How does the Bible describe love?


During one of His most famous discourses, Jesus Christ states with utmost clarity that love is the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-40). Since we have the instruction and command to love, it is vitally important that we know what love is. How do you know if you have the love that God expects you to have? What qualities does an expression of love have? In what ways is love expressed? These questions are basic, but fundamental to the life of a Christian.

The first thing to consider is that there are different types of love. The Greek language makes this distinction with different words. Since the New Testament was originally written in Greek, the types of love that we may express can be distinguished easily, and guide our understanding about what type of love God expects of us. Before getting into the qualities of what an expression of love is, we need to know what different types of love the Bible mentions, and in what context. The Greek language contains 3 main words that can be translated into the English word “love.” These words each express a distinct nuance of love including sexual love between husband and wife (eros), friendship (philia), and moral or spiritual love (agape). Some also consider the Greek word “storge” to express a kind of love, such as that affectionate and nurturing love that a parent has for his or her child. “Storge” does not appear in the Bible, and is less commonly considered when distinguishing between types of love in the Greek language. Therefore, it will not be necessary to discuss it in depth as we reveal the essence of love. In order to express the true love that God requires of a Christian, one must learn how to distinguish between these types of love. Only by discerning the ways that love may be expressed can a Christian understand how to properly express love towards one another, and towards God.

The glamorous type of love is the romantic kind. The Greek word “eros” describes a type of love that involves passion, physical, and sensual desire shared between two people. The state of “being in love” expresses the notion of “eros.” The most obvious example of romance is the love shared between a husband and wife. As common as it is, the “eros” love of romance does not appear in the New Testament. However, the Bible contains a beautiful and poetic example of romantic love shared between a man and woman in the Song of Solomon. Throughout the book, the story expresses passion, physical attraction, tenderness, and sensual elation between the Shulamite and her Beloved. The language is descriptive enough to nearly make the reader blush as the deep and personal emotions are shared between two romantic lovers. The romantic love between a man and woman is unquestionably important since God created them to be together. Still, the description and instruction for this kind of love in the Bible is limited. 

The Greek word “philia” is another word that expresses a concept of love in the Bible. The New King James Version frequently translates this word as “friendship”, but it is translated as “love” in several places as well.  From Herbert W. Armstrong’s book entitled The Missing Dimension in Sex, the definition of “philia” or the related “philadelphia” follows. “This is the love of friendship—brotherly love—love of parent, or child.” The brotherly love of “philia” is the kind of love that exists between those who have mutual respect and care for one another.

Brotherly love is a kind of love that a Christian must build, both for other Christians (Titus 3:15), and for Jesus Christ (Matthew 10:37, John 16:27, 1 Corinthians 16:22). The model for brotherly love is set by God the Father Himself, in that He has brotherly love for Jesus Christ (John 5:20) and His followers (John 16:27). Jesus Christ too has brotherly love for Christians (Matthew 10:37). Something that is interesting to note is that brotherly love sometimes may take a form which may not be very pleasant, but still fits the requirement to unselfishly seek the well-being of a friend. The Bible reminds us of the following. “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten….” (Revelation 3:19). The word for “love” here is the brotherly love of “philia”, which God has for His followers. The expression of God’s love taken at face value may seem to not be love at all, but the absolute opposite is true. Brotherly love sometimes requires the straight talk to help another be their best. The gift of brotherly love is clearly something that must be shared between Christians, Jesus Christ, and God the Father.

The third and most important word that describes a type of love in the Greek language is “agape.” Where the other words for love appear in relatively few places and are not often translated as “love” in the English language, “agape” dominates the New Testament. Most of the occurrences of the word “love” in English versions of the New Testament turn out to be translated from the Greek word “agape.” The meaning of “agape” is expressed as benevolence, and charity. However, agape love is much more than mere charity. This is the love of God. “Agape” describes the love that God has for us, the love that we must have for God, and the love that Christians must have for one another. Truly, this is an important type of love to learn and demonstrate.

The characteristics of godly love go far beyond physical attraction and camaraderie of friendship. Quoting again from The Missing Dimension in Sex, Mr. Armstrong illuminates the definition of “agape” love, “This is the love GOD expresses toward humanity. It is the divine, spiritual love, supplied by God’s Holy Spirit. The natural and unconverted man does not have this love! But God longs to fill him with it—if he will surrender and believe!”

An active expression of that concern may take many forms, but when the fulfillment of the godly purpose is the sole intent, that action is love in the form of “agape”. The greatest example we have of this kind of love is God’s love for the world, which is so great that He sacrificed His only Son (John 3:16). If merely the love of affection, friendship, or romance was at the root of God’s love for the world and His Son, a sacrifice of death would not make sense. However, offering sacrifice for the benefit of another is a high form of benevolence. This act of mortal sacrifice may be difficult to conceive of as love without careful and spiritually guided consideration, but this is indeed the love that God has for His children, as well as the love that He requires in return.

A critical aspect to consider when discussing the nature of “agape” – the love of God – is that it is only obtained by the receipt of the Holy Spirit. The Bible explains the origin of godly love in man quite clearly, “Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit [which] was given to us” (Romans 5:5).  This means that without the Holy Spirit, the love of God cannot reside in the heart of a Christian. Mr. Armstrong, in The Missing Dimension in Sex, explains the unique nature of this love quite succinctly. “A human can only really and truly love God with the very love which we first must receive from Him! This is the spiritual divine love God GIVES us by the Holy Spirit! But we must first REPENT—surrender unconditionally to live GOD’S WAY—turn from our former contrary way—and truly BELIEVE in Christ, accepting Him as personal Savior.” The necessity of a Christian to have godly love requires obtaining it through the Spirit of God, so that it may be returned to Him, and shared with brethren.

God proved His love by sacrificing Jesus Christ’s life so that His children may have eternal life. A statement could not be more clear than this, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The love that God has can be nothing other than the “agape” type of love, which seeks the best for others. Though it was a brutal event, that sacrifice was an act of love by God the Father and Jesus Christ so that Christians might receive the benefit of eternal life. God seeks the benefit of the Christian, and not His own.

Just as God loves His children, He requires that love be returned. Knowing that godly love is benevolent to the recipient of love, how can love be expressed to God? Since He is all-powerful and has need of nothing, it might be difficult to come up with ways that His benefit may be sought. However, the Bible is very clear in its instruction about how love towards God might be expressed. Quite simply, love towards God is proven by obedience to His commandments (1 John 2:3-5). Jesus Christ instructs His followers in a way that is very easy to remember, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The message could not be any clearer. Knowing that keeping God’s commandments is how to show love to God, it is imperative that a Christian understands what those commandments are. In fact, we read in 1 John 5:3 that “this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.”

A critical component of God’s commandments is the requirement of a Christian’s love for one another. “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12). The sacrifice of Jesus’ life for the benefit of the everlasting life of His followers serves as the benchmark by which godly love is measured (1 John 3:16). The selfless sacrifice of individual desire and ambition for the true benefit and prosperity of another is the love that Christians must have for one another (Philippians 2:3-4), and this love is only obtained through the Holy Spirit working in the heart of a Christian.

Much may be said regarding what love is, what it is not, and how to express it. Even so, in order to build an accurate, consistent, and complete understanding of it, we must first establish discernment about the different types of love that the Bible contains.  It is at the core of Christianity to know these things. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born [better: begotten] of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” ( 1 John 4:7-8).

Lead Writers: Eric Rank and Norbert Link

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