Love is a massive topic in the Bible, and suffice to say, the Bible has more to say about it than can be covered by the contents of this article. You could even argue that the entirety of the Bible is actually a lengthy explanation of true love and through a story about its outworking. However, this article will give you an overview of the important insights about biblical love.
Types of Love in the Bible
The English word “love” is used to describe a wide array of feelings for various things and people. We may say “I love you” to others, but our relationship with them dictates the type of love we feel for them and are trying to communicate to them. For example, although we use the same phrase, we don’t love our romantic partner in the same way we love our parents.
This is especially true in the New Testament. The Koine Greek uses different words to express different types of love. Let’s take a look below at a few of the Bible’s words for love.
Avav is the primary Hebrew word for love used in the Old Testament. It functions a lot like the English word by covering a wide range of feelings with its usage.
The Hebrew language itself can be quite flexible at times, and with that understanding in mind, there are a few other words substituted for ahav to describe certain expressions of love in the Old Testament. For example, khesed [goodness] is often translated as lovingkindness (Ex. 34:6), and yada [to know] is an idiom for sex (Gn. 4:1). However, since I shouldn’t turn this article into a lesson on ancient Hebrew grammar, it’s enough to say that ahav is the predominant word used for multiple types of love in the Old Testament.
Philia is one of the Greek words for love used in the New Testament. It’s the type of love you might have for a close friend or someone who shares the same interests as yourself. Unique to the word is its sliding scale of intensity. The level of philia you feel for a person or activity can vary from time to time or thing to thing. This is the type of affection felt when saying something like, “I love pizza!” or “I love musicians!”
Storge is another Greek word for love used in the New Testament. It’s the type of love you would have for your parents or your children. There’s a sense of camaraderie implicit in the word; a bond formed over time. This is the type of affection felt when saying something like, “I love my cousins!” or even “I love my fellow Christians!”
Agape appeals to the highest form of love that exists. It’s the ultimate Greek word for love, and of the three words for love in the New Testament, it’s the one used most often. That’s because it’s quite different than the others, and this form of love is the type Christians hope to exhibit well. It’s a benevolent, self-sacrificial love that’s imitable by humans but is best demonstrated by God through Christ.
Because it’s used so prevalently in the Bible, agape-love is the type of love that we’ll focus on for the rest of this article.
God is Love
Love itself is embedded in the ontology of God. A foundational passage about the nature of God is found in 1John 4:16, and agape is the word used to describe the type of love that He emanates. Simply put, love exists because God exists.
Furthermore, we are only able to experience love because it’s rooted in God. Every meaningful act of love causes an emotional stir that flows from God Himself (1Jn. 4:7). For this reason, true love is pure. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Apostle Paul warns fellow Christians to guard against false expressions of love by penning, “Love must be free of hypocrisy” (Rm. 12:9, NASB).
God’s love for us was without insincerity and made manifest in the person of Jesus. The story of His love for humanity is recorded in the Gospels and expounded upon in the letters of the New Testament. Concisely stated, the love of God for us is the gospel message about Christ. Nowhere is this understanding so directly proclaimed as in the famous verse of John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”John 3:16, ESV
The assurance of this truth is also fixed in the unfailing love of God. Romans 8:38-39 reveals Paul’s confidence in God’s loving ability to withstand all the forces of evil seeking to separate people from the love of God. Therefore, it stands to reason, you are the only thing that can prohibit your own salvation.
The Love Chapter of the Bible
Nowhere is love more directly discussed than by the Apostle Paul in 1Corinthians 13. His perspective frames agape love as applicable and necessary for every aspect of the Christian lifestyle. It esteems love as the primary component of Christianity.
The entire chapter sheds light on love with a different aspect in each verse. It’s worth reading and reflecting upon, but because it’s such a foundational passage about love, some people even have it memorized. The middle portion is probably the most well-known part of the chapter:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”1 Corinthians 13:4-8, ESV
Each of these attributes of love should cause moments of personal introspection. It’s hard to simply gloss over these statements without pausing and comparing your own preconception about love to what the Bible says about it. It forces one to read slowly and ask themselves some hard questions.
Am I patient and kind? Am I envious or boastful? How about arrogant or rude? I’ve certainly been selfish and insistent on my own way before, and I don’t know a person willing to admit not being irritable at some point. Perhaps the most introspective question of them all is the last one; does my love have a limit?
The gut check that comes from these questions isn’t the point of the passage. None of us are able to perfectly emulate agape love except for Christ Himself, but we are still called to recognize the standard for true love and aim for it. Doing so inevitably forces us to realize we can’t achieve it with any sort of consistency through our own strivings and desires to do so. We need the help of the Holy Spirit to love as we should. We simply cannot do it consistently without Him; God is love, remember?
The love lessons listed in this chapter are applicable to all types of relationships and every type of person. Parents and strangers, friends and enemies, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, Christians and non-Christians, we are called to treat them all in the same way: with agape love.
Romantic Love in the Bible
It might surprise you that eros is the Greek word normally used for the romantic type of love. It’s where the modern-day term “erotic” comes from. However, it does not once appear in the Bible. This means that the biblical authors knew the word but chose not to use it, and as it relates to biblical interpretation, that’s quite telling.
Consider the context of Ephesians 5:25 for a moment. How a husband should love his wife is the subject of the verse. Therefore, you might assume that the author (Paul) would use eros to make his point about the romantic dynamic between a husband and wife. Instead, like every other biblical author, he chose to use agape:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her”Ephesians 5:25, NASB
In the above verse, agape is used for both instances of the word. The point behind its usage is worth unpacking. Husbands are supposed to pattern their love after Jesus’ own example. Specifically, husbands are called to love with self-sacrificing love, and this is an excellent example of the difference between eros and agape. Where eros creates a romantic feeling that fades over time, agape creates a knowing that lasts a lifetime.
The use of agape isn’t meant to negate the eros aspect of romantic relationships. The sensual love we think of is actually one particular outworking of agape love that’s intended for one particular person. It’s certainly important and should be nurtured in ways that both people enjoy and find comfortability doing together, but it’s specifically reserved for the context of marriage.
However, although it should only be experienced in marriage, it’s not the ultimate point of marriage. Like eros isn’t the ultimate form of love in the Greek language, romance isn’t the ultimate point of marriage for the Christian. Agape love is what’s ultimate in both.
Final Thoughts on Love in the Bible
The biblical topic of love is vast. Each aspect of it can be analyzed or cross-referenced with other verses to produce insights worth their weight in gold. Multiple books have been published on the subject, and although they cover much of the same ground, each one presents the aspects of biblical love in a particular way.
That’s somewhat the point of this article. I wanted you to see an array of angles from which love can be viewed throughout the Bible, and I tried to convey the understanding that there are different types of love being discussed based on the specific Koine Greek word being used. However, most importantly, I wanted you to understand that agape is the word used most often, and it should shape every aspect of our life as Christians.
With that in mind, there are some important biblical concepts about agape love that I want to leave you with.
Love is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Ga. 5:22-23). If you’re a Christian, you should be growing in your love for others. I want to encourage you to pray for an increase of love with every prayer time you have so that you can “do everything in love” (1Co. 16:14, NIV).
Jesus says that if we love Him, we will keep his commands (Jn. 14:15, 21, 23-24). We must remain vigilant to uphold the commands of Christ in our increasingly permissive world; love does not always equal permissiveness. It’s loving to guard others against the things that will destroy them spiritually, and occasionally, this manifests as an awkward conversation or encounter. Notwithstanding, there are ways to lovingly correct others. We should adopt Jesus’ own mindset: “Those I love, I rebuke and discipline” (Re. 3:19, BSB).
Finally, love is the mark of our status as disciples of Christ (Jn. 13:34-35). Jesus commissions us to love others as He has loved us. If you really think about that, He is telling us to love others perfectly. That sounds like an impossible task, and it is if you attempt to do so under the power of your own strength. But as Jesus said concerning salvation, “the things that are impossible with people are possible with God.” (Lk. 18:27, NASB).
We are capable of extraordinary love through the power of God. This love is meant to be absorbed by us and lavished onto others. It literally contributes to the saving of the world, and we have one Person to thank for that. So in our loving others, let’s remember that “we love Him because He first loved us” (1Jn. 4:19, NKJV).
May God bless you and give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4)
Written By: Nicholas Lakin
Nick is an academic scholar, budding theologian, and thoughtful teacher of the Bible. He has a passion to see others grow in their knowledge of God for the purpose of glorifying Christ. He’s also a graduate of Liberty University and a former United States Army soldier.
His academic works range from commentaries and exegetical analyses to nuanced details regarding the Hebrew and Greek languages of the Bible. His future endeavors include Chaplaincy and founding a nonprofit organization that’s conducive to ecumenical orthodoxy across Protestantism.