It is a commonplace amongst preachers to distinguish between the various Greek words for ‘love’ (philia, storge, eros and agape) and assert that agape is the word that fits Christian love.
There is a considerable amount of truth in this, of course. Agape, scholars inform us, was a little-used word in secular Greek and therefore was conveniently available to have Christian meaning poured into it.
But the matter can easily be over-stated. For one thing, agape does not carry an exclusively Christian meaning even within the pages of the New Testament. For example, when Paul laments the fact that Demas had deserted him, ‘because he loved this world’, it is agape that he uses there (2 Tim 4:10).
Moreover, we should not drive to large a wedge between agape and eros. Donald MacLeod explains:-
The agape of God is utterly gracious and it does not depend, as eros does, on any loveliness in its object. But agape does not, in contrast with eros, mean a love without involvement, without commitment or – if we may dare – without passion.
MacLeod reminds us that God’s love was first expressed not in Greek, but in Hebrew. The primary word, ahabhah, is found in passages such as the following:-
Isa 63:9 In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
Jer 31:3 The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.
Ho 11:4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them.
Concerning ahabhah, ‘the human experience from which the basic meaning is derived is the overwhelming force of passion between men and women’ (Eichrodt). Remember that the same word is repeatedly used in the Song of Solomon, and in Hosea’s portrayal of the relation between God and Israel as a marriage. Then again, in the New Testament the church is spoken of as the bride of Christ.
It is true that God’s love is for the wicked, for the unlovely.
But agage is still eros to the extent that God’s love is deep and passionate, extravagant, fully committed, possessive and jealous. It is absolutely in earnest. God is determined to have the church’s fellowship, to redeem his bride and to present her to himself holy and without blemish, Eph 5:27. He is grieved by apostasy as a husband is grieved by the faithlessness of his wife; and he mourishes and cherishes his church more extravagantly than the most doting husband.
Behold Your God, 144f.