How to Do a Bible Word Study on “Love”

word study agape love

When Jesus is asked to sum up the law, he responds with two commands involving love:

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In both commands, the English translation “love” translates the Greek verb agapao. Partly because agape is one of those Greek words that many theologically literate Christians know (along with logos, christos, doulos, and a few others), Bible readers often think that in agape lies the secret key to understanding the love commands.

Assuming that Greek words contain a great depth of meaning hidden by English is a common Bible study mistake. And to show you one reason why: enter Logos Bible Software.

A question about love

A good word study can help us get a more accurate view of the love commands, and it can do that by clearing away a view that I believe obscures them. That view is one which cuts a sharp distinction between agape and its near-synonym, philia, and then draws theological meaning from that distinction.

I won’t discuss this view of agape and philia in great detail. I’d like to take aim, instead, at just one argument commonly used to support it. Here it is in syllogistic form:

  1. You can’t command emotion.
  2. Agape is commanded in the New Testament while its synonym, philia, is not.
  3. So agape must be volitional, philia emotional.

Along with Jonathan Edwards, Augustine of Hippo, the Apostle Paul (Rom. 12:15), and Jesus Christ himself (Matt. 5:12), I question the first premise. God can and does command emotions (or, to use Edwards’ preferred terminology, “affections”) such as rejoicing, weeping, hoping, and loving.

But evaluating the second premise will require some Bible study. And without a tool such as Logos, you’re stuck. You just have to trust other people’s conclusions. But with Logos, you can see for yourself that God does command both agape and philia.

Bible Word Study

The easiest way to start, if you don’t know Greek, is to use the Bible Word Study tool. Just click “Guides,” then “Bible Word Study,” then type “love” in the reference box. You’ll see all the Greek words translated “love” in the New Testament, arranged in a pie chart:

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The sizes of the different segments of the chart represent the frequency with which those Greek words appear in the New Testament and are translated with “love.” The big blue bars are the verb and noun forms of agape. The biggest red one is the verb form of philia, namely phileo. Click on that segment, and you’ll see the word transliterated into English letters for you.

You’ll also see below the chart all the places where phileo appears in the New Testament. (Almost all: Logos has already culled through the list and removed the three instances in which the verb means “kiss,” not “love.”) And in this list you’ll see forms of the philia root that cast doubt on premise 2 above.

Because, in fact, we are given commands to love with (a form of) philia: “Love one another (philadelphia) with brotherly affection (philostorgoi)” (Rom. 12:10).

Create a passage list to record your observations

I decided to start up a passage list (Documents > Passage List) to record my observations: “Places where Philia Is Commanded.” I started adding references to the list as I came across them.

And as I dug in, I perceived another flaw in the thinking behind that second premise. Just because something isn’t “commanded”—that is, placed in the imperative mood—doesn’t mean it isn’t obligatory or normative. I noticed, for example, some of the final words of 1 Corinthians: “If anyone has no love (phileo) for the Lord, let him be accursed.” “Paul doesn’t say “love the Lord,” exactly, but he does say that if I don’t love the Lord I’m accursed. I’d call that a more-than-implicit obligation.

And when Jesus says in Matthew 10:37, “Whoever loves (phileo) father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” there’s a duty in there: I’m supposed to love Jesus. I dropped the verse into my list.

And when Jesus says “the Father loves (phileo) the Son,” there’s a degree to which God’s own example is a norm for fallen, finite me. I’m supposed to be holy as he is holy. So I added a little phrase to my Passage List title: “Places where Philia Is ‘Commanded’ (or at least Exemplary).”

Take a look at some of the other verses I put in my passage list:

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The love commands

The precise verb form phileo is never found in the imperative mood in the NT, this is true. But the fact is that both agape and philia are obligations in the NT. They are very close synonyms. And they are both “affective” words.

It is no use “domesticating” the love commands, lowering the high bar they set, by saying, “It doesn’t matter how you feel; only that you selflessly do what is best for someone else” (cf. 1 Cor. 13:3). God commands not just our actions but our affections.

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mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

Comments

  1. When a comment is left one here, will someone actually answer the question posed?

    • Usually. =)

      • Donald shannon says:

        Hi Mark,
        I’ve often wondered about the “Strength” of the imperative mood.

        By way of example if I tell my child “Don’t put your hand on the hot stove or you will get burned.” That appears to me to fit your category of implicit imperative. But what does it really mean?

        Am I commanding my son not to touch the stove or is it simply a strong, wise, recommendation?

        Further God commanded light and there was light; so if God commanded love there would be love.

        Since there is no love, then it cannot be a command from God.

        • Perceptive comment about the stove warning: grammatical imperatives can have different illocutionary forces, different purposes. But let me ask: if your child touches the stove anyway, did you still give a command?

          Theologians have classically posited two wills in God: his decretive and his preceptive, or his will of decree and his will of command. He permits humans to disobey the latter, but not the former. There’s a fairly famous essay on this here.

          So I wouldn’t say that since there is no love, then it cannot be a command from God. As a matter of fact, there is love. Everywhere. We all love all kinds of things. And some of us, by God’s grace, love God.

          • Donald shannon says:

            But is it agape love? I suspect that human love is more selfish in nature and thus not the kind of love commanded by God.

            So if I understand; decretive (decree) is like the king who issued an order that could not be changed. Let there be light (decretive) don’t eat of the tree (illocutionary or strong wise recommendation) in our life equivalent to “don’t spit into the wind”

            I’ll read the essay.

          • Donald, you just gotta read D.A. Carson’s fantastic little book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. See especially chapter 2.

  2. In your lesson on the word study, you say that Rom 12:10 shows up on the list of passages. However, when I followed your directions step by step I see all of the passages of scripture that you have on your list except for Rom. 12:10. Do you know why?

    Thanks

    • If you do an English Bible Word Study on “love,” you should see philostorgoi, “loving dearly, being devoted.” Do you not see that? Can you send me a screenshot of what you’re seeing? (logospro@faithlife.com)

      Bible Word Study

  3. Tim Watkins says:

    Hi Mark
    Love your stuff! I stumbled across agape in the LXX where it was definitely used in a context of the worst kind of love. I think it was 1st kings 11 where Solomon loved the foreign wives after turning his heart away from the one true God to worship the detestable gods of Molech. I became suspicious that agape was not the love that came from God alone.When I did a logos search of the word my suspicions were rewarded with a total in the thirties of uses of agape in negative sense in both testaments. I made a document of it if you would like to see it..Not good enough to transfer it to you but will be glad to oblige. I realize it is off a little
    from your subject but to me proves that context is the rule of how words are to be correctly understood.Thanks for all you do.

    • Excellent! (And thanks for the kind words.) I’ve been over every usage of αγαπη and αγαπαω and αγαπητος and in the LXX and GNT for my dissertation. =) There’s a lot to be learned there in plain sight by anyone with Logos Bible Software.

  4. Mark,
    As I am trying to emulate this in some sermon preparation I am doing right now, as I type this, I am wondering…is it possible to add the verses to the passage list straight from the Bible Word Study page? i.e. Can I do this without having to manually type in the reference for each verse I want on the passage guide?

    • I believe I saved that list directly from a search and then winnowed it. I apologize for leaving out a step; blame word-count restrictions I had for this particular piece!

      You can add references one by one to a passage list from Bible Word Study, however. Just right click on a reference, choose the verse on the right side of the context menu, and send it to the list you have open.

      • Thank you! I see that now. I completely missed that, as it was staring right at me.

        • Morris Proctor says:

          Hi Jon,

          If you have a lot of verses to add to the Passage List you can also right click on the section title bar, Greek Words, and select Save as Passage List. All the verses underneath the ring will automatically be added to a new list. You can then delete the ones you want from the list.

          If no verses are underneath the ring, all the verses represented with the ring will be added to the list.

  5. Hi Mark,

    I hope you and your family are well. Excellent posts! I also hope you’re pleased with yourself.

    Once again you have succeeded in forcing me to do some extensive digging, in the same manner as your post “Greek is not math” did. Once again, my GUNAIKA will not be pleased! This is not as simple an issue as it seems and it drives me nuts, but of course it is these things that make the digging both rewarding and fun. (Did I mention time consuming?)

    Anyways, the hAGAPH vs. PILEW / PILOS issue has always been an interesting subject for me. For whatever reason, in conversations with friends, etc., “the city of brotherly love” would come up and as if unable to prevent an instinctive reply, I would immediately blurt out:

    Philadelphia is not the city of brotherly love, it’s the city of brotherly “friends” :- )

    In the modern Greek vernacular, there is no confusion. hAGAPE is the word for love φίλο, φίλη, φίλοι are the words for friend (m/f) and friends. In the koine Greek, there are gray areas.

    In the passage you reference from Romans 10, the ESV renders the Greek FILOSTORGOS as “Love” whereas BDAG is something like devoted or devotion to the ADELPHIA where ADELPHIA takes a literal meaning of affection (also how the ESV renders it) but it also may be used as brotherly love.

    In the Corinthian’s (be cursed) passage the word used is FILEW (I think) φιλέω and if you run that through BDAG the meaning, again, I don’t believe deviates from the word “like,” or a close friendship, a special friendship, or an interest in someone or something. (Something like that, I’m on my iPhone).

    I have never bought into that faulty syllogism you presented, however, I also have never associated hAGAPH love with FILO in one specific way.

    I associate hAGAPH love with God’s unselfish, charitable love incapable to be displayed by depraved humans, be they God’s elect children, or the lost.

    Anyway, again, I’m on an iPhone so I could be wrong about 1 or more of the citations I’ve used above and more research is needed, but I’d be very curious to try and engineer a search which would include what I call the impossible commands. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself. The sum of the parts cannot be greater than the whole, unless you are God where all things are possible.

    Also along the lines of Jesus’ comment “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to (change their mind about their belief in me) or just “repent.”

    There is no such thing as a human that is righteous unless they are imputed that standing through the instrumentality of Christ’s finished work on the cross.

    Anyway, I need to get to my PC and do some looking again, in English FILO is definitely used with commands of love and I’m not saying the translations are wrong, like the examples I provided for Romans and Cor., but they all do have the alternate meanings, whereas hAGAPH has no alternate.

    Perhaps you can quickly work this up for me Mark, lest my wife not cook dinner for me for burying myself in Logos all weekend. :-)

    Thanks for the post!

    • I’m pleased whenever thoughtful readers get in trouble with their spouses for probing too long into an issue I’ve raised. =)

      I wrote a dissertation on love, or at least that was the center of it, so I’ve been there. Have you read Carson’s Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God? It’s stellar. Carson agrees with me that if the love of God is to be described biblically, the way to do it is to look at biblical statements and stories more so than the supposed meaning of Greek lexical stock. The simple fact is, as your search will soon show you, that depraved humans DO “agape” in multiple places in the NT. They love (agapao) darkness rather than light. They love (agapao) this present world. They love (agapao) their friends (Matt 5). In my dissertation work I concluded that there is no significant difference between agapao and phileo in the NT, and if there is in a passage John 21 we’ve lost that significance.

  6. Jamie Maclean says:

    On a few occasions I have tried to use the feature outlined above to explore words. However, I can only get the Hebrew words section. While that is useful it is frustrating that the Greek words section does not display anything. What am I doing wrong?

  7. David Yearwood says:

    Love is not inherent in us [since the Fall]. When Eiohim created us we had the built-in emotion called LOVE for the Creator. When Adam was powered up [kissed man] by the Creator, “breathed into man the breath of life”. How did He “breathe” into man? Did He stand afar off and “breathe”? No He knelt and “breathed” or I prefer “kissed” man into life. Now when Adam was first “powered up” whose FEATURES did he open his eyes to see close-up and personal? The Creator! Therefore the built-in emotion called LOVE was for the Creator! Now when Satan forced his way into the mix, Adam+Eve TRANSFERRED THE EMOTION CALLED LOVE to Satan. Therefore love is not inherent in us. Why you ask? Satan doesn’t have love in him. It is pure hate. He hates Jesus with a passion, anytime a person declares their love for Him, you become an object of satan’s wrath. To have love we HAVE to ask the Holy Spirit daily, hourly, every second to put the love of Elohim in us, or ele we will behave as our “father the devil”. John 8:44.

    • I see what you’re saying—but wait: if love is not inherent in us after the fall, how could Jesus say that the Pharisees “love” the chief seats at the feast and greetings in the marketplaces? How could John say that men “love” darkness rather than light?

      • Donald shannon says:

        Wouldn’t possibly that English word love be a Greek word that conjures the idea of covet, or carnal desire rather then the love implied. By the English word?

        • Donald, I admit I’m not really following your question… Second try?

        • Donald shannon says:

          You mentioned the only way to properly analyzed is in biblical terms not necessarily lexical. But you also cannot ignore the context or literary structure either.

          So what I’m suggesting is even though the word agape is used, in context could it really mean carnal desire rather than unconditional agape love?

          My understanding of agape is a selfless desire to have an unconditional love towards others (not things). So if that definition is presumed, then in context, agape could simply be sarcasm. I’m presuming that the Iove for chief seats, darkness is not a true godly agape, but rather an unrighteousness selfish carnal desire?

          Btw: off topic, I followed link to car sons book. I was surprised it is offered by logos because when I went to logos store and searched using title and author I got now hits. Did I not search store correctly?

          • Yes, agape in context could mean sinful desire—and for that reason I’m saying it’s not safe to presume that agape means unconditional, selfless choice to do what is best for others. If that’s the sort of love Christians are supposed to have, then it must be established on grounds other than the definition of agape. Carson will do a better job explaining than I. =)

            As for your search, boy, I’m not sure what to say without more information… If you notice this happen again, take note of what you typed, if you would, and let me know.

  8. Charlotte Lehman says:

    Hi Mark, thanks for your instructive use of Logos… I’ve been using it for a while, but only scratching the surface of its power — looking forward to advancing in that while on sabbatical.

    I agree with your conclusion that there is no draining the love commands of their connection to our hearts as well as our heads and outwardly visible choices –love is, in its fullness, emotional as well as volitional. Considering then, as Dallas Willard used to say, that “Jesus is smart,” I have found myself asking “Why would Jesus frame a commandment that way?” Sort of an “I command you to voluntarily choose to love me” kind of paradox…

    Without going in to all the details of my reasoning, I propose that God is purposely trying to question the question and turn our attention to the importance of relationship. Many of us who have been very concerned about making sure we are obeying all God’s rules correctly can often lose sight of that key difference. No time for more now, but in case it is of interest to you and/or others following this thread.

    • I like that: “Jesus is smart.” =) A brilliant understatement.

      The best thing I’ve read on love is D.A. Carson’s Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Jonathan Leeman’s book, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love also has some great stuff. Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections and Charity and Its Fruits, as well as John Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God were also huge for me.

      • Dean Poulos says:

        Mark,you make an excellent point:

        “that if the love of God is to be described biblically, the way to do it is to look at biblical statements and stories more so than the supposed meaning of Greek lexical stock.”

        I do not, in any way disagree with Carson’s statement or your position on describing the [love of God] in accordance with His word. Perhaps we are closer on this matter than we may have thought.

        I see God’s love as Unconditional, where Unconditional is an attribute of God’s Perfect Love. Given that God is also Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent and Omnibenevolent, this would necessarily lead to His Unconditional Perfect Love which is a direct and necessary result of His unchangeable attribute of Omnibenevolence.

        I know you are not claiming that any human can love Unconditionally, to the point of Omnibenevolence, therefore hAGAPH must be a higher love. This is not to say fallen humans are not commanded to, or do not express hAGAPH, however, they can never hope to attain, experience, or show [it], in its purest form which is restricted to one of God’s attributes. Yes, Unconditional love is being presented here the way I am defining it, thus, if you feel there is a better way, I’d love the opportunity to learn more, or if you feel that the word is misplaced, I suppose it can be eliminated and simply define God’s higher love as Omnibenevolence.

        To head back to Greek for a moment, the discussion between Peter and the Risen Christ in Jn 21.15–17 I believe exposes very clearly the alternation among ἀγαπάω (which Jesus employs for the first two instances of: “Do you love me?”) Then, φιλέω is used by Jesus the third time yet Peter uses it all three times. That naturally leads to an expectancy that a semantic distinction is INTENDED in the Greek to draw out the meaning.

        I will need to have a look at Carson’s book, however I was able to locate a citation on this subject in a resource I do own: “The Gospel according to St. John,” B. F. Westcott where he argues that by using the second verb Peter “lays claim only to the feeling of natural love.of which he could be sure. He does not venture to say that he has attained to that higher love (ἀγαπᾷν) which was to be the spring of the Christian life. 17. (lovest thou (φιλεῖς, Vulg. amas) me].”

        When Jesus puts the question to Peter the third time, only then does He adopt the word Peter had used all three times. Quoting again:

        “Just as the idea of comparison was given up before, so now the idea of the loftiest love is given up. It is as if the Lord would test the truth of the feeling which St Peter claimed. The three questions could not but recall the three denials; and the form of this last question could not but vividly bring back the thought of the failure of personal devotion at the moment of trial. So Peter was grieved not only that the question was put again, but that the third time the phrase was changed; that the question was not only put once again, but at the same time put so as to raise a doubt whether he, [Peter could in fact have a right to claim even the modified love which he had professed].. His “grief” lay in the deep sense that such a doubt might well be suggested by the past, even if it were at the time unfounded. Men might reasonably distrust his profession of sincerity after his fall, but he appealed to the Lord (Thou (σύ) knowest …). ”

        I also find it interesting that the earlier NIV renders ἀγαπάω as “truly love” (the 1984 edition). Although “truly” is removed in the 2011 revision. ;-)

        If we again dispense with any Greek Mark, and I also shorten the distance and posit that [pure] hAGAPH love is a direct result of God’s Omnibenevolent nature, I believe the following may be reasoned from such a premise:
        :
        1. No human being may attain this level of love and I think John also makes this point in 1. Jn 3.1.
        “See what [kind] of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”

        2. None of God’s children can make the claim “they have not sinned at all, or they would make Him a liar,” yet, in the very same epistle John writes: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”

        Concluding that it is not that God’s word does not speak of His children showing hAGAPH love to each other and to others, but that trying to show this kind higher love, (and us pushing ourselves, irrespective of our fallen nature, to reach for it) is another part of becoming more like Christ, whilst still living in these corrupt bodies, in an alien world, awaiting the Blessed Hope.

        Perhaps (just a thought) the reason we see so many verses where both words are used, and ever contrasted, maybe it is a gentle, or not so gentle reminder not to boast. Yet, at the same time there are no words which describe a middle ground where any of may be at a different point in our lives as we grow in Christ, and deepen our relationship with Him, thus it may be appropriate the other word is used that has that lesser meaning. It could be a help from God’s word with the Holy Spirit illumining us to continue to run the race.

        EN XRISTWi,

        Dean

  9. Even so, the majority of cases in the NT do form the imperative from αγαπἐω. The 1 Thess. 4:9 passage is a good example. It describes the affection Christians ought to have for one another, but still uses αγαπἐω (in the infinitive) as a description for what the christians have been taught to do. Many students may want to over emphasize a distinction between the words, but the statistical evidence does suggest at least a slight difference. The fact that the statistical significance is found in multiple authors is also important to note. It seems to be the case that in the wider Greek world of the 1st century the words are virtually synonymous, but it may be the case that the words began to pick up more nuanced distinction in the church community. This is pure speculation, but it may support the case for the independence of John’s gospel because his word usage for ‘love’ is more fluid (and thus more similar to the word use in the general greek-speaking world). A separate explanation would be to look at the examples from John’s gospel and notice the word is often used to describe the affection of Jesus for the Father and our affections for Christ. The fact that in two key passages one word is preferred over another should at least be noted (John 3:16 & John 15:12). In fact, there are so few commands in John’s gospel in general that John 15:12 is rather significant. By itself not very persuasive, but combined with the same word being preferred by Matthew and Paul makes a more compelling case. Does that mean Christians are never commanded with φιλἐω? Of course not (as you rightly show), but there are far fewer examples.

    • Boy… I’m afraid I could talk about this for too long. I’ll just give one recommendation: Colin Hemer (who died in D.A. Carson’s arms, by the way—interesting factoid) wrote an article in the Tyndale Bulletin years ago. (Here’s a link to the journal to buy it. Here’s a direct Logos link to the article if you already have the Tyndale Bulletin.) The title is “Reflections on the Nature of New Testament Greek Vocabulary.” Here’s a key quote:

      Christians took current vocabulary in senses essentially current, and those words became enriched in their associations by the new contexts in which they were used. It is exceedingly difficult to say where the semantic content of [a] word first took on a specially Christian flavour apart from context…. I am not sure that the first Christians can be shown to have done much more than use some of the semantic resources of the [πίστις word] group with an unusual frequency and characteristic focus dictated by the subject-matter of their gospel.

  10. Dean Poulos says:

    Mark,

    Carson’s writing style continues to amaze me. In my last comment I mentioned something like: “I really need to have a look at Carson’s book,” and did so. Monday evening, I grabbed his commentary “The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God” and still as of last night I’ve only made it to Chapter 3.

    Carson continues to write like an INTJ IMHO, however never fails to make it clear to the reader when they must conduct added research.

    IMHO, I can see how “most authors,” would have needed 300-350 pages to do what Carson has with only 84 pages.

    Once again Mark, you have persuaded me to to seek out added resources on a topic. So, thank you!

    I love how Chapter 3 begins:

    “Let me sum up. In the first chapter I outlined some factors that make the doctrine of the love of God a difficult thing to talk about. Some of these are cultural; others are bound up with the challenge of trying to integrate the many varied and complementary things the Bible says about the love of God. Further, what does such love look like in a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, sovereign, and transcendent (i.e., above space and time)? Then I briefly outlined five different ways the Bible speaks of the love of God—his intra-Trinitarian love, his providential love, his yearning and salvific love that pleads with sinners, his elective love, and his conditional love—and indicated what could go wrong if any one of them is absolutized.”

    Thank again,

    Dean

    Carson, D. A., The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000), pp. 44–45