As people distort, eviscerate, and exaggerate the meaning of agape they tend to downplay its fraternal twin, phileō.  In our last post we exposed the error of the assertion that Paul had such a high view of agape that he would never use that word to describe the love of men for God. In this blog we will examine this allegation:

“… phileō is never used of the love of men toward God…” [1]  

What is being set forth is that God is worthy of holy, supernatural love. Since phileō is not holy or supernatural, it is too natural to be directed at God. Actually, in contradiction to this premise, Paul utilized a compound word that is comprised of phileō and theos (God). (We get the word “theology” from theos.) Here’s the verse:

treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, (2 Timothy 3:4)

“Lovers of God” is a translation of a word that is used once in the New Testament: philotheoi. It is contrasted with another compound word, philedonoi, rendered, “lovers of pleasure”. In the same way one might phileō pleasure, so one can phileō God.

Abraham, The Friend of God:

The word phileō is used to describe friendly love. The word translated “friend”, philos, comes from phileō. It is used in over twenty-five verses in the New Testament. Philos denotes someone who loves another specifically with phileō. A striking use of the word is found when James described Abraham as “the friend of God”.

and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God. (James 2:23)

Phileō can definitely be used to describe the way someone loves God. In fact, Luke addressed his Gospel and Acts to someone named Theophilus!

it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; (Luke 1:3)

The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, (Acts 1:1)

The Greek is actually, Theophile, a God lover. I suppose that comparing Theophile with words like Anglophile (a lover of things that are from the English) or bibliophile (a lover of books) would help us get the sense of this name-description.

Phileō: too natural to describe God’s love for us

Another respected, effective and godly communicator said:

“Paul is talking about agape, which is a commitment of the will to cherish and uphold another person. This is the word that is used about the love of God always. It is the only word ever used to describe his love.”[2]

What this implies is that phileō is never used to describe God’s love for humanity. We will examine two pertinent verses. First, let’s look at Titus 3:4.

 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, (Titus 3:4)

Wonderfully, it is written that God loves mankind. The word here is not agape, but a compound word from which we get the word philanthropy, in fact, philanthropy is a transliteration of philanthropia. It means phileō of anthropos (humanity).

Philanthropia is also used here:

The natives showed us extraordinary kindness (philanthropian); for because of the rain that had set in and because of the cold, they kindled a fire and received us all. (Acts 28:2)

The inhabitants of Malta were displaying a high degree of natural affection for these shipwrecked people. I am glad for their example being designated “philanthropic” because of the way humanity has been shipwrecked. Certainly we have been shown “extraordinary kindness” by God.

Phileō towards Jesus:

God’s love towards Jesus was described as active phileō. Father loved Jesus with a friendly love that resulted in revelation.

“For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and the Father will show Him greater works than these, so that you will marvel. (John 5:20)

Jesus, later in John’s Gospel, revealed that the Father has the same type of love for the believers who love Him with a love described as phileō.

for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father. (John 16:27)

And what about this matter of loving (phileō) Jesus? Shouldn’t that count? Most people who take the New Testament seriously consider Jesus to be God the Son Incarnate. God Incarnate called people to love Him. The text records the word phileō in an important call to discipleship:

“He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. (Matthew 10:37)

The Apostle Paul called down a curse on anyone who did not love (phileō) the Lord.

If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed. Maranatha. (1 Corinthians 16:22)

In one of the most commonly known uses of phileō, Jesus either accepted Peter’s profession of phileō as a compromise to Peter’s inability to agape the Lord (as most preachers seem to believe), or as an acceptable synonym for agape (as most scholars seem to believe).

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep. (John 21:17)

Summing Up:

In the New Testament agape is the word generally used for “love”. However, phileō is also used to describe humanity’s love for God, humanity’s love for Jesus, God’s love for humanity and God’s love for the Messiah, Jesus.

Phileō is an accessible love to which we have no trouble relating. Through prayer and meditation cultivate your appreciation of God’s phileō of you. In your worship, prayer and obedience, develop your love for Him.

God and the Messiah phileō you.


[1] Hebrew Greek Key Study Bible, Zodhiates

[2] From a sermon by Ray Stedman: “Supreme Priority”