Love can be a challenge to define at the level of how a person experiences it. Love can involve personal affection, sexual attraction, platonic admiration, brotherly loyalty, benevolent concern, or worshipful adoration. To accurately answer the question “what is love?” we need to go to the origin of love. The Bible tells us that love originates in God.
In the English language, the word love is forced to bear the burden of a multitude of meanings. We “love” everything from pancakes to parents, but in vastly different ways. The languages in which the Bible was written, Hebrew and Greek, are more precise in that they utilize different words for the different types of love. The ancient languages differentiate among sexual, brotherly, and familial love, and also the kind of love that God has for creation and that we may have for Him.
The Hebrew word yada and the Greek word eros are the words used to indicate sexual love. In Genesis 38 Judah makes love with a woman he assumes is a prostitute. In the original Hebrew of verse 26, the word is yada, meaning “to know” and in this context “to know carnally” or “to have sexual intercourse with.” In the New Testament, the Greek word eros is not found because there is no context in which it might be used.
The second type of love is the brotherly love that exists between close friends regardless of gender. There is no sexual connotation; it is the love for and by a friend. The Hebrew word is ahabah, and it is used to describe the love between David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20:17. The Greek word for brotherly love or affection is phileo, as used to refer to friendship in John 15:19, Romans 12:10, and Hebrews 13:1.
Of family or tribal love, the Hebrew word is once again ahabah, indicating a deep affection, and the Greek word is storge. We find ahabah throughout the Old Testament because of its broad range of meanings, but the Greek word storge is only found in the New Testament as a part of a compound word (e.g., it’s combined with phileo in 2 Timothy 3:3).
Finally, there is the Hebrew word chesed and the Greek word agape, which are used to express the kind of love God demonstrates toward His elect. Chesed is often translated as “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness.” A good example of chesed is found in Numbers 14:18, “The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression” (Numbers 14:18, ESV). God’s chesed love is why He never gives up on those He has adopted as His children. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people repeatedly fell into idolatry and sin, yet He always preserved a remnant; He never gives up on His people. The reason is His chesed love.
A similar idea is found in the New Testament with the Greek word agape. Agape love is the goodwill and benevolence of God shown in self-sacrifice and an unconditional commitment to loved one. Agape is similar to chesed in that it is steadfast, regardless of circumstances. Agape love is the kind of love we are to have for God in fulfillment of the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37). Jesus wants to instill agape in His followers as we serve others through the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 22:39; John 13:34).
In the most basic sense, love is the emotion felt and actions performed by someone concerned for the well-being of another person. Love involves affection, compassion, care, and self-sacrifice. Love originates in the Triune Godhead, within the eternal relationship that exists among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (1 John 4:7–8). Loving is unique to the human experience of being an image-bearer of God. A pet owner may love her dog; she is concerned for its well-being and cares for it. On the other hand, her dog doesn’t truly love her. Oh, it wags its tail, sits by her, and comes when she calls, but all of those responses are based on the fact that she feeds it and keeps it warm. Animals cannot love in the same way that humans, created in God’s image, can love.
Here is the bottom line on love: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.… We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:9–11, 19).