Thursday, February 17, 2022

God's Love as Phileia

I pulled out my Greek concordance to look up the words for love in the New Testament.  The two most common words for love in the New Testament are agape and phileia.  I used to think of agape as distinctly Christian love, and phileia as a love based on feeling and therefore inferior and not godly.  When I discovered that this was not the case, it was an eye opener for me.  Phileia, or a form of it appears numerous times in relation to God’s love or the love that we are to have for others. 

Titus 3:4-5 says, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us,…”  loving kindness is philanthropia, which literally means love for mankind and is the origin of our English word philanthropy.  God’s love for man, which led to the cross is the ultimate philanthropy.  There is no love for mankind like the love of God.

In John 15:13-14, Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”  Friend is philos.  The greatest love one can show for his philoi is to lay down his life for them, which is what Jesus did.  If his people follow his commands, Jesus calls them philoi.  How amazing is that that the creator and Lord calls human beings friends!  This indicates the type of love that our Lord has for his people.

Romans 12:10 says, “Love to one another with brotherly affection.  Outdo one another in showing honor.”  Love here is philostorge, a combination of phileia (love/affection) and storge (family love).  Brotherly affection is philadelphia, which means brotherly love.  We are called to have familial affection for one another.  That means that we must get along and like each other.  This may seem impossible, but I can remember siblings who could not stand each other.  The parents’ solution was to make them hold hands for several days and do everything together.  It was not acceptable that they had disdain for each other.  If that is the way it is with a physical family, how much more so would this be for the family of God?  After all we are blood, but it is blood that goes for beyond this life.  We are related by the blood of the Son of God who shed it in order to adopt us into God’s family. 

Romans 12:13 says to “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”  Hospitality is philoxenia, which literally means, “strangerly love.”  Not only are we to show brotherly love to our brethren, we are also to show strangerly love to the stranger.  This implies a level of kindness and compassion that we see demonstrated in Jesus as he welcomed people from all walks of life, whether they tax collectors or pharisees.   

Several passages tell us to greet each other with a holy kiss (Rom 16:16; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26; 1 Pet 5:14).  Kiss is philema, which is in the same class of words as phileia.  As I reflect on this, it occurs to me that this expression seems to be much more intimate than our typical handshake.  But even though this was a typical cultural expression for that time, the word, “holy” indicates that this is not just the typical kiss of greeting, but is special.  Our relationship with each other in the family of God is different than associations we have with those outside.  We greet each other with holy tokens of affection because we have been sanctified and adopted by God to be his family.

Looking at these uses of phileia alongside the description of agape in 1 Corinthians 13 seems to indicate a lot of overlap between agape and phileia.  I am reminded of the conversation between Jesus and Peter at the end of the Gospel of John.  When Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love (agapao) me?”  Peter responded with “Yes I dearly love (phileo) you!”  Peter wanted to use a stronger word of affection when he responded to Jesus.  The text says that Peter was grieved when Jesus asked a third time, “Peter, do you love (phileo) me?”  Phileia and agape do not seem to have a sharp difference in meaning from each other. 

This has caused me to reflect on the nature of love.  I remember a time when I used to think, “I have to love you, but that doesn’t mean I have to like you!”  This came from the mistaken idea that love, specifically agape, had nothing to do with emotion or liking someone.  I now see the ludicrous nature of trying to love without any kind of affection.  The instructions to love in the passages above seem to indicate just the opposite.  We are not called to like someone, but are called to love, which is much deeper than like. 

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