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How to Do a Bible Word Study on ‘Love’

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When Jesus is asked to sum up the law, he responds with two commands involving love:

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In both commands, the English translation “love” translates the Greek verb agapao. Partly because agape is one of those Greek words that many theologically literate Christians know (along with logos, christos, doulos, and a few others), Bible readers often think that in agape lies the secret key to understanding the love commands.

Assuming that Greek words contain a great depth of meaning hidden by English is a common Bible study mistake. And to show you one reason why: enter Logos Bible Software.

A question about love

A good word study can help us get a more accurate view of the love commands, and it can do that by clearing away a view that I believe obscures them. That view is one that cuts a sharp distinction between agape and its near-synonym, philia, and then draws theological meaning from that distinction.

I won’t discuss this view of agape and philia in great detail. I’d like to take aim, instead, at just one argument commonly used to support it. Here it is in syllogistic form:

  1. You can’t command emotion.
  2. Agape is commanded in the New Testament while its synonym, philia, is not.
  3. So agape must be volitional, philia emotional.

Along with Jonathan Edwards, Augustine of Hippo, the Apostle Paul (Rom 12:15), and Jesus Christ himself (Matt 5:12), I question the first premise. God can and does command emotions (or, to use Edwards’ preferred terminology, “affections”) such as rejoicing, weeping, hoping, and loving.

But evaluating the second premise will require some Bible study. And without a tool such as Logos, you’re stuck. You just have to trust other people’s conclusions. But with Logos, you can see for yourself that God does command both agape and philia.

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Bible Word Study

The easiest way to start, if you don’t know Greek, is to use the Bible Word Study tool. Just click Guides, then Bible Word Study, then type “love” in the reference box. You’ll see all the Greek words translated “love” in the New Testament, arranged in a pie chart:

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The sizes of the different segments of the chart represent the frequency with which those Greek words appear in the New Testament and are translated with “love.” The big blue bars are the verb and noun forms of agape. The biggest red one is the verb form of philia, namely phileo. Click on that segment, and you’ll see the word transliterated into English letters for you.

You’ll also see below the chart all the places where phileo appears in the New Testament. (Almost all: Logos has already culled through the list and removed the three instances in which the verb means “kiss,” not “love.”) And in this list you’ll see forms of the philia root that cast doubt on premise 2 above.

Because, in fact, we are given commands to love with (a form of) philia: “Love one another (philadelphia) with brotherly affection (philostorgoi)” (Rom 12:10).

Create a passage list to record your observations

I decided to start up a passage list (Documents > Passage List) to record my observations: “Places where Philia Is Commanded.” I started adding references to the list as I came across them.

And as I dug in, I perceived another flaw in the thinking behind that second premise. Just because something isn’t “commanded”—that is, placed in the imperative mood—doesn’t mean it isn’t obligatory or normative. I noticed, for example, some of the final words of 1 Corinthians: “If anyone has no love (phileo) for the Lord, let him be accursed.” Paul doesn’t say “love the Lord,” exactly, but he does say that if I don’t love the Lord, I’m accursed. I’d call that a more-than-implicit obligation.

And when Jesus says in Matthew 10:37, “Whoever loves (phileo) father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” there’s a duty in there: I’m supposed to love Jesus. I dropped the verse into my list.

And when Jesus says “the Father loves (phileo) the Son,” there’s a degree to which God’s own example is a norm for fallen, finite me. I’m supposed to be holy as he is holy. So I added a little phrase to my Passage List title: “Places where Philia Is ‘Commanded’ (or at least Exemplary).”

Take a look at some of the other verses I put in my passage list:

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The love commands

The precise verb form phileo is never found in the imperative mood in the NT—this is true. But the fact is that both agape and philia are obligations in the NT. They are very close synonyms. And they are both “affective” words.

It is no use “domesticating” the love commands, lowering the high bar they set, by saying, “It doesn’t matter how you feel; only that you selflessly do what is best for someone else” (cf. 1 Cor. 13:3).

God commands not just our actions but our affections.

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Written by
Mark Ward

Mark Ward (PhD, Bob Jones University) is the editor of Bible Study Magazine and author of its back-page column, Word Nerd: Language and the Bible. He is the author of several books and textbooks including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. He is also the host of the Bible Study Magazine Podcast and an active YouTuber.

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Written by Mark Ward