John 21: Do You Love Me?

  • 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.

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20 comments

  1. Dave Bauscher

    If you get a copy of my translation of the Peshitta NT with notes, you will see the powerful case I make for the Peshitta NT as the original and how the Greek NT is a translation of the Peshitta. I illustrate this hundreds of times throughout the NT, showing the Greek and Aramaic readings in 1st century scripts, and how an Aramaic word was easily misread as another, and then mistranslated in Greek mss., or in one Greek mss.

    • ozziepete

      Dave, you’ve obviously put a lot of work into that translation. Well done. I wonder in this particular exchange between Jesus and Peter if you think the Aramaic reveals anything unique?

      Obviously if Rakhem is the only word used Jesus/John isn’t making a distinction between phileo and agape.

  2. Dave Bauscher

    Yes, in the Peshitta there are three different words for the flocks Shimon Keepha (“Peter” is from “Petrus”, a Greek or Latin translation of his Aramaic name “Keepha”) was to shepherd: “emra”, “arba”, “nequtha”. “Emra” is “lambs”; “Arba” is “sheep”; “nequtha” is “ewes”, which are female sheep. The Greek does not use these three words, only two, omitting “ewes”, and reading “arnion”-“Lambs” once & “probaton”-“sheep” twice.

    Aside from giving Jesus’ real name (Yeshua) and Peter’s real name (Shimeon Kaypha Bar Yonah) and not a Greek translation or transliteration of their Semitic names, I see our Lord reorienting Shimeon’s heart, mind and soul (3 sets of three are revealed in the passage) from that of a fisherman (“I’m going fishing”) to shepherding and leading him to change and invest his whole heart mind and soul to loving His Lord in His people, the church, and learning how much care and skill is needed for the different kinds of people and needs are to be cared for spiritually and physically. The lambs, mature male sheep and the females all have different needs and need different approaches and understanding. What we do for them, we do for Him. Love for our Lord is demonstrated by what we do for and how we treat people.

    My experience as a Pastor has taught me that there are usually more ewes than male sheep and lambs in the flock, and they are the real backbone of the church. They have emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs, and will be the Pastor’s strongest supporters and helpers. Its a shame the Greek translator misranslated the Aramaic word our Lord used in His third injunction to Shimeon, thus omitting this most important group, the women.

  3. Dave Bauscher

    Here is the passage again from my translation of the Peshitta Aramaic New Testament:
    14.This was the third time Yeshua appeared to
    his disciples after he had risen from the tomb.
    15.And after they had breakfast, Yeshua said to
    Shimeon Kaypha, “Shimeon, Bar Yonah, do
    you love me more than these things?” He said
    to him, “Yes, my Lord, you know that I love
    you.” He said to him, “Shepherd my lambs for
    me.”
    16.He said to him again a second time,
    “Shimeon Bar Yonah, do you love me?” He
    said to him, “Yes, my Lord. You know that I
    love you.” Yeshua said to him, “Shepherd my
    sheep for me.”
    17.He said a third time, “Shimeon Bar Yonah,
    do you love me?” And Kaypha was saddened
    that he said to him the third time, “Do you love
    me?” And he said to him, “My lord, you discern
    everything; you know that I love you.” Yeshua
    said to him, “Shepherd my ewes for me.”
    18.“Amen, amen, I tell you, that when you were
    young, you were girding your loins and you
    were walking where you wanted, but when you
    are old, you shall reach out your hands and
    others shall gird your loins for you and shall
    escort you to where you do not want.”

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