I love it when people ask questions about something I’ve preached on or taught in a class. This article is the result of just such a question.
This weekend I mentioned, somewhat in passing, that if we are to love people the way God does, then we must look kindly upon them. In other words, we do have to like them. Someone emailed me about this–not really as a challenge to it, but as an opportunity to further clarify my position. WARNING: this article is very deep in both theological principle and the occassional Greek word (transliterated to English). If after reading you have questions, either post them in the comment section, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hope you enjoy!
The problem with “like” and “love”, as you point out, is our (often incorrect) usage of the words. We use the two as synonymous, when in reality there are some distinctions. Although both convey a sense of positive personal feelings, the way we use them often creates confusion. “Love”, as Webster’s definitions state, suggest emotional attachment, as does “like”. This would be comparable to the Greek words eros (erotic or sensual love) and phileo (brotherly love, being a friend to, having a sentimental, personal attachment), whereas God’s love is agapao (social or moral love, unconditional) and therefore superior to all others. (As a side note, agape has a slightly different contextual usage, and is not used by Jesus in this context—agape is the noun, agapao is the action verb). As you can see, phileo could very well be translated “like” according to the context of our modern usage.
For example, when Jesus describes in Matthew 6:5 how the Pharisees “love to pray” where everyone can see them, and in 23:6 when He says that “they love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogue”, He uses the word phileo. Contextually, phileo would match quite well with either “love” or “like” as we use them (in Mark 12:38 Jesus used thelo, which is sometimes translated “love”, but suggests an inclination or disposition toward something, and is not as strong—in the Luke account, agapao is used) . When Jesus says to love our neighbor in Matthew 19:19, however, He uses agapao, showing that we are to use God’s kind of love. He uses the same word when instructing that we are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself”(Matthew 22:37-39). So, according to Jesus’ usage of agapao in both situations, we are to have the same unconditional social and moral love for our neighbors as we do for God.
When referring to the relationship between Jesus and His friend Lazarus, Mary and Martha used the phrase “the one you love” (John 11:3). Phileo is used here, and conveys a special closeness of relationship. So there is a distinction between phileo and agapao, at least in the minds of Lazarus’ sisters. Jesus Himself, however, does not use this term—only agapao, therefore showing His love to be the inclusive superior. While God does not have an eros sort of love toward us in the sense we would use the word, the question then becomes does He have a phileos type of love toward people, and if so, for who–is it only believers or all people? Or, are phileos and eros implied as being a part of agapao, since it is the superlative—and therefore all-inclusive– form of love?
In John 15:19, Jesus states that “if you were of the world, the world would love its own”. Here Jesus uses phileo, speaking of the world’s affection for those who agree with its corrupted ways. This shows that the world’s view of “love” really means “to like”—it cannot, apart from God, have agape, the most complete kind of love. All the world can manage apart from God is to phileo, which is a far inferior type that is affected by circumstances. Agapao is superior because it rises above circumstances to the level of a commitment, a covenant.
Jesus further tells His disciples “I give you a new commandment: love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). In every instance, agapao is used for action and agape for the substance of love itself.
What about enemies? In Luke 6:35 Jesus instructs that we are to “love (agapao) our enemies”. Who are our enemies? The Greek word Jesus used is echthros, which literally means a “hater” or an “adversary”. In Romans 5:6-8, the apostle Paul writes: “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. That Christ died for sinners (Gk. hamartolos, lit. “one who misses the mark”) is powerful enough, but Paul says in verse 10 that “if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life”. The word “enemies” is again echthros. God loved His enemies, and we are to do the same. In fact, were are warned about being selective with our agapao: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 3:8-9). In other words, if we deem some to be unworthy of agapao—the complete, uncompromising love of God—then we are committing sin.
In Titus 3:4 Paul writes that God showed kindness and love through the grace that came through Christ and His atoning death. Here, “love” is yet another Greek word—philanthropia, from which we derive “philanthropy”. This is love of fondness and kindness toward man that produces sacrifice—a strong kind of love, indeed, particularly in light of the wickedness of the recipients listed in verse 3: “foolish, disobedient, deceived, captives of various passions and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, detesting one another”.
In 1 Peter 2:17, we are told to “honor all men” and to “love the brethren”. Agapao is used for the brethren, but another word is used for “all men”: timao, which means to “honor” or “place value upon”. While there is a distinction, it is not enough to build a case on in light of the consistency of Scripture elsewhere.
The most critical usage for our understanding of God’s love for people is found in the single most recognized verse to encapsulate the Gospel: “For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). This “loved” is agapao, and the “world” here is the Greek word kosmos, which contextually means the inhabitants of the world. There is no delineation among those inhabitants—God’s agapao is for all. (For contrast, in 1 John 2:15, John writes that we are not to “love the world or the things in the world”. Here, kosmos is referring to the actual fleshly realm, not the individuals in it.)
The bottom line seems to be that we are not to settle for the “like” actions of love (eros and phileos) which are dependent upon circumstances, but rather the agapao whereby people are loved in the same fashion that God does. According to what we see in Scripture, God is not capable of limiting His love to an inferior form—agape is His love, and is to be ours as well. To settle for anything less seems to take the world’s view and not God’s.