The original Greek New Testament contains two different words which are translated with the one English verb “love.” Many of us who have spent some years in the Christian church are familiar with these. One is agapao – related to the noun agape. The other is phileo. These two words have been commonly distinguished by defining agapao as “selfless love” and phileo as “brotherly love.” Perhaps you’ve heard these definitions. They’re not necessarily wrong, but they may be simplistic to the point of obscuring some important – and amazing – truths. Let’s take a few minutes and think on these words and how they relate to the Father’s love for us as his own.
The primary concept behind the Greek word agapao is “goodwill.” To love in this sense is to desire good for another person. There is a sense of placing value on the other person. Treasure would not be too strong of a word to describe it. Whether or not the other person is considered intrinsically “valuable” is not significant to the one who loves in this way. Good is intended regardless. Perhaps “goodwill toward another without regard for any benefit or harm to self” would be a slightly fuller definition of agapao. We see many pictures of this kind of love in the Scriptures. Let’s consider a few.
Think with me about the two greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:35-40) Agapao is the verb used in these verses. Another way of expressing these commands could be, “You shall desire the glory of God and the good of your neighbor without regard for any perceived temporal benefit to yourself.” That puts a challenging light on the matter of love, doesn’t it!
But Jesus pushes us farther when he speaks of loving enemies: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45) Again, agapao is the verb used here. Talk about loving without regard for harm to self! Goodwill toward an enemy may result in great personal pain! Notice who Jesus said is the model of love like this – “your Father.”
Our Father has goodwill toward all of mankind, and He demonstrates it every day with the rising of the sun and the falling of the rain. He does this without regard for whether or not the recipients of His goodwill receive it with gratitude and faith. Earnest agape is like this. But there is yet more.
God’s love for sinners goes far beyond sunshine and rain. It goes far beyond the care and feeding of mankind for our brief existence in this universe. If that were as far is it went, He could be accused of having no more regard for His creation than the care a child may show for a bowl of goldfish. No, His love is far greater. Listen again to these familiar words of Jesus: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved [agapao] the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-16)
The Father’s goodwill is more than short-term provision for a few fleeting years. He has given us His own Son that those who trust Him might live in His care forever just as His Son does: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love [agape] with which he loved [agapao] us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved…” (Ephesians 2:4-5) And the Father’s goodwill goes further still.
Imagine that you have a son with a friend whose parents have died. Your son asks you to care for his friend, and you, in love toward this orphan, take him into your home and care for him also. That would be a great display of goodwill. But imagine that you adopt this child as your own. He’s no longer a stranger under your care. You now call him son, and he now has the right to call you father. God has done something like this for us – those who believe the Gospel and trust Christ – only on an eternal, cosmic scale: “See what kind of love [agape] the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God.” (1 John 3:1) That’s great love!
Let’s come back to the passage that we started with in last week’s meditation – John 16:27. Next time, we’ll consider the implications stated in the context, but let’s consider again this astounding statement…
“… the Father himself loves you…”
You see, as amazing as the goodwill of God is toward sinners – eternally so for those sinners who believe Him – there is yet another kind of love that the Father shows only to His children. It appears here in this statement by Jesus, “The Father himself loves you.”
The word translated here, “love,” is the Greek verb “phileo.” While agapao speaks of goodwill without regard for one’s own benefit, phileo takes it one step farther. It speaks of tenderness and affection. In fact, in Greek literature, phileo is sometimes used to refer to a kiss – not as an expression of erotic desire (that’s another Greek word), but coming from emotion propelled by an earnest love for another. It is not wholly inappropriate to refer to phileo as “brotherly love,” but it is probably best exemplified in the affection of a father for his child that would cause him to kiss the baby in his arms or the tenderness of a mother wiping away her child’s tears.
It might be possible on a good day to imagine God the Father having kind intentions toward us. After all, we believe He sent His Son to die in our place. But that the Father Himself would also be affectionately inclined toward us is astounding. The disciples of Christ needed to hear this as He was getting ready to leave them that night. We need to hear this as well. That we may approach God with confidence as our loving Father is more than we could ask or think. Yet it is true! The Son has told us so!
Agapao And Phileo
There is no question about agapao when it is accompanied by phileo – goodwill accompanied by compassion. The Father’s loves the Son in both ways: “The Father loves [agapao] the Son and has given all things into his hand,” (John 3:35) and, “The Father loves [phileo] the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing.” (John 5:20) The Father also loves all of those who through Christ are His children in both ways: “… he who loves me will be loved [agapao] by my Father…” (John 14:21) and again, “… the Father himself loves [phileo] you…” (John 16:27).
If we think we really understand the depth and significance of this love of the Father for us, we need to go back and think on it again. If we don’t understand it, we need to go back and think on it again. We have only scratched the surface of it here. We will spend eternity experiencing it and exploring its depths. It was well said by Frederick Lehman in the hymn The Love of God,
The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen could ever tell…
Do you dare to believe it? May God grant us the joy of enduring faith that we may know and trust Him, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe as our loving Father.