What Is Love?

Today the word ‘love’ has been sadly abused by this post-modern culture. Many think of love as ‘sexual’ love alone. A rap star sings, ‘Let’s do like the animals do!’ So love has been denigrated to the sexual drive of the animal world. Here there are no moral boundaries, only the drive of instinct to propagate the species. We do not accuse dogs of immoral behaviour if they behave sexually with indiscrimination. But we are more than dogs; we are made in the image of God.

Love within marriage

It is said that the Greeks had a word for everything. It is a rich, descriptive language. The Greek has a word for sexual love, eros. In the New Testament its place has been taken by epithumia, which means intense desire or lust. We speak today of ‘erotic’ love, ‘passionate, sexual’ love. And this has its place in marriage. The sex act is not sinful; God made us male and female and urged man to have children, Gen.1. 27-28. This idea that sex is sinful is a ‘doctrine of demons’, 1 Tim. 4. 1-3. ‘Marriage is honourable in all and the bed undefiled’, Heb. 13. 4. Couples are urged, ‘Do not deprive one another except for a time’,1 Cor. 7. 5. But this intense drive must be guarded by the commitment of marriage if there is to be happiness in the family. A man may be attracted first to a woman by her appearance. Her feminine beauty may entrance him. Here there is a need for women to dress modestly lest they arouse lust. But after that initial attraction there is a time of getting to know one another. The attraction to a woman or a man may dim very quickly if, amongst other things, the couple do not enjoy conversing together. This attraction then begins to mature into friendship where both just enjoy being together, sharing thoughts, ideas, goals and companionship. They become friends and surely one’s spouse needs to be one’s best friend.

Love in the sense of companionship, family affection

The Greek word phileo describes such an affectionate relationship. It is the word used for the affectionate love of a family. It is the same verb that is used for ‘to kiss’ in Matthew chapter 26, verse 48. Judas betrayed Christ with ‘a kiss’. While eros would never describe our relationship with the eternal God, phileo can and should. The disciples of Jesus felt real affection for Him. John leaned up against His chest at the last Passover and enjoyed this most intimate relationship with his Master. Peter repeatedly told Jesus, ‘Yes, Lord you know that I love, phileo, you’, John 21. 15. This is not an inferior kind of love, but it is different from agape love. It is the love of mutual affection, a friendship that responds warmly to another’s affection.

Both eros and philia should mark married love. Philia should also mark the relationships of God’s people, His family. We are told, ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss, philema’, Rom. 16. 16. It is still the custom in many parts of the world to greet a friend with a kiss on the cheek. In other cultures it may be a warm embrace or handshake.

Love that is the character of God

And now we come to agape love. Outside of the Bible and church writings the word is not found in classical Greek. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which was in common usage in the Roman Empire among the Jews, did use the word. The New Testament writers adopted the word to denote God’s love, a volitional love, not determined by the response of the persons loved. ‘For God so loved, agapao, the world that He gave His only begotten Son’, John 3. 16. This is a desire for the good of the person loved, even if that person hates you and rejects your love. Christ told us to love our enemies and He exemplified that on the cross. ‘Father, forgive them’, He said as they hammered the nails through His hands and feet and taunted Him. Such is the wonder of God’s love. This volitional, unselfish, committed agape love characterizes God and now flows through His children. ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God’, 1 John 4. 7. The assembly of God’s children should be marked by such love. It is the ultimate badge of discipleship. ‘By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another’, John 13. 35. People are attracted to Christ by our love, not by our doctrine, although that too is important. This same agape love will keep a marriage together through the years. ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her’, Eph. 5. 25. Such love will never threaten divorce nor leave the beloved. Such love will preserve and strengthen the marriage through all the storms of life, through financial strain and loss of health. Agape love nourishes and supports the loved one through the dark waters of death into the glories of heaven.

All three loves, eros, philia and agape, are important in marriage but agape is the greatest of all, 1 Cor. 13. 13. May such love mark the lives of God’s dear children.