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How Does the Bible Define Love?

Like any human emotion, love is a challenge to define. Merriam Webster’s dictionary offers the following definitions that describe love from an objective or emotion-neutral point of view.

“A strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties as in the motherly love for a child.” Or, an “attraction based on sexual desire as in the affection and tenderness felt by lovers.” Love in the non-sexual sense is defined as “the affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests as in a love for his old schoolmates.” In the platonic sense, the dictionary defines love as an “unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another: as in the fatherly concern of God for humankind, or as a brotherly concern for others,” or even in the sense of a “person’s adoration of God.” [1]

All of these definitions are about the expression of love, but the question is “what is love?” For the answer, we need to go to the origin of love, and the Bible tells us that love originates in God.

The English language uses only one word, “love” to describe the range of emotions that love entails. So as English speakers, our native language limits our ability to express what we mean when we say “love.” The Hebrew and Greek languages of the Bible both have different words for the different types of love, i.e., sexual, brotherly, family, the kind of love that God has for creation, and the love we may have for God.

The Hebrew word “yavo” and the Greek “eros.” are used to describe sexual love. In Genesis 38:2 we find the Hebrew word yavo to describe Judah’s actions toward a woman he assumed was a prostitute. In the English translation, we read that he “went into her…” as the translation of the original Hebrew word yavo that means sexual intercourse.  In the New Testament, the Greek word eros is not used because of a lack of context where sexual love is under discussion.

The second type of love is the ‘brotherly love’ that exists between close friends regardless of gender. The Hebrew word “ahavah” and the Greek word “Phileō” are used to express brotherly love, and the words do not have a sexual connotation. The Hebrew word “ahavah” is used to describe the love between David and Saul’s son Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20:17, and the Greek word “Phileō” is used to describe brotherly love in John 15:19, Romans 12:10, and Hebrews 13:1.

Regarding family or tribal love, the Hebrew word is once again “ahavah” but the Greek word changes to “storgē.” We find ahavah love throughout the Old Testament because of its broad range of meanings, but the Greek word storge is infrequently used again because of lack of context.

Finally, there is the Hebrew word “chesed” and the Greek word “agape” which are used to express the kind of love God is described as having for his elect children. The Hebrew “chesed” is often translated as “steadfast” or “lovingkindness.” One of the best examples of God’s chesed love is found in Numbers 14:18 where God says, “The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression…” (Numbers 14:18a, ESV). God’s chesed love is why he never gives up on those he has adopted as his children. Throughout the Old Testament, we see God’s people Israel constantly falling into idolatry and sin, yet he always preserves a remnant, he never gives up on his people. The reason he perseveres is his chesed love.

The same idea is found in the New Testament with the Greek word agape. Agape love is an unconditional love when it is of God and toward those he loves. It is similar to chesed love, only fully expressed in God’s unchanging love regardless of circumstances. Agape love is the kind of love Jesus calls us to, and humans can only demonstrate agape love toward others through the power of the Holy Spirit. But our deepest and most sincere love will never approach the chesed, agape love of God on this side of heaven.

With the dictionary definition and these examples from the Bible describing love, we are closer to answering the question “what is love?” And while helpful, what love truly is, in the most basic sense, are the emotions and the actions by someone of affection, compassion, care, and concern for the well-being of some other person. As bearers of God’s image, only human beings can truly display love. I love my dog; I am concerned for his well-being, I care for him and have compassion for him. On the other hand, my dog doesn’t truly love me. Oh, he wags his tail, licks my hand sits by me and comes when I call, but all of these responses are based on the fact that I feed him and keep him warm.

This is an important observation if we are to define love properly. Love originates in the Triune Godhead as the eternal and perfect love that exists between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So here is the bottom line on love: “In this (in Jesus) the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:9–11, 19).

This is the answer to the question “What is love?” Love is what we feel toward God and others, it is unique to the human experience of being an image bearer of God, and we love because God first loved us. I hope this helps you to understand this emotion called “love” at a deeper level and how it finds its origin and fulfillment in God’s love for us and our love for God and our neighbor through the power of the Spirit of God in us.  The world uses “love” in so many ways, many of which are corrupted. So it’s important to understand love as God intended it to be and in the way he enables us to express love for him first and foremost and love for our neighbor. In this we glorify God.

[1] Merriam-Webster, I. (1996). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary (10th ed.). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

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