Not long ago I announced at the start of a sermon that I was beginning a series on mistakes I had made in preaching. One member said the series would last several years! Like most preachers, when I look back on the lessons I preached early on, I often cringe. One of the most common errors I have made is misusing word studies. It is easy to imagine that the answer to every question about a passage of Scripture can be found in the Hebrew or Greek text. And of course, an understanding of the original languages can be extremely helpful. But since we are blessed to have access to many wonderful standard translations, the most important task for Bible students is to pay careful attention to the English text. I’d like to illustrate that task with the famous exchange between Jesus and Peter in John 21:15-19.
Do You Love Me? Yes I Love You
John 21:15-17 records a conversation between Jesus and Peter following the Lord’s resurrection. Jesus asks three questions and Peter offers three replies. In our English translations, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love Me,” and three times Peter replies, “You know that I love you.” But if we were reading the Greek text, we would notice that are actually two different Greek words used in this dialogue, the Greek verbs agapao and phileo:
Jesus: Do you love (agapao) me more than these?
Peter: Yes Lord; you know that I love (phileo) you.
Jesus: Do you love (agapao) me?
Peter: Yes, Lord; you know that I love (phileo) you.
Jesus: Do you love (phileo) me?
Peter: You know that I love (phileo) you.
Why does Jesus use agapao the first two times, and why does Peter only respond with phileo? Further, why does Jesus switch to phileo the third time He questions Peter?
One view holds that the answer to this question is found in the nuances of the Greek language. Agapao is said to represent selfless and unemotional love, such as God’s love for sinners, whereas phileo refers to mutual and affectionate love, such as the relationship between brethren. On the basis of this distinction, some commentators have suggested that since agapao is unemotional it was too cold a term for Peter’s warm, affectionate love for the Lord. Peter wanted the Lord to know that his love went far beyond the calculating love represented by agapao, and so declared to Jesus his phileo love. Other commentators have drawn the opposite conclusion, and maintain that Peter could not bring himself to profess the highest sort of love (agapao), and could only pledge love of a lesser quality (phileo) for Jesus, and that Jesus graciously condescended to meet Peter on that level.
Which view is correct? And if the Greek terminology is so crucial, why is it that those who rest their case on these word studies draw such different conclusions? Or perhaps the real point of this exchange between Jesus and Peter has nothing to do with the Greek words found in the text!
In actuality, agapao and phileo have far more in common with each other than not. It is true that the range of meanings for agapao and phileo are not identical, but for the most part these terms overlap in meaning. You can see this by looking up their definitions in the standard Greek lexicon for the New Testament (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature). The definitions and translations offered for agapao are “to have a warm regard for and interest in another, cherish, have affection for, love.” And the definitions and translations given for phileo are “to have a special interest in someone or something, frequently with focus on close association, have affection for, like, consider someone a friend,” along with a second definition, “to kiss as a special indication of affection, kiss.”
It is an overstatement then to say that agapao represents the highest form of love, such as selfless or divine love, distinct from phileo. Just a quick glance at various occurrences of agapao in the New Testament establishes this point:
- “For Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me” (2 Tim. 4:10).
- “For even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32).
- “And men loved darkness rather than light” (John 3:19).
- “For they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God” (John 12:43).
And while it is the case that these words can have their own specific nuances, they are basically synonymous. Notice these parallel passages about the Pharisees:
- “For you love (agapao) the chief seats in the synagogues” (Luke 11:43).
- “Beware of the scribes who love (phileo) respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues” (Luke 20:46).
In John’s gospel, consider these parallels:
- “The Father loves (agapao) the Son and has given all things into His hand” (3:35).
- “For the Father loves (phileo) the Son, and shows Him all things that he is doing” (5:20).
And perhaps the simplest illustration is the phrase used by the author of the fourth gospel to identify himself. “The disciple whom Jesus loved” is both the disciple whom Jesus loved (agapao) (21:20) and whom Jesus loved (phileo) (20:2).
So if these words are basically synonymous, why in John’s record of the conversation between Jesus and Peter does he use different words? Why does any writer use synonyms rather than just say the same words over and over? The use of synonyms makes for more interesting reading. And it so happens that in the same exchange with Jesus and Peter, John frequently used several other synonymous terms.
- Jesus commissions Peter to “feed” (bosko) in 21:15, 17 and “tend” (poimaino) in 21:16.
- Peter is to feed/tend “lambs” (arnia) in 21:15 and “sheep” (probata) in 21:16, 17.
- Peter says that the Lord “knows” (oida) his love in 21:15, 16 and “knows” (ginosko) it in 21:17.
If there is no major distinction to be drawn in these other uses of synonymous terms, why assume there is a drastic difference between the words for “love” if they substantially overlap in meaning? I’d like to suggest that a better line of interpretation is to look not at the technical Greek vocabulary, but instead at the emphasis in the English text itself. That’s what we will do in the next article.