- Read John 21 here.
- If you missed Sunday’s sermon from John 21 (19 April), you can listen to it here.
- I blogged on John 21:18-22 here.
I’ve heard quite a few sermons on Jesus’ conversation with Peter that focus on the Greek words for “love” that are used in this passage: agape and phileo. The common teaching runs like this:
The first two times Jesus questions Peter he asks, “Do you Agape me?” and Peter replies, “You know that I Phileo you.” The third time Jesus asks, “Do you Phileo me?” and Peter responds with the affirmative. Thus, Agape has been interpreted to mean a “special sacrificial love almost unique to Christians” while Phileo has been understood to refer to a “platonic brotherly love”. In this context Peter is unwilling to answer that he has a scraficial love toward Jesus. Although Jesus goes on in v18-19 to predict that Peter will in fact die for his faith. (The NIV in this passage translates agape as “truly love” and phileo as “love”.)
The problem is that the distinction between these two words has been greatly exaggerated. Agape does NOT always refer to a special kind of Christian/Godly sacrificial love. Let me give some examples that are inconsistent with these definitions:
- “For the Father phileo (loves) the Son…” (John 5:20) Does the Father really just have a brotherly love toward the Son?
- “The Father himself phileo (loves) you because you have phileo (loved) me…” (John 16:27) This seems a strange statement if phileo love is a lesser degree of love.
- “but people agape (loved) darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.“ (John 3:19) Certainly a uniquely Godly/Christian love could not be applied to loving evil.
- In describing Christians who have lost their faith Paul writes that “Demas… agape (loved) this world.” (2 Tim 4:10) So this is clearly not a special Christian love referred to here.
This post is a bit more academic than usual, but I think this is an important point. Through his death Jesus demonstrates what sacrificial, Christian love looks like. He sets an example for us to follow, even toward our enemies. There are a lot of verses that teach this principle. But we’re on shaky ground if we want to give this meaning every time we see the word Agape.
As always, context provides a valuable insight. Jesus wasn’t asking which kind of love Peter had toward him. Rather, he was asking the disciple who had earlier denied him whether he loved him at all. This story contains an example of God’s grace and forgiveness: the reality of the cross. We shouldn’t lose this message in a Greek word study!
Can you think of other verses that describe Christian love but don’t depend on understanding Greek? Please leave a comment.