I don’t think I was more than four or five years old when our little folks’ Wednesday night class learned the Greek word agape. Alongside fluffy forest animals in a colorful storybook, we learned about agape love.
The Greek words for love remained a popular topic. Seemed we couldn’t have a respectable Christian discussion about love without expounding on phileo, eros, and agape.
Knowing those words didn’t make a lick of difference in the way I lived. It’s so much easier to discuss love than to actually love. But I was forced to examine these words again as I prepared for this month.
Since I do most of my study and memorization out of the 1984 NIV, my original question in approaching this month was, “What exactly is the difference between kindness and love?” In the old NIV, the final two items in Peter’s spiritual growth inventory are brotherly kindness and love. In most English versions, the second term is translated love or charity. But the first term varies more. It is most often translated as brotherly kindness or brotherly affection but also concern for others (CEV), affection for others (CEB), and mutual affection (NRSV, 2011 NIV).
The Greek word for the first term is philadelphia. The Greek word for the second term is agape. Two words that both mean love.
A Common Explanation
The most common explanation I have encountered is that agape is God’s unconditional love which Christians are called to imitate. Philadelphia is a human, conditional love—not a bad thing but not as desirable as agape.
But agape is not reserved for divine love, and philadelphia is not restricted to human love. Philadelphia is the kind of love Jesus had for Lazarus (John 11:3) and for the churches He rebuked (Revelation 3:19). It’s also the love of God the Father for the Son (John 5:20). On several occasions, agape is not a positive term at all; it’s used to describe a prideful craving for importance (Luke 11:43), approval of the world’s ways (1 John 2:15), and love of spiritual darkness (John 3:19).
Agape is a broad term. As Christians, we’re to have agape for God (Luke 11:42, 1 John 3:1), for other Christians (Galatians 5:13), for anyone we serve through our gifts (1 Corinthians 12 and 13), for our enemies (Matthew 5:44)—basically, everyone (Matthew 22:37–40 and Luke 10:25–37).
Philadelphia is a more specialized term, usually referring to people with which we share a common interest. The related term philos means friend(s). Another related term, adelphos, means brother (as in shared parentage), fellow citizen, neighbor, or fellow believer.
I believe Peter is saying, “Start by loving people with which you have something in common. But don’t stop there. Learn to love everyone.”
Truly loving anyone is never easy. But there are some relationships where we’re naturally more motivated to sacrifice for another’s sake. Most people I know wouldn’t think twice about sacrificing themselves for their children but would hesitate to make life easier for a difficult boss, a demanding neighbor, or a person of another faith who doesn’t want to be “proselytized.”
As we learn to love on common ground, God equips us to love where we think no common ground exists.