When we talk about love in the bible, the word we’re usually discussing is agape. It’s one of several Greek words for love, and is typically described as “godly” or “unconditional” love. There’s also storge (family love), eros (romantic love), and phileo (friendly love).
Agape is an amazing kind of love. It’s the one spoken of in 1 Corinthians 13 and the word used in the phrase “God is love. ” Most times when the word “love” appears in the New Testament, it is translated from a form of agape.
But the other kinds of love are amazing as well, and I think we can overlook the importance of phileo in our fixation with agape (storge and eros are not found in scripture).
Friend of God
Philos (G5384) is the root word for a whole family of words having to do with love. It’s basic meaning is “friend” — someone who is dear, a beloved companion. The derivative phileo is the form more often translated “love.” It means “to have affection for someone.” Zodhiates notes that it is rarely used of man’s love toward God, but is used of the disciples’ love for Jesus. Both agape and phileo are used of God’s love toward man. Simply put, phileo involves adopting someone’s interests as yours.
the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God. (John 16:27)
By using the word phileo in this passage instead of agape, Christ is telling us that God feels affection for us. He is fond of those who love His Son, and He has shared interests with us.
A chapter earlier, Jesus tells His disciples, “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 15:14). That word is philos. The disciples would have known about the connection between these two words, and I suspect what Christ was telling them was that they could be friends with the Father as well as with Him, just as Abraham was.
And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. (James 2:23)
James tells us that Abraham was called God’s friend after “he offered Isaac his son on the altar.” That situation was an example of works and faith going together in a way that perfected Abraham’s faith (James 2:21-22). At that point, Abraham had faithfully demonstrated for years that his interests were in line with God’s plan.
Abraham is not the only person in the Bible who God treated as a friend. We’re told “the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11). God called David “a man after My own heart, who will do all My will” (Acts 13:22). As their interests lined up with God’s and they moved in the direction God was leading, they became His friends. Christ’s friendship with His disciples followed much the same pattern, and that is the kind of relationship we are now offered with God the Father and with Jesus Christ.
Necessity of Brotherly Kindness
In most places where we are instructed by God to love other people, the word is agape or agapao. But there are a few places where a form of phileo is used instead.
Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another (Rom. 12:10)
Believers are to have this kind of love for one another. If the church is unified in Christ, then the members will share the same goals and interests, because they are also His goals and interests. The brethren will be friendly to one another, and love each other like friends who are closer than family.
But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Pet. 1:5-8)
Both “brotherly kindness” and agape are necessary for us to become the opposite of barren and unfruitful. We must set our hearts on right things, and focus on being friends of God rather than of the world, for whoever “wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
The necessity for a friendly kind of love between brethren is made plain not only by verses discussing phileo between believers, but also by verses like Philippians 2:1-4 and Ephesians 4:1-7 that talk about how we should be like-minded and care for one another. Other instructions for us to have phileo hearken back to our discussion about being friends with God. Turns out, having this kind of affection for our Creator is not optional.
If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed. O Lord, come! (1 Cor. 16:22)
The King James reads, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha.” The word anathema (G331) means something accursed, or given up to destruction. It does not “denote punishment intended as disciple but being given over or devoted to divine condemnation” (Zodhiates). Maran-atha (G3134) is an Aramaic word which literally means “our Lord has come.” Taken together, it tells us that someone who does not love, phileo, Jesus Christ will be judged at the Lord’s coming, and probably not in the way they were hoping (Matt. 7:21-23). It could probably be translated, “If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be set aside for condemnation when the Lord returns.”
As vital as phileo is in our relationship with the God-family, it is not enough by itself. We must have phileo, but we must also add agape, as we saw in 2 Peter 1:5-8.
Probably one of the most discussed passages where both phileo and agape are used is in John 21. Here, we find a conversation between Jesus and Peter, after Peter had seen the resurrected Lord and then went back to fishing. In the following quote, I’ve replaced the English word “love” with the Greek word it’s translated from, so you can see which one is used when.
So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you agapao Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I phileo You.” He said to him, “Feed My lambs.”
He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you agapao Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I phileo You.” He said to him, “Tend My sheep.”
He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you phileo Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you phileo Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I phileo You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep. (John 21:15-17)
Usually, when I hear people talk about this verse, it’s in the context of agapao being a much higher form of love than phileo. They say Peter just wasn’t quite able to measure up to that kind of love — that he kept falling short of what Christ was asking. From Peter’s perspective, though, I don’t think that was the case. He responded to Christ’s question about agapao by saying, “Yes.” Perhaps what he meant when he added phileo was, “Of course I have agape love for you. You know that — I love you like a brother. We’re friends.”
And yet, Peter had denied Jesus three times just a few days ago (John 18:15-18, 25-27). I think Peter initially thought phileo was a better kind of love because of how much it involves emotions, but phileo needs agape added to it. Agape is the kind of love that keeps loving when feelings are gone or when they are crowded out by fear. Peter did learn this lesson, for it’s in his epistle that we are told to add agapao to our brotherly kindness.
We need to learn similar lessons today. Our love for God and our fellow believers does need an element of emotion and feeling — we need to be friends with them. Our love also needs to be stable and unconditional — we need to act with love even when we don’t feel in love. Both are needed to maintain a friendship with God.