WILLIAM BARCLAY has noted that when a lad of the Scottish Highlands loves a lass, his Gaelic language provides him with 20 different words to ten her about it! In contrast to this, our English word “love” not only serves romantic purposes, but is overworked in many other ways.
The Greek language in which the New Testament Scriptures were first written had four words for “love.” The word used depended on the occasion or the particular shade of meaning one wanted to express. In our language, a lady has to “love” her husband, her house, her new hat and her pet poodle! ‘Me Greeks were not so short of words.
Romantic love was eros. Aristotle said (and it sounds like he knew!) that this kind of love begins with the eye when a boy is charmed by beauty, and that once he is caught by it, he longs for his loved one even when she is away! The New Testament does not use eros, though the Greek Old Testament does (Proverbs 7:18; 30:16). Romantic love is the theme of the Song of Solomon. A beautiful and poetic description of it appears in 8:6,7 of that book.
Friendship love was called philia. This kind of love grows with appreciation for a person. It can be the highest sort of human love. But it can also waver or be lost. Jesus ben Sira, a Jewish wise man who lived about 200 years before Christ, warned that the love of friendship could be quickly lost by telling a friend’s secrets! (Sirach 27:18). In the New Testament, James says that this kind of love for the world is forbidden the Christian (James 4:4). He is saying that the Christian is not to be “buddies” with the enticements of the present system if he wants God for a friend.
Family love was storge. The New Testament commands Christian husbands to love their wives (Ephesians 5:25) and Christian women to love their husbands and children (Titus 2:4). It speaks of certain depraved people as “without natural affection” (Romans 1:31). Paul does not use this special word for family love, though a later uninspired Christian preacher in Rome does (I Clement 1:3). Instead Paul uses a very special word-agape.
When Christ came, it seems that even the language was “baptized” and made different. The Greeks before Christ hardly used agape in its New Testament form. Yet this is the most frequently-used word for love in the entire New Testament. Many books and articles have been written on the full meaning of this one small word.
Barclay says it is “unconquerable benevolence, undefeatable good-will.” Someone else observed that men of the world can understand love and humility even when they can not understand doctrine. The apostle Paul says that love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10). Jesus said love of God is the first commandment, and love of neighbor the second (Mark 2:28-31).
As we grow into the likeness of Christ, may we all grow in love!