The meaning of love in the Bible is often found in 1 Corinthians 13. But really, the love chapter (as it is often called) provides only one definition of love in the entire Scriptures.
Love is the substance and ultimate quality of God’s character. John simply says “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
But the word love covers a lot of ground when it comes to expressing how we feel towards the different people in our lives, including God.
Let’s dig in.
What is the biblical definition of love?
The definition of love in the Bible is not a simple one.
Today, the word love has a range of meanings that can be applied to many people and things: our spouse, chiwawa, children, and chocolate.
In Bible times though, different words were used to describe that emotion called love. But even then, each word had a variety of meanings.
It all depended on the context.
What are the four types of love in the Bible?
In the Bible love is a colorful concept. A variety of English words have been used to represent different types of love for various relationships.
The four types of love that Scripture mentions are: familial love, friendship love, sexual or marital love, and divine love.
There are four common Greek words that we will see being used for these four types of love: storge, phileo, eros, and agape.
There are two problems with these words though:
Firstly, these tend to focus on love in the New Testament only and does not include the Old Testament study on love.
Secondly, eros doesn’t actually appear in the Bible to describe sexual love. This is quite a popular idea that you might see in a number of different places.
Also, storge (which is used for familial love) is not really used in the New Testament either.
So, let’s delve into this study where we will take a brief look at the types of love in both the Old and New Testament.
Love in Hebrew
There are three Hebrew words for love used in the Old Testament.
Ahavah Hebrew meaning
The Hebrew word ahavah means to have affection for. It refers to the human love for another. This word is used for different types of love.
Ahavah describes intimate marital and sexual love:
Genesis 29:20 So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love [ahavah] for her.
It is this Hebrew word that is often used to describe sexual desire and love:
Song of Solomon 2:4 Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love [ahavah].
Ahavah also describes love between friends and family. For example, David said of his friendship with Jonathan:
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love [ahavah] for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women. (2 Samuel 1:26, NIV)
Ahavah can also be used to describe God’s love towards his people:
In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love [ahavah] and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63:9 NIV)
Ahad Hebrew meaning
The Hebrew word ahad relates to all the situations that are listed above but it applies to other situations as well.
Ahab refers to not just sexual, family, and friendship love but also a love or liking for things. For example, ahab can be used to describe how one feels about food.
Isaac said to Esau:
and prepare for me delicious food, such as I love [ahab], and bring it to me so that I may eat, that my soul may bless you before I die.” (Genesis 27:4, ESV)
Or ahad can be used to describe our human love for God:
I love [ahab] the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. Psalm 116:1 ESV
Hesed Hebrew meaning
The Hebrew word hesed has a variety of meanings. One of those meanings is mercy. But it can also mean love.
And there is more to it. Hesed means loyal love. It carries the idea of keeping promises and being kind and loyal.
Hesed describes the love that God has for those with whom He has established a covenant.
A covenant stays in tact if there is loyalty between the two parties.
Hesed describes God’s loyal love towards us:
“In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love [hesed], I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:8 ESV)
And it also describes our loyal love towards God:
Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites, because the Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: ‘There is no faithfulness, no love [hesed], no acknowledgment of God in the land. (Hosea 4:1 NIV)
This kind of loyal love can also exist in human to human relationships. When Abram was afraid that he would be killed for Sarah, this is what he said:
And when God caused me to wander from my father’s household, I said to her, “This is how you can show your love [hesed] to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, ‘He is my brother.’”’ Genesis 20:13 NIV
As you can see, the concept of love is very rich in the Old Testament.
Love in Greek
Now that we have gotten a better idea of the words that are used for love in the Old Testament, let’s look at the more familiar New Testament words.
What does agape love mean in the Bible?
Agape is probably the most well-known Bible word for love. Agape is unconditional, sacrificial love that is given whether the recipient deserves it or not.
It is love that gives without expecting anything in return. This love is not emotional. It is based on a conscious, deliberate choice.
This Greek word refers to love in different contexts. Agape describes the love that should exist between husband and wife.
Husbands, love [agape] your wives, as Christ loved [agape] the church and gave himself up for her… (Ephesians 5:25, NIV)
Agape describes God’s love towards his children.
For God so loved [agape] the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 NIV
And agape describes the love that should exist among believers, whether in the same congregation or not.
Beloved, let us love [agape] one another, for love [agape] is from God, and whoever loves [agape] has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)
Although agape, is the most popularly know word for love, the New Testament uses another word that we don’t often realize.
What does phileo love mean in the Bible?
Another word for love in the New Testament is phileo. It means to show love, affection, and hospitality to another.
Phileo love carries the idea of being fond of someone, having a friendly liking for them, or being emotionally attached to someone.
Although it has been said that it is entirely different from agape, there is some overlapping meaning between the two words.
Phileo has been used in Scripture to also describe the love among the members of the Trinity.
For the Father loves [phileo] the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. (John 5:20 NIV)
That verse describes love between God the Father and Jesus the son. But phileo can also be used to describe God’s love towards us:
Those whom I love [phileo] I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Revelation 3:19 NIV
God truly wants to have such a friendship with us that he can have influence in our lives.
Phileo can also be used to describe our heart towards God:
If anyone does not love [phileo] the Lord, let that person be cursed! Come, Lord! )1 Corinthians 16:22 NIV)
We could go on with examples of the use of phileo but I hope you get the idea.
What does Jesus say about love?
God’s idea of love is very different from ours. Before Jesus came the Israelites had a perspective of what it meant to love.
But it did not align with God’s definition. We know this based on what Jesus said in the sermon on the mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love [agape] your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love [agape] your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Matthew 5:43-44 NIV
When Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said”, he was making reference to a law in the Old Testament that was given to the early Israelites as they were preparing to live a new life in Canaan:
Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love [ahab] your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. Leviticus 19:17-18 NIV
You probably read that and are wondering where it says it was ok to hate their enemies.
That’s because the law never said hating one’s enemies was permitted. However, it seemed that the Pharisees, who taught the law, took this law and misapplied it.
God had said they were to love their neighbors but they wrongly believed that God wanted them to hate their enemies.
Those listening to Jesus had been raised to believe that loving your neighbor and hating your enemy was the right and godly thing to do.
So, Jesus needed to correct this false idea. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus urged them to love their enemies.
This teaching about love was completely shocking because this was not what the crowd grew up learning.
Importance of love in the Bible
Love is one of the biggest topics in Scripture, particularly in the New Testament. There is a reason for this.
Love is that crucial ingredient that binds our human relationships together and keeps us bound to God too.
Without love, our relationship with God and others does not make much sense.
Jesus taught two major things about love that helps us understand how important it is.
First, the commandment to love is the greatest commandment in all of Scripture.
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Matthew 22:37-39 NIV
Why is love the greatest commandment? Jesus continued:
All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. Matthew 22:40 NIV
By loving God and loving others, even our enemies, we are in obedient alignment with all of God’s laws and commandments.
Second, love is the signal to the world that we belong to the God of heaven and we claim Jesus as Lord:
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. John 13:35 NIV
Love among believers is supposed to be the thing that makes us different from everyone else.
I know when we look at many churches today we can see that teaching is not present in practice.
But God’s grace is enduring. Pray that your local congregation will recognize the importance of this teaching on love.
Final words on what love means in the Bible
Love in Scripture is a most colorful concept. It is plastered all over human relationships, our relationship with God and even within the Trinity.
Love is both divine and human. It is very much present in the Old Testament as much as it is in the New Testament.
I pray that you will get to know the love of God for you, that you will grow in your love for others (especially those who are enemies) and that the love of others towards you will help you see the grace and goodness of God in your life.