The two Greek words phileo and agape simply have different dictionary definitions, and both have a variety of uses and applications.
Agape has a much broader range of use than phileo; as such, you will find agape in applications that extend beyond the relationship of friends and brothers. Phileo, by its dictionary definition has limits, particularly because its root word origin means, “friend.”
Here’s an example of two common words in English that apply to the same object; the words chosen for this illustration are, “car,” and, “automobile.”
If I drive a “car” and you drive an “automobile” neither of these words convey a value that is greater or lesser. But if you drove a Rolls Royce “automobile”, and I drove a 1982 Chevy “car” the adjectives used to describe each vehicle help determine its worth or value by a certain standard. So too, the actual Greek words “agape” and “phileo” are neither greater or lesser by definition until they are used in context to describe individual application.
In the NT agape and phileo are often used compatibly in certain contexts. For example, the reference from John 15:13 describes the greatest degree of an individual person expressing his or her agape by laying their life down for a “friend.” In this verse, the Greek word for “friend” is “philos” and philos is the root word origin of phileo. All throughout John chapter 15 this intertwined application of agape & phileo (in both their various cognates) is found; for example, John 15:14-15 below:
· John 15:14-15 “You are my friends (philos), if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends (philos), for all things that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. NAS
The wide range of uses for agape includes:
· God = love (agape; 2 Corinthians 13:11)
· Expressed in servitude (Galatians 5:13)
· Human love for a (best) friend (John 19:26; 21:7, 15-16, 20)
· Pride, ego, arrogance by love (agape) and desire for human praise (Luke 11:43; John 12:43)
· God’s love for mankind (Romans 5:8; John 3:16)
· Love for God (Romans 8:28)
· Love for righteousness (Hebrews 1:9)
· God loves (agape) and He hates (Romans 9:13)
· Love & affection for the world & worldly things (2 Timothy 4:10; 1 John 2:15)
· Love for the darkness and evil (John 3:19; 14:24)
· Preferred human love; loving one person more than another (Luke 7:42; 2 Corinthians 12:15)
· Loving little (Luke 7:47) or loving much (cf)
· God’s love for His son Jesus & church (John 17:26)
· Jesus’ love for his disciples (John 15:9; 1 Corinthians 16:24)
· Expressed with physical affection (1 Peter 5:14)
· Obedience to scripture (1 John 2:5)
· Love with or without hypocrisy (Romans 12:9)
· Selfish love (Matthew 5:46; Luke 6:32)
· Love for one’s nation as in patriotic love (Luke 7:5)
· Love of money (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13)
· A summary expression of the OT commandments (Romans 13:8-10)
· Characterized in relationship to a believer’s moral character & godly behavior/speech (1 Corinthians chapter 13)
· Fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22)
· Expressed in obedience to Jesus’ commands (John 15:10)
· An apostle’s love for the church (2 Corinthians 2:4)
· One disciple’s love for another disciple (John 13:35; 2 Corinthians 2:8; Ephesians 1:15)
· Desire (agape) for the truth
· Sincere love of one human being to another (2 Corinthians 8:8; 11:11)
· Diminished (weakened) love for the truth (Matthew 24:12)
· The commitment love a man is SUPPOSED to have for his wife (Ephesians 5:25, 28; Colossians 3:19)
· Longing for the appearance of Christ (2 Timothy 4:8)
· A man’s love for his own human body of flesh (Ephesians 5:28)
You can see that the context alone determines whether agape relates to good or bad, to God or the world, or is human or divine. If agape is used in a context of men who have an affection or desire for evil, then this kind of agape is actually considered inferior to the alternative, which is agape used in a godly context. The eternal value and moral virtue of agape cannot be determined without putting it into proper context.
· John 3:19 "And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved (agape) the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds ()were evil.” NAS
In the context above, agape is used for an affection and desire for darkness. Agape’s dictionary definition best describes what evil men “crave” for. Agape is defined Strong’s as follows:
· NT:26 agape (ag-ah'-pay); from NT:25; love, i.e. affection or benevolence
Thus John 3:19 shows that men can and do have an affection (agape) for darkness, and their agape for darkness is evidenced by their evil deeds.
Notice that agape is not a root word; it is derived from another Greek word “agapáo” and this word is defined as:
· NT:25 agapáo (ag-ap-ah'-o); perhaps from agan (much) [or compare OT: 5689]; to love (in a social or moral sense): KJV - (be-) love (-ed). Compare NT:5368.
Agape, simply defined, is no greater or lesser in value than phileo until a determination has been made what type of agape it is. The context determines whether it is agape from God, from man, for light, or for darkness. Obviously if it is the kind of agape that He gives, it is the greatest of all.
If defined by a Greek dictionary in a strictly generic sense, phileo and agape are nearly identical in meaning:
· NT:5368 phileo (fil-eh'-o); from NT:5384; to be a friend to (fond of [an individual or an object]), i.e. have affection for (denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling.
· NT:26 agape (ag-ah'-pay); from NT:25; love, i.e. affection or benevolence.
The difference between agape and phileo (in actual definitions) is that agape has a much broader application, whereas phileo relates to love that is given or shared with friends. This is the reason it was used for sweeping applications throughout the NT. Phileo could never be used in the kind of variety illustrated in the previous list (above) due to its association (i.e. – as ‘friend’) and its limited scope.
By dictionary definition alone, agape relates to personal decision (i.e. – choices made thru judgment). These choices can be good or bad, depending on the context in which they appear.
Agape also demonstrates the intentional consent of the will (in accord with one’s moral standard; again, good or bad); its definition implies responsibility to a code or law.
Strong’s Dictionary definition includes a comparison between the rudimentary difference of agape and phileo; agape characterizes the kind of love that originates from the mind, whereas phileo relates more to that which comes from the heart (see reference below):
· PHILEO = NT:5368; phileo (fil-eh'-o); from NT: 5384; to be a friend to (fond of [an individual or an object]), i.e. have affection for denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling; while NT:25 (agape) is wider, embracing especially the judgment and the deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety: the two thus stand related; the former (phileo) being chiefly of the heart and the latter (agape) of the head.
You can see that when it comes to actual dictionary definitions, neither phileo nor agape can be given precedent over the other; they are simply different words used to describe differing aspects of love.
Some scholars believe agape might have originated from the ancient Hebrew word “agab” (OT:5689):
· LOVE = OT:5689 `agab (aw-gab'); a primitive root; to breathe after, i.e. to love (sensually)
Agab is found only in Ezekiel chapter 23 and in Jeremiah:
· Jeremiah 4:30 “What are you doing, O devastated one? Why dress yourself in scarlet and put on jewels of gold? Why shade your eyes with paint? You adorn yourself in vain. Your lovers (agab) despise you; they seek your life.” NIV
The lengthy series on the church in Philadelphia details the relationship between agape and phileo. In the context of God’s love and all that it incorporates (in both meaning and expression), to be REALIZED in warmth, tenderness and the kindred love between brothers and sisters in Christ, it must be accompanied by phileo. This statement only applies if ALL the scriptural considerations are applied (such as the examples from John 16:13-15 & more). The links below will take you to the Philadelphia series:
To segregate agape and phileo is like separating faith and works. Agape is the commitment to be obedient to God, to Jesus, and joined in heart (spirit), mind and soul with the church; phileo is the vehicle by which believers express their agape for each other in dear, fond and affectionate ways.
In the conversation between Jesus and Peter (John 21:15-17) Jesus asks Peter, “Do you agape me?” What he is asking Peter is this:
“Peter… do you love (agape) me with a deliberate decision of the will, and with intentional good judgment and by means of a morally blameless standard?”
How could Peter say, “Yes Lord, I agape you in this manner,” when he had just gone thru the experience of denying his Lord three times? So zealous Peter tells the TRUTH, “Lord, I have deep affection (phileo) for you as my beloved friend…”
Jesus knew that Peter could not love with agape due to the weakness of his flesh; in fact, Jesus knew no other human could agape as he did. But the irony of this passage is that at the conclusion of each question and answer sequence, the Lord gives Peter the same direction for expressing love in these words: “FEED MY SHEEP.” The Amplified Bible does a fairly decent job relating this condition:
15 When they had eaten, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these others do--with reasoning, intentional, spiritual devotion, as one loves the Father?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you; that I have deep, instinctive, personal affection for you, as for a close friend.” He said to him, “Feed My lambs.”
16 Again He said to him the second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me with reasoning, intentional, spiritual devotion, as one loves the Father?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, ou know that I love (phileo) you that I have a deep, instinctive, personal affection for you, as for a close friend.” He said to him, “Shepherd (tend) my sheep.”
17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love (phileo) me with a deep, instinctive, personal affection for me, as for a close friend?” Peter was grieved, saddened and hurt that he should ask him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (phileo) you that I have a deep, instinctive, personal affection for you, as for a close friend.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep.” AMP
Did Jesus chastise him at the end, and demand Peter have agape? No, his distinction between the two differing Greek words is summed up inj one consistent commandment, “Feed my sheep.”
This is why I say that God could have used any word He wanted to describe the meaning of the love He desires us to have. God uses what man has, and in the case of the NT, He used the Greek vocabulary. But the essential meaning of love, whether agape or phileo, can ultimately be represented in the greatest of all commandments, which began with a Hebrew word!
· Deuteronomy 6:4-5 “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! 5 And you shall love (ahab) the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” NAS
· LOVE = OT: 157 'ahab (aw-hab'); or 'aheb (aw-habe'); a primitive root; to have affection for (sexually or otherwise)
Remember ahab? The definition of this word is really much closer to the dictionary definition of phileo than agape. What does this prove? That God is not hung up on semantics! He IS love, and He determines the MOST IMPORTANT way that love is to be expressed is in the way we treat each other:
· Mark 12:28-31 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" 29 "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' 31 The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." (From New International Version)
So we come full circle; the bottom line is that we keep it simple, and love our Father with all we have, through the commandment of His son, expressing our love (agape) for Him in our love (agape & phileo) for each other.
The final comparison that shows the interconnection between agape and phileo is found in two separate NT passages that refer to Jesus disciplining his church by means of both agape and phileo:
· Hebrews 12:6 For those whom the Lord LOVES (AGAPE) He disciplines… NAS
· Revelation 3:19 “Those whom I LOVE (PHILEO) I reprove and discipline... NAS
If we love (agape) Jesus, we will obey him; if we obey him, we are his friends (philos), and if we are his friends, he will reveal himself to us:
· 1 Corinthians 13:12-13 For now we are looking in a mirror that gives only a dim (blurred) reflection of reality as in a riddle or enigma] but then when perfection comes we shall see in reality and face to face! Now I know in part (imperfectly), but then I shall know and understand fully and clearly, even in the same manner as I have been fully and clearly known and understood. 13 And so faith, hope, love abide faith--conviction and belief respecting man's relation to God and divine things; hope--joyful and confident expectation of eternal salvation; love--true affection for God and man, growing out of God's love for and in us, these three; but the greatest of these is love (agape). AMP
No matter what your maturity or level of commitment, treating others in the same manner you wish to be treated is love; this IS the best expression of your love for the Lord.