A fundamental misunderstanding of God's love for mankind has been the source of much confusion in the religious world today. When an English-speaking person uses the word "love" in everyday conversation, the meaning may be as insignificant as one's personal dietary favorite or as profound as the deep emotional connections he feels for his spouse or children. Between these two extremes exist many degrees of "love". This limitation of the English language has found its way into our study of God's word. Nearly always, when one speaks of God's love for mankind, a warm emotional attachment is portrayed. In many ways it is not unexpected that such an attachment would be implied. After all, how could God not have a warm emotional attachment for mankind, seeing His willingness to send Jesus to die on the cross while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8)? However, we must consider whether we are attributing human feelings to God. When we read the word "love" in the scriptures, is it conveying human emotion or something else?
The Greek language was much more specific in its expression of "love". Rather than have a single word that conveys so many different feelings, the Greeks used several words that have very specific meanings. The Greek words translated "love" in the New Testament are:
Phileo: carries the idea of "tender affection." Several Greek words are combinations of phileo with another word:
Philarguria: Love of money
Philadelphia: Brotherly love
Philadelphos: Loving one like a brother
Philoteknos: Love one's children
Philandros: Loving her husband
Philanthropia: Love of mankind
Philotheos: Lover of God
Philagathos: Loving goodness
Philautos: Loving one's self
Philedonos: Loving pleasure
Philostorgos: Loving affection, prone to love, loving tenderly
Philoxenia: love to strangers, hospitality
Thelo: To take delight in, to be fond of doing
Agape (noun): "Christian love, whether exercised toward the brethren, or toward men generally, is not an impulse from the feelings, it does not always run with the natural inclinations, nor does it spend itself only upon those for whom some affinity is discovered." Vine's provides a more detailed definition of this word.
Agapao: The verb form of agape.
So one can see the complexity of the Greek language when the concept of "love" is being considered. Two of the Greek words listed above, phileo and agape, are extremely important as we consider God's love for mankind. If the writer is expressing a warm emotional feeling God has for mankind, we should expect to see phileo or a derivative of this word being used. Let's consider these two words in more detail.
This word is used 25 times in the New Testament. 22 times it is translated "love", the remaining 3 the English word used is "kiss." Only twice is this word used to reference the love God has for man:
John 16:27: "For the Father himself loveth you, because ye have loved me, and have believed that I came out from God."
Revelation 3:19: "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent."
In each of these verses, God's love is a warm emotional feeling only for those who have obeyed His commandments! In contrast to the way most religious people today consider God's love, it is not a warm emotional feeling for the disobedient. So what Greek word is used to reference God's love for the sinner?
These words are used 258 times in the New Testament (a ratio of 10:1 compared to phileo). Let's consider a few verses everyone quotes to portray the magnitude of God's love for man:
John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Romans 5:8: "But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."
1 John 3:16: "Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren."
1 John 4:8: "He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love."
In each of these verses, the Greek word translated "love" is either agape or agapao! Please consider the significance behind the words used by the NT writers. When they expressed God's love for disobedient man, they never used the word that carries with it the warm emotional feelings we usually think of as "love." Each time, the word used conveys the thought of an unselfish act performed despite the emotional feelings one has for another. Many people today are confused by the apparent contradiction between God's love and His wrath. They say, "God would never send one of His creatures to hell for eternity." The one who makes such a statement does not understand the nature of God's love. When we understand that the love of God led Him to send Jesus to die for our sins because that was what we needed to have any hope of salvation and not because of His warm feelings for us, we then can properly understand the relationship between His love and His wrath. Consider these verses:
Proverbs 6:16-19: "These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren."
Psalm 5:4-6: For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee. The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity. Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing: the LORD will abhor the bloody and deceitful man."
In these two passages we see another part of God's nature: There are things He hates. Not only are there things He hates, He hates all workers of iniquity! He loathes (abhors) the bloodthirsty and deceitful man! These aren't things, these are people! David tells us that God hates people who work iniquity and those who are bloodthirsty and deceitful. Their fate will be to dwell apart from Him, not stand in His sight, and to be destroyed!
Failure to understand the Biblical concept of love has led to much false teaching in the religious world today. Each time phileo is used to reference God's feelings toward man it was limited to those who were obedient to His commandments. Agape refers to the attitude one has toward another. When I determine to do what is best for you regardless of my emotional attachment to you, I have agape love for you. Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:44 to, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;". Many people stumble over this verse because of their misunderstanding of love as commanded in the Bible. Jesus isn't commanding us to have a warm emotional attachment for our enemies. He is commanding us to have the attitude toward our enemies that we will do what is best for them no matter what! This is the love God had for us while we were sinners. His attitude toward us was such that He was willing to send Jesus to die on the cross despite our sinfulness. When we understand God's love for us we understand how God may hate those who work iniquity at the same time He loved them. His love for them was not an emotional attachment. He gave them what they needed to receive forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life in heaven. However, if they refuse to obey His commandments and die in their sinful state His hatred for them will be manifest as pure wrath as they are condemned to an eternity in hell.