Are there different kinds of ‘love’ in John 21?

When I first came to studying John’s gospel, I was armed with two things: a concern to pay attention to the details of the text; and the knowledge of all earnest Christians (thanks to C S Lewis) that there were four words for ‘love’ in Greek (eros, storge, philia and agape) pointing to the four different meanings, four different uses of ‘love’, and four different ways humans are drawn to others. (If any of that is right, then the slogan ‘Love is love’ is, of course, meaningless.)

So when I came to read John 21 (the gospel lectionary reading for this Sunday) and Jesus’ threefold questioning of Peter after the great catch of fish (echoing Luke 5) and the evocative breakfast on the beach, I was immediately alert to the changes of words used in Jesus’ question:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me — agape love — more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you — phileo love–.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me — agape love — ?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you — phileo love –.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me — phileo love –?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me? — phileo love –” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you — phileo love –.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. (John 21.15–17)

And, of course, I was not alone! Many a preacher also comments on the different words used, and this example is typical:

Why the difference in words for “love” in this conversation? Why did Jesus use agape and Peter use phileo? Jesus was asking Peter if he loved him with the love of God, a love that may require sacrifice. After all, Jesus had just gone through horrendous torture for Peter’s sake (and ours), something he did not want to do but did anyway because of his agape love. In contrast, Peter avoided possible torture by denying Jesus.

Jesus twice asked Peter, “Do you agape me? [That is, are you willing to do things for my sake that you do not want to do?]” Peter, on the other hand, still felt the sting of having denied Jesus, and was hopeful that their friendship was intact. Did Jesus hold Peter’s denial against him? Would he still treat Peter as a close associate and companion? Peter was not sure where he stood with Jesus, so he was trying to let Jesus know that he was still a true friend, and had phileo love for Jesus.

The third time Jesus spoke to Peter, he came to Peter’s level and asked if Peter were indeed a true friend (phileo), which grieved Peter. Nevertheless, it was important, because Jesus knew what Peter did not know—that Jesus would ascend into heaven, and Peter and the others would be left to carry out his work on earth, which would require that they all be his good friends and do his will even when it meant hardship.

This does not just give insight into the episode in the text, but potentially has implications for life situations and pastoral practice:

My dad has Alzheimer’s disease and every day my mom goes to visit him at the care facility. She sits with him, she shares a meal with him and she speaks to him. He’s not giving back in any way and isn’t in a state where he can physically take care of himself. She loves him with both ‘agape’ and ‘phileo’ love. She loves him unconditionally, but she also loves him relationally and intimately after years and years of living life together. Recently, while visiting my dad, I noticed a man who was taking care of his wife in the same way and with the same level of devotion. She was in a far worse state than my dad and yet, he remained steadfast. When I asked him about his wife, after engaging him in casual conversation, he replied, “I made a pledge, a vow to be there. That’s not conditional on anything. I’m gonna live that out.”

Distinguishing between these kinds of love has real plausibility, since we can see for ourselves that different motivations that lead us to care for others. And it appears that the approach of C S Lewis has been re-expressed by D A Carson in his The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (which I have recently bought, and now realise I must soon read!).


But there are several serious problems with this way of reading John 21. The first is that, if there was a significant difference between the two terms, why would Jesus make the progression that he does, from the ‘higher’ form of love to the ‘lower’? Surely he should start asking Peter about the most undemanding form of love, and then progress to that which will sustain him through the trials that Jesus says he is to face? And the use of these two synonyms also needs to be put in the context of Jesus’ synonyms for ‘feed’ and ‘my sheep’. The order is as follows:

Jesus’ question Peter’s answer Command Object
agapao phileo bosko arnia
agapao phileo poimaino probata
phileo phileo bosko probata

I am not aware of any commentator who makes much of the synonyms for ‘feed my sheep’ as a progression, so why should we think that the changes of synonyms for ‘love’ is important? Moreover, Peter does not respond to Jesus’ question ‘Do you agapao me?’ with ‘No, Lord, but I do phileo you’—he responds ‘Yes!’ And he is grieved in verse 17 not because Jesus has changed the verb he uses, but (as John tells us quite explicitly) because Jesus asked him ‘a third time’, a phrase John repeats for emphasis. Is this because Peter naturally feels that he has given an adequate answer already? Or is it because he is now wincing inside at the threefold question that he was asked in the courtyard by the fire, and this third question of Jesus is both a painful reminder of that failure, and the excruciating process of healing that wound, just as we wince in pain as someone pulls a splinter or thorn from our hand that has embedded itself in the skin? The act is painful, but without it healing cannot come. (Bultmann is just about alone in all the commentators in history who does not see the parallel here.)

I was first disabused of my belief in the ‘love’ difference by reading the commentary of C K Barrett, and initially found it hard to be persuaded. Even if words are close synonyms, they never exactly overlap, and surely there is some nuance of difference? Barrett is having none of it (p 584), and brings to his defence the parallelism earlier in John:

Anyone who loves (agapao) me will obey my teaching. My Father will love (agapao) them, and we will come to them and make our home with them (John 14.23)

No, the Father himself loves (phileo) you because you have loved (phileo) me and have believed that I came from God. (John 16.27)

Barrett also notes that the two verbs appear to be used interchangeably in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX), citing as an example Prov 8.17 ‘Those who love (phileo) me I love (agapao), and those who seek me will find me’, both Greek verbs here translating the same Hebrew verb ahv—and this fact is crucial for our understanding of how words are used in the New Testament, since both its writers and readers will have been reading the LXX.

Vineyard scholar Kenny Burchard vents his frustration at the common differentiation and highlights the interchangeable ways in which John uses the two verbs. He points out that John uses the agape word-group (in various forms) about 37 times (including Jn. 3:16, 3:19, 3:35, 8:42, 10:17, 11:5, 12:43, 13:1, 13:1, 13:23, 13:34, 14:15, 14:21, 14:23, 14:24, 14:28, 14:31, 15:9, 15:12, 15:17, 17:23, 17:24, 17:26, 19:26, 21:7, 21:15, 21:16, 21:20), and this includes the saying that people loved (agape love) the darkness rather than light in Jn. 3:19 and that the Pharisees loved (agape love) the approval of men more than the praise of God in Jn. 12:43. On the other hand, John uses phileo (in various forms) about 13 times (Jn. 5:20, 11:3, 11:36, 12:25, 15:19, 16:27, 20:2, 21:15, 21:16, 21:17), and this includes the Father loving (phileo-love) the Son in Jn. 5:20, Lazarus, whom Jesus loved (phileo-love) in Jn. 11:13 and 11:36, Barrett’s example of God’s love in John 16.27, and the disciple whom Jesus loved (phileo love) in Jn. 20:2. John’s actual uses does not sustain the common differentiation between the two terms in his gospel—whatever usage elsewhere might look like. (It is worth noting that C S Lewis’ differentiation might well have applied in different contexts—and that his main point is not about linguistics, but about theology, and that point stands.)


So is there any significance to the structure and variation in Jesus’ three-fold questioning of Peter? It seems to me that the central point here is the restoration of Peter, and it is characteristic of John to make connections backwards (known as ‘analepsis’, ‘looking again’) and forwards (‘prolepsis’, ‘looking ahead’) throughout his gospel; the reference to ‘feeding my sheep’ takes us back to Jesus’ claim to be the good shepherd in John 10—and John has already made a connection between this teaching and Peter’s betrayal by using the same word (aule) for both the sheep-pen of the good shepherd (John 10.1, 16) and the courtyard of the failed disciple (John 18.15). The theme of restoration is in fact one that has already occurred, especially if we see the great catch of fish earlier in the chapter as a conscious repeat of the episode in Luke 5 which began the ministry of Peter and the others; here is another new beginning, but one in the light of Jesus’ resurrection life.

At the level of John’s use of language, there is further significance. Mark Stibbe argues against the widely-held view that John 21 is an appendix to the gospel, probably written by someone else at a later date, by noticing 16 features of John 21 that are characteristic of the earlier chapters—including the use of synonyms for ‘love’, ‘sheep’ and ‘know’ (in the Sheffield Readings commentary series, 1993, pp 207–208). (Richard Bauckham offers a quite different argument related to the numerology of the 153 fish and the connections with numerological structure in the opening chapter.)

But what does this meaning for our reading, preaching and pastoral practice? For me, there is still a question to be resolved about the use of these terms in John and the differentiation between the four terms for love in wider Greek usage. But the lesson about language is that words are not simply packets that carry meaning, and dictionaries are not magical keys which give us unassailable answers to questions. Words find their meaning in their context, and dictionaries simply sum up the way that words have been used in the range of different contexts that they occur—the direction of movement is from language use to dictionaries, not the other way around! As Burchard protests:

This is what we may call “Strong’s Concordance” Greek. It’s done by lots and lots of people who have learned to look up the lexical forms of Greek words in their Strong’s Concordance without knowing much of anything about Greek grammar, or the ways in which word usage is a primary aspect of determining word meaning in Biblical literature (just as it is in our own language and literature). These gaps in understanding often lead to these kinds of exegetical fallacies that come off sounding deep and insightful to others who are just as uninformed. Additionally, these Greek gymnastics actually lead to missing the actual point of a text that is often right in front of our faces in favor of more “oooh-aaaaah deep and insightful” conclusions that are really not good conclusions at all.

Good preaching needs an understanding of languages—and good preachers need to refer to commentaries, and not rely solely on internet resources, helpful though these can be.

(This was first published in a slightly revised form in May 2018, the last time John 21 was the lectionary gospel.)


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14 thoughts on “Are there different kinds of ‘love’ in John 21?”

  1. In addition to my comments May 2018:

    There is a group of precisely 7 ‘loves’ here (2x agapao and 5x phileo). This is (as far as I can see) one of John’s 9 small scale sevens, e.g. the 21.2 disciples, the mikrons in ch16, the ‘tauta lelaleka humin’s, the ‘ask whatever you will’s (all these 3 in farewell discourses), the uses of witness (noun and verb) in 8.12-18, the uses of ‘light/enlighten’ in 1.4-9, the uses of ‘hate’ in 15.18ff., the uses of words for ‘one’ (6x ‘hen’ + 1x ‘oud’eis”) in ch17. It is often a pattern in John to have the more divine x2 and the more human x5. For example – those glorified in ch17 are 2x Father, 5x Jesus. The Greater Works in chs 20-21 are the 2fold Resurrection and Ascension (divine, and prefigured by 5.20-3) followed by fivefold ministry (human, and prefigured by 14.12). And other examples.

    This would however (particularly in light of other factors formerly noted) IMHO necessitate seeing agape as the more divine kind of love.

  2. The thing I always think, is that the Greek is in itself a translation of what would have passed between Jesus and Peter, who presumably conversed in Aramaic. Which makes me wonder, are there different words in Aramaic for ‘love’ which parallel the Greek meanings?

  3. Ian

    stop ruining my favourite sermon 🙂

    “….words are not simply packets that carry meaning….” I know what you mean

    In answer to the OP question – patently there are different kinds of love – phileo is not agapeo – different word, different weight. I cannot believe John is using them synonymously here. John tells us that greater love lays down its life for a friend – Peter denied his friend – he does not have this greater love for Jesus that Jesus had for him.

    As Gill nudges, its highly unlikely Jesus had this exchange in Greek, so was there a distinction in spoken Aramaic (or even Hebrew ;)) that John is conveying? I believe the inspiration of this passage by the Spirit, with the distinct selection of terms employed, is conveying the original sense of the exchange.

  4. I’ve been following your blog for the last 12 months and always derive a great deal of inspiration from it, thank you. I am not a scholar of NT Greek, nor of Aramaic of any form and so I echo the point made by Gill earlier in responses, how would the distinction have been made that resulted in the different verbs used in LXX, in this passage?

  5. It is worth noting that C S Lewis’ differentiation might well have applied in different contexts—and that his main point is not about linguistics, but about theology, and that point stands

    Excuse me? Please don’t try to drag Professor Lewis into this. The book The Four Loves doesn’t even mention different words for ‘love’ being used in the gospels. The loves of the title are named in English, not Greek (well, three of them are, he steals the Greek word for ‘Eros’, but only because there isn’t a good single word for what he means in English, and I’m not convinced he’s using in the Greek sense either rather than as his own coinage) and based on a quick flip through I don’t think the Greek word is even used in the chapter on ‘Charity’.

    There are in that chapter a whole bunch of quotations from the New Testament, but they are all in English (and anyone who’s read any Lewis knows he had absolutely no hesitation in dropping into Greek, so the fact he doesn’t is clearly deliberate) and are all to illustrate the type of love he is writing about, and not to make dictionary-points about the meanings of words.

    If you’re going to mention Lewis in the introductory paragraph of an article about people playing silly dictionary games, then I think you really ought to make it clearer that Lewis is entirely innocent of any of the errors which the casual reader of this article might think you had, however inadvertently, implicitly connected him with.

    (Looking through the introduction I noticed Lewis’s quotation from Denis de Rougemont: ‘love ceases to be a demon only when he cease to be a god’. Hm. I think a lot of people nowadays could stand to write that out a few thousand times. Was Lewis really as amazingly prescient as he seems sometimes to have been, or was it just that the worst errors that have grown and flowered in our own time were all already present, in their seedling forms, in his?)

  6. Barrett’s merging of words for love into a single optional word, that all means love-generally, doesn’t make any sense at all. When St Paul writes in Koine Greek then he writes what he means (It’s a man thing!) and although there is overlap between the different types of love, there is also difference and St Paul writes a particular word for love because that is the particular type of love he means.

    It is true that Jesus and Peter were probably speaking Aramaic – BUT – whoever wrote John’s gospel wrote good Koine Greek so the writer chose particular words because that’s the particular type of love meant. That interpretation is the interpretation of the writer but as fragments of John’s Gospel shows it is actually a very early document of a similar age to the others and not a later redaction at all.

    I stand against the arbitrary use of the word love simply because in respect of the word love the English language is unusually inadequate. (By the Way Peter and Jesus probably didn’t talk together in English ….Humour in case you were uncertain)

  7. If I could be so bold as to point out that all good books can also be bought online from Blackwells. Being a British firm it pays all taxes too and in this instance is cheaper:
    https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/The-Difficult-Doctrine-of-the-Love-of-God-by-D-A-Carson/9781844744275

    I always try to be aware of Burchard’s point about amateur use of a Greek interlinear when I look at it. But in 2 Peter 1:5-7 where there is the ‘ladder of virtue ‘ it definitely seems that agape is a higher expression of love than phileo. Is this a significant use; and is the Peter connection significant?
    But I wish there was much more genuine ‘friendship love’ in church life as this is so much more meaningful as everyday human care and interaction. I don’t see how real expressions of ‘laying-down-my-life love’ can occur without the basics of human friendships. That would avoid the nonsense of a “church life” which spawns this weird expression: “I love you in Christ but I can’t stand you”!

  8. Peter
    I have never read or seen this 2Pet1 ‘ladder of virtue’ in the context of Jn21 loves – great insight and given the Peter connection, its a lovely thought.

  9. I’d like to defend D. A. Carson on this. I read The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God last summer, and he actually argues *against* exegesis based on the philio-agape distinction. Carson also gives some history on the view. Some excerpts from his Chapter 2.

    “A. How Not to Proceed
    In the past many have tried to assign the love of God and, derivatively, Christian love to one particular word group. The classic treatment is that of Anders Nygren.”

    “What is now quite clear to almost everyone who works in the fields of linguistics and semantics is that such an understanding of love cannot be tied in any univocal way to the agapao word group. Let me briefly list the most important reasons”

    “We may perhaps quibble with the odd phrasing of Hodge’s words, but his point is well taken. We shall consider the bearing of all this on the doctrine of impassibility in the next chapter. My chief point here is that we cannot begin to fathom the nature of the love of God by nothing more penetrating than methodologically flawed word studies.

    B. How to Proceed: Text in Context
    What we must do is study passages with great respect for their contexts, and themes in the Bible with great attention devoted to their place in the unfolding drama of redemption….”

    A free PDF is available at https://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/carson/2000_difficult_doctrine_of_the_love_of_God.pdf.
    This is hosted by The Gospel Coalition, which Carson co-founded. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/free-pdf-of-carsons-book-on-2-timothy-3-4/

    • This argument that all the Koine Greek words for love are the same doesn’t actually work (to state the blindingly obvious). If someone writes in Koine Greek and uses a word for love then why not use any of the four words for love? Why does any language have four different words for love when they are allegedly all the same?

      The answer must be that they are NOT all the same and there is both some overlap and some clear differentiation – there has to be – otherwise having four different words is completely pointless in a language with noticeably fewer words than all modern languages. I am not saying ever that there isn’t some overlap but I am not using the overlap to deny differentiation in aspects of meaning.

      If you mean simple friendship and nothing more then surely philio is the correct word, if you mean that you love others (without any sexual connotation) then agape is the right word, if you mean family love then Storge is the right word, if you mean sexual love then eros is the right word.

      There have been a number of times in theology when someone has to state the blindingly obvious against odd views. I encountered it in Bauckham’s questioning if John’s gospel was actually old or a later document when lots of early letters quoted John’s gospel even before some theologians said it had been written! It is funny how often theologians need to be reminded of the blindingly obvious.

  10. Ian, by the way, did you read Carson’s, “The difficult doctrine of the love of God” ? Agog, I am, though you seem to have skimmed it, with the observation that he seems to take CS Lewis’s approach? A review forthcoming, perhaps?

  11. In the context of the dialogue, the cross and resurrection, and the movement of the story from night to dawn, to day, Peter would be more than aware that his love, would be on a far lower level than Christ’s love for him. Indeed that is as it is with any of us
    Can any of us sing or speak of our love for Christ without some degree of self awareness of its poverty compared to his Love Supreme.
    Think Vine concludes the word use for love depends on the object of love and by whom: so John 3:16, John 17.
    On a human, realistic, common sense, level, is it not, “Blindingly Obvious”, (stop beating about the bush, Clive- it is a frustration I sometimes share!) logical, to those not of a certain scholarly theological guild.
    Carson say this in his book; God’s love…display s itself. In perfect harmony with his will-and with his holiness, his purposes in Redemption, his infinite wise plans, and so forth…God’s love emanates from an infinite Being whose perfections are immutable…his love emanates from his own character; it is not dependent on the loveliness of the loved, external to himself””
    It is Chris’s love that transcends, descends and ascends.

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