In John 21.15-17 we have the account of when Jesus asked Peter three times “Do you love me?” Three times Peter responded “I love you,” but what is interesting is that two different words that are translated “love” were used in this passage. The first two times Jesus asked “Do you love me” he used the word agapao, but the third time he used the word phileo. Peter used the word “phileo” each time. This has, understandably, stimulated a great deal of discussion as to what the why two words are used here and why Jesus and Peter were using different words that are translated as love.It has been suggested that we can ignore the two words used here, because Jesus and Peter were likely speaking in Aramaic, and Aramaic only has one word for love (Bruce, p. 404). Even if that is true, it does not change the fact that account we have is in Greek and John purposely chose to use two different words.
I was taught a simple and straightforward explanation for the reason that two words are used in John 21: agapao is true Christian love, phileo is a lesser love that just means “I like you a lot.” So, when Jesus when Peter “do you love me with true love” Peter was responding “I really like you a lot.” Only the third time did Jesus ask of Peter “do you like me a lot,” and Peter said that he did “like you a lot.” It is a nice tidy interpretation that is almost exactly wrong.
Yes, agapao was used to describe “Christian” love: “For God so loved the world…” (John 3.16), "The Father loves the son and has placed everything in his hands" (John 3.35), “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love…” (1Cor.13.1-13) and many other passages. But agapao was also used to describe some very unchristian loves: “...Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them...” (Luke 6.32), “...for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me…” (2Tim. 4.10), “Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness…” (2Pet. 2.15). Agapao is the most commonly used word to refer to love in the New Testament (137 times as a verb, Turner, p.175). It was the default word used to refer to caring for someone or something, whether good or bad.
Phileo was less frequently use in the New Testament (25 times as a verb, Turner, p. 175), for example: "The Father loves the son and shows him all he does..." (John 5:20), "...the other disciple, the one Jesus loved..." (John 20:2), "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline..."(Rev. 3:19). Daniel B. Wallace (p. 380) comments: “‘Those, whom I love, I reprove and discipline.’ Here φιλέω is used for ‘love’ -a term that is never used of God/Jesus loving unbelievers in the NT. (Indeed, it would be impossible for God to have this kind of love for an unbeliever, for it routinely speaks of enjoyment and fellowship. αγαπάω, rather, is the verb used of God’s love for unbelievers [cf. John 3:16], for it frequently, if not normally, speaks of commitment and, when used with God/Jesus as the subject, the idea is often of unconditional love.”
Phileo is a love that we don't choose to feel. It come naturally from our hearts. We don't choose to love our wives, husbands or children it happens without any work. As we often say about people in love, "You can't reason with somebody in love." Agapao love is the love that we are commanded to love our enemies with. We choose to care for them in spite of what they have done to us, “...it expresses desire, leading to quest…” (Turner, p. 175). This is hard to do and it does not come naturally. We have to be taught by God to do this. This is the word commonly called "Christian" love because it results from learning God's word.One more point that I would like to deal with briefly is the idea that the two word are synonyms with basically the same in meaning. Look at the following pairs of verses and you can see why some people hold that view.
John 13:23 "the disciple whom Jesus loved" agapao
John 20:2 "the other disciple, the one Jesus loved" phileoHeb. 12:6 "the Lord disciplines those he loves" agapao
Rev. 3:19 "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline" phileoJohn 3:35 "The Father loves the son and has placed everything in his hands" agapao
John 5:20 "The Father loves the son and shows him all he does" phileoPhileo and agapao are synonyms but that does not mean that they have the same meaning. I can say “that flower is beautiful” or “that flower is lovely.” Is there really much difference between the meaning of the sentences? Even if the sentences have the same meaning “beautiful” and “lovely” do not mean the same thing. Rather than say that the two words can be used in place of each other it would be better to say that they describe different facets of the same referent (Silva, p. 122). Love is a complex relationship. It is not hard to see that in agapao and phileo can both describe God’s feeling for Jesus without saying that the words have the same meaning.
Think about the meaning of these words: Breakfast, lunch, supper and dinner. The first three are easy; they refer to the time of day that the meal is eaten. But what about dinner? That one refers to the biggest meal of the day. We use it to refer to lunch or supper. Thursday dinner would probably be supper, but Sunday dinner would be lunch. Dinner can be used in place of lunch and supper, but they don’t mean the same thing. Agapao and phileo can be used in place of each other to refer to a different aspect of the same thing, but they don’t have the same meaning.
That leads us to the last passage I want to look at, John 21:15-17.
In John 21:15-17 Jesus asked Peter three times “do you love me.” Although no mention is made of Peter’s denial of Jesus (John 18.15-18), I’m sure it was in Peter’s thoughts during this conversation. Peter answered three times that “yes” he loved Jesus, and he clarified the the love he felt as “phileo”. The first two times Jesus used agapao and the final time he used phileo. Peter used phileo all three times. Peter chose to use the word phileo because it best expressed the affection he felt for Jesus. Phileo is the love of closeness and friendship, as Wallace said “...it routinely speaks of enjoyment and fellowship.”
It is often said that English only has one word for love. That is misleading, we only have one word “love” just like Greek only has one word “agapao,” but we have other words that refer to the same concept of love; for example “cherish” and “adore.” Let me show you what this passage would look like if we translate agapo as “love” (our most commonly used word) and philo and “cherish.”
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes I do, Lord, you know that I cherish you.”“Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes I do, Lord, you know that I cherish you.”“Simon son of John, do you cherish me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?”
“Lord, you know all things; you know that I cherish you.”Jesus, the first two times, used agapao for the type of love he inquiring about. Agapao is a love more from the mind than the heart. The final time he asked Peter if he loved him with the phileo type of love. Rather than being happy that Jesus had said phileo, Peter was hurt that Jesus had asked him a third time “do you agapao me” (John 21.17). Peter understood that regardless of which word was used the question was the same: “do you love me?”
Peter knew that Jesus did not have to ask; Jesus knows what is in a person’s heart (John 2.25). But Jesus knew that Peter needed to say it so that he would know it; “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you” (John 21.17).
Is there anything in this account for us, other than knowing that Jesus accepted Peter back? This passage has been very important to show that even if someone denies Jesus and leaves the church they can still be accepted back into the church, if they repent. But there is something else that this passage teaches us. The love that Christians feel for Jesus is different from one person to another. Some people are very passionate in their feelings for him and some people are more dispassionate, but they both love him. Jesus knows what is in our hearts. Regardless of whether it is agapao or phileo he knows that we love him.
BibliographyBruce FF. The Gospel of John. Eerdmans, 1992.
Silva M. Biblical Words and Their Meanings. Zondervan, 1983.
Turner GA. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, GW Bromiley general editor. Eerdmans, 1986
Wallace DB. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Zondervan, 1996.