By Bethany Verrett, Crosswalk.com
What drives people? There are some who say it is the material urges of survival, others say anger and hate. However, love of country, love of family, even love of self can rally people to powerful action, even if that love is misplaced.
The Bible says that mankind is made in the image of God, and that God is love. Its pages are full of people driven by love, responding to love, and obeying God in love. If Jesus Christ is the primary subject of the Bible, then love is the theme. The greatest act of love in history was when Jesus Christ died to pay for the sins of the world.
The word love appears in the Bible hundreds of times, and though it is not the most used word in the Bible, it is one of the central themes and driving forces of God’s Word.
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How Many Times Is Love Mentioned in the Bible?
The word love does appear frequently in the English language Bible, beginning in Genesis. Part of the high frequency of the word is because there is only one word for “love” in the English language. It refers to familial love, God’s love, romantic love, or the brotherly love between brothers and sisters in Christ. The various translations have love appear at different consistencies because of the different theories about translation applied to the versions.
Below is an approximate list of the number of times love appears in different popular translations of the Bible:
English Standard Version: 684
King James Version: 442
New American Standard Bible: 479
New Living Translation: 759
New International Version: 686
The Message: 611
One thing to note is that the King James Version count does not include the count for “charity,” a word used in the early 17th century when translation was first published which referred to the highest form of love, selfless, and reciprocal. “Charity” appears in the King James Bible approximately 24 times. The most famous passage using this word for love is 1 Corinthians 13, which defines the word, and culminates, “and now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
These numbers may not match with non-English translations of the Bible, because English only has one word for love, while some other languages have more than one. In the original Greek language of the New Testament, there were four words: agápē, érōs, philía, and storgē. They are brotherly love, sexual love, dispassionate and friendly love, and familial affection usually between parents and offspring - respectively. These different words connote different kinds of affection, which can only be inferred from the English word for love.
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Different Kinds of Love in the Bible
A famous example in the Gospels where the limitations of English’s one word is apparent comes from the Gospel of John. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to some of His disciples while they were fishing. One of them was Peter, who denied Jesus three times the night of His Lord’s arrest. The Bible records:
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ 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 everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep’” (John 21:15-17).
The first two times Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him, Jesus used the appropriate form of agápē; Peter responded, with a form of philía, a lesser form of love, less familiar and less intimate. The third time, Jesus uses a form of philía, to which Peter finally responded with agápē. While the essence of the conversation can be gleaned in the English, there is a deeper level of communication missed.
Is "Love" the Most Used Word in the Bible?
Despite the hundreds of mentions, love is not the most mentioned word in the Bible in English, Hebrew, or Greek. Besides the obvious words like articles such as “the,” or conjunctions like “and,” the most common words in the Bible appear thousands of times.
The most common nouns in the Bible are:
LORD - mentioned over 7000 times
God - mentioned approximately 4300 times
Man - mentioned over 2700 times
Israel - mentioned over 2700 times
People - mentioned over 2200 times
“Love” does make the top 100 most used words in the Bible, along with other important concepts from the Bible like Heaven, sin, peace, and Christ. An examination of the five most common nouns shows they reflect the primary subjects of the Bible - the main characters in literary terms. God, the Lord of everything, and His relationship with mankind, beginning with the nation of Israel, are the focus of the entire Bible.
Love is one of the driving ideas in the Bible, reflected in its prominent use, but the subjects are more important.
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Where Is Love First Mentioned in the Bible?
If the primary story of the Bible is about God - who loves humanity as a Father - sending His beloved and only begotten Son to die for the world to adopt them into His righteous family, it is fitting the first mention of love is related to family and a father-son relationship.
It comes in Genesis. Abraham waited many years for a child, and he and Sarah had given up. God loved them, and at the respective ages of 100 and 90, as their son Isaac approached manhood, God challenged Abraham. “He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you’” (Genesis 22:2, emphasis added). At the last moment, God spared Isaac, and sent a ram to act as a substitute, in an act which foreshadowed Jesus Christ coming as the perfect substitutionary sacrifice.
The use of love here is significant, in part because of how much love goes into this moment. God loved Abraham and Sarah enough to bless them with a miracle baby. Isaac was conceived in love. Abraham loved God enough to obey him and sacrifice his only son. Isaac loved his father enough to go willingly to the altar. The writer of Hebrews wrote of this moment, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named. He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17-19). This moment of love became the foundation for a great people, and the nation from which the Messiah would come.
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What Does the Bible Say about Love?
Just because it is not the most used word in the Bible does not mean God’s Word is silent on the subject; in fact, Scripture has a lot to say about love. Some verses, like Deuteronomy 6:5 show that love requires choice and action, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
This verse also shows that obedience is a byproduct of love, as is patience and forgiveness; “But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them” (Nehemiah 9:17b).
Unfortunately, people can learn to love the wrong things, which is a subject in various Psalms and Proverbs. In one Psalm the writer lamented, “O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah” (Psalm 4:2).
The most famous passage about love comes from 1 Corinthians 13. Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth about several topics, one of which included the proper use of spiritual gifts. He used this part of the epistle to emphasize that none of those gifts really matter if that person is not driven by love. He then listed off the traits which define love:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
As sinners living in a fallen world, it can be hard to exhibit these traits of love, and believers will miss the mark. When examining God, His love does behave perfectly in the way Paul described. After someone gets saved, the Holy Spirit indwells within that individual, transforming from the inside out to better resemble this more perfect love.
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A Prayer to Remember God's Incredible Love for Us
Thank you for the inconceivable, unending, wonderful love that You have, and that You show each being in Creation. Your Word speaks of how You care for the sparrows, and how Your very nature is love. Thank you for demonstrating how much You love us by sending Jesus to die on the cross, paying the price as the perfect substitute for our sins, so that we may have forgiveness and a relationship with You. Please be with us, help us to feel the Holy Spirit. Help us never to forget the great love You have for us. You gave us life, salvation, and hope for eternal life. Fill us continually with Your Spirit so we know You’re there, and that You love us. Thank you for the Bible, which is full of reminders of Your incredible nature. Help us to love others as You love us, and to show the world Your love. Keep our hearts and focus on You, o Lord.
In Jesus’ name I pray,
Love is the center and obsession of books, movies, poems, and philosophy. People have done things that are brave and foolish, kind and cruel, smart and stupid, in its name. No act of love will have a greater impact on Creation than that singular act of redeeming love which put Christ on that cross two thousand years ago. Every mention of love in the Bible foreshadows, reflects, and is a byproduct of that love, the very essence of God’s character.
Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1960.
Marcus, John. Agape: What is it? Mustang: Tate Publishing & Enterprises, LLC., 2009.
Sproul, R.C. God’s Love. Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2012.
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