The Word “Love” In Holy Writ

In the Old Testament there are particularly two words which are of interest to us in connection with the concept, “love”. The first word which we would consider is “gashak”. The fundamental meaning of this word seems to be: to join, to fasten together, to adhere, to stick together. Hence, this word is used in the Scriptures in the sense of spiritual attachment, to cleave to someone, and in that sense, to love. And, finally, as far as the conscious expression of this bond of fellowship is concerned, the word is also used in the sense of: taking delight, longing for the object. This word appears, e.g., in Isaiah 21:4 and Ps. 91:14. We read in the former text: “My heart panted, fearfulness affrighted me: the night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me.” Delitsch offers us the following translation of this text: My heart beats wildly; horror hath troubled me: the darkness of night that I love, he hath turned for me into quaking.” We should note the tremendous agitation in this text: “My heart beats wildly: horror hath troubled me:” Besides, the text speaks of the darkness of night which the writer loves, and that this night has been turned for him into quaking. The expression, “darkness of night that I love”, or literally translated from the original, “the night of my pleasure (love) ”, suggests the element of longing, delight, tremendous attachment—the Hebrew word used here in this text is “gashak”. And in Ps. 91:14 we read: “Because he hath set his love upon Me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known My name.” The word “gashak” also appears in this text in the expression, “Because he hath set his love upon Me,” and, as is evident from the words that follow, this love of the child of God is the longing which he directs towards and fixes upon his God. The psalmist declares does he not, that he (the psalmist) has set his love upon the Lord, and that the Lord will deliver him and set him on high. Hence, this love of the psalmist must be the intense longing of the child of God which he directs unto the Lord in the midst of his misery and trouble, his longing for deliverance.

The second word which is of interest in the Old Testament is the word, “ahabh”. The original meaning of this word is: to breathe after,, to long after, desire,—it is the living expression of love. We read in Deut. 4:37: “And because He loved thy fathers, therefore He chose their seed after them, and brought thee out in His sight with His mighty power out of Egypt.” We should notice the expression in this text: “and because He loved thy fathers.” Hence, the Lord’s choice of their seed after them, and His bringing of them in His sight with His mighty power out of Egypt, is rooted in His love of their fathers, is prompted by this desire, longing for them. And the same thought is expressed in Isaiah 63:9: “In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them: in His love and in His pity He redeemed them: and He bare them, and carried them all the days of old.” We should notice, in this text, that the Lord in His love and in His pity redeemed them. Also here the word evidently means or signifies: to long after, to breathe after, to desire.

We may, therefore, assert that the word “love” in the Old Testament expresses in the first .place, a spiritual bond, affinity, union, causing two or more persons to adhere to one another. And, secondly, because this love is such a spiritual bond, union, affinity, the consciousness and operation of this bond reveals itself as a constant longing of the subject for the object.

In the New Testament two words are used which are of interest to us in the determining of the meaning of the concept, love. These words are AGAPAOO and PHILEOO. The distinction between these words is clearly expressed in John 21:15-17: “So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (agapaoo) thou Me more than these? He saith unto Him, Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee (phileoo). He saith unto him, Feed My lambs. He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (agapaoo) thou Me? He saith unto Him, Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love (phileoo) Thee. He saith unto him, Feed My sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (phileoo) thou Me? Peter was grieved because He saith unto him the third time, Lovest thou Me? And he said unto Him, Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love (phileoo) Thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed My sheep.” We should notice in this passage the use of the words, agapaoo and phileoo. When the Lord addresses His disciple the first and second times He uses the word, agapaoo, but uses the word, phileoo, when He speaks to Peter the third time. His disciple, on the other hand, uses the word, phileoo, throughout.

In connection with the distinction between these words, the late Prof. Bavinck declares that “phileoo” expresses the love between kindred, whereas “agapaoo” is exactly adapted to the full, pure, divine love of God. Trench sees in “phileoo” the emphasis upon the emotional, feeling, whereas “agapaoo” expresses a love which is deeper. In our appraisal of these terms, we remark, in the first place, that “phileoo” is more emotional, sentimental, and “agapaoo” is deeper, more abiding. This, we believe, is clearly established by John 21:15-17. Peter’s use of the word, love, must surely be explained by the fact that he does not dare to use the word which the Savior employs. We understand, of course, that the Lord’s three-fold question is a reminder to the apostle of his three-fold denial of the Christ during the recent trial of the Savior. Then the disciple imagined himself strong, so strong that, even if all the disciples would desert the Lord, he would never deny Him, but would be willing and ready to die for Him. And, incidentally, Simon Peter meant this, and would surely have given his life in defense of his Master. However, Peter did not understand the spiritual nature of the struggle of his Lord, and imagined that he, in his own strength, would be able to cope with any situation that might present itself. However, the apostle had shamefully denied his Lord; in fact, he had denied Him thrice. This explains his use of the word, phileoo, when now questioned by the Christ at the sea of Tiberias. He uses a word which is less strong than that used by the Lord. He uses a word which primarily emphasizes the expression of feeling or emotion. Jesus asks him, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?” Hereupon the disciple answers Him, and we may express it as follows: “Yea, Lord, Thou knowest that I like Thee.” Peter dares not to use the word which the Savior employs, but does say, as it were: I do feel it, and Thou knowest it Lord; I like Thee. That Jesus in His third question directed to His disciple, uses the word, phileoo, which Peter has used is undoubtedly due to the fact that the Lord would spare His disciple any unnecessary anguish, and, besides, He knows that what the apostle would rather call “phileoo” is fundamentally “agapaoo”. John 21:15-17 clearly establishes the truth, therefore, that “agapaoo” is a stronger word than “phileoo”. Secondly, whenever the Scriptures exhort us to love God, they never use “phileoo”, but always “agapaoo”. This also seems to indicate that the word “agapaoo”, is stronger than “phileoo”. Thirdly, although Holy Writ does use “phileoo” to express the love of the Son by the Father, the word “agapaoo” is surely the word generally used to express the love of God. Hence, we believe that whereas “phileoo” emphasizes the emotional, sentimental aspect of love, “agapaoo” emphasizes its deeper, more abiding character.

The Various Uses of Love in the New Testament.

The New Testament is more abundant in its use of the word, love. This does not mean that its use does not occur frequently in the Old Testament. However, it lies in the nature of the case that the New Testament would be more abundant in its use of it. Fact is, the New Testament is the Dispensation of the revelation of the love of God in Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord.

The first use of “love” in the New Testament to which we would call attention is that love has moral perfection for its object—we can love only that which is morally, ethically perfect. We read, e.g., in Heb. 1:9: “Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even Thy God, hath anointed Thee with the oil of gladness above Thy fellows.” In John 3:19 we read: “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” And in John 12:43 we read: “For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” Notice in these passages that righteousness, light, and the praise of God are the objects of love, whereas iniquity, darkness, and the praise of men are the objects of hatred. These passages, we understand, can easily be multiplied. Hence, we can love only that which is morally, ethically perfect, and, therefore, only persons can love. Love is possible only by a moral ethical being. Animals cannot love, and we cannot love animals, or delicacies, such as pie, cake, candy, etc. Love is a personal activity, is rooted in the living God, and can be exercised only by God and by that creature which has been created in the image of God. The concept, love, is, therefore, a purely ethical concept, and presupposes a sphere of ethical perfection. This is also true of hatred, only in the antithetical sense of the word. If we love righteousness we hate unrighteousness; conversely, if we hate the light we love the darkness.

Secondly, the word, love, occurs in Holy Writ as expressing a definite choice or preferment, or distinction. This appears from passages such as Rom. 9:13, Matt. 6:24, and Rom. 11:28. In the first of these passages we read the familiar words: “As it is written, Jacob have I loved but Esau have I hated.” In Matt. 6:24 we read: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” And in Rom. 11:28 we read: “As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.” The second half of the last text may be translated: “but as chosen, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.” Hence, they are beloved of God, not as they appear in history, but only as they are elected of God. For the Lord to love Jacob and hate Esau, for us to hate the one and love the other, for those of Rom. 11:28 to be beloved of God as the chosen of the Lord evidently implies an act of the will, expresses a definite choice, distinction, preferment. To love or hate is, therefore, definitely an act of the will. We love or hate people volitionally,—we definitely choose to do either, or.

Thirdly, inasmuch as the concept, love, is ethical, spiritual, we find that this word is constantly used to express the relation between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This appears throughout the Word of God, e.g., in passages such as John 3:35, John 10:17, and John 14:31. In the first passage we read: “The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into His hand.” In John 10:17 these words occur: “Therefore doth My Father love Me, because I lay down My life, that I might take it again.” And in the last passage we read: “But that the world may know that I love the Father; and as the Father gave Me commandment, even so do I. Arise, let us go hence.”

Fourthly, the same word is also used to express the relation of love between God and man. John 8:42: “Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love Me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of Myself, but He sent Me.”—John 14:15: “If ye love Me, keep My commandments.”—also verses 23, 24, 28: “Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love Me, he will keep My words: and My Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him…. He that loveth Me not keepeth not My sayings: and the word which ye hear is not Mine, but the Father’s which sent Me. . . . Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved Me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for My Father is greater than I.”—I John 4:10, 20: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. … If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen.”—also verse 21: “And this commandment have we from Him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.” These passages, which speak of the relation of God between God and man, using the word, “agapaoo,” can be multiplied.

And, for the same reason, this word, “agapaoo,” is also used to express the highest relation of friendship and fellowship between the brethren. We shall quote just a few passages. We read in John 13:34, 15:12, 17: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. . . . This is My commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. . . . These things I command you, that ye love one another.” And in I John 3:10, 11, 14, 23: “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother. . . . For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. . . . We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. . . . And this is His commandment, That we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as He gave us commandment.” Particularly the writings of the apostle, John, abound in these expressions.

Colossians 3:14.

We read in Col. 3:14: “And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.” The word, translated “charity,” is “agapaoo,” love. In this text love is called the bond of perfectness, a bond which is defined as perfection. Perfection, therefore, binds, unites; for this reason love can be a bond only for them that are perfect. Love, fundamentally, is, therefore, the bond of perfection which binds two or more persons. And the exercise of this bond of love implies that we, united unto one another by this bond of perfection, seek one another, rejoice in one another, as perfect, and do all within our power to strengthen and establish one another in the enjoyment of that perfection which characterizes us in principle. In Galatians 5:22 we read: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy,peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith.” We should note, in connection with this text, that love is called the fruit of the Spirit, and also that it appears in this text at the beginning of all spiritual, ethical virtues. It reminds us of I Cor. 13:13: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity (love), these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”

God Is Love.

We are all acquainted with the passage of I John 4:8, especially the last part: “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” This text undoubtedly expresses the deepest principle of love. In this text the apostle expresses the essence of God’s being. He is love, i.e., His divine being with all the fullness of ethical perfection of which it is the absolute comprehension is a bond of perfect fellowship. For this reason the love of God is absolute. God is absolute. His love is, therefore, absolute; we refer, of course, to the love as it in God Himself is the bond of perfection. The Lord is the subject and the object of His own love. He is surely the subject of His own love. He is the eternal source of His own infinite perfection. The Lord does not owe His existence to anything outside Himself. Neither does He owe His life of love to anything outside Himself. God is love. Love did not come to Him, was not brought or given unto Him; He is the Subject, the eternal Source of his own life of love. Moreover, and this lies in the nature of the case, the Lord is also the object of His own love. God loves everlastingly Himself. We say that this lies in the nature of the case. For God is the God of absolute perfection. Yea, God is absolute. Apart from Him nothing moves and has existence. And, whatever does move and has existence through Him, has a creaturely existence, was called into being by the everlasting Lord. All goodness is but a creaturely reflection of His goodness; all light is but a creaturely reflection of His light; the Lord is the absolute Reality. It therefore lies in the nature of the case that the Lord is eternally the Object of His own love. What is there for the Lord to love except Himself?! Hence, if He loves His people in Christ Jesus, He loves them only for His own Name’s sake, because He beholds in them His own perfections creaturely reflected.

Hence, God is love, as the Triune God. Love, we have observed, is the bond of perfection which unites, binds two or more persons. God is Triune. This signifies that the Lord is one in essence and three in Persons. That He is one in essence implies that He is one in the bond of eternal and infinite perfection. And He is Triune because He is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And as the Triune God He knows Himself eternally as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and is, therefore, united within Himself in the sphere of infinite goodness. The love of God, therefore, is that spiritual bond of friendship whereby the three divine Persons, one in divine perfection and three in Persons, are united to one another in that bond of infinite and eternal perfection, eternally go out to one another, enjoy one another’s fellowship and delight in one another for ever and ever.


We conclude, in connection with the love of God, that God is love, first of all, Himself. God’s own life is a life of love. Eternally He knows and has fellowship with Himself as the Triune God in the bond of infinite and eternal perfection. Hence, He loves His people only in Christ Jesus, and sends His Son into the world, in order that He may seek their eternal salvation and rejoice forevermore in the beholding of His reflections in them. This is, indeed, the heart and core of the covenant, the glorious truth which is the blessed and peculiar heritage of our Protestant Reformed Churches, namely, that the Lord, in His sovereign mercy, according to the lines of election and reprobation, pours out into our hearts His own blessed life of love, that we may love Him as He loves Himself, and so become partakers of His divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4) in the creaturely sense of the word. This is a glorious truth. It is impossible to conceive of anything higher. God’s revelation to His people is not merely a Divine regulation of friendship, is not merely the revelation of the way in which this friendship can be enjoyed, so that the promise and the demand, the blessing and the curse constitute the essence of this revelation of the Lord, with the result that the Scriptural truths of election and reprobation, unconditional promise and irresistible calling do not receive the emphasis they should receive. God reveals unto us His eternal covenant of friendship which He sovereignly realizes in the hearts of those whom He has known and loved before the foundation of the world. And, therefore, the Lord hates the wicked every day and never delights in the objects of His eternal wrath. God loves Himself. God loves His people only in Christ and for Christ’s sake. And He hates all workers of iniquity.