In today’s Gospel (from John 21), we heard the story of Jesus’ third post-resurrection appearance to His disciples. Simon Peter and six other disciples were on a boat in the Sea of Tiberias. They had been fishing all night, and caught nothing. At daybreak, Jesus called to them from the shore, and asked if they had caught anything (they did not recognize him). When they replied that they had not, He told them to cast the net on the other side of the boat. They did so, and pulled up so many fish they could not get the net into the boat.
The disciples then recognized Jesus, and Peter jumped out of the boat and swam about a hundred yards to shore. The others brought the boat to shore, where they pulled 153 large fish out of the net, which they then cooked over a charcoal fire.
After breakfast, Peter and Jesus had a conversation which raises an interesting question about how to understand the verbs for love—agapáo and philéo—used in the original Greek.
Agapáo (Strong’s #25) is a verb that means “to love” related to the noun agápe (love). Philéo (Strong’s #5368) is also a verb usually translated “to love,” related to the nouns phílos, (friend) and philía (friendship).
The passage is difficult to translate because although English has always had separate nouns for “love” and “friendship,” no English speaker prior to Mark Zuckerberg used “friend” as a verb. Translators, therefore, must either translate both words as “love,” which loses a potential nuance in the original, or else must try to somehow make the difference apparent in English.
Most readers will recall that, the night before the crucifixion, Peter had denied that he knew Jesus three times (John 18:15-27). One notable detail in that scene was that, while Jesus was being questioned, Peter had warmed his hands at a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the High Priest (John 18:18). That scene, and the scene from today’s Gospel, are the only two places in the Gospel of John that mention a charcoal fire. The scenes are also connected by the repetition of three similar exchanges (I’ve included the Greek verbs in square brackets):
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love [agapáo] Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love [philéo] You.” He said to him, “Feed My lambs.”
A second time He said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love [agapáo] Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love [philéo] You.” He said to him, “Tend My sheep.”
He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love [philéo] Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love [philéo] Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know everything; You know that I love [philéo] You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep.” (John 21:15-17)
How are we to understand the shift between the two verbs in this passage?
I will argue that when Peter says, “I love [philéo] You,” he is declaring a more intimate form of love than if he responded “I love [agapáo] You.” I will also argue that by switching from agapáo to philéo, Jesus is helping to confirm Peter’s restoration to friendship with Christ.
However, other interpreters have reached different conclusions, and I will examine the arguments for alternate hypotheses before defending my own.
Hypothesis 1: Agapáo Is a Higher Love than Philéo
The 1984 Edition of the NIV translated agapáo as “truly love” and philéo as “love.” In this interpretation of the passage, Jesus twice asked, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” and Peter twice replied, “you know that I love you.” Then, the third time, Jesus asked only, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” and Peter replied that he does.
The Amplified Bible expands agapáo as love “with total commitment and devotion,” while philéo is rendered as love “with a deep, personal affection, as for a close friend.”
In What Have They Done with Jesus? Ben Witherington III adopted a similar reading of the passage and explained it in more depth. Witherington argued that the exchange proceeded as follows:
- Jesus asks if Peter loves him with an unconditional God-given love, and Peter replies that he loves him like a brother.
- The second interchange is the same.
- The third time, however, Jesus merely asks, Do you at least love me like a brother? Peter, becoming distraught, says with all his heart that he loves Jesus like a true brother. (p. 73)
Witherington concluded that Jesus’s switch from agapáo to philéo “should be seen as a narrative about Jesus’s gracious condescension to the level that Peter was prepared to respond to at this juncture” (p. 74).
This reading of the passage stems from a widespread—but, I will argue, incorrect—understanding of the New Testament’s terminology for love. But why would Witherington and the NIV translators view agapáo as a higher form of love?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Love [agapáo] your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44; cf. Luke 6:27, 35). And almost immediately, He said, “if you love [agapáo] those who love [agapáo] you, what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:46; cf. Luke 6:32).
This clearly prioritizes unconditional love over familial affection or friendship. And there is something particularly Christ-like about this unconditional love. The Apostle Paul wrote, “God shows His love [agápe] for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Recall for a moment what that truly meant. He was forced to carry His cross—a heavy, rough-hewn wooden stake, whose weight would have cut in to the wounds on his back where he had been scourged—from the Gabbatha, the stone pavement where Pilate sat in judgment to Golgotha, the place of the Skull. There, the soldiers had pounded rough nails through his wrists and ankles. Then He hung on the cross, the weight of His body suffocating Him as it slumped down, with the excruciating pain in His arms, legs, and back as He pushed Himself for each breath.
And in midst of all that, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) for the men who had driven the nails through His limbs and had lifted Him up to die.
This is a far more challenging form of love than the delight we feel in our relations with our friends and those who love us—though we should notice that the Gospels use agapáo both for this unconditional, God-given love of enemies, and for our much more human love for those who love us.
In addition, agapáo is the verb used in the Great Commandments: “love [agapáo] the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “love [agapáo] your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39; cf. Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:27). Thus “all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40) depend on agapáo.
The great hymn in 1 Corinthians 13 praises love [agápe]—though it does not use love as a verb—further reinforcing that the “more excellent way” of love is that of agápe/agapáo.
So there is good reason to see agápe/agapáo as a higher form of love than philía/philéo. Even so, however, there are reasons to question the NIV 1984/Witherington interpretation.
To begin with, it doesn’t really make sense on its own terms. Witherington wrote:
Even with Peter’s inadequate response, there is a threefold commissioning, which seems to be incrementally more involved with each step. After each question, Jesus assigns Peter a task: first he is to feed the little lambs; then he is to tend Jesus’s sheep; finally he is to feed the adult sheep. (p. 74)
But this reading raises an obvious question: why would Jesus give Peter incrementally more responsible commissions each time Peter refused to respond to Christ’s invitation to unconditional, God-given love?
Moreover, at the Last Supper, Jesus said: “Greater love [agápe] has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends [phílos]” (John 15:13). This suggests that the highest form of love is not loving our enemies: it is self-sacrificial love for our friends.
Finally, it’s worth recalling that, when he realized that Jesus was standing on the shore, Peter jumped into the Sea of Tiberias, and swam 100 yards, just so that he could reach Him faster than the other disciples could row the boat in to shore(John 21:7). Is it plausible that Peter was that excited to see Jesus, but wouldn’t, as the NIV translators suggested, say that he “truly loved” Him?
The next two hypotheses, which I will argue are more plausible than the first, explore the relationship between agápe/agapáo and philía/philéo in the New Testament texts in order to reach a more nuanced understanding of the exchange between Jesus and Peter.
Hypothesis 2: Agapáo and Philéo Are Used Interchangeably in This Passage.
While the 1984 NIV tried to distinguish between agapáo and philéo in its translation of this passage, most English translations—including more recent editions of the NIV itself—treat the two verbs equivalently, rendering both as “love.”
A careful look at the New Testament—and particularly the Gospel of John—shows that the two terms are used interchangeably across a wide variety of contexts.
At one end of the spectrum, we see both verbs used in notably selfish contexts. For example, Matthew reported that Jesus said that the Pharisees “love [philéo] the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues” (Matthew 23:6). And Luke quoted Jesus as saying that the Pharisees “love [agapáo] the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces” (Luke 11:43). This shows that we cannot assume that agapáo always refers to “an unconditional God-given love.”
At the other end of the spectrum, John used both verbs for the Father’s love for the Son. “The Father loves [agapáo] the Son and has given all things into His hand” (John 3:35). And “For the Father loves [philéo] the Son and shows Him all that He Himself is doing” (John 5:20). It would make no sense at all to interpret philéo as a “condescension” in the context of love between the Persons of the Trinity.
This should call into question the assumption—made by Witherington and the 1984 NIV translators—that agapáo necessarily names a higher form of love than philéo.
In some ways, it is tedious to multiply examples. But doing so—meeting the two verbs “in the wild,” so to speak—can be helpful for getting a sense of their “flavor.” It’s especially helpful to consider how they were used by John, because this gives insight into the way he used the words.
In addition to using both verbs to describe the love between the Father and the Son, John also used both for the Father and the Son’s love for human beings:
For God so loved [agapáo] the world, that he gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
[T]he Father Himself loves [philéo] you, because you have loved [philéo] Me and have believed that I came from God. (John 16:27)
Now Jesus loved [agapáo] Martha and her sister and Lazarus. (John 11:5)
So the Jews said, “See how He loved [philéo] him!” (John 11:36)
One important difference between the first pair of examples is that God’s love [agapáo] of the world in 3:16 seems completely unconditional, while His love [philéo] in 16:27 seems to be a response to the disciples’ love [philéo] for Jesus. Thus though the two verbs can be used in similar contexts, agapáo permits an unconditional meaning, while philéo implies a kind of mutuality.
John 16:27 shows that John used philéo to refer both to God’s love for the disciples and the disciples’ love for Jesus. Agapáo, also, can refer to human beings’ love for Jesus:
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love [agapáo] Me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of My own accord, but He sent Me.” (John 8:42)
A final pair, denoting mutual human love, might seem like more equivocal evidence:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love [agapáo] one another: just as I have loved [agapáo] you, you also are to love [agapáo] one another. (John 13:34)
If you were of the world, the world would love [philéo] you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:19)
Here, agapáo is used to describe mutual human love patterned after the love of Christ, while philéo is used for a more worldly style of human love. But agapáo, too, can be used for worldly love: “Do not love [agapáo] the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves [agapáo] the world, love [agapáo] for the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).
Based on all of these examples from the Gospel of John, it seems that John used agapáo and philéo interchangeably in a wide variety of contexts, ranging from the highest love between the Persons of the Trinity to quite notably selfish human loves. This would suggest that he used the terms interchangeably in John 21, perhaps just to avoid too much repetition of agapáo.
The best internal evidence for this exegesis is found in verse 17: “Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’” This seems to treat the questions, “Do you love [agapáo] me?” and “Do you love [philéo] me?” as equivalent.
Thus Hypothesis 1 rests on assumptions about love and friendship which are widely accepted today (at least in the West), but which are at odds with attitudes toward friendship in the Bible and in the ancient Christian world, and at odds with the usage of the Bible itself.
Hypothesis 3: Philéo Claims a More Intimate Relation with Jesus than Agapáo
Based on the evidence above, agapáo and philéo seem interchangeable in many contexts. However, there are two important, and related, differences: only agapáo is used to describe loving enemies, and philéo generally points to a kind of mutuality.
Love generally involves two components. The first is to will the good for my beloved. And the second is to will union with my beloved.
Most uses of agápe/agapáo include both of these dimensions. However, when love is extended to enemies, it can include only willing good for my enemy, even if he wills to do me evil. But there can be no union with an enemy, because he wills to do me evil. On the other hand, philía/philéo requires a union of wills.
The friendship of David and Jonathan began when “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1). And Jesus Himself said, “You are my friends [phílos] if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).
Peter’s denial had broken that obedience, and thus broken—or at least damaged—the union of wills between himself and Jesus. He was, like the Roman soldiers who had crucified Jesus, still within the bounds of agápe, but his action had denied—at least in some sense—that they were bound together by philía.
At the Last Supper, Jesus said: “Greater love [agápe] has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends [phílos]” (John 15:13). On the night before Jesus was crucified, Peter had refused to risk his life for his friend. Peter’s responses in this passage might be understood to mean that he does not want merely to share agápe love with Jesus, the same love that Jesus would have for the soldiers that crucified Him. He does not want to be loved as an enemy who had betrayed Jesus. He wants to reclaim his status as Jesus’ friend [phílos], which had been conferred on the disciples at the Last Supper.
Thus, in verse 17, where Jesus switches from asking Peter if he loves [agapáo] Him, and instead asks if he loves [philéo] Him, He is accepting Peter’s claim to the “greater love” which Jesus spoke of at the last supper. This reading makes further sense if we look at the following verses:
Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This He said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this He said to him, “Follow Me.” (John 21:18-19)
This shows that Jesus predicted that Peter would, indeed, lay down his life for Him, connecting these verses with John 15:13.
Today’s first reading emphasized that connection. It was the story, taken from Acts 5, of the apostles brought before the Sanhedrin. On the night before Jesus died, Peter had denied Christ; now, facing threats from the same body that had condemned Christ to death, Peter and the other apostles spoke boldly:
We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him. (Acts 5:29-32)
After the Sanhedrin had them to be beaten and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus again, today’s first reading ended by saying the Apostles “left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).
Peter was restored to Christ’s friendship that morning by the Sea of Tiberias, and afterwards he did not allow fear to keep him from following his Friend and Master.