Agape and Phileō. Two different Greek words for love in the Bible. A lot of attention is given to these two words, from the pulpit to the classroom. As we study the Bible to both learn for ourselves and to teach others, knowing which Greek word for love is used in a verse is essential, right? Not necessarily.

John 3:35 records that the Father loves the Son. The Greek word used here for love is agapaō, (the verb form of the noun agape). In John 5:20, we read again that the Father loves the Son. However, in this verse the Greek word for love is phileō. There is no discernible change in meaning, so what’s going on here?

The problem has to do with hermeneutics, the methods and principles of interpretation. This raises an important question: How should biblical words be interpreted? If you’re like me, you started with something like Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. The problem with Vines is that it deals only with root words, and therein lies part of the problem.

Forming conclusions on the meaning of a word based upon its root can be dangerous. Let me use English to illustrate this. The root word of loving and unloving is love, but the meanings of these two words are entirely different. If the New Testament had been originally written in English and we spoke a different language, turning to a Vines-like resource to discover the meaning of the root word for unloving would lead us terribly astray.

The meaning of a word in the Bible is not determined primarily by its root (or origin). The meaning of a word is determined by its usage.

It gets even more complicated when compound words are involved. Imagine attempting to discover the meaning of the word butterfly from its root words butter and fly. How about the word pineapple from its root words of pine and apple?

So here’s the bottom line: The meaning of a word in the Bible is not determined primarily by its root (or origin). The meaning of a word is determined by its usage.

In his exceptional book, Exegetical Fallacies, Dr. D. A. Carson explains that “[W]e cannot responsibly assume that etymology is related to meaning. We can only test the point by discovering the meaning of a word inductively”. Etymology is a fancy word for root or origin. It’s how a word was formed based upon its entire linguistic history. He goes on to say that “[S]pecification of the meaning of a word on the sole basis of etymology can never be more than an educated guess”.

Hence, when Jesus said that the Father loved Him in John 3:35 and 5:20, He simply meant that the Father loved Him. What else could we say, that the Father loves the Son like a brother in one sense but also with a supreme, divine love in another sense? That would be ludicrous. The Father loves the Son—period!

So here are some guidelines when it comes to interpreting the Bible, particularly words:

  1. Don’t rely on only one resource. Make sure you have a collection of good commentaries and good lexicons (Greek dictionaries).
  2. Text without context is pretext. Remember to read a verse within the context of its passage in order to interpret the meanings of individual words accurately.
  3. Remember that the meaning of a word is not determined primarily by its etymology, but by its usage.

I commend Dr. Carson’s book to you. It’s not easy reading. It’s a book you study slowly and carefully in order to glean its precious nuggets and equip yourself to “accurately handle the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). The often overlooked yet extremely important methods and principles of biblical interpretation are what you’ll get out of this book. So, if you preach, teach, or just love going deep with the sacred Scriptures, then by all means, please get this book.