For as long as I can remember, I’ve been hearing preachers and teachers make a distinction between two Greek words for love, ἀγαπάω (agapao) and φιλέω (phileo). It is suggested that agape love stands in its divine category. “It is the word that describes the unconditional love that God has for his people,” we often say. Philos, on the other hand, is described as a human love, a family love.

Perhaps there are some subtle distinctions between these two terms, but is there a Biblical precedent for so strictly defining them? If there were, we should expect to see the use of agape whenever God directs his love toward mankind, and we should not expect to see it used in trivial ways by man. But alas, this is not what we see in the New Testament at all.

When John describes the Father’s love for his Son, Jesus, he uses the Greek word phileo in John 5:20. Still, earlier in the gospel, John uses agapao to describe the Father’s love for Jesus (John 3:35). There is no apparent reason for this distinction. Furthermore, in John 16:26, when Jesus describes God’s love for his children and our love for Jesus, he uses the word phileo. In Revelation 3:19, Jesus speaks from heaven about those he loves (phileo again).

I refrain from a host of other similar examples, but hopefully, it’s clear that phileo is as much a quality of God’s love as it is a brotherly kind of love. But our oversimplification of these terms is further revealed when agapaois is used regarding man’s selfish love.

In the Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX), agapao describes Amnon’s lustful love for his sister Tamar. This is interesting when, according to one renowned Greek lexicon, “[Phileo] is [the] usual word in earlier [Greek], but gradually loses ground to [agapao], esp. in the Koine.”[1] Even though phileo was the more common word when the LXX was composed, the author still chose to use agape love to describe Amnon’s vice.

Similarly, In Luke 11:43, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their love of attention and human honor. He uses the word agapao. Should we infer that the Pharisees had an unconditional and divine-like love for human praise?

John says something similar in his gospel. The people who believed in Jesus but ultimately rejected him “loved (agapao) the glory that comes from man” (John 12:43). And just for good measure, here is one more: “For Demas, in love (agapao) with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10).

The Scriptures do not allow us to dichotomize these terms so neatly. D.A. Carson, in his book, Exegetical Fallacies, writes,

“Although it is doubtless true that the entire range of ἀγαπάω (agapaō, to love) and the entire range of φιλέω (phileō, to love) are not exactly the same, nevertheless they enjoy substantial overlap.”[2]

Their substantial overlap makes simple distinctions very difficult to make – and often, such distinctions are unwarranted.


Words and their semantical ranges are indeed limited, and it’s doubtless that God has inspired his Word with a great deal of specificity and nuance. Often, we can derive meaningful and contextual distinctions between synonymous terms in the Bible. But at other times, there does not seem to be any observable reason for one term over another.

Bible students, especially teachers, should be cautious when using the original languages. Perhaps we’re not running any real risk of danger when we fallaciously box in agapao and phileo. But in principle, this casual approach to our teaching could lead us to teach error in another part of Scripture.

Let us be diligent in coming to the text with fresh eyes and ears, ready to leave behind any baggage the Scriptures won’t allow on board.

Work Cited

[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). In A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 1056). University of Chicago Press.

[2] Carson, D. A. (1996). Exegetical fallacies (2nd ed., p. 29). Paternoster; Baker Books.

Daniel Mayfield
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"Daniel serves as a preacher and teacher at the Oldham Lane Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas. He does this work with the invaluable aid, wisdom, and encouragement of his wife, Miranda. They have two young sons, Judah and Zion, and one beautiful daughter, Eden. Daniel had served in Oklahoma for nearly five years, before which time he and Miranda served as missionaries in the Caribbean. Daniel is a graduate of both Bear Valley and Oklahoma Christian University. His greatest passion is to preach the gospel of Jesus to anyone who will listen."