The Bible has a lot to say about love. Like a LOT a lot. Depending on which translation you pick up, you will find the word love dropped in the Bible between 310 times (the King James Version) and 801 times (the New Living Translation).

Love is a topic of such central importance in the Bible, in fact, one might even go so far as to say that it is the greatest love story every written. Within its pages, you will find cataloged and commented on the full gamut of human love: familial love, friendly love, neighborly love, romantic love, sexual love, dysfunctional love.

Just name a kind of love and you will likely find an example of it in the Bible!

More importantly though, the Bible tells the story of a God who loves us beyond our wildest imagining. What’s more, it teaches us how to welcome that love into our lives and how to share it with others.

FUN FACT: The Bible’s first mention of love is found in a story known as the Binding of Isaac. In this story, God shockingly tells Abraham:“Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.” (Don’t worry, the story has a happy ending!)

What words are translated as ‘love’ in the Bible?

Perhaps the best way to understand what the Bible has to say about love is to study the various words in the Bible that we translate as love.

You will find no shortage of such studies either in print or on the internet. Famously, C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Four Loves about different words for love found in the New Testament. Less famously, the web is full of pages about the different kinds of love in the Bible.

But what most of these studies fail to note is that, for all the many hundreds of times that love gets mentioned in the pages of the Bible, the vast majority of those mentions are translations of just three words: two Hebrew words from the Old Testament (ahavah, khesed) and one Greek word from the New Testament (agape).

Collectively, these words account for 627 of the 801 mentions of love in the NLT. Individually, each of these words offers a unique (and statistically relevant!) insight into the nature of love as it is found in the pages of scripture.

FUN FACT: While it is read at almost every wedding, the Apostle Paul’s famous words from 1 Corinthians 13, “Love is patient. Love is kind. Yada yada yada.” aren’t meant to describe romantic love. Rather, they describe the love that Christians are supposed to have towards ALL people. If you really want to know what Paul has to say about marriage, you need to check out his far less inspirational words in 1 Corinthians 7.

Love in the Bible: The Old Testament Word ‘Ahavah’

Of the three words we’re studying, the Hebrew word ahavah is the one whose definition cleaves most closely to the English word loveAhavah is a word with broad application that generally refers to the affection or care one person shows another.

Our ‘ahavah’ for others

Ahavah can be used to describe a wide variety of loving human relationships. For instance: The King of Persia had ahavah for lovely Esther. Abraham had ahavah for his son Isaac. Jonathan had ahavah for his friend David. The Israelites had ahavah for their King David. The foreign King of Tyre also had ahavah for King David, and so he wanted to help David’s son Solomon build the temple.

Thus we see that ahavah has wide-ranging applications, describing everything from romantic love to parental love to the love of a people for their leader to the love a foreign dignitary has for another.

God’s ‘ahavah’ for us

Ahavah is not just a term to describe our love for others, however, it’s also used to describe God’s love for us!

For example, in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites: “God showed affection for you, He chose you … because of his ahavah for you.” Please note that the Israelites are not chosen because they impressed God with their orthodoxy and moral living. Rather, they are chosen because God first loves them. God’s love isn’t a response to their goodness; it originates from God’s own character.

This is why the prophet Jeremiah says that God’s love is “everlasting.” It has no end, because it has no beginning. God’s love is just an eternal fact of the universe.

In the pages of scripture we also discover that God’s ahavah is more than just a feeling that God has towards us. It’s something that God expresses through action. For instance, Moses says, “because of his ahavah for your ancestors, he brought you out of Egypt with great power.”

God’s love isn’t just a nice sentiment, it is something that God actively expresses through the actions that God takes.

Our ‘ahavah’ for God

And how are we supposed to respond to God’s active, everlasting ahavah for us? With ahavah of our own! Both towards God and towards other people.

That’s why Deuteronomy 6:5 offers this famous command that “you must have ahavah for the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.” God wants us to love him just as he loves us!

Similarly, in Deuteronomy 10:18-19, we read that “God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and he shows ahavah for the immigrants among you, giving them food and clothing. And so you also show ahavah for the immigrant.” God also wants us to love others people just as he does!

And so, at the end of the day, this whole web of loving relationships – God to us, us to God, us to each other – is rooted in God’s own eternal, active ahavah.

FUN FACT: You think you’ve seen dysfunctional relationships on Jerry Springer? You should check out your Bible! In the Book of Hosea, God instructs the prophet to marry a prostitute who will have children by other men in order to illustrate the Israelites’ unfaithfulness. 😲

Love in the Bible: The Old Testament Word ‘Kesed’

The second Hebrew word that gets translated as love in our English bibles is the word khesed. This is one of those words that is difficult to translate because it combines a number of ideas into one: love, generosity, and enduring commitment.

As the folks at the Bible Project describe it, “Khesed describes an act of promise-keeping loyalty that is motivated by deep personal care.”

More succinctly, one could describe khesed as “loyal love.”

human ‘khesed’

The Jewish sages of the Midrash and Talmud lift up the Book of Ruth as the Bible’s most profound illustration of human khesed. The book tells the story of its titular character, Ruth.

Ruth was a foreigner who had married an Israelite man. Tragically, her husband died, as did his brother and his father. All Ruth was left with was her mother-in-law, Naomi.

Far older than Ruth and a widow now herself, Naomi was in a very difficult position (to be widowed in Biblical times without sons to support you or a family to return to was to be guaranteed a life of hardship and poverty). Recognizing that she had nothing to offer her daughter-in-law, Naomi told Ruth that she should go back to her people. Ruth refused, instead promising to stay by Naomi’s side and take care of her.

As people observed Ruth keep this promise through thick and thin, they called Ruth’s faithfulness an act of khesed – loyal love.

God’s ‘Khesed’

Khesed is more than just something humans can show each other. It’s also something that God shows to us.

The Book of Exodus recounts the story of when the Israelites were enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt. Making good on a promise he had made to Abraham generations – a promise through his family God would restore his blessing to the nations – God raised up Moses to liberate the Israelites and lead them into the promised land. And in the story, this is called an act of khesed because it was about God keeping his word.

The journey to the promised land was not easy. The Israelites were beset by enemies on every side and they grew weary of eating only the mana that God provided them each day. Their anger eventually comes to a head and they threaten to kill Moses and appoint a new leader to take them back to Egypt. God is understandably hurt and angry. But Moses steps in and says, “Forgive the sin of these people because of your great khesed.”

Notice that Moses asks God to forgive not because the people deserve it but because it’s consistent with God’s own character. God agrees and recommits himself to a people even though they don’t want to be committed to him. Thus we see that God is loyal and loving for no other reason than it’s just who God is. Of course he wants his people to respond with khesed in return. But even when they don’t, God’s khesed remains.

FUN FACT: We usually think about Jesus as being pious and overly serious at all times. To do so is to ignore that Jesus was a total party animal – his very first miracle was turning water into massive amounts of wine at a wedding, a celebration of love!

Love in the Bible: The New Testament Word AGAPE

Last but not least, we arrive at the Greek word most often translated as love in the New Testament: agape. While the verb form of this word can be traced all the way back to Homer, there are very few instances of the word agape being used in Greek literature.

Fascinatingly, the word agape derives its meaning from its use in the New Testament. The earliest followers of Jesus who wrote books of the New Testament in Greek, they didn’t learn the meaning of agape by looking it up in ancient dictionaries. Rather, they looked to the teachings of Jesus and the story of his life to redefine their very concept of love!

The two sides of Agape

In one famous story about Jesus, he was asked about the most important commandment in the Jewish Scriptures. In response, Jesus quoted as passage from Deuteronomy: “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.” Jesus then quickly appended to this another commandment from the Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Which of these two commandments the most important – loving God or loving your neighbor? Jesus’ answer is “YES!” For Jesus, they’re two sides of the same coin. Your love for God will be expressed by your love for people and vice versa. They are inseparable.

Bigger than a feeling

Unlike ahavah, agape is not a primarily a feeling, it’s an action. It’s choosing to seek the well-being of others with no expectation of anything in return.

According to Jesus, this kind of generous, self-give love reflects the very heartbeat of God: “Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.”

Loving Like Jesus loved

Now, we wouldn’t be talking about Jesus still today if he had only said things like, “love your enemy.” This is how he actually lived. Jesus was constantly helping and serving the people around him in very practical and tangible ways. And
he consistently moved towards poor and hurting people who couldn’t benefit him in return. He showed love for the forgotten ones, the people who usually fall through the cracks.

And when Jesus eventually marched into Jerusalem, he made himself an enemy of the leaders of his people by accusing them of hypocrisy and corruption. But then, instead of attacking his enemies to overthrow them, he allowed them to kill him. Jesus died for the selfishness and corruption of his enemies because he loved them.

After Easter morning, Jesus, and then his followers, claimed that it was the power of God’s love for the world that was revealed in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As the Apostle Paul put it, “God demonstrated his own agape for us in this, while we were still sinners, the Messiah died for us.”

Or in the words of the Apostle John, “God’s own agape was revealed when he sent his one and only Son into the world, so that through him, we could have life.” And for John then, this naturally leads to the conclusion, “beloved ones, if that’s how God loved us, then we ought to show love for one another.”

So Christian faith involves trusting that at the center of the universe is a being overflowing with love for his world, which means that the purpose of human existence is to receive this love that has come to us in Jesus and then to give it back out to others, creating an ecosystem of others-focused, self-giving love.

And that’s the New Testament meaning of agape love.