Agape-love. John 21:15-17
Are synonyms synonyms?
That is the question the translator is confronted with when translating John 21:15-17. Two words for love are used in this intimate conversation between Jesus and Peter. The word “agape” is normally associated with sacrificial- or commitment-love; something that lies more on the spiritual level and can develop in an instant, due to a deep conviction. The word “phileo” is associated with friendship-love, something that is more on a psychological level and develops over time and through ongoing interaction. A love so deep that one would give his life for a friend. (John 3:37, 1John 3:16, Rom. 5:7-8) The one is not better than the other, but emphasizes some other aspect of love. (In the same way “eros” emphasizes the physical aspect of love.) Even though this distinction between agape and phileo is generally recognized, we have to discern whether John in fact used these words in this particular meaning, or are they interchangeable?
While John uses “phileo” in only 8 verses, he gives preference to “agape” in his gospel, using the verb in at least 31 verses. In most cases the deep commitment or intimate relationship assumed by the word is obvious within the context. Look at the following examples where “agape” is used:
3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…”
3:19: “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.
8:42: “Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God…’”
10:17: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life…”
12:43: “…for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.
13:1: “…having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.”
13:34: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
14:21-28: “…He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”
15:9: ” As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.”
17:23: “…to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” The deep commitment and relationship between Jesus and all believers is repeatedly emphasized by “agape”- love in this prayer of Jesus for all believers. (17:20-26)
In some cases synonyms are interchangeable. In four cases we have “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (13:23, 19:26, 21:7 and 21:20) with “agape”, but in 20;2 with “phileo”. Consider the following contemporary example. “Our minister, preacher, priest, pastor, reverend, elder, etc. conducted a wonderful sermon this morning.” But not everyone can lead mass.
Let us study some cases where John uses “phileo” love.
- In John 12:23-28 Jesus explains that He soon will sacrifice his earthly life like a seed falling in the ground. In vs. 25 we read: “The man who loves “phileo” his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Life here refers to earthly existence with which one has a “friendship” relationship that developed over time.
- In John 16:27 Jesus says: “…the Father himself loves (“phileo”) you because you have loved (“phileo”) me and have believed that I came from God.” In this instance the context is the ongoing relationship between Jesus and His followers, mirrored by the love of the Father towards the disciples.
Three almost identical passages calls for our attention.
John 3:35: “The Father loves (agape) the Son and has placed everything in his hands.” The spiritual background and commitment is obvious in the context.
John 10:17: “The reason my Father loves (agape) me is that I lay down my life.” Here the self-sacrificial love of Jesus is paramount.
John 5:20: “For the Father loves (phileo) the Son and shows him all he does.” In this verse Jesus places much emphasis on the ongoing relationship with the Father, where Jesus does what He sees the Father doing.
When we look at passages where both words are used in close proximity, the distinction John makes becomes even more obvious.
Consider the following examples:
- In John 11 the raising of Lazarus is described. John uses the word “agape” to describe Jesus’ love for Lazarus and his sisters; (vs.5) a love of deep commitment. When the love Lazarus had for Jesus (vs.3) is referred to, “phileo” is used, something that developed over time through interaction. With the same word is used by the Jews when they described Jesus’ love for Lazarus (vs. 36).
- In John 15 the intimate relationship between the Father, Jesus and the disciples are compared to the vine and branches. “agape” is used throughout (vss. 9, 12, 17) as is the noun derived from “agape” (vss. 10, 13). This love is contrasted with “phileo”-love to describe the “love” the world would have had for the disciples, if they had been its own. (vs. 19)
John uses the words “agape” and “phileo” in a specific way to indicate a specific type of love.
John uses “agape” to describe sacrificial- or commitment-love; something that lies more on the spiritual level and can develop in an instant, due to conviction.
He uses “phileo” to emphasize friendship-love, something that is more on a psychological level and develops over time and through ongoing interaction within a relationship.
That brings us to the study and interpretation of John 21:15-17.
In this particular conversation Jesus questions Peter’s love for Him not primarily with a decreasing intensity, but rather with a shifting of the focus of his love.
First Jesus questions Peter’s commitment-love (agape) in comparison with the others. This reflects on Peter’s words that though the other disciples might “fall away on account of you, I never will.” (Mat. 26:33, John 13:37)
Peter answers by confirming his love as friendship-love (phileo) but does not reflect on the comparison.
The second time, Jesus questions Peter’s commitment-love on its own.
Again Peter confirms his love as friendship-love.
The third time Jesus confronts Peter’s friendship-love.
Peter was hurt when Jesus even questioned his friendship-love. That is when he passes the facts back to Jesus by saying that Jesus knows all things; He knows that Peter loves Him with a deep friendship love that developed over three years of following in His footsteps.
The fact that Jesus did not decrease the commission He gave Peter each tome, further confirms that the line of conversation is not of a decreasing intensity, but rather a shifting of focus.
It is a pity that we do not have English words with the same meaning to translate this intense passage in order that the deep meaning of the interplay of words can readily be understood.
The NIV gives this rendering: “15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs’” 16 Again Jesus said, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me?’ He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’ 17 The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.’ ”
Of course Jesus and His disciples did not speak Greek to one another, but Aramaic. I was surprised to find 2 matching words in Hebrew. Aramaic and Hebrew are close dialects. This could mean that John could actually have quoted Jesus’ very use of different words with the same shifting of focus!
“Agape” has more or less the same focus as “Chabab “ in Deut. 33:3 “Surely it is you who love the people;”
[Strongs: khaw-bab' A primitive root (compare H2244, H2247); properly to hide (as in the bosom), that is, to cherish (with affection): - love.]
“Fileo” is more or less equal to “Chashaq” in Psalm 91:14. “Because he loves me, says the LORD, “I will rescue him;”
[Strongs: khaw-shak' A primitive root; to cling, that is, join (figuratively) to love, delight in; elliptically (or by interchange for H2820) to deliver: - have a delight, (have a) desire, fillet, long, set (in) love.]
On what ground is your love for Jesus built? Is it an inner conviction, or is it circumstantial, dependent on the present situation?
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