What is the Biblical Definition of Love?

By David
Originally Published 2012 - Updated June 3, 2015

In our age of love and tolerance we see the word love used a lot. From Valentine's cards to love songs to political correctness the definition of the word seems to constantly be in flux. Have you ever heard the old saying, "He who defines the terms wins the game"? It's true. Jesus says in John 13:35, "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." Love is a very important term for Christians. So the obvious question when discussing love is "What does it mean to love someone?"

This is a little difficult in English because there is only one word for love, obviously "love". In Greek there are four different words for the word we know of as love. 1Footnote 1

Some say there are six Greek words for love; some say only three (storge is not used very much). Wikipedia says 4 so that's what I went with.
There is eros, phileo (philia), storge, and agape. Eros is a passionate love: a love between a romantic couple. This is where we get the word erotic from. Phileo is a brotherly love: a close bond between friends and siblings. Storge is similiar to phileo in that it is affection or acceptance without romance. It usually refers to the love of parents and children.

Agape is different from the other three in that it is a self-sacrificing love. This love sort of transcends the other forms. That is because agape is more of an action than a feeling. Agape is basically putting others before yourself, and you can do that with eros, phileo, or storge relationships. You can even show agape to someone you don't know. The best example we have of agape is Jesus Christ dying on the cross for our sins. We were enemies with God and we deserved death, but Jesus, though we hated Him, died on our behalf (Romans 5:6-8).

But what does it mean for us to love? many people will say that loving someone means putting them above yourself: putting their needs above yours. Others will say that loving someone means wanting what's best for them. While both of these are true, they don't capture the broad scope of what it means to love someone. In this essay I will attempt to explain what it means to love unbelievers, believers, and God.

Loving Unbelievers

So is showing love to someone wanting what's best for them? I'm going to say it is. The question you need to ask now is. "What is best for someone?" For an unbeliever, I would say the best thing for them is to come to salvation. You can be as nice to someone as possible and put them first in everything you do, but if you don't share the Gospel with them and they die and go to hell, how loving can you be? 2Footnote 2

This doesn't mean that we don't need to be kind to our fellow man. Our kindness should back up our message of salvation. Why would an unbeliever want to become a Christian if the Christians he knows are jerks?

So if you have a friend who is an unbeliever, you can care about them and you can want them to succeed in life, but if you truly love them with a Godly love, you will desire them to come to know the Savior. What's really important in all eternity isn't if they were happy or social. The only thing of eternal importance is whether or not they know Jesus Christ as Lord of their lives. We as believers have a direct intervention in that by sharing the Gospel with them. The Bible says we are to plead with people to repent and trust in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). This also refers to those we don't know. You don't have to be best friends with someone to show great love for them. Just gently share the Gospel with them.

1 Thessalonians 2:8 says, "We loved you so much that we shared with you not only the Gospel of God but our own lives, too." Paul says here that he worked hard to not be a burden to the Thessalonians and to be kind to them and serve them as to give testimony to his message of the Gospel. Paul was a very compassionate and generous person, but that alone isn't love. He did what he did in conjunction with proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to give men what they truly needed: salvation from their sins.

Loving Believers

Let's stick with the definition that loving someone means wanting what's best for them. The same question then applies to believers. What is best for someone who already knows Jesus Christ? Paul prays for this very thing in all his letters. What does he pray for? That they may know Him. These people had already come to salvation, but the best thing for them is the same as for an unbeliever: to know Him, to know Christ more fully. To know the riches of His love (Ephesians 3:16) and the knowledge of His will (Colossians 1:9). A goal and desire for Christians is to be like Christ: to walk in a manner worthy of their calling. And how does someone know how to be like Christ? Growing in grace and knowledge of Him (2 Peter 3:18).

So what does this mean for us? If we are to love a fellow believer, we must help them to know all they can about God and help them live Godly lives. This means Godly fellowship. A way we can show love is to engage one another in spiritual discussion. Just talking about the wonders of God, His love for us, or the gift of salvation are just a few of the multitudes of spiritual discussions that can lead to exhortation and spiritual growth. The intimate knowledge of our savior will give us a desire to love and serve Him more.

Another way to show your love for other believers is to gently point out a sin in their life. Matthew 18:15 says, "If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother." You don't need to be a jerk about it, but it is loving to show a brother that he is in sin. If the greatest thing on earth for us is to know and imitate Christ, then it is helpful and caring to do all that is in your power to help others do that.

Loving God

If the manifestation of our love for other people results in an exhortation to love God, then the next question you may have is, "What does it mean to love God?" When we sing hymns and worship songs, we often proclaim our love for Jesus, but what does it really mean to love Jesus? What does it look like? Jesus actually explains this in John 14. Jesus says in John 14:15, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments." Again in John 14:21 Jesus says, "He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me." Jesus makes it pretty clear that if we love Him we will obey Him.

Obedience is a manifestation of our love for God, but does obedience to God's word necessarily mean we love God? No. Think of it in a human sense. We follow the rules of the government, but how often have you enjoyed going the speed limit? Can you say you love our government? It's the same with God; just following rules laid out in the Bible isn't love, it's submission

So how do we relate love to obedience? Think of a marriage relationship. If you love your spouse you will want to make them happy, and when you do, you yourself receive joy. If we translate this to our relationship with God, the key words here are "want" and "joy". If we love God we will want to keep His commandments and in doing so we receive joy from that. What does it mean to love God? It means getting joy out of serving Him. 1 John 5:3 says, "For this is the love of God: that we keep His commandments, and His commandments are not burdensome."

So what does it mean if we get our joy from something other than serving God? As Christians, if we receive pleasure from the world, be it trash on TV, drugs, alcohol, anything apart from God, that's adultery. Just like if a married man receives pleasure from another woman who isn't his wife, if we as Christians get pleasure from anything other than God, we are committing adultery. God said in Deuteronomy 6:5 "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." Jesus also repeated this as the greatest commandment of God. 3Footnote 3

Matthew 22:37-38 "And He said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment.'"

Are things like TV or alcohol inherently sinful? No. It's the love of those things that is sinful. 4Footnote 4

1 Timothy 6:10 "For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil."
God is jealous of your love for Him. Jesus said, "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And in Isaiah 42:8 God says, "I will not give my glory to another". Possessions are not sinful or even wrong to enjoy. God gave them to us to enjoy, but they must be viewed in their proper context: as gifts from a loving God.

God's Love for us

The best example of Love is, of course, Christ's death on the cross for our sins. All of mankind has sinned and God said that no one does good or even seeks for God (Romans 3:10). In Colossians 1:21 Paul calls us enemies of God, hostile towards Him, and doing evil deeds. That was the situation we were in; all of mankind was in rebellion against God and penalty for sin is death (Romans 6:23). All of us were on death row awaiting our judgment.

We had nothing to show for ourselves. In Isaiah 64:6, God tells us that even our "righteous deeds" were like filthy rags, unfit for a perfect God. But God being rich in mercy decided to pay or debt. Romans 5:6-8 says, "For while we were yet weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man. Yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

Jesus paid our debt of death even though we were His enemies. It's not like He did a favor for a friend; He died for a world who hated Him. He never once sinned, He taught of love and righteousness, He healed countless sick, disabled, or posessed people, but the world said, "Crucify Him". That is the definition of Love. He gave the most perfect demonstration of love possible: He gave the world the opportunity to come to know God and have everlasting life. John 3:16, a verse nearly everyone knows, says, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life."

In John 15:13 Jesus says, "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends." Jesus died so that men may come to a knowledge of God and reap everlasting life. The least we could do is to tell others about that gift. If the most important thing for man is that Jesus died for them, then the second most important thing would be for them to be aware of it and to understand how they can come to know that savior.

Christians are hate-filled

It is common thinking nowadays that Christians are hateful, unloving, and intolerant. This is most commonly used by proponents of gay marriage. Because Christians believe homosexuality is a sin, they are seen as hateful. As we've looked at previously, this accusation is entirely untrue. While we may be intolerant of a homosexual or otherwise sinful lifestyle, I assert that it would be unloving to tolerate sin in someone's life.

We as Christians first and foremost love God, and that means we cannot love sin because God hates sin (Proverbs 6:16-19). James 4:4 says, "friendship with the world is hostility towards God". Our first duty is to keep God's commandments. Second, if we love other people like we should, that means calling them out on their sin. Obviously we should do this in a kind and gentle manner, but a loving Christian would show someone living in sin that their action are offending God. The loving thing to do would be to explain to them that they are sinning and under condemnation: then proceed to share the Gospel with that person.

Jesus loved everyone on earth perfectly, but He didn't tolerate their sin. Jesus was so intolerant of people's sin that He died on the cross to save people from their sins. He gave His life to change people and bring them out of the sin that ruled them. That is love. Love does not allow or desire another to reap the consequences of sin, it does all it can to bring the sinner into a right relationship with God. By not tolerating a sinful activity or lifestyle, Christians are not being unloving: quite the opposite. By pronouncing God's judgment on sin, we are giving opportunity to show God's love to them.


God gave us a perfect example of love: Jesus Christ. Our duty is to follow His example and love others. We love others by sharing the Gospel, and sharing in the fellowship of the grace of God. We love God by keeping His commandments and deriving pleasure from doing so. Anyone can say that they love someone, but only with the help of God, can you truly desire what's best for them


  1. Some say there are six Greek words for love; some say only three (storge is not used very much). Wikipedia says 4 so that's what I went with.

  2. This doesn't mean that we don't need to be kind to our fellow man. Our kindness should back up our message of salvation. Why would an unbeliever want to become a Christian if the Christians he knows are jerks?

  3. Matthew 22:35-40 "One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 'Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?' And He said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.'"

  4. 1 Timothy 6:10 "For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil."