Copyright © 2003
The thought occurred to me yesterday that even vows made to oneself need to be performed, and that motivated me to write this article. What happened yesterday? A preacher at a church service I attended touched on John 21:15-17, the passage where Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love Me?” Please read the passage and then we’ll continue:
- So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me more than these?” He saith unto Him, “Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee.” He saith unto him, “Feed My lambs.”
- He saith to him again the second time, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?” He saith unto Him, “Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee.” He saith unto him, “Feed my sheep.”
- 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.
- “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.”
- This spake He, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He saith unto him, “Follow me.”
Yesterday the preacher went on to repeat the “pulpit-favorite” interpretation—an “Evangelical myth” that is almost universally accepted, so it seems—that when Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love Me?” He used the Greek verb agapao which (we are assured by such pulpiteers) always means “to love with the selfless, unconditional love of God.” But when Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love You,” he used the Greek verb phileo which (again the pulpiteers assure us) always means “to love with human love.”
Yesterday the dear preacher’s interpretation unfolded with unfailing unoriginality (as this interpretation usually does). We were told that Jesus was saying, “Simon, do you love (agapao) Me with the unconditional, selfless love of God?” But supposedly poor, bungling Simon Peter (as preachers generally treat him), either from ignorance of what Jesus was asking, or from timidity and guilt from his denials, responded by saying, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love (phileo) You with human love.” Finally, Jesus relented, “met Peter where he was,” and asked, “Peter, do you love (phileo) Me?” Peter responded with the same word—phileo—and the whole episode is made to conclude in a vaguely unsatisfactory way.
The vow to myself was that if I ever heard this scripturally and linguistically baseless preachment parroted one more time, I would say, “Poppycock!” and I would attempt to set the record straight.
There. That takes care of the first part of my vow. Now I must attempt to set the record straight, making clear why that perennially favorite—but baseless—interpretation is a misleading misunderstanding. Ironically, because of this pseudo-understanding of John’s use of two of the Greek words for love (there are other words, but they are not employed in the New Testament), we are robbed of a powerful and moving example of God’s love in Christ Jesus to Peter.
The reasons why this popular interpretation is misguided are threefold:
- Neither Jesus nor Peter spoke Greek as their everyday language.
- The Greek verbs that appear in the passage—agapao and phileo (you may recognize them in their noun forms, agape and philos)—can’t be defined as “neatly” as the pulpiteers proclaim.
- Quite contrary to making Peter out to be Chief Dunderhead Disciple Par Excellence, John shows us—by the use of the Greek words he employs in the passage—that Jesus was ministering a major blessing of encouragement, healing, and forgiveness to Peter.
Okay, those are my arguments. How does the reader know that these arguments aren’t “poppycock” as well? Let me here attempt to prove the points to you, and then to bring blessing to your soul as you see Jesus (in point #3) heal the heart of His wounded disciple.
#1: Neither Jesus nor Peter spoke Greek.
Let me qualify this statement. Because Palestine was a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural (are those enough “multi’s?”) occupied province of the Roman Empire, many languages were spoken, but the chief languages would have been:
- Latin: the language of government and law and the military;
- Greek: the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, the language of trade and (for the most part) non-rabbinic scholarship (as well as the language of the non-Palestinian Jews, a fact that becomes important in Acts, particularly Acts 6-7); and,
- Aramaic: a very close “cousin” to Biblical Hebrew (the language in which 99% of the Old Testament was written). This would have been the everyday language of the Jewish and Samaritan peoples. It was the language in which Jesus preached His sermons to the masses, the language He used when speaking privately with His disciples and friends, the language to which the multi-lingual Palestinian Jews resorted when they were at home, at synagogue, with friends—in short, their “mother tongue.”
So, when Jesus and His disciples spoke together, even after the Resurrection, it would have been in Aramaic, their mother tongue. That isn’t to say they didn’t know other languages (Peter wrote his epistles in Greek, and John wrote his epistles, and his Gospel, and the Apocalypse in Greek), but it would make no sense for them normally to converse in a “foreign language,” which Greek would have been to them. John, writing his Gospel for a Greek-speaking audience, translated an Aramaic conversation into Greek to make it intelligible to his readership.
The Gospels even allude to the competition and cooperation of these three languages in Judea when they depict the crucifixion scene on Golgotha. In John 19:19-20 we read how Pilate advertised the “crime” for which Jesus was executed:
- And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.
- This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin.
- Then said the chief priests of the Jews to Pilate, Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews.
- Pilate answered, What I have written I have written.
So the three languages existed side by side in the Holy Land (much as Hebrew, Arabic, and English do today). But anybody who makes an argument assuming that the original conversation in John 21 occurred in Greek is skating on very thin ice.
And the text itself strongly hints that, whatever the Greek words used, in the original Aramaic of the conversation, the exact same question is asked three times. Consider:
Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me?
Note that Peter wasn’t grieved because Jesus changed the Greek wording of His question. Peter was grieved that the same question was asked three times. (There’s another reason why Peter reacted with such grief, and that we will address towards the end of this article.)
As to why John chose the words he used in the passage, read Point #3 below.
#2: Agapao and phileo don’t fit neatly
into airtight and separate compartments.
As I mentioned above, the standard assumption is that:
- the Greek verb agapao always means “to love with the selfless, unconditional love of God;” and,
- the Greek verb phileo always means “to love with human love.”
If we can prove those words don’t “always” stay put in their presumed pigeonholes—indeed, if we can prove that the words can sometimes be used interchangeably—then the “heart” goes right out of this unfounded interpretation. A few examples will suffice. First let’s look at some surprising uses of agapao.
- In Matthew 5:46, Jesus says (and please forgive my “mangled Greek,” in which I’m employing the root form of the verb to simplify the points I’m making), “If you agapao those who agapao you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” Here, “sinners” are assumed to be using agape love in a normal, “non-spiritual,” human context. See also Luke 6:32, where the same word is used in a parallel passage.
- In Luke 11:43, Pharisees agapao the chief seats in the synagogues, hardly a fitting use for a word that “always” means “to love with the selfless, unconditional love of God”!
- In 1 John 2:15, we are exhorted not to agapao the world system (which must mean it is possible to do so).
- In John 3:19, men agapao the darkness, rather than the light.
- In John 12:43 men agapao the approval of men more than the approval of God.
- In 2 Peter 2:15 we discover that Balaam and false prophets agapao’d the wages of unrighteousness.
Those are hardly examples of “God’s selfless love,” but that is the Greek word employed in the above examples. Note above that John uses agapao in “rule-breaking” ways.
Can we prove that there are New Testament uses of phileo which break the pulpiteers’ rules as well? Not surprisingly, yes:
- The risen, revealed Christ loves His erring disciples with phileo love in Revelation 3:19.
- The Father is said to phileo the disciples, who are commended because they have phileo’d God (John 16:27). Why would God love Jesus’ disciples with “merely human love”?
- The Father phileo’s the Son in John 5:20!
- In 1 Corinthians 16:22, anyone who doesn’t phileo Jesus is accursed!
Once again, note John’s “rule-breaking” uses with phileo above.
Then there are parallel passages and similar usages that show us that the words can sometimes be used interchangeably. For instance:
- God loves Jesus with both kinds of love. In John 15:9, in telling that the Father loves Him, the word is the verb agapao. Yet John 5:20 speaks of the Father’s phileo love for the Son.
- In John 17:23, the Father loves the disciples with agapao love; but in John 16:27, Jesus tells the disciples that the Father loves them with phileo love. Was Jesus confused—or are the words sometimes interchangeable?
- As I mentioned above, Luke 11:43 says that the Pharisees would agapao the chief seats in the synagogue, while Matthew 23:6 says that they phileo those places of honor; still others phileo to be seen praying on street corners (Matthew 6:5).
- John, the very writer whose passage we are examining, says in John 20:2 that he is the disciple whom Jesus phileo’d, but just a chapter later in John 21:20, John calls himself the disciple whom Jesus agapao’d.
I won’t bore you with further examples; these should be sufficient to convince those with open minds that we are not dealing with hard and fast rules for agapao or phileo. In the passages shown above, New Testament authors, particularly John, writing under the Divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, know nothing of our modern “rules” for agapao and phileo. They either use the words interchangeably or they employ the words to make subtle nuances in the text, most of which are difficult to bring over into English.
#3: Why, then, did John use agapao and phileo
when he wrote the passage?
Ah, now that is the question—not “what did Jesus mean by employing two different Greek words?”—something we have seen the Aramaic-speaking Jesus didn’t do; but “why did John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when writing the Gospel, employ agapao and phileo in such a way?”
First, we have to consider why Jesus asked Peter (and Peter only) the question—not once, but three times. That the Resurrected Christ had a special concern for Peter is obvious from Easter morning, when the angels delivered specific instructions to the women at the tomb: “But go your way, tell His disciples and Peter that He goeth before you into Galilee…” (Mark 16:7). And among the perplexing, yet joyfully chaotic accounts of the first Easter Day, there is one report that Jesus specially appeared “to Simon” (Luke 24:34).
“And Peter.” “To Simon.” Why is Simon Peter singled out by Jesus? Anyone who has read the Gospels knows that all four writers detail Peter’s triple denial of Jesus. I encourage my readers to review Matthew 26:69-79; Mark 14:54, 66-72; Luke 22:54-62; and John 18:15-18, 25-28. Take special note of the fact, from the Gospel of John, that John was there in the courtyard of the high priest’s home when Peter uttered his denials.
John is actually fairly kind and non-specific about Peter’s denials. Peter—through his loyal assistant John Mark, the writer of the Gospel of Mark—is brutally honest about what happened. In Mark 14:71 the denials reach a crescendo of vehemence: “But [Peter] began to curse and to swear, saying, I know not this man of whom ye speak.” To this Luke appends an instance of the uncanny timing of God; at that very instant: “And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said unto him, ‘Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny Me thrice’ ” (Luke 22:61).
To have denied Jesus three times in His hour of need was bad enough. But to know that Jesus heard his last and most vociferous denial was probably more than poor, broken Peter could bear. Until the Resurrection, perhaps all Peter could think about was that the last words Jesus ever heard him utter before His death were “I do not know this man you are talking about!” (Mark 14:71)
Fast-forward now through the crucifixion, the burial, the Resurrection, and the initial post-Resurrection encounters the disciples had with Jesus. Here (in John 21) is Jesus once again, on the seashore after breakfast, with a handful of disciples. The gathering is intimate. The atmosphere is a bit more relaxed. These believers are now a little more used to seeing Jesus appear in their midst. The Healer of Hearts looks over at Peter, and, in the presence of the others (most especially John, since he was the sole first-person witness to Peter’s denials), Jesus asks the first of His loaded questions:
“Simon… do you love Me?”
Peter denied Jesus three times, the last time swearing and cursing, “I don’t know the man!” Watch, now—Jesus is going to ask Peter a question three times, and the third time He is going to put a very powerful “spin” on the question.
And it is because of the special import of the third question that John, in translating the Aramaic conversation into Greek, employs both agapao and phileo. While the same Aramaic word for love was probably used in each instance during the original seashore dialogue, John wanted to convey something very powerful in Jesus’ line of questioning. And the climax of this Gospel story—surprise!—doesn’t hinge on the word agapao; rather, Peter’s healing and restoration are seen in the use of phileo.
Never mind what the pulpiteers proclaim at this point. What the scholars have to say about these two words is very instructive, and may shed new light on the passage we’re considering. Hear what Greek scholar Dr. Marvin Vincent shares in his famous Word Studies in the New Testament. Introducing the usage of agapao and phileo in his notes on John 5:20, Vincent says,
To love is expressed by two words in the New Testament, phileo and agapao. Agapao indicates a reasoning, discriminating attachment, founded in the conviction that its object is worthy of esteem, or entitled to it on account of benefits bestowed. Phileo represents a warmer, more instinctive sentiment, more closely allied to feeling, and implying more passion…. Thus phileo emphasizes the affectional element of love,1 and agapao the intelligent element.
Another famous Greek scholar, Dr. Richard Trench, commenting in his equally famous Synonyms of the New Testament, writes at length about these two words, and of our passage in particular. Because English has but one word for “love,” Trench says,
All this subtle and delicate play of feeling disappears perforce, in a translation which either does not care, or is not able, to reproduce the variation in the words as it exists in the original.
Although we know from many Scriptures that agapao can speak of God’s love for us, and our love to God, we’ve also seen that it can be used in a far more ordinary way. Indeed, as these (and other) scholars indicate, agapao can be a more formal word, whereas phileo can carry with it more passion and affection.
Let’s listen again to the questions that Jesus asked, but this time we’ll “hear” them with our new understandings of these two words. We’ll use agapao in a neutral, “flat” sense—merely “love,” without a “deeper spin” to it. Then—and I hope you’ll grant me at least as much liberty as you’ve granted to preachers all these years who have taught you differently about this passage—we’ll employ phileo the way Vincent shares about it: a warmer, more “affectional,” more passionate word. (This fits the context and the man. Peter’s middle name is “Passionate”!) I’m going to expand on that verb (much in the same manner the as Amplified Bible does) to bring out what I believe to be Peter’s heart—and the import of Jesus’ final query.
“Simon, do you love Me more than these?”2
“Lord, you know that I passionately love You as my dearest and closest Friend.”
“Simon, do you love Me?”
(I believe this response must have come through growing perplexity on Peter’s part.) “Lord, you know that I passionately love You as my dearest and closest Friend.”
Now Jesus changes the tenor of the questioning, and John indicates this by shifting Jesus’ verb to phileo, the same word that John has had Peter use in the exchange: “Simon, do you really passionately love Me as your dearest, closest Friend?”
John, the Apostle who was a first-hand witness to Peter’s denials, notes that Peter was grieved because Jesus asked the question the third time—and it is important to note that grief is a key to understanding this exchange. I think it suddenly dawned on Peter why Jesus was following this line of questioning. Peter had publicly denied Jesus three times, and the third time he cursed and swore—and Jesus had overheard his words and looked him in the eye. I see Jesus now on the seashore, leaning toward Peter, and looking Peter in the eye when He asks the final question in a far more intimate way. Jesus was giving Peter three chances to make good his three denials. And this third question has all the power and passion (in a good way) that Peter’s third denial had. So Peter responds to “the Lord Who searches the hearts” and before Whom all will stand on the Judgment Day. I hear his final response coming through sobs as the tears stream down his face: “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You passionately as My dearest, closest Friend!”
And so the matter rests. Jesus, the great Physician, the Healer of broken hearts, has just purged Peter’s heart of guilt in a way no simple “You are forgiven” could have done. The Savior, in His infinite love, grace, and mercy, has balanced the scales. Peter’s three denials are offset by three humble, but passionate, declarations of undying love. The third denial, the one uttered with cursings and oaths, is matched by the third and most ardent, “affectional” declaration of phileo.
So much more could be written about this passage—about the three calls to duty, about their discussion (John 21:18-19) of Peter’s future martyrdom (fear of which had motivated Peter to utter his three denials), something which history tells us he faced with great courage.
But let’s leave those matters for other articles and be content with this wonderful restoration recorded by John. John was there as eyewitness, both to hear Peter’s three denials, and to hear the broken, contrite fisherman’s three declarations of passionate devotion to his Lord. John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, employed two Greek words—agapao and phileo—to convey this dynamic, emotional, glorious, liberating exchange between Jesus and Peter. It’s something far more wonderful than the so-called meanings of the Greek words used.
May the Lord give you courage as you consider this passage in the proper light, especially if you have ever failed Him and feel that you can never face Him again, or that your relationship can never be fully restored. Sometimes out of sin comes not only repentance, but a great and lasting brokenness, like Peter’s. When we finally come to understand how much God loves us, despite ourselves and our sin, our response isn’t any more a formal, “proper” respectable, intelligent, and (dare I say it?) nominal Christian “love.” Rather, our response is a broken, but fervent, heart-cry: “Lord, You know that I passionately love You as my dearest Friend.” When you come through that process—the failure, the self-hatred, the depression, and finally the restoration by a very loving Savior—may you be as powerfully used by that same loving God as Peter was in his day!
- To give some further idea of the tender affection inherent in phileo, it should be noted that the word translated “kiss” (which usually encompasses the idea of “embrace”) in the New Testament is kataphileo, in which the reader sees the prefix—kata—and the root— phileo. The verb appears in Luke 7:38, 45; 15:20; and Acts 20:37 (in addition to the accounts of Judas’ betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane). The noun form, philema, appears in Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; and 1 Peter 5:14. ↩
- “More than these” is certainly taking the whole matter straight back to the fateful exchange at the Last Supper. Jesus says, “You will all fall away from Me this night” Matthew 26:31 (NASB). Peter’s response is vehement, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away” (v. 33). The implication is “I’m better, more loyal, braver, more spiritual than the others.” At that point, Jesus predicted Peter’s triple betrayal. Here in this poignant passage in John 21, Jesus is asking, in part, “Simon, what do you think? Do you love Me more than the others?” To this part of the question, the chastened Apostle, understanding the import of the phrase, humbly chooses to make no reply. ↩