In order to fully understand the context of this post, it is highly recommended that you read “Is ‘Agape’ a special kind of love?” first.
What is the significance, if any, of the use of the words agape and phileo in the exchange between Jesus and Peter found in John 21:15-17? Here’s the passage with the Greek word translated “love” shown in parenthesis:
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love (phileo) you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love (agape) me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love (phileo) me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love (phileo) me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love (phileo) you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep”.
Even before we enter the whole agape / phileo issue, we need to determine the point of Jesus’ question to Peter. What is the pronoun “these” (toutōn) pointing to? Scholars have noted three possibilities:
- Jesus is asking Peter if Peter loves Jesus more than Peter loves the other disciples.
- Jesus is asking Peter if Peter loves Jesus more than he loves his profession (the “these” referring to the things around like the fish Peter catches and the boats).
- Jesus is asking Peter if Peter loves Jesus more than the other disciples love Jesus.
In a modern day sense, the first two are questions we should ask ourselves. They make good practical convicting questions. Do we love other people more than we love Jesus? Do we love our career more than we love Jesus? Certainly we need to put Jesus first.
Perhaps as a result of this more personal application, a few have opted for one of the first two meanings. However, the majority of conservative scholarship that I have read argue for the third option. There are a couple reasons for this:
- “Peter has boasted in 13:37, ‘I will lay down my life for you.’ The Synoptic Gospels present Peter as boasting even more explicitly of his loyalty to Jesus (‘Even if they all fall away, I will not,’ Matt. 26:33; Mark 14:29). Thus the semantic force of what Jesus asks Peter here amounts to something like ‘Now, after you have denied me three times, as I told you that you would, can you still affirm that you love me more than these other disciples do?'” (Bock, 386)
- Peter “is called to love Jesus more than these other men do and to be willing to render extraordinary sacrifice on behalf of his master (John 6:67-69; 13:36-38; 21:18-19)” (Kostenberger, 597) Jesus is asking Peter if he is really committed to more.
As Kostenberger puts it, the key here is that “those who want to be used significantly in God’s service must be willing to make greater sacrifices for the Lord they serve.” (597)
Now on to the issue of the change from agape to phileo. There are three distinct possibilities here. One, agape is the more meaningful Godly type of love and Peter is unwilling to commit to that level, so Jesus concedes by switching to Peter’s terminology of phileo. Two, that the words are used synonymously in this passage. And three, that Peter is using phileo as a more descriptive, or powerful term. Let’s look at the merits of each of these views.
Option 1. Agape is the higher form of Godly love and Peter is unwilling to commit to that strong of a term, so Jesus concedes and comes down to Peter’s level.
1. It is suggested that Peter is afraid to commit to a higher level of love because he recently denied Christ three times. So Peter wants to answer with agape, but feels unable.
2. Perhaps Peter was “hurt” because he recognized Jesus conceded to his word for love.
3. Peter’s evasiveness helps explain Jesus’ repeating of the question.
1. This understanding is not consistent with Peter’s character – when He’s speaking to Jesus, he always is the first to make strong commitments.
2. The text says that Peter was grieved because Jesus asked him 3 times. So it is describing why Peter is upset. Had he been grieved because Jesus conceded to Peter’s lower love, this surely would have also been noted.
3. Agape is not a higher form of love than phileo – this pretty much makes this position untenable.
Option 2. The words are used synonymously in this passage.
1. This seems to be the primary view of evangelical scholarship today (including D.A. Carson, Kostenberger, Blomberg, Morris and Bock).
2. Agape and phileo are used synonymously in other parts of Scripture.
3. There are other close synonyms used in the same section. ginosko and oida for “know”; bosko and poimaino for “tend/shepherd” and arnia and probata for “sheep/lambs”. John is thus using stylistic variants in this section.
4. The threefold repetition may reflect the Ancient Near Eastern custom of repeating something three times to demonstrate an obligation or contractual agreement.
5. The three times are in direct reference to Peter denying Christ three times.
1. John doesn’t always use variants to avoid repetition. For example at the end of John chapter 14, John uses agape 15 times in 15 verses with no use of phileo. (There are several other examples of this, and it is in fact more common to see John use the same word for love than to use the two different words in an immediate context.)
2. The words do have a different semantic range of meaning and since John uses two different words purposely (contrary to his normal pattern as noted above), and they are a key part of the discussion, there must be something significant about the distinction.
3. Remember, Jesus primarily spoke Aramaic. When the Bible writers put it down (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), they used the Greek words to describe what was said in Aramaic. So why change words? Because Peter may not have said love where phileo is. He may have said a word closer to “adore” or “cherish” which better matches phileo.
Option 3. Peter is using phileo as a more descriptive, or powerful term.
1. This position is also consistent with the referral back to Peter’s three denials. Peter is naturally grieved because Jesus asks three times, which reminds him of the three denials.
2. This dialog is a probing of Peter’s love that increases in degree when Jesus moves to phileo. This is consistent with the context as Jesus follows this discussion up with a call to Peter to new responsibilities, and the costs that Peter will have to endure.
3. If the question “do you love me more than these?” is indeed asking Peter if he loves Jesus more than the other disciples do, then switching to phileo would actually be the most appropriate response. It makes sense that Peter would do that if he is trying to express that the answer to that question is not just “yes”, but “YES!”
1. The synonym arguments listed in option 2 above.
So where do I land? Before doing this study, I was firmly settled in option 2, but over the course of the last couple weeks studying the terms agape and phileo, I have moved to favor option 3. Read through the entire chapter yourself twice, imagining the scene both ways. It seems clear to me that the exchange is much more meaningful if option 3 is correct.
So Jesus does two things with this discussion. One, He shows Peter that he is forgiven for denying Him three times. And two, Jesus reminds Peter that following Him will require a significant commitment. Peter must deeply love Jesus to be prepared for the task Christ is about to lay out for him. Jesus follows the “do you love me” exchange up by telling Peter that he will face challenges and will even die a death by crucifixion for that commitment. No doubt by having the discussion of Peter’s love for Christ first, Peter felt strengthened and ready for the life ahead.
There are several things we can draw application from in this passage.
One, Jesus forgives us, just as He forgave Peter. Even if we fall, we can get back up and do great things for Him. Don’t give up! Recommit to Him and the Lord will use you.
Two, there is a cost to discipleship. As noted above, if we want to do great things for the Kingdom, we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves in many ways. Like Peter, we must understand that there is a cost to following Jesus, and if we want to accomplish great things for Him, often the cost is higher. But the rewards will be worth it.
Finally, a very simple daily thing we can remember that will help bring joy to our lives is the following:
Go be joyful!
References / Bible nerd section
The following materials were used as sources:
Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson
Love and the Bible by Robin Calamaio
The Bible Knowledge Key Word Study: The Gospels ed. by Darrell Bock
Jesus and the Gospels by Craig Blomberg
“John” by Merrill Tenney in The Expositors Bible Commentary
“John” by Andreas Kostenberger in Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament