The general nature of love

Love is both a quality of life that individuals can have and enjoy, and it is a special activity that they can express to others. This means that love is both a noun and a verb, something to have and also something to do. References to love in both senses of the word are very common in many daily conversations and publications. Love is regularly used in advertising copy to attract viewers and to get individuals to buy various products, so a person’s understanding of love is very strongly conditioned by how it is displayed and described and received and delivered in various cultural settings. These cultural definitions and examples of love can create a lot of personal confusion and stress within individuals as they seek to learn how to receive love and to share love with others. And the challenges of this process can have a lot of severe consequences for individuals throughout their lives regardless of their gender, religious identity, living situation, or education.

Definitions for “love” in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament documents of the Bible the Hebrew words ’ahab or ’aheb (OT:157 Strong’s Greek/Hebrew Definitions) as verbs mean “to love; like”.1 “Basically this verb is equivalent to the English ‘to love’ in the sense of having a strong emotional attachment to and desire either to possess or to be in the presence of the object. First, the word refers to the love a man has for a woman and a woman for a man. Such love is rooted in sexual desire, although as a rule it is desire within the bounds of lawful relationships.” (As in Isaac’s initial relationship with Rebekah in Genesis 24:67)2

But “this word (’ahab or ’aheb) may refer to an erotic but legal love outside of marriage. Such an emotion may be a desire to marry and care for the object of that love.”3 Such was the case with Shechem, a Hivite, who was attracted to Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, an Israelite. But because “he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her(Genesis 34:2) before they were married, her brothers did not respect the arrangement that Jacob had made with Hamor, the father of Shechem, for the marriage of Dinah to Shechem. Because they felt that Shechem had raped Dinah, they killed Shechem and Hamor and all of the males in their city and “captured and plundered” all of the survivors and their possessions. (See Genesis 34:2-29)

This word is “also used of the love between parents and their children”,4 as in the case of Abraham’s relationship with his son Isaac. (See Genesis 22:2) It may even refer to the feeling that a slave has for his master whom he doesn’t want to leave.5 (See Exodus 21:5) And this word “may refer to the family love experienced by a daughter-in-law toward her mother-in-law”, as Ruth felt toward Naomi.6 (See Ruth 4:15) “A special use of this word relates to an especially close attachment of friends”7, as between Jonathan and David. (See 1 Samuel 18:1) And it is the word that the Lord used in his command to Moses that each of the Israelites should “love” their neighbor as they do themselves. (See Leviticus 19:18) So this word (’ahab or ’aheb) can denote an emotional attachment between individuals that is not sexual in nature.

“The strong emotional attachment and desire suggested by ’ahab or ’aheb may also be fixed on objects, circumstances, actions, and relationships.”8

Another word for “love” in the Old Testament is ’ahabah, which is generally the noun form of the verb ’ahab (OT:160 Strong’s Greek/Hebrew Definitions). It can refer to several forms of “emotional attachment”.9 In Genesis 29:20 this word refers to the general “love” that can be expressed between a man and a woman, as Jacob felt for Rachel, or Jonathan felt toward his friend David as cited in 1 Samuel 18:3, or Solomon’s feeling toward the “gods” of the many “foreign” women in his harem as cited in 1 Kings 11:2. In Deuteronomy 7:8 and Hosea 3:1 it is translated as a verb in reference to God’s “love”. In Psalm 109:4-5 David uses this word to refer to the general objective of his emotions in the course of his rule as the king of Israel. The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, who is assumed to be Solomon the son of David, uses the word in Ecc. 9:1 & 6 to refer in general to an object of affection in a person’s life. Solomon uses this word in reference to the strong emotion of “love” in the Song of Solomon in chapter 5 verse 8 and chapter 8 verses 6 and 7.

Definitions for “love” in the New Testament

In the documents of the New Testament the Greek words agapao (verb form) or agape (noun form) (NT:25 Strong’s Hebrew/Greek Definitions) are translated as the word “love”. These words, according to Vine, have some “distinctive meaning” in respect to Christianity.10 They “are used in the NT (a) to describe the attitude of God toward His son, John 17:26; the human race, generally, John 3:16; Rom 5:8, and to such as believe on the Lord Jesus Christ particularly John 14:21; (b) to convey His will to His children concerning their attitude one toward another, John 13:34, and toward all men, 1 Thess 3:12; 1 Cor 16:14; 2 Peter 1:7; (c) to express the essential nature of God, 1 John 4:8.”11

As Vine indicates in his Dictionary, “love can be known only from the actions it prompts.”12 The quality of God’s love is demonstrated by the gift of His Son, as described in 1 John 4:9-10. Love’s perfect expression is seen in various acts of Jesus, as described in 2 Corinthians 5:14, Ephesians 2:4, 3:19, and 5:2. And “love” is cited as one of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22.

According to Vine, “Christian love has God for its primary object, and expresses itself first of all in implicit obedience to His commandments.”13 Jesus made this clear in his final teachings to his disciples, as reported in John 14:15, 21, and 23, before he was arrested and crucified.

The Greek noun agape, which is translated as “love” refers to the special love of God, as cited in 1 John 2:5, 5:3, and which is also cited in 2 John 6. The apostle John, who wrote the letters of 1st John, 2nd John, and 3rd John used the verb agapao in his reference to Jesus’ command “to love one another(John 15:12) in his reference to this command in 2 John 5.

According to Vine, “Christian love”, which is the meaning of the verb agapao, “whether exercised toward the brethren, or toward men generally, is not an impulse from the feelings, it does not always run with the natural inclinations, nor does it spend itself only upon those for whom some affinity is discovered. Love seeks the welfare of all Rom 15:2, and works no ill to any, 13:8,9,10; love seeks opportunity to do good to ‘all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of faith,’ Gal 6:10. See further 1 Cor 13 and Col 3:12- 14.”14

Vine further states, “In respect of agapao as used of God, it expresses the deep and constant ‘love’ and interest of a perfect Being towards entirely unworthy objects, producing and fostering a reverential ‘love’ in them towards the Giver, and a practical ‘love’ towards those who are partakers of the same, and a desire to help others to seek the Giver.”15

But there is another Greek word that is translated as “love” in the New Testament. It is the word phileo (Strong’s NT:5368), which accord to Vine, “is to be distinguished from agapao in this, that phileo more nearly represents ‘tender affection.’”16 The word agapao is used to indicate that the Father “loves” the Son, as cited in John 3:35, but it is the word phileo that is used to indicate that the Father “loves” the Son in John 5:20. And it is the word agapao that is used to indicate the actions of “love” from the Father and the Son for an obedient disciple in John 14:21, but it is the word phileo that is used in John 16:27 to indicate the Father’s response of “love” to these disciples of Jesus who are listening to his words of instruction because they “loved” him. Jesus’ “love” for a certain disciple is mentioned in John 13:23 with the word agapao, but in John 20:2 this reference to “the one whom Jesus loved” the word phileo is used to refer to this disciple.

The fact that there is a distinct difference between the meanings of these two Greek words, agapao and phileo, is clearly evident in the brief exchange that Jesus had with Peter on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias (or the Sea of Galilee) after his resurrection. (see John 21:15-17) In Jesus’ first two questions to Peter (vss 15-16) regarding Peter’s “love” for him, Jesus used the word agapao for this expression of affection. But in his response to these questions regarding his “love” for Jesus, Peter used the word phileo. So in his third question to Peter regarding Peter’s “love”, Jesus used the word phileo, and Peter responded using the same word. According to Vine, “the context itself indicates that agapao in the first two questions suggests the ‘love’ that values and esteems (cf. Rev 12:11). It is an unselfish ‘love,’ ready to serve. The use of phileo in Peter’s answers and the Lord’s third question, conveys the thought of cherishing the Object above all else, of manifesting an affection characterized by constancy, from the motive of the highest veneration.”17

Vine further explains the different meanings for these two Greek verbs that are translated with the word “love” in this comment: “to ‘love’ (phileo) life, from an undue desire to preserve it, forgetful of the real object of living, meets with the Lord’s reproof, John 12:25. On the contrary, to ‘love’ life (agapao) as used in 1 Peter 3:10, is to consult the true interests of living. Here the word phileo would be quite inappropriate.”18

Some special qualities of love

Paul, an ancient Christian apostle who wrote thirteen of the documents in the New Testament, cited these qualities in his classic statement on the “gift” of “love(Greek noun agapen) in his first letter to his Christian friends in Corinth. see 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. He said “love

These qualities of love in one’s relationships with others are timeless. They are as important for individuals today as they were for the ancient people of Corinth, a port city with several temples to pagan gods and a reputation for “wanton sexuality”. 19 So these ancient Romans, and perhaps some of Paul’s Christian friends, had some important lessons to learn about love in their personal relationships. An expression of love without some of these qualities is probably not a very good gift. And the inclusion of these qualities in God’s gift of love makes this divine gift superior to those of “faith” and “hope”. (see 1 Corinthians 13:13)

A summary perspective on love as described in the Bible

Basically this word “love” that appears in the translations of the Hebrew and Greek documents of the Bible refers in its verbal and noun forms to a particular emotional quality that is expressed or is present in regard to the relationships that individuals have with other individuals, objects, circumstances, or actions in their lives.

In the Old Testament this word “love” is translated from the Hebrew words ’ahab, ’aheb, and ’ahabah. According to Vine, the verb form of these words denotes “a strong emotional attachment to and desire either to possess or to be in the presence of the object” or a person.20 In regard to a relationship with another person, the emotion may be a sexual desire for a legitimate marriage to a person of the opposite sex, or it may refer to the emotion of “love” that operates in relationships between various relatives in families, or it may refer to a special emotional bond that works between friends or even with one’s master, or that should be implemented in one’s relationships with “neighbors”, or to God in his relationships with individuals and the Israelites. But the word “love” is also used to refer to the emotional connection that Solomon had with many “foreign women”, many of whom were among his “700 wives(1 Kings 11:1,3) So I conclude that there is nothing particularly special about this emotion as it is referenced in the documents of the Old Testament.

But in the documents of the New Testament this word “love” that is translated from the Greek words agapao and agape seems to denote a Christian quality of emotion that is distinctively unselfish and subservient, particularly in regard to one’s relationship with God, but also in regard to relationships with other individuals as well as other Christians. And the Greek word phileo, which is also translated into the word “love”, means “tender affection”, according to Vine.21 So I assume that the level of emotion that is being expressed by this word is somewhat different or less than that of “a strong emotional attachment” that is being expressed by the Hebrew words ’ahab or ’aheb, and ’ahabah that are translated as “love” in the Old Testament.

When Jesus summarized all of “the Law” in the Old Testament in response to a question from a Pharisee, he used the Greek word agapao for the emotional expression of “love” in his answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”. (Matthew 22:37-38) I conclude that Jesus is stating that a Christian must “love” God completely and passionately with his or her total being, and that the “love” of a Christian for his or her “neighbor” or relative or friend or enemy or fellow Christian must be selfless and sincere. And Paul’s list of the “special qualities” of “love”, as cited in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 above add further qualities to the nature of Christian “love” as it is to be understood and expressed by Christians in their lives. Such “love” as defined by Jesus and Paul is certainly a godly virtue that is GOOD forever.

1. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words Copyright © 1985, (Thomas Nelson Publishers).
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Notes on Thessalonians by Hogg and Vine, p. 105 and quoted in Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words.
15. Vine, op.cit..
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid.
19. Notes on “Introduction to 1 Corinthians”, The ESV Study Bible English Standard Version (ESV) Copyright © 2008 (Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois), p. 2189.
20. Vine, op.cit..
21. Ibid.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.