The Most Common Myth At The Pulpit

How often have you heard a preacher or a teacher compare the verb agapaō(ἀγαπάω, to love) with phileō (φιλέω, to love) and wind up saying that agapaō is a special kind of love or even further divine love? I have, not only heard (John 21:15-17, and Ephesians 5:25) but also at the pulpit shared it when I did my very first preaching on Luke 6:27-36. Is it truth that agapaō is a special kind of love?

The most common comparing of this kinds of love usually begin with introducing the types of love in Greek, often like Carpenter and Comfort in Holman treasury of key Bible words:

We use the word love to describe all kinds of feelings—from adoration to lust. But the ancient Greeks had four words to express different kinds of “love”: (1) eraō for “sexual passion,” a word not found in the New Testament; (2) storgeō for “family devotion,” a word used in a negative sense in 2 Timothy 3:3 as “unloving”; (3) phileō for “friendship,” a word appearing frequently in the New Testament; and (4) agapaō for “loving-kindness.”[1]

To which agapaō is then elevated to some special or even divine love because “Agapē-love comes from the divine nature. When we are born again through the Spirit, we too can express agapē-love (2 Pet. 1:3–9; 1 John 3:9). With this love that God gives us, it is possible for us to truly love our friends, co-workers, and neighbors.”[1]

To our disappointment, this is not true. The reasoning behind commits a root fallacy, viz. presupposing that meaning of the word is determined by its etymology(root(s)). Not every word has a meaning bound up with its components.

Research Professor of New Testament, D. A. Carson, pointed out that agapaō does not always refer to a “good” love or a sacrificial love or a divine love, and nothing in the root to convey such a meaning.

He argued:

In a similar vein, although it is doubtless true that the entire range of ἀγαπάω (agapaō, to love) and the entire range of φιλέω(phileō, to love) are not exactly the same, nevertheless they enjoy substantial overlap; and where they overlap, appeal to “root meaning” in order to discern a difference is fallacious. In 2 Samuel 13 (LXX), both ἀγαπάω (agapaō, to love) and the cognate ἀγάπη(agape, love) can refer to Amnon’s incestuous rape of his half sister Tamar (2 Sm. 13:15, LXX), When we read that Demas forsook Paul because he love this present, evil world, there is no linguistic reason to be surprised that the verb is both ἀγαπάω (agapaō, 2 Tim. 4:10). John 3:35 records that the Father loves the Son and uses the verb ἀγαπάω (agapaō); John 5:20 repeats the thought, but uses the φιλέω(phileō) – without any discernible shift in meaning. ( Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd p.29-30)

Dealing with synonyms in John 21:15-17, Carson doubt that there is a distinction between agapaō(ἀγαπάω) and phileō (φιλέω). He pointed out that the argument that translators of the Spetuagint and New Testament writers investing ἀγαπάω (agapaō) and ἀγάπη(agape) with special meaning to provide an adequate expression by which to talk about the love of God has been “overturned by the diachronic study of Robert Joly, who presents convincing evidence that ἀγαπάω (agapaō) was coming into prominence throughout Greek literature from the fourth century B.C. on, and was not restricted to biblical literature.”(Ipid p.52)

Is agapaō some kind of special divine love? Sadly no. We have fell into this lie because of false reasoning in our exegesis. Its my prayer that the Holy Spirit will lead us to be more careful, quick to see , admit and correct our errors.


[1] Carpenter, E. E., & Comfort, P. W. (2000). Holman treasury of key Bible words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew words defined and explained (328). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

D. A. Carson. Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. Baker Academic (2008)

Update: Original title: The Most Common Lie At The Pulpit
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8 thoughts on “The Most Common Myth At The Pulpit

  1. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard agape love described as divine love, but merely as the strongest love… caution with making things something they’re not is important… i appreciate this post, and will have to look into this more… ultimately, Christ did love us with the greatest love, with which he lay down his life. Regardless of whether we call it a special divine love, the strongest love, agapao, or phileos, or anything else, what matters most is that God loved us enough to sacrifice His Son so that we might be saved from our sin, which separates us from Him; and which should evoke the same love from us to Christ: unto death.

    • Interesting, I have looked into Greek and Hebrew a bit but never paid attention to the different words on love as of yet! I think what is identifiable is that when we were lost we not know how to love, but rather it would be defined as lust! It’s not until we accept Christ that we begin to understand the nature of love! Great post!

  2. it would be prudent to differentiate between ancient greek, the language in which old scriptures are found and modern greek, the language the current greeks speak. to help you: my friend is Phile Mou, and my woman says Agapi Mou to me. but this is modern greek. its very difficult to make correct contextual translations from modern greek to english, and even more so from ancient greek to english. and yes, my woman is from Crete, Greece.

  3. Thank you for your well-reasoned response! It’s very intriguing, and I’ll enjoy looking into it more. It certainly makes sense that our love, just like practical righteousness and holiness, would be honed in sanctification.

  4. What does this mean in our study of the relevant passages of Scripture? Are there resources that provide us with an updated study of what Scripture tells us love from God and among men is?

      • I assume people cite that agapao love is different from phileo love to symbolize that there is a special kind of love with which God loves us, and that he in turn enables us to use. That’s the context in which I’ve most frequently heard it. Therefore, we cannot love in an “agapao way,” so to speak, without first learning it from God.

        However, if agapao doesn’t have this special meaning, what does it mean in the context of Scripture? Is there any special love to which God calls us? Or does this post just signify that individual words carry no special meanings with themselves apart from the context of the passage?

        • Thanks Josh B,

          I did also cited agapaō(to love) and differentiate with phileō (to love) in my first preaching. Apparently agapaō was generally used as normal “love” e.g. I love my wife, he loved evil, they loved money. There is a difference between agapaō and phileō. The later could be used to mean “to kiss”. e.g. Judas kissed(phileō) Jesus, but the former could not be used in that sense. But they could also be used synonymous, e.g. The God the Father love (agapaō in John 3:35 and phileō in John 5:20) his Son(Jesus), without change in meaning.

          Agapaō(to love), would be just like “righteousness” or “holiness” or “justice” to which God possesses them to the supreme. We can not love to this supreme but when we are in Christ, we begin to taste how it is to love(agapao/phileo) the way God loves(agapao/phileo). As we are continuously transformed into the image of his Son, we can express love as God does. This is true also with righteousness, holiness or justice. This process is what theologians calls sanctification, begins at the moment you accepted Christ Jesus, justified, and ends the day we see him face to face as he is.

          This post tried to show that it is not correct to claim that agapaō is special love. Agapaō is simply “love” and is used both to express the love of good and evil things and could be use synonymous with phileō without change in meaning.

          I would recommend you to get a Bible Software tool e.g Logos or Accordance and buy the original language package(Greek and Hebrew) to help you search the word through the whole Bible and see how it is used. If your economy does not allow, then use free online tools. I would recommend: Bible.org , My Study Bible and Bible Study Tool.

          TO get updates studies: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society and The First Things

          I hope I tried to answer your questions.

          In Christ Jesus,
          Prayson

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