Whereas in English we have one word to express all kinds of love, in Greek there are four different words for love. Let’s take a quick look at those words. We’ll combine two of them with related meanings into one category, differentiating three distinct kinds of love. Then we’ll affirm three significant life truths that arise from our understanding of the different kinds of love.
3 KINDS OF LOVE
1. Eros refers to physical or sexual love.
The word eros was commonly used in the Greek-speaking world of New Testament times. The word itself is not found in the pages of the New Testament. The concept of physical love, however—expressed in the context of marriage—is found and affirmed in the New Testament (see 1 Cor. 7:5; Heb. 13:4).
2. Philos means warm affection or friendship.
Philos was commonly used with reference to friendships or family relationships. For example, it was used in Matthew 10:37 to indicate love for father and mother or son and daughter. Philos was the word used of Jesus’ love for His friend Lazarus (John 11:3,36) and His love for His disciple (John 20:2).
A related word, storgē, means “family devotion.” Storgē is not a common word in the New Testament. In Romans 12:10, it is compounded with philos (philostorgoi) and can be translated “devoted” (NASB) or “brotherly affection” (ESV).
3. Agapē is the sacrificial, unconditional love of God.
In the New Testament, agapē is the highest form of love. But outside of the New Testament, the word was rarely used. Prior to New Testament times, agapē did not carry any special significance as a higher kind of love. Thus, it’s the New Testament understanding of the unique nature of God’s love—not the word’s usage in the Greek-speaking world of the first century—that gives the word agapē its special meaning.
Agapē is the word that describes God’s love in John 3:16, “God loved the world in this way …” (CSB). We are commanded to love God (Matt. 22:37) and love one another (John 13:34) with agapē love. Agapē is the word for love used in 1 Corinthians 13.
3 LIFE TRUTHS
1. To say that agape love is the highest form of love is not to say other kinds of love are insignificant or trivial.
God created sexual love (eros) to be expressed in marriage between husbands and wives. He also created us to be connected to friends (philos)—to live in community. We are not trivializing these other kinds of love by saying agapē is the highest form of love. We want to affirm romantic love and friendship love as significant and meaningful.
2. All genuine love comes from God because God is love.
A biblical definition of love must start with God. Whether that love is romantic—between husband and wife—or the bond between friends, love that is genuine comes from God because “God is love” (1 John 4:16). If God is love, then we love others best by loving Him most.
3. Followers of Christ are to be known by the way they love.
Jesus commanded His followers: “Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, CSB). The word Jesus used for love is the verb form of agapē. The pattern of our love is “as I have loved you.” In other words, we are to be known by our self-giving, sacrificial, unconditional love for one another. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, describes what such love looks like, practically speaking.
Mike Livingstone works at LifeWay Christian Resources as content editor for Explore the Bible materials.