Words of Love
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2011
In John 21 Jesus and Peter had an interesting conversation. Two different words in the original text are translated by the one English word “love”. To understand the main point of this important passage it is helpful to look at the setting in which the conversation took place, and to find out how the original words were used in that place in history.
The setting was the shore of a lake after the resurrection of Jesus. He appeared to his disciples after a disappointing night of fishing on the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus told them to lower their nets on the other side of the boat they miraculously caught more fish than they could haul in.
After a breakfast Jesus had prepared for them, Peter was asked a series of questions. The conversation is recorded in our Bibles in John 21:15-17.
1. Jesus asked, “… do you love (agapan, αγαπαν) me more than these?”
Peter replied, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (philein, φιλειν) you.”
2. Jesus asked, “… do you love (agapan, αγαπαν) me?”
Peter replied, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (philein, φιλειν) you.”
3. Jesus asked, “… do you love (philein, φιλειν) me?”
Peter replied, “Lord; You know all things; you know that I love (philein, φιλειν) you.”
The events at the time of the death of Jesus left Peter with an awareness of his own weaknesses. At the Passover supper Jesus predicted that his disciples will all be offended by him. The word translated “offended” is the word from which we get our English word, “scandalized”. Peter objected and said that he would never fall away (Matthew 26:33). Jesus then told Peter that before that night was over he would deny him three times. Peter pridefully contradicted the Lord and said, “I will not deny you”. Of course we know that he did. Proverbs 16:18 reminds us that, “Pride goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before a fall.”
That background is important because Jesus started off by asking Peter if his love was greater than the others. The Apostle seemed to believe he was stronger than the rest on that night when Jesus was arrested.
The fact that two different words for ‘love” appear in the original text has caused some to focus upon the synonyms without a good understanding of what they meant at that time. This has caused a misunderstanding of the main point Jesus was making.
Clearly John had some distinction in mind when he translated the Aramaic conversation into Greek under the oversight of the Holy Spirit.
First it needs to be pointed out that these words are not as far apart as some well meaning interpreters have said.
The New Testament often uses these two primary Greek words for love to refer to the same thing. The following chart is helpful to see the similarity of these synonyms.
|Both are used to express||philein, φιλειν||agapan, αγαπαν|
|God the Father’s love for God the Son||John 5:20||John 3:35|
|God’s love for his people||John 16:27, 1 John 4:19||Galatians 2:20|
|The disciples love for God||John 16:27||Mat. 22:37, Romans 8:28|
|Our love for one another||Titus 3:15||Matthew 22:39|
|Both are used of misdirected love||Matthew 6:5, 10:37||2 Timothy 4:10, 1 John 2:15|
It is clear that these two words were used to refer to the same kind of love, but they also have some subtle differences. They were not used in a completely interchangeable way in common speech at that time.
The word philein (φιλειν) describes the tender concern and care we have in our close personal ties. It’s a very personal and heart felt compassion. The Greek word for “kiss” (philaema, φιλημα) is derived from this word. This is the warmer and more intimate word for what is in a person’s heart. For example it was used in the Bible to describe the love between parents and their children (Matthew 10:37). It was used by John in his Gospel to describe God the Father’s love for us and our love for Jesus (John 16:27).
The word agapan (αγαπαν) is the more common word for “love” in the Bible. It is used many more times than philein. It’s the word used in the Bible for commands to be loving. The focus is upon the outward behaviors that our love produces. It’s the word used when we are told to love our neighbors, to love God with all our hearts, to love our wives, and to love our enemies. The Bible also uses this word when we are told not to love the world.
The Bible never uses philein (φιλειν) for a command to love. Commands are always agapan (αγαπαν). An action or behavior can be commanded, a feeling or inner devotion cannot be.
It confuses the point when some have imagined that Jesus was asking if Peter loved him with a higher love (agapan, αγαπαν), and Peter kept lowering the standard to use a word for a lesser love (philein, φιλειν). That’s not what the words mean. Nor is it consistent with the character of Jesus to keep lowering the standard to accommodate Peter’s lesser love.
So often we hear well meaning but poorly instructed Pastors and teachers speak of “agape love” as if it is a far superior kind of love than “phileo love”. Aside from the fact that they usually use a noun form in one case and a verb form in another, their understanding of the Greek language spoken at the time of Christ is sadly lacking. The Bible itself does not support that kind of distinction.
Jesus used the more general and common word for love when he first asked Peter “do you love me?” Peter probably felt the sting of the question since he had boasted that though the others might fall away, he would not. His failure that night exposed his underestimation of his own imperfections and corruption. So his answer was to point deeper to the tender and devoted love he felt for his Master. Peter used the word that meant that inner compassion.
Jesus again asked Peter if he loved him, but this time he didn’t make the comparison. He didn’t add, “more than these.” Peter again persisted in pointing to that inner devotion he believed was in his heart for his Lord. He seemed to think this answered the question. However, instead of responding about this general and inclusive type of love, he kept assuming that the devoted love in his heart would satisfy the Lord that he would be obedient. That was the same assumption he made at the Last Supper when he could not imagine that he would turn away from the Lord, but he did.
Finally Jesus revised his question using the same word Peter was using. He asked Peter if he really had the inner-affection he was claiming. Without that, the love of obedient devotion and action would be unstable. Peter was grieved at this third question. Perhaps he did not grasp the totality of what Jesus was asking. Likely Peter was deeply convicted about his past assurances and failures, so he persisted in his affirmation of tender affection.
After each question and answer, Jesus commanded Peter to do something. He told him to feed his people. The command was worded in a slightly different way each time.
After the first question in verse 15 Jesus said, “Feed my lambs” (βόσκε τὰ ἀρνία μου).
After the second question in verse 16 Jesus said, “shepherd my sheep” (ποίμαινε τὰ πρόβατά μου).
Finally, after the third question in verse 17 Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” (βόσκε τὰ πρόβατά μου).
This is the focus, the reason for the questions: the obedience to which Peter was being called.
Feeding the sheep is the prime task of shepherding. When Paul wrote to Timothy about the work of the Elders he repeatedly emphasized the work of teaching God’s word. This is how God’s sheep are fed. It’s how heretics were to be silenced. It’s how hurting sheep would find comfort. It’s how sin in the church would be handled. We are all lambs in the sense of being dependent children of God. We are all sheep in that we are members of his flock.
Love is the foundation of all godly obedience and service. That is why the Bible says,
John 14:21, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”
John 15:12 “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
John 15:14 “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.”
1 John 5:2-3, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.”
So love isn’t just a feeling. It is a disposition that compels us to real moral obedience. In each of these verses just quoted the word used is agapan (αγαπαν). This is a love that evidences itself as legitimate because it acts in ways that honor God. It is what can be commanded of us. It does what we claim is in our hearts. It shows that it is really what we think it is. Peter needed to be reminded that his devoted love and affection for his Lord should motivate him to action. He must feed the sheep, the people redeemed by grace.
This is a good question to ask ourselves. We say we love God, but does our love for him authenticate itself in our actions toward our neighbors, toward our spouses, our children, our enemies? Does our presumed “love” do the hard things God calls us to do? Do we love God sincerely so that we seriously abandon the things that we know are wrong in our lives? Do we love so much that we set aside time every day to search God’s word? to pray? to encourage other believers? to worship faithfully and to engage in all the elements of worship with all our heart?
Note: The Greek words, agapan (αγαπαν) and philein (φιλειν) are used here in their root verbal infinitive form. The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Bible unless otherwise noted.