

Jesus and Peter

However, after he had forsaken his Lord, even cursing and swearing, "I do not know the man," upon hearing the rooster crow, his heart was broken (Matthew 26:74-75). Bitter weeping displayed his deep shame. Like Judas, he was a traitor, and he knew it. All bragging was gone, and his spirit was crushed.

After the Lord's resurrection, when Peter was with some disciples by the lakeside, Jesus asked him, "Do you love [agapao] me more than these?" (John 21:15). Peter, hearing agapao in Jesus' question, knowing the magnitude of commitment involved in that word, knowing he had betrayed the Savior, could not honestly put the word agapao on his lips.

His reply was an evasion, using phileo. In this context the English word "love" does not rightly translate what Peter was saying, "Yes, Lord, you know that I like (phileo) you." A second time Jesus asked, "Do you agapao me?," and a second time Peter hedged, "Yes, Lord, you know that I like (phileo) you." The Lord, noticing Peter's evasion, in his third question asked, "Do you like (phileo) me?" Peter, undone, overcome, and grieved, as it were opened wide his breast and heart as if to say, "Lord, no more will I brag, and I will not be bold to say that I love (agapao) you." Actually his answer was "Lord, you know all things: you know I like (phileo) you."

A Chart

Some contrasts between agape and philia are as follows:

















Because of

In spite of


Never fails

Love of the Truth

The most valuable thing in the world is "the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation" (Ephesians 1:13). Since only that truth (John 8:32) can liberate men from their sins, how that truth should be cherished! "Buy the truth and do not sell it" (Proverbs 23:23). Like "a treasure hidden in the field," like "one pearl of great price," is "the word of the truth of the gospel" (Matthew 13:44, 46; Colossians 1:5).

No second or third class love is worthy of the Gospel treasure. Man's relationship and esteem for that precious commodity can only be conveyed by agape. No other word can depict how earnestly God's power to save is to be sought, and not for sale at any price. Happy and blessed are they who in their hearts have "the love [agape] of the truth" (2 Thessalonians 2:10). Sadly, when people do not love the truth, to them God sends "a working of error, that they should believe a lie, that they all might be judged who believed not the truth, but enjoyed wrong doing" (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12).

Overdoing Agape

"There Is No Law But Love"

Some have thought they were doing an in-depth study of Romans 6:14, "you are not under law, but under grace," by asserting that since the word "law" does not have the Greek article (tou, for "the") before it, therefore Christians are under law of no kind whatsoever. Galatians 5:18 they misuse in the same way.

But since Paul was discussing the Law of Moses (cf. Romans 7:7; 10:4-5; Galatians 5:3), the word "law" was definite without the article. So clear is it that it is the Law of Moses being considered the ASV translators have inserted the article 30 of the 35 times that the word "law" has no article preceding it in the Book of Romans.

To conclude that Christians are under no law is to render meaningless the phrases "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus" and "the law of Christ" (Romans 8:2; Galatians 6:2). Also, such a conclusion would antagonize 1 John 3:4, "sin is lawlessness" (anomia). Furthermore, under the cover that "there is no law but love" some would justify fornication, lying, stealing, and murder. Actually, since baptism and the Lord's Supper are not implicit in the word "love," those commandments and others become unnecessary and superfluous.

It is easy to misuse the inspired words that "love covers all transgressions" (Proverbs 10:12) by teaching that, as long as love is in a person's heart, no matter what sins he commits, all his transgressions are covered, and he is bound for heaven. Such teaching ignores other inspired words: "Except you believe that I am he [the Christ, the Son of God], you will die in your sins" (John 8:24); "Except you repent, you will likewise perish" (Luke 13:3, 5); "Every tongue shall confess to God" (Romans 14:11); "He commanded them to be baptized" (Acts 10:48); "Be faithful unto death" (Revelation 2:10).

"Love Is the Only Monitor"

An abuse of Romans 13:8, "Owe no man anything, save to love one another," is the sophistry that since love is the only guide for one's conscience, he may do as he pleases so long as love is the motivation. But Bible love keeps God's commandments (John 14:15, 21, 23, 24; 1 John 2:4; 5:3). Augustine (354-430 A.D.) asserted that a Christian loves and does as he pleases, but his meaning was that he who loves God pleases only to do God's will.

"Love Fellowships Everybody"

A third avenue of overdoing agape is to be so loving that one refuses to disfellowship anybody. But disfellowshipping is a loving act, its first reason being love for a lost soul that his "spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Corinthians 5:3). The sad act of announcement of withdrawal is included in the command, "Let all that you do be done in love" (1 Corinthians 16:14). And Christians do not forget that, when loving discipline has accomplished its God-given mission, they are "to confirm" their "love toward" the restored member (2 Corinthians 2:8).

Preachers today who say all people who say they believe in Jesus are their brothers are quite restrictive in their love unless they claim all Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, and, indeed, all mankind, as their brothers.

"Love Unconditionally Forgives"

Though God unconditionally loves the whole "world" of sinful people (John 3:16; Romans 3:23), he does not unconditionally forgive sins (John 3:16; Matthew 10:32; Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 John 1:9). Though a Christian unconditionally loves everybody (Matthew 5:44-45; 1 Corinthians 16:14; 2 Corinthians 2:8; Galatians 5:14; 1 Thessalonians 3:12), he does not unconditionally forgive sins (Matthew 18:15-17; Luke 17:3-4; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13).

Brother Brock Hartwigsen makes an excellent summary statement at the conclusion of his article published in the Firm Foundation of July, 2001: "Brethren, let us agape as God loves--unconditionally, but let us forgive as God forgives--conditionally."Image

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