What Agape Really Means

Bible pages curved into a heart to represent agape and what it really means

“Love” is the third most commonly looked up word at Merriam-Webster.com. Do you want to know what “love” means? You ought to. “Love God” and “love others” are the two most important commands of the Bible, on the authority of Christ himself.

Maybe you’ve already heard that agape (ἀγάπη) is the standard word for love in the Greek New Testament, and maybe you’ve heard that it points to a specific kind of love: a selfless, giving, non-emotional love—as opposed to the friendship love of philia (φιλία).

But I want to question these common assertions, give you a liberating tip for using Greek in your Bible study (whether you know Greek or not), and then apply that tip to one passage in which the meaning of agape figures prominently.

How to think about Greek and Hebrew if you don’t know them

Linguist and theologian Moisés Silva encourages us to read Scripture carefully—but not too carefully, or with the wrong kind of care:

Surely an inspired text must be full of meaning: we can hardly think that so much as a single word in the Bible is insignificant or dispensable. True enough. But we must never forget that God has spoken to us in the language of the people. Much of what passes for biblical interpretation, whether in books or sermons, implies that God has used an artificial, coded, or even esoteric language. . . . We must recall this basic principle: the richness and divine origin of the biblical message are not compromised by the naturalness and simplicity of the form in which God has chosen to communicate to us.

From God, Language and Scripture: Reading the Bible in the Light of General Linguistics. In M. Silva (Ed.), Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation (pp. 200–201).

Τo be very frank, it is hard to apply this Bible-reading tip if you don’t know Greek and Hebrew. (Not that everyone who knows these languages is immune from this temptation!) It’s important for Bible readers who know the original languages, those who don’t, and those who don’t but who have access to them through Logos Bible Software to think properly about the role the original languages ought to play in Bible study.

And that role is not usually related to word meaning, but to sentence structure and the flow of argument. Your goal in using Greek and Hebrew should not be mainly to look up the (supposed) “real meaning” of Bible words.

Listen to a dean of evangelical Old Testament study, Walt Kaiser:

Greek and Hebrew study involves more than a mere ability to parse verbs and look up words in a lexicon or concordance or in one of several analytical tools in ways that can be taught in a matter of two to four hours of instruction. In involves, instead, the patient tracing of the “threads” of meaning through the syntax of the original languages. Translations are unable to expose the “joints” or “seams” of the units of thought to the degree that a working knowledge of the original languages is able to give. It is the tracing of these connecting points in the syntax of a passage that is so vital in constructing sermons that reflect the original authority of the word of God. (citation)

I as a Bible teacher try to live by the wisdom in this little point from the late Greek grammarian and seminary professor Rod Decker:

I often tell my students that if you cannot show a local church audience the meaning of a passage from an English Bible, then you should think twice as to whether you really want to insist on a particular interpretation. (citation)

Do You Love Me?

And now to love, because John 21 provides a perfect example of what Dr. Decker is talking about. I actually remember the day as a college freshman when I was given the (supposed) secret Greek key to unlocking Jesus’ famous conversation with Peter in that passage. Jesus asks three times, “Do you love me?” Peter replies each time: “Yes, I love you.” I was told that, hidden underneath the surface of the weak, imprecise English word “love” were two different Greek words: agapao (ἀγαπάω) and phileo (φιλέω). I was further told that these two Greek words pointed to two vastly different kinds of love, the one selfless and non-emotional and the other merely emotional and friend-ish. Peter, so the interpretation goes, twice couldn’t bring himself to say he loved Jesus selflessly and unconditionally, so Jesus asked him, in effect, “Do you even love me like a friend?”

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This very common interpretation sounds so rich at first glance that I could wish it were accurate. But it runs afoul of the Bible study guidelines I laid out earlier, because it relies heavily on alleged Greek word meanings instead of a contextually sensitive reading of the entire passage in its context. Bible students who interpret the passage the way my teacher did that day can’t point to anything in English translations to back them up. The fact is that the Bible never says anywhere that real love, ideal love, is non-emotional. In Jesus’ conversation with Peter he appears to be varying agapao and phileo for purposes of style, not meaning.

One of the problems with using Greek without knowing it well is that you tend to fail to apply your principles rigorously. Are all synonyms in John 21 used to point up their differences rather than their similarities?

As D.A. Carson points out in one of the most valuable little collections Logos sells, Jesus doesn’t just vary his words for love in his conversation with Peter, he varies his word choice for the noun “sheep”:

  • Feed my lambs,” he says.
  • Then, “Shepherd my sheep.”
  • Then, “Feed my sheep.”

Is it lambs or sheep? If Jesus intends to highlight a significant difference, he does not choose to make that clear. There do not seem to be obvious differences among the three imperative verbs, either: “feed,” “shepherd,” “feed.” The verb “shepherd,” in fact, also means “feed” sometimes, especially in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament).

And John 21 isn’t the only place where Jesus varies his use of agapao and phileo in the Gospel of John. In John 3:35, Jesus says, “The Father loves the son,” and in John 5:20 he says precisely the same thing—only in one verse he uses agapao and in the other phileo, with no discernible difference in meaning. Jesus isn’t invoking two radically different kinds of love in his conversation with Peter.

John Piper adds a few more uses of the word agapao (among many that could be cited) to show that it doesn’t necessarily point to a special kind of love every time it’s used:

One of the most popular linguistic and exegetical fallacies in modern times is that the Greek word for love, agapao, carries in it the implication of a divine love that is unconditional and comes to us in spite of our sin.

That is not true. Context must decide if agapao refers to our proud, cliquish love for our cronies (as in Matthew 5:46), or if it refers to God’s merciful and sacrificial love for sinners (as in John 3:16), or if it refers to our love for leaders, not unconditionally but precisely because of their labor (1 Thessalonians 5:13). (citation)

To be clear, the New Testament does speak of a special kind of love, but we don’t know that by looking up Greek words in the dictionary. We know it by reading the New Testament. People who can read the Bible only in English can still know what love is.

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Constructive Help for Bible Study

Debunking beloved interpretations of Scripture is a favored pastime of young seminarians. But constructive help, not destructive criticism, is my goal here. It is my impression that the church in general—and perhaps the most studious of us in particular—put too much weight on looking up Bible words and not enough weight on reading Bible sentences in their contexts. There is nothing necessarily wrong with looking up words, and Logos can do it so incredibly well! I do it all the time—and if you’re curious as to what I think “love” really means, I actually believe the standard Greek dictionary (BDAG) defines it pretty well if you put senses one and two together: “to have a warm regard for and interest in another; to have high esteem for or satisfaction with something, cherish, have affection for, love, take pleasure in.” (citation)

But you’ll learn far more about “love” by reading the resurrection accounts in the Gospels, or by reading the story of the Good Samaritan—Scripture passages which don’t even use the word—than you will by looking up agape in a dictionary. By all means do both, but know in advance which one weighs more than the other.

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To dig into John 21 and the stylistic variation therein, check out D.A. Carson’s top-rated commentary on the book.

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Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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Written by Mark Ward