Agape and Phileo

Can we interpret John 21 better by knowing the Greek words agape and Phileo?  It seems that Peter replies to Jesus twice that he "affectionately loves" Him, after He asks Peter twice if he loves Him--(in the sense of duty and of the will). Then, Jesus uses Peter's own word for love the third time: "Do you Peter love me affectionately?".  That's a big part it seems why Peter was so grieved. Now, isn't it fair to say that you could never know this with the English? Is it possible that the scholars are lying to us about the Greek? Or, is it possible that the Greek manuscripts are in error? Or, not legitimate? I just don't know.

The Greek language has three words for love: agape, phileo, and eros. Eros is not confused with the other two because it refers to sexual love or lust. However, scholars have been trying for years to get much mileage from the supposed distinction of the other two--especially in the passage in question--John 21:15-17. The idea is that the distinction between the two words for love in Greek is always consistent and clearly distinctive. Therefore, the tendency of the King James translators to ignore this distinction and to translate these two very different words both as love is an absolute proof of the failure of the King James Bible in translation.

By the way, I checked the passage out in the New International Version and in the Revised Standard Version. They also use "love" throughout the passage. Even over three centuries later, they did not see a need to use different words...but I am getting ahead of myself.

The standard teaching is that agape is the highest and purest kind of love. It is divine love and is used to express the essential nature of God (1 John 4:8). Phileo is distinguished as being the more personal of the two terms and refers often to a brotherly love. This is seen in the naming of the city of Philadelphia, which name means "the city of brotherly love."

Anyway, using the Greek words (in their anglicized forms), here is a summary of the passage.

VERSE 15:

Jesus asked Peter if he agape'd Him

Peter responded that he phileo'd Him

VERSE 16:

Jesus asked Peter if he agape'd Him

Peter responded that he phileo'd Him

VERSE 17:

Jesus asked Peter if he phileo'd Him

Peter responded that he phileo'd Him

The argument made by the scholars is that Jesus asked Peter if he had the highest form of love for Him. However, Peter could only say that he had the lower form of love for His Saviour. Finally, the third time He asked the question using the word for the lower form of love. This showed that Jesus was satisfied if Peter could only love Him with phileo love. This argument is found in H. A. Ironside's commentary on John and in many others. However, your argument seems to approach the interpretation differently. F. F. Bruce in his commentary on John says concerning the interpretation of the Greek words for love in this passage: "But those who see a difference in force between the two verbs here are not agreed on the nature of the difference." According to Trench, Peter finds the first two instances as "far too cold" and wants a more affectionate word for love. But according to Westcott, the first word (agape) is too high and Peter pushes for a more human word for love.

Bruce continues: "When two such distinguished Greek scholars (both, moreover, tending to argue from the standards of classical Greek) see the significance of the synonymns so differently, we may wonder if indeed we are intended to see such distinct significance.

Let us consider these facts:

  1. The verbs agapao and phileo are used interchangeably in the Septuagint to render one and the same Hebrew word (e.g. in Genesis 37:3 Jacob's preferential love for Joseph is expressed by agapao but in the following verse by phileo).
  2. The verb agapao in itself does not necessarily imply a loftier love; it does so when the context makes this clear (on the other hand, in 2Timothy 4:10 Demas's regrettable love for 'this present world' is expressed by agapao).
  3. More important still for our present purpose is the fact that John himself uses the two verbs interchangeably elsewhere in his Gospel, e.g. in the statement that 'the Father loves the Son' (agapao in 3:35; phileo in 5:20) and in references to 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' (agapao in 13:23; 19:26; 21:7, 20; phileo in 20:2). It is precarious, then, to press a distinction between the two synonyms here."

This quotation is important for several reasons. First, F. F. Bruce is accepted as a major Bible scholar (that seems to be more important to you than it is to me). Also, he is no supporter of the King James Bible. He has been involved in other modern English translations of the Bible. Third, he points out that the scholars who make the distinction in the Greek to be of major significance do so because of their reliance on classical Greek. That is, they go to the Greek of Plato, Aristotle, and others and assume the distinctions there to be the same as in the Biblical Greek. This has been shown to cause many errors. Biblical Greek was distinct from Classical Greek in many ways. The biblical usage of a word is the proof for what that word means in the Bible. Those who forget this end up teaching error.

You (and many others) say that Peter was grieved because Jesus used a different word for love in the third question. However, this puts our intelligence above the plain statement of scripture. If the Bible clearly tells us the cause of something, what makes us think that we are smart enough to find another answer? Read this verse again:

John 21:17 He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

The verse clearly says that "Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me?" The cause of his grief was that Jesus had asked him the same question three times. This, by itself, proves that Peter saw no significance in the changed word for love. If he had seen it as a different question, he would not have been grieved because the same question had been asked THREE TIMES. However, there is another very powerful reason that a third asking of the question would grieve Peter. He had just denied his Saviour THREE TIMES! See Luke 22:54-62. Jesus is giving him his own medicine.

Also, it is important to note that the three denials of Jesus came after Peter had bragged about how he was more dependable that the other disciples in his faithfulness to Jesus. Read the following passage:

Matthew 26:31-34 Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. But after I am risen again, I will go before you into Galilee.  Peter answered and said unto him, Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.  Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.

Peter states that even though others might be offended, he will "never be offended." In effect, he is saying, "Lord, I don't know about these other guys. I have some questions about them myself. But you can bet your last dollar that I'll be there at the end of the fight. I'll be faithful to the end. You can bank on that!"

That is what Jesus has reminded Peter of by asking the question about love the third time. We also see it in the way Jesus asked the question the first time: "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?" (John 21:15). Who are the these? Peter had bragged about how he had loved Jesus more than the other disciples and then he denied the Lord three times. Now, Jesus asks Peter if he is still going to brag about how much more he loves Jesus than the others do. Peter dodges the true point of the question until Jesus asks it the third time and removes all doubt as to His point. Peter gets it and speaks of his love as a confession and not as a bragging point. He had finally learned the lesson.

Agape and Phileo will occasionally be used in distinct ways. However, when they are, the King James Bible clearly makes the distinction--sometimes by context and sometimes by a different translation (as when agape is translated as charity for emphasis). However, they are often of no great significance in the Greek. In Matthew 23:6, Jesus spoke of those who "love the uppermost rooms." The Greek word for love here is phileo. In Luke 11:43, Jesus spoke of those who "love the uppermost seats." The Greek word for love here is agape. The fact is, there are numerous examples of this in the New Testament. The significance claimed by the Greek scholars is a shadow. Where it is important, it is clear in context and in the English. But there are many places where the words are used interchangeably.

So, why is so much made over this distinction? Pride. If knowing Greek does not give a man greater Bible knowledge and place him closer to God's true message to man, then it does not seem as important. Most people study Biblical Greek in order to know God's word more clearly. Then, they have to have something to prove that it worked. The dirty secret is that there a a lot of grandma's at home who know more of God and His word than many who have studied Greek for years. But we cannot let this secret out.

Further, I think the teaching concerning John 21:15-17 is very popular because it gives everyone a chance to prove that they are smart. They can show their friends how smart they are. They can show their Sunday School class what Bible scholars they are becoming. That is not to say that I think the motives are purposefully evil. People honestly get excited at this nugget they just found. It works like a pyramid scheme. If I find out that it is not such a big deal, I cannot tell anyone about it because it is one of the reasons they think I am such a Bible scholar. So, the fiction just keeps on going.

But another problem is that while people are making such a fuss over a supposed nugget, they are often missing the more important meanings in the same passage. I have seen people go on forever about agape and phileo in John 21:15-17 and totally miss the really significant points of the passage (I mentioned some of them above). The "Greek nuggets" simply detour us from the greater blessing.

David Reagan
Daily Proverb

Proverbs 22:18

For it is a pleasant thing if thou keep them within thee; they shall withal be fitted in thy lips.