Put on your thinking hat to read this. This is deeper theology compared to most writings about God.
Almost every regular church-goer is aware of the two Greek (the original language of the New Testament) words used in the Bible that are translated "love." The first is agape (ah-gaup-ay) and the second, philos (fee-lowse, long o). Typically, the word agape is presented (from the pulpit and in the Sunday school classroom) as "the God-kind of love where we love God enough to live and/or die for Him and/or God loves us enough to die on the Cross for us" and philos is spoken of as kind of a "buddy-love" or "friendship-love" which has much weaker ties to the object of our love.
However, at the start of Jesus' earthly ministry these two words were almost synonymous; the great divide between just a friend and someone we would live and/or die for did not exist. For example, Luke 6:27 states, "Agape your enemies."
It is recorded in John 21:15-17 that Jesus twice asked Peter if Peter loved him with agape love (the first two questions) and a third time Jesus asked if Peter loved him with philos love. Peter responded all three times that his love for Jesus was a philos love and Peter's reaction was frustration that Jesus asked him three times if he (Peter) loved Jesus with a philos love. In other words, Peter saw so little difference between agape and philos that he equated them as interchangeable. For example, if I say it is dark outside, there may or may not be sufficient moonlight to see. Dark can mean after sunset in bright moonlight or total blind darkness.
However, in this conversation between Jesus and Peter, a recognizable distinction between agape and philos did exist because Peter's reaction to Jesus' first two requests (do you agape me?) was (in effect), "No, but I philos you." However, the vast difference that would denote agape as the overwhelming self-sacrificial love that comes from God, compared to buddy-love (that is, "more than like") did not exist.
It is more accurate to say that, at the start of Jesus' earthy ministry, agape was understood to mean "loves a lot" while philos meant "significant love," "more than like" or "love more than a little bit."
Luke 6:27, when penned, would have been understood as "Do more than love your enemies a little, love them a lot and enough to do something good for them such as pray for them, turn the other cheek or give them something to meet their need" (verse 28-30), not "Love your enemies enough to live and/or die for them."
Language is, and words are, always in a state of change; always has been and will always be.
The Apostle John, in his writings (The Gospel of John, First, Second and Third John), boldly link agape with the love of God and the love from God. It is clear from John's writings that he saw agape as more widely separated from philos than did his contemporaries. No other writer of the New Testament saw such a wide distinction between the two words because, before the writings of John, that wide distinction DID NOT EXIST.
All of John's writings constitute the last writings of the New Testament. All of John's writings point to agape being much different from philos. Not just different enough to be noticed (as all of the other earlier writings of all of the other New Testament writers), but different enough that they are not remotely the same.
All of the other writers could write "I agape sleep" because agape to them was "love a lot." To John, agape = God. John only agapes God and other people through the power of God. John could only philos sleep. He could never agape sleep because sleep is not God.
John is noted in the Bible as the Apostle whom Jesus loved (John 13:23). That special love between John and Jesus caused John to redefine the word agape. It is likely the conversation in 33AD that led John to think long and hard about comparing and contrasting agape with philos is recorded in John 21:15-19. By 90AD (the approximate date of the writing of the Book of John), John equated agape with God-love and changed, or at least deepened, the meaning of that word for subsequent generations.
It is important to know that when you read the word love in the New Testament, if it is the Greek word agape, every New Testament writer except John is using that word to mean, "love a lot" not "God-love." John, alone, uses agape to mean "a supreme love from and/or for God that standing alone, is sufficient reason to live or die for." "Love a lot" is less than that. (See PS at the bottom.)
If love was money and $100 represented all the money in the world, before the writings of John philos represented $25 to $40 and agape represented $45 to $60.00. After the writings of John philos represents $25 to $40 and agape represents $90 to $100.00. This may be a poor illustration, but I am not alone in the struggle to put into words the boundless love of God.
Love is easier shown than defined. "For God so agaped the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but has everlasting life." (John 3:16). Now, you know one of the reasons why John 3:16 is the most popular verse in the Bible!
Rev. Joda Collins
I make no claim that anyone else agrees with me.
PS: Because John 21 contains a conversation that took place in 33AD and the Book of John was written about 90AD, the word agape in John 21 would have been used by Jesus in the (then) traditional use to mean "love me a lot" or "love me more than your other friends" not "love me with an overwhelming self-sacrificing manner as a mature believer would likely love God."