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|
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 scholarJohn 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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