Are there different ‘loves’ 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 meaningless.)

So when I came to read John 21, 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’ questionPeter’s answerCommandObject

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.

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.

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 and forwards 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).

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. 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.

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125 thoughts on “Are there different ‘loves’ in John 21?”

  1. For once, I agree with you, Ian. Words are not meaning packets, but take their meaning from the way and the context in which they are used. Good preaching also needs a deep reading of the context into which it is spoken to sit alongside the language work.

    • I’d perhaps also venture to point out that same applies when reading other historic texts, such as the Articles. Their meaning cannot be detached from the context and intent of their authors…

      • Ian: the context and intent of the authors of the Articles was everything do with the civil and religious wars of the English reformation – in particular the subjugation of Roman Catholics. To imagine they have any serious meaning 400 years later and post emancipation is pretty odd. They are historic formularies. No more. No less. And that’s what I assent to every time.

      • The Declaration of Assent has a definite meaning. It means that anyone making it is saying that the Articles are true…true then…true now…true always. Just read the Declaration and the Preface. And read Canon A5.
        Phil Almond

    • Here is a possible explanation as to WHY Jesus uses this downward progression…

      I don’t think it is 100% accurate to call it “Peter’s restoration” when Jesus asked him 3 times, “Do you love me?” I see it more as Jesus’ final test before graduation. Peter had been so sure that he loved Jesus so much, that he would die for him. But Jesus proved to Peter that without supernatural power from the Holy Spirit, he would even swear by God’s name that he didn’t even know Jesus. So when Jesus asked, “Do you LOVE (AGAPE) ME? Peter was ashamed but honest and answered, “I love you with a conditional-human love (Phileo), that is all i have Lord.” The third time Jesus said… DO YOU PHILEO love me? And Peter wept saying, YOU know LORD that I do… Jesus replied saying, “that is enough. Feed my Sheep” then said.. go and WAIT for the Holy Spirit for POWER to feed my sheep with MY LOVE (AGAPE) and you will be my witness and die for my name. YOU PASSED, PETER.

      This is as true in ministry as it is in all our relationships, especially in Marriage. If we love with everything we have and know we need to the LORD to really give us enough to provide for all of our spouse’s needs, then HE provides the power. But if we think we have/are enough to be everything they need, we will fail them bitterly at the first sign of trouble.

      God resists the proud and gives GRACE to the humble.
      As for your article.. THANK YOU for putting this together and my former prof and I were having the following discussion when he pointed me to your article…

      First, for me the word agape doesnt necessarily mean ONLY divine.. but rather it is unconditional and sacrificial love.. that in our flesh we can EASILY commit to for evil or for other evil purposes,,, but to do it for GOOD requires divine purpose and help…

      //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?//

      my explanation answers why.. he was testing his arrogance that caused Jesus to tell him in the first place.. the last one then is saying’…. You learned your lesson, just give me what you have (a lesson taught in MANY places in the Bible) and with that humility I will give you what you need. .the Holy Spirit.”

      even the example in Prov. fits this view

      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’.” If you give me YOUR BEST LOVE Phileo I will AGAPE love…Hebrew doesnt have the different word that greek does so it seems the author may have also been translating the nuance he noticed. After all, when we give God our best, doesnt he ALWAYS give more?

      Even a glance through the variations of use in Phileo all show a conditional love usage that is based on something else, and AGAPE is used for DEEPEST DESIRE that often runs counter to the relationship.

      I would even add to it this point which I need to examine more…
      this is especially true of “the Father PHILEO the son” in the sense that even Jesus says, “you ALWAYS HEAR ME [BECAUSE] I always do what pleases you. IN the incarnation Jesus was clearly fulfilling all righteousness as MAN to earn the position. (Phil even says that every knee will bow NOT because Jesus is LORD but because FOR THIS REASON (his obedience even to the cross) earned that honor.

      So maybe with the view that AGAPE is NOT just divine it is unconditional and sacrificial oftentimes, maybe C S Lewis knew something these guys afterwards had not considered.

      there may be a reason that John, in 1 John never uses phileo ONLY Agape.. why not if they are interchangeable? Because he is contrasting doctrines between pre-gnostics and Orthodox and LOVE that God desires from a doctrinal position is AGAPE unconditional and sacrificial. Which apart from God, we can ONLY give to evil.. as slaves of unrighteousness.

      For me.. I am sticking in CS Lewis company until It can be proven conclusively that it cannot be right.

      • Robert,

        I agree with you. I very much believe this is a case of “well actually,” when our nobility class (scholars) apply hubris to correct the “peasants in the pews.” Even in their examples, it’s obvious why there are different word choices. For example, in John 3:19 (“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved [ēgapēsan] darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil”), it’s obvious that John is implying that evildoers are committing idolatry by giving /apapē/ to something other than God. In reality, scholarship follows trends where one scholar states an opinion and then all of the others parrot it ad nauseum until some other opinion becomes trendy. We have Strong’s Concordance for a reason and we don’t need to follow every scholarly trend or every wind of doctrine.

      • I’ve misread your original post, as my memory of reading Carson’s book “Difficult Doctrine…” was that it was there that I first came across his, the exegesis that there wasn’t a distinction in the context, of John and I found that challenging. It certainly was Carson who first drew me to this, as it was significant enough to unsettle what I’d been taught and thought, but it must have been in one of his other books, or commentary or somewhere else-on checking, the Difficult Doctrine… doesn’t even have any scriptural reference to John 21.

        Here is a link to Carson on the passage in John 21:

        Colin Kruse in his TNTC on John writes this:
        “Sometimes a lot has been made of these differences(in use verbs) For example both agapao and phileo are used for the Father’s love for the Son (scripture cited) , for Jesus love for Lazarus, for the disciple whom Jesus loved, and for the Father’s love for the disciples.”

        Carson says in “How long O Lord” “ The same Peter who wanted to draw a sword in Gethsemane and fight it out, had to learn that he would one day glorify God by his own death I martyrdom (John 21:18-19. He Learned it well enough that he could pass it on to others. He wrote 1Peter$12-16,19.”

        Peter did, indeed, glorify Christ in the ignominy of his death in martyrdom, a polar opposite to the ignominy of saving his life in denial of Christ.

        I’m not a reader of any biblical languages but seek reliable guides.

        • Dear Geoff

          Your quotation is:
          “……Colin Kruse in his TNTC on John writes this:
          “Sometimes a lot has been made of these differences(in use verbs) For example both agapao and phileo are used for the Father’s love for the Son (scripture cited) , for Jesus love for Lazarus, for the disciple whom Jesus loved, and for the Father’s love for the disciples.”…..

          My clear problem with that claim is that we don’t know the details of the relationship between Jesus and Lazarus.
          Lazarus and Jesus might very well have been close friends …. philiea
          Jesus might also have cared deeply for Lazarus ….. agape

          So the use of verbs for Jesus talking about Lazarus actually proves nothing at all unless we also can be certain about the relationship – and we can’t. The same is true for the relationship between Jesus and God which is more than we can imagine. Therefore the projection that agape and philiea are interchangeable is completely unproven by this.

          • No, we don’t know the relationship of Jesus with Lazarus, but we do have some idea of God’s love for us, ours for God, and God’s for Jesus. The fact that John uses the two ‘love’ verbs interchangeably in these contexts is really compelling.

          • But Ian, we can both see God as caring for us (agape) and our fried(philia) and so it is not compelling at all as both are valid words. It would only be imprecisely interesting if one of the words was not correct. So, no, I don’t agree at all.

  2. Yes, I approached scripture through the lens of Lewis and sermons on the different word use in John 21. Then I came to Carson’s short but not easy book, wrestled with it, on a journey from arminianism,some years ago. Might need to reread.
    So many thanks for this

  3. There is not the slightest chance IMHO that John 21 is a later addition. Moreover that conclusion is on the basis of a multi-angled holistic reading. The gospel as a whole does not work (and is sectionally unbalanced) without ch.21; and the 20.30-1//21.25 duality is part of a larger closely-interlinked set of dualities. There are bits of John which may well be later additions (4.2, 4.44, 5.4; plus the pericope adulterae clearly and obviously) but not ch.21.

    The philein/agapan thing is quite intricate and I would hazard that the main reasons are ones rarely if ever touched on:

    (1) ‘Do you love me more than these? ‘ could mean 3 things: ‘more than these others do’, ‘more than these fishing nets’, ‘more than you love these disciples’? I am impressed with the number of the best interpreters that go with the first of these. That means that the question of how Peter measures up to the Disciple-of-Love (John) is centrally in view. Moreover, that topic (Peter vs John) is very often in view – as often as the two of them appear (and they mostly appear together), it is in view.

    Peter is granted the lesser task of being the Shepherd, but falls short of being the top disciple: that (by virtue of his Love) is John; and it is important to the writer that Jesus’s words be precisely given and that it is understood that they were subtle and have been misinterpreted: Jesus actually implied that John not Peter was the top disciple.

    All this is bound up with numerical values connected with the concepts (as opposed to gematria) and with the characters.

    (2) Likewise agapan and philein have *conceptual* numerical values, and John carefully chooses and polishes each word before he put it in place in the tapestry. There are things coing on at the micro-level. A similar case where we have significant minor alteration from first occurrence to second occurrence is ch3: enter the kingdom / see the kingdom. I will be interested in Pete Phillips’s take on that in June.

    • There are 3 appearances of the disciple hon Iesous egapa, three of ‘the other (another / unnamed member of pair) disciple’ and one where the disciple hon Iesous *ephilei* is spliced with ‘the other disciple’ (20.2). So wherever we unambiguously have John the Apostle, we have egapa. That is one indication that egapa and ephilei are not the same.

      One could go on. There is a passage in ch.15 where philoi / friends is the central concept. This is quite distinct from the new commandment (ch13) where agapan is the central concept. Agapan is always made to seem something both (a) stronger and (b) distinct from philein. The gospel is ever so carefully planned. John does not need to give importance to both these concepts individually if he does not want to. But he does – and therefore he does want to.

      Questioning whether Peter is even Jesus’s friend just accentuates the John – Peter gulf. Something this author is anxious to do.

      What then of arnia/probata, bosko/poimaino? These (though not all common as words in Jn) are all concepts that fall into important conceptual fields that were part of John’s pre-planning stage. Stylistic variation is good style – yet of all authors John cares least about it. He can drill words into us (hen, phos, mikron, pisteuein). That is partly why I go for an explanation that involves conceptual numerical values and cycles.

    • And (of course) the whole context is about tidying up loose ends about what Jesus’s final words to and about John and Peter (their commissions, their deaths) really were.

  4. Nor IMHO is it an accident that Simon is precisely here called ‘son of John’; Judas is also called ‘son of Simon’.

    • Positively last thought – and one I had only today. The pairs of words for love, nurture and sheep-species in this passage all vary in two-thirds/one-third proportion, a proportion that could be thought Johannine. So, to reconstruct the sequence of John’s thought processes:

      (1) It is a given (Isaiah 6 / John 18+21 coal-fire) that there are going to be three Jesus-Peter exchanges to redeem the 3 denials.

      (2) John is very much of a mind to make those exchanges about love. The key issue is how Peter and John measure up, comparatively, love-wise.

      (3) He has had two main love-words in his gospel which can be thought of as a pair because of the similar way they can potentially be used (16.27, 20.2). He has the option to use agapan 6 times – but the option of mixing and matching naturally appeals far more. Why?

      A- He has been mixing and matching agapan and philein throughout the gospel, not that that makes the 2 concepts precisely equivalent.

      B- The conversation would become dull to a very unJohannine extent if all 3 exchanges were exactly the same. That level of repetition is never found in the gospel. Precise verbatim repetition is rarely found without at least some small variation.

      (4) Having taken the decision to mix and match, the second question arises of where he should put agapan and where he should put philein. He chooses the progression that is coherent and of most significance. Separating Peter from any utterance of agapan (because of his faulty and inadequate understanding) -even when the word is suggested to him by Jesus and presented to him on a plate, he cannot force it past his lips – is a deliberate move, as is attaching John the Apostle so closely to agapan.

      (5) After that, it is neatest (he being a consummately neat author) to put the other concepts in two-thirds/one-third proportions as well. You would scarcely do it with the love-concepts and yet fail to do it with the other concepts. Nowhere else does the question of the possible difference between agapan and philein arise so acutely because (for reasons above) they are jammed close to one another here. So the variation is clearly deliberate, and it is best practice to set that in a context of overall variation and (even better) mathematical/proportional neatness.

  5. I’ve often thought about this and continue to do so with reference to some of our current issues in the church. I always hesitated to read the first reference in the marriage service because God’s love is not the same as the love we have for each other. There are so many different kinds of love and we need wisdom to tease out the differences. As the Orthodox would say, theology is something we pray.

    • But surely Gill our love is a reflection (often a pale one I grant you) of the God who is love itself? I always stress that point at weddings. What the couple do, by entering this marriage, and indeed by ‘making love’ is participate in the very life of God.

      • Andrew

        Making love is a euphemism for having sex ideally in a loving relationship. It is the “loving relationship” that matters and not the “having sex”.
        So your link between “making love” and a “God who is love itself” is disgraceful because the text “God is love” comes from 1 John and it is God is agape – God is caring love for us – it is NOT sexual love for us. So I am stunned how you can be so dishonest with couples getting married,

        • Twaddle Clive. Making love is much much more than having sex. It’s about a full expression of caring for the other in a committed relationship – in other words the fullness of the word love in all its several meanings. It’s about sharing tasks, holding hands, making plans together in the context of a relationship that also has a sexual component. I’m appalled that you want to separate sex from the wholeness of a loving relationship.

          • ‘A loving relationship’ has struck many for decades as an unacceptably vague phrase, the more so if it is deliberately vague (i.e. a Trojan Horse).

            It is well known to each of us that we all have several different loving relationships. With family members, friends, pets – even acquaintances and enemies (if we are faithful Christians) – therefore, with virtually everybody (albeit the love may sometimes be one-sided).

            It is also well known that there are at least 4 significantly different kinds of ‘love’.

            Further, it is well known that the affection kind and the friendship kind and the self-giving kind are extremely favourably looked on by all Christians regardless of the genders involved – always have been and always will be.

            You will inevitably be regarded as disingenuous (which has effects on people’s view of your honesty – or, rather, the honesty of the type of discourse that popularises phrases like ‘loving relationship’, and which people either knowingly adopt or are unknowingly duped into) if you use phrases like that.

          • Sorry Andrew, that’s total twaddle because everyone uses the phrase “making love” for having sex and what is deeply disturbing is that you actually know that perfectly well.

        • I do not know that at all Clive and I disagree with you. The fact that you think sex is some detached activity apart from a loving relationship is just frightening.

          • In the vast majority of ‘loving relationships’, sex would be totally inappropriate, even criminal and life-destroying.

            In marital unions where it is appropriate, it is (as you say) of the essence, not at all detached.

            This inexact talk of ‘loving relationships’ (talk about weasel words) has its roots entirely in secularism and not at all in Christiantity.

  6. Ian, thankyou as always – got to disagree, humbly… even though my Gk is only a little better than Strongs concordance Gk & though not as good as a NT academic’s Greek. Nevertheless, words inspired by the Spirit in sacred scripture matter. The distinction in choice of Gk word by John is very important. Jesus loved Peter with Agapao love – evidenced by his self sacrificial death for him. Peter loved Jesus with Phileo love, evidenced by his self love at the point of greatest challenge. Of course, Jesus would not have spoken in Greek to Peter but Aramaic so its somewhat academic, but I believe in the inspiration of every word in Greek and not just broad theology & themes.

    • Nice to have a bit of humble disagreement! I have long agreed with you, instinctively resisting the idea that synonyms are ever *entirely* synonymous.

      But I am having to let go of this instinctive conviction in the light of the arguments and in particular the evidence of John’s own use of the terms earlier in the gospel.

      I am also persuaded by Mark Stibbe’s observations about the characteristic use of synonyms in John—and should add the synonyms about ‘know’ as well. Richard Bauckham would agree with you about the importance of actual word use in John, that his decisions are deliberate rather than casual—but that we therefore need to attend to the pattern of variations, rather than seeing difference between words on its own as significant.

      I think these are the reasons why not a single contemporary commentator that I could find support the common view…


  7. Just heard a preacher talking about this last week, though he maintained the distinction in the words meanings. While I had heard it many times before, I was wondering the entire time how the distinction of philia vs. agape could even be made in Aramaic, which if it’s close enough to Hebrew doesn’t have the capacity to make that full distinction. This began making me question the whole premise, but this article sealed it for me. Thanks

    • I think the Aramaic question is interesting, and an insight into the possible dynamic is shown in Prov 8.17 and elsewhere where both Greek words are used to translate the same Hebrew word—so the variation is clearly poetic.

      However, there is a real question over whether Jesus did actually teach in Aramaic; I am intrigued by this and hope to explore a little more in due course. This book sets out the evidence, though I am not sure how many people it has persuaded as yet…

      • Thanks for the reply. I didn’t realize there were strong arguments in favor of Jesus primarily teaching in Greek. Will be interested to see if it catches on (was never mentioned when I was in seminary). Look forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter as you explore.

      • For what it’s worth, I’ve long believed that Jesus probably taught substantially in Greek, the lingua franca of his context. He would want to be understood by people, so he would use the language most used in the public sphere. He must have spoken Greek to Pilate, surely? People at the crucifixion didn’t understand “Eloi” but had heard of Elijah (so not the Romans, then?). In this view, the rare occurrences of Aramaic in the Gospels are given precisely for being unusual – the exceptions which prove the rule. I’ve never felt the idea of Aramaic was at all convincing.

  8. Thanks Ian! Great work, and I really appreciate the quotes and interaction. I phileo-love this article (just like the Father loves the Son!).

  9. To state the blindingly obvious – There is no point in having four different words for love unless there is some difference in meaning.

    I agree that context matters a lot and I agree that the differences can be exaggerated but none of that agreement detracts from the reality that there is and must be a difference in meaning. Some of the scholars quoted veer from one extreme to the other, whereas for me there is a difference but it should not be taken out of proportion.

    1 John uses agape throughout so there is no point counting how many times other words for love are used ….because they aren’t.

    • I appreciate not wanting to overdo it, but number of words don’t necessarily mean there’s incredible distinctions or if there are they are operating. Imagine the following conversation:

      “Honey, did you pack the suitcase?”
      “yes dear, I packed the luggage.”
      “So you packed my suitcase?”
      “Yes, your trunk has been packed.”

      We have three words here suitcase, luggage, and trunk which may be distinguishable from one another but there’s no doubt they all have the same referent. Nobody would think the one who packed was intentionally shifting the focus from the original question, but using a different word.

        • Clive,

          I don’t think words have to be completely synonymous to have the same meaning in a certain situation. Like the above scenario there are differences in luggage, suitcase and trunk where they are not always interchangeable, but they are in this scenario.

          Another scenario:
          “Don’t you love steak?”
          “Yes, I like it so much so much it’s my favorite food!”

          While we can all agree like/love are not the same word, at certain points their meaning overlaps to which love is a mere intensified form of like.

          Thus agape and philia do not have to have the exact meaning all the time for there to be places where there’s overlap and either could be used. Certainly cases where only one should be used, but others where either. I think this article shows John’s propensity to use interchangeably at points.

          • Dear JJ

            A word “overlapping” it’s meaning in a certain context already shows that the two words have a different meaning overall precisely because you stated “overlapping” which begins at the point that the two are different and can only share a similar meaning in a particular, selective context.

            Therefore the four koine greek words for love do each have a different meaning.

          • Dear JJ

            Ironically in your text of “Don’t you love steak?” I don’t think you could legitimately uses any of the four koine greek words for love (because you are not friends with the steak / philia, you do not have familial love for the steak / storge, you do not hold caring love for the steak otherwise you wouldn’t be eating it / agape, and you do not have erotic love for the steak / eros) ….. so you would have to us a word for like.

            As soon as you acknowledge that context is a driver in meaning then the words are different but the context can cause the overlap.

        • Hi Clive,
          ‘How many words are there in English for love…’ A good point. I think that ‘love ‘ is the only English word for ‘love’ , and we need to qualify it , for instance ‘ Divine love’, ‘ sacrificial love’ ‘brotherly love’, ‘romantic love’ and so on. I get a bit frustrated when ‘love’ is used to mean all sorts of other things , such as ‘I love strawberries’ – love seems to mean one thing to one person and another thing to another person! I think it is good that Greek has differentiated words for love, but mostly I think it is good that God knows what we mean when we talk about ‘love’ 🙂

      • “Honey, do you love me with all your heart”
        “Yes dear, you’re my friend”
        “so you dont love me then?”
        “Yes, I like you”

        • So that demonstrates that synonyms can be near synonyms or far synonyms, and that sometimes the use of synonyms makes a difference, and sometimes it doesn’t.

          I think I would argue that the evidence *from within John* shows that John 21.15 is *not* like your example here.

          • Nah – I think it demonstrates the opposite

            If I asked my wife if she loved me and she immediately replied she liked me, I would assume she did not love me.

            Yes, when used separately the words can be synonyms even in Jn, but when placed together in the context of Jn21 and and of Peter’s denial, they show a gear change.

            Why do you think Peter became sad when Jesus changes from Agapeo to Phileo on the 3rd question? Was this because the penny dropped (3 fold denial/3 fold eliciting of love?) or was it “OK, so you dont love me like I love you – do you even love me as a brother as you have claimed twice?”

            Agapeo love is the love Jesus demonstrates when he lays down his life for his friends (philown) Jn15v13 – Peter patently does not have this level of love and indeed can hardly say he loves Jesus as friend (Phileo) as he manages to deny Jesus 3x.

          • Hi Ian,
            I have found your article and the comments interesting, but I have not commented so far because I thought anything I said would just be speculation, as there so many debatable questions, such as which language Jesus and Peter were actually speaking, and the usage of agape and philia at that time by different people in spoken and written language, and especially by John and Peter in 21:15 – though I understand that agape was used mainly in the NT, and that it meant specifically Godly love.
            I just read the exchange between you and Simon, and I don’t think that ‘like’ and ‘love’ are synonyms – in fact our preacher spent some time on Sunday talking about how, as Christians, we are called to love people we may dislike!
            One thing that intrigues me about John’s account of this conversation between Jesus and Peter (in addition to the usage of agape and philia) is Peter’s feeling hurt that Jesus three times asked him a question to which Jesus already knew the answer : ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you’ (v.17) I will resist the temptation to speculate about this too much, other than to suggest that Jesus thought it was important for Peter himself to confess his love for Jesus three times following Peter’s three earlier denials, just as it is maybe also important for us to confess to God that we love Him, even though He knows it already.
            One other thing – I do get frustrated about the broad usage of the English word ‘love’, which seems to be a ‘many-splendoured thing’ which means one thing to one person and another thing to another person, and I think it is good that Greek has more differentiated words for ‘love’.

          • But Simon, ‘If I asked my wife if she loved me and she immediately replied she liked me, I would assume she did not love me.’. That is because the semantic ranges of ‘like’ and ‘love’ do not have a big overlap. But all the evidence from John’s gospel is that he uses phileo and agapao with almost entire overlap in their semantic ranges. That is the whole point.

            So John 21 does not correspond to your conversational example…!

          • This is an interesting one. *Some* of the evidence from within John indicates that he liked near-synonymous word-pairings in the same way as the psalmist. *Other parts* of the evidence (agape being attracted to John but fleeing Peter; agape being so favoured in 1 John and in the new commandment of Jn 13; the fact that the short discourse on friendship is a different discourse – i.e., there is felt to be a need for both a philoi-section in ch15 and an agape-focussed section in ch13) also contribute to the overall picture on which our comprehensive theory must be based.

          • I should say Simon has a good and oft-made point when he focusses on the train of thought that allows ‘Peter was grieved when Jesus said the third time Do you philein me?’. There is the coincidence of Jesus’s change of vocabulary corresponding with Peter’s being grieved and with an emphasis on the third question in particular. There is only one economical way to see this. It is that philein did mean something significantly different from agapan, and less than agapan, hence Peter’s grief.

        • Jesus: “Simon do you agapas me?”
          Simon: “Yes Lord, you know I philo you”
          Jesus: “Sure, but that’s not what I asked”

  10. Thanks Ian, I agree with you – words do matter, but often when I’m reading a commentary or something talking about the technicalities of words I think to myself “language doesn’t work like that”. I don’t know, I just think it’s important to read as human beings – human beings who don’t use precise language all the time, who vary language for reasons of style, etc. Maybe that’s just because I’m more of a ‘big picture’ guy rather than a details man! (Hmm, is there any significance to me using ‘guy’ and ‘man’ there?)

    On another note – I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. I have huge respect for Carson but I don’t think he gets it right on God’s impassibility.

  11. Were not Jesus and Peter both speaking Aramaic, a completely different language from Greek?
    We are concerned about a translation, not about the actual words in the actual language spoken by the participants.
    Jack Popjes

    • Probably Aramaic, though some think they spoke Hebrew and its even suggested they did speak in Greek. However, assuming they had this conversation in Aramaic, the choice of words John uses, inspired by the Spirit, to convey the exchange between Jesus & Peter, would surely reflect in Greek the language & nuances in the original language. That John choses to use words for love that can be synonyms but can be gradations, suggests to me that the original conversation in Aramaic/Hebrew also had a gear change in the words used for love.

      • I knew many C1st Galileans were Tri-lingual – Heb, Aramaic, Greek – but always assumed the latter was a written/commercial language in the Roman era not a spoken one – much as Latin became the ecclesiastical language in later years

        Ian, do you have any good suggestions to follow up Greek as spoken in C1st Israel? I’d be keen to read on that. I have a friend Halvor Ronning who part of the ‘Jerusalem School’ who strongly advocated Hebrew as the ‘spoken’ language not Aramaic – the idea Greek was spoken is new to me and opens up lots of thoughts of reflection

  12. I’ve never preached on this passage, and so never had to prepare something in detail around it, but would say that the reading Clive and Simon advocate is the plain one to me as well.

    It’s certainly the one I’m familiar with from hearing others preach it, and from devotional and personal study; nothing in that interpretation feels inconsistent, or unexpected, with other themes in John. You’ve made me doubt, but I’m not convinced yet.

    I feel, if anything, that it is a question of degree. Using two terms when you could have used one does imply that you intend to operate a distinction between them, even if it is a minor one. The question is not, should there be a distinction, but how big is it.

    • OK, Mat, but you now have to account for why many preachers comment in this way—and not one single serious commentator in the last 100 years has found it convincing!

      Do check out the Think Theology blog post in my piece, and the TGC discussion posted in comments above.

      Using close synonyms is highly characteristic of John’s gospel, and in this dialogue alone there are four terms (love, feed, sheep, know) which translate synonyms in Greek.

      • Some further thoughts :
        Is not the executive summary for the whole of the Gospel of John in John 20 ?
        “30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe[b] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

        So this whole chapter 21 is, in effect, echoes of what has gone before and Jesus continuing to reveal who he is:
        1 the echo, deja-vu, of fishing
        2 the echo of the charcoal fire (a place where Peter had denied Jesus) – see the link to the gospelcoaltion article linked above which you’ve mentioned)
        3 an echo of not really knowing Jesus as God, the Son incarnate. Peter recognised Jesus, eventually, as Jesus, who he’d been with over the years but there’s a sense that Peter still didn’t really know Jesus as the Messiah, Son of God, to whom first order love and whole life devotion, as I AM God, of scripture, is due, though he did indeed love Jesus. He was not yet the Peter of Pentecost.
        4 Jesus reverts to calling Peter Simon, son of John, asking if he “truly” loves him “more than these”, reminding him of what he had previously said (13:37,38) Peter doesn’t answer the question: he couldn’t “truly” say he loved Jesus any more than the others did.
        5 Jesus changes the metaphor from fish and fisherman to sheep and shepherd, anchoring Peter’s future ministry in the continuity of the Old Testament ministry, as a true undershepherd. The emphasis here is on “My” sheep, Jesus sheep. Jesus is again emphasising to Peter who He is: the LORD, God the Shepherd-of the Old Testament come in fulfillment of prophecy.
        It is a reminder that Jesus is the Good Shepherd of John 10:1-18. That, in turn, is a reference to Ps 82:6 with it’s allusions to Yahweh’s end-time Davidic shepherd envisioned by Ezekiel
        It is a reminder of 5.1 the divine shepherd of the OT eg Ps 23; Jer23:1-3; Eze 34:12,15
        5.2 that the Good Shepherd “knows” his sheep personally, intimately – Peter confirms this..” you know that…”
        5.3 reminder that Jesus alluded three times to laying down his life (10:11,15,17)
        5.4 “Follow me” Jesus said to Peter at the last.

        For a way to preach all this, without relying on different love words here is a link to a sermon:

        What is fascinating in all this is the kerfuffle it has caused with preachers.
        It’s all about Jesus, who he is. Do we know him?
        For what it is worth God used this whole chapter in leading me to him. Jesus words “Follow me” was aimed at me personally. It is addressed to us all (Not the rest of the feeding etc)

  13. Have you looked at Merril Tenney on this? He gives a good answer to the use of the different words, and the impact they have.

  14. The key question seems to be; is John using the terms interchangeably here or not? For Ian (and many recent commentators), the answer is Yes. Why? Because John apparently uses the two words interchangeably elsewhere in his other writing. However, I’m with Simon and the other preachers who seemingly can’t resist the urge to take a beautiful glimpse into Jesus’ gentle testing of Peter’s self-awareness… whether kosher with the commentators or not! If we are saying context is important, then in the context of this epilogue to the gospel it just seems to me that Jesus’ A,A,P in response to Peter’s P,P,P is not interchangeable at all but highly intentional within this immediate context. Why does John have to be consistently indiscriminate with the two words through the whole gospel – perhaps it doesn’t matter elsewhere? However in this crucial ‘handover’ scene it makes a huge difference because it adds depth to Peter’s breakthrough in acknowledging that there’s nowhere to hide with Jesus. That’s what Jesus needed him to see.

  15. PS. Could any of us say that we love Jesus more than any other of his sheep, disciples? Some of us may make a song and dance of it, others in reserved contemplation, hidden devotion, and service. Even if it is at the cost of a life? A scholar v a martyr, lay v ordained, fruit v gifts? Even doing it in Jesus name, and calling Him Lord?
    In fact, Peter was still not free from prideful or jealous comparison when he asked Jesus after Jesus prophesied, about Peter’s death, “What about him?” referring to the disciple Jesus loved who was following. It’s none of your business. “What is that to you? You follow me”

  16. And, Jesus here is revealed, in further continuity with, and allusion to, the OT, as King David’s greater son, as the, Israel’s, truly, truly, Shepherd King, anointed, crowned, but yet to ascend to the throne. Is he yours? He knows you, he knows your name. Do you know him? Do you love him?
    “The King of love my Shepherd is”
    “Jesus, what a beautiful name.”

  17. “Are there different ‘loves’ in John 21?”
    I am leaning towards the answer ‘yes’.
    According to John’s account, both Jesus and John differentiated between agapao and phileo, but Peter either thought the two were interchangeable, or did differentiate, but thought that he was not capable of agapeo. Later, in 1 Peter 1:8, Peter did use agapao, and I don’t think that was a fluke – I think it is more likely that Peter had matured in his faith by the time he wrote that epistle. This is my interpretation – one of many interpretations, I know!

  18. Lastly, from me on this.
    Just listened to a marvellous sermon from Eric Alexander, who I know very little about.
    For preachers, this is an example of how to preach affectingly on this passage, chapter 21, as a whole, and where he places the emphases. Style is not of this era, nor of mine but content and substance are there: contemporary, getting to the heart of the matter with personal application.
    Worth a listen.
    Preachers might find something of interest. But it is edifying to all!

  19. The deadlock is unnecessary. The following points are agreed on.

    (1) Post-Victorian analysts (there are exceptions: Temple, Spicq, McDowell – but they are generally not commentary-writers who have analysed each phrase of the gospel) do not accept the difference between agapao and phileo here.

    (2) The reason they do not is a strong one, and of central relevance: John uses interchangeable pairs of words regularly, and philein/agapan was already one of those pairs. That point is agreed on all sides.

    (3) But there are other factors involved (which I listed, and which are not found in the commentaries – at least those which I have consulted) which bear on our final decision:

    -The presentation of John; relatedly, the presentation of Peter; their rivalry in the eyes of the author.

    -The singling out of the agape concept and the philoi concept for close spotlighting on distinct and separate occasions.

    -The fact that philoi is largely related to the disciples whereas agape is largely related to God – Jesus – Beloved Disciple, who already form a trio (Jesus is in God’s stethos, BD is in Jesus’s kolpos).

    -The particular placing of 2x agapan and 4x philein in 21.15-17 which allows a coherent development of the conversation (which other combination would allow that, or allow that so well?)…

    -…and the fact that this half of the final chapter (not unnaturally, in the tying up of loose ends and bringing things up to date) concerns Peter’s and John’s fates and commissionings and the theory that the two words are not identical serves that purpose by differentiating Peter’s philia from John’s agape (see point 1).

    -The initial question ‘more than *these*’ (though some have related it to peter’s bravado at the end of ch13) really is a very distinctive question. The correct theory will be the one which allows it to be a natural question at this juncture. It is exactly the natural question on the theory proposed (probing of how John and Peter measure up to each other), but relatively odd otherwise.

    -Even asking ‘Do you love me?’ here (which is the very and only kernel of the conversation) seems to have a tenuous connection to the shepherd-commission – unless, that is, we bring in the John-”vs”-Peter perspective, which is anyway ubiquitous in the 4G in which the author ensures that John and Peter pretty much always appear together so that he can accentuate how they measure up to each other.

  20. Christopher
    Thanks for that
    Do you believe it possible John is writing this to show that HE is the disciple who loves Jesus more than these….

    John self styles as THE beloved disciple – John makes the point of telling us he leant on the Lord’s breast on the night he was betrayed – John tells us he alone of the men is at the cross and entrusted to and with Jesus’ mother. I wonder if there is a hint of John writing himself into the story and showing himself as the beloved disciple who loved Jesus more than these ????

  21. I think it is certain that the ‘love’ of John the ‘beloved’ is the topic in this passage. I also think (agreeing here with the 2 most detailed and acute analysts, Hengel and Bauckham) that the actual author is John the Elder. IMHO he pairs himself with John the Apostle as an inextricable pair of ‘2 witnesses’ whose intimately shared identity/name (cf. 17.11: one variant reading is ‘the name which You have given me’: the name I AM; & see 17.6) and differentiation is to be understood according to the model of the relationship of the 2 greater witnesses God and Jesus. There is a lot of ‘2 witnesses’ structuring in this gospel and in Revelation.

    I am hoping to do one more comment which sets out some additional key forgotten points about how John’s Gospel uses agape/agapan and philoi/philein.

  22. Analysing John’s Gospel’s use of agape/agapan and philoi/philein, we also find:

    1- Agape is something never attained by the disciples (with the one obvious exception) within the pages of this gospel. It is something that they ‘should’ have/do, or ‘will’ have/do.

    2- By contrast, philia towards Jesus (not God) is attributed to the disciples in 16.27. So 16.27 (in attributing any love at all to the disciples, and even then only philia not agape) is actually on the rare side, rather than being typical.

    3- Love being a mutual thing (or maybe for other reasons), God in 16.27 gives only philia (which is not at all to be sniffed at, of course) back to those who offer only philia to Jesus.

    4- Peter is *never* allowed to rise above philia to agape. Simultaneously, John (when spoken of individually) is *never* allowed to slip below agape to philia. Surely there is some significance and a pattern there.

    5- Moreover, agape is by far the *main* thing associated with John.

    6- Where the disciples are spoken of collectively, they include Peter, and therefore agape cannot be attributed to them (even if it would otherwise have been – which is doubtful). That is not to say Peter is regarded as the worst (quite the contrary: he ranks next below John); just, the biggest threat because he is the biggest rival to John’s pre-eminence.

    7- 20:2 ‘the disciple whom Jesus ephilei’ I have already mentioned. Firstly, the aforementioned 2-witnesses structure makes it neat and balanced for both God’s love (16.27) and John’s love to be leavened with one single instance of philia. But why would that be necessary in the first place? It is necessary because the single instance for John forces the (balanced) single instance for God. Why is the single instance for John necessary? Because of John’s seven appearances
    (and the 7 named disciples appear Judas-not-I 1x, Nathanael 2x, Andrew 3x, Philip 4x, Thomas 5x, Peter 6x, John 7x), John the Apostle and John the Elder receive a Johannine 3-and-a-half each. John the Elder is the ‘other’ or unnamed disciple who actually historically let Peter into the high priest’s court (ch10’s double meanings, as already shown by Stibbe, are one of the key instances of John the Elder being shown to be the true Shepherd, because he was known to the gatekeeper: his cameo in the real events). There are 3 appearances of the disciple hon Iesous egapa. There are 3 of the unnamed disciple (chs 1,18,21; both, in a balanced fashion, also have a twin in ch21). The remaining and climactic one appearance (20.2ff.) is a splicing of the two intimately-linked characters, so as to attain the 3-and-a-half pattern. The disciple in 20.2ff. is ‘loved’ and is also ‘*the* other’. But he is not ‘hon Iesous egapa’ without qualification. (There is much more to say on this.)

    8- Agape is used for contexts where *strong* love is in view. This may mean (a) the love shown by God and Jesus, (b) Beloved Disciple, (c) God’s love for the world: programmatic statement in 3.16, (d) how very greatly bad people ‘love’ bad things (3.19, 12.43).

    9- 1 John speaks always of agape; it follows the gospel in instructing and prescribing this particular form of love as that which is to be aimed at and attained.

  23. Thankyou Christopher- and Ian et al
    What a fascinating and illuminating thread on a passage I thought I had mined deeply – so much more to grapple with

    • If John the Apostle is ‘*the* disciple whom Jesus egapa’, then that requires that the other disciples are not of that status: see para 3.

      (Lazarus and sisters are loved – egapa – but do not classify as disciples.)

      Jesus defines his relationship with the other disciples differently (ch.15). Initially (a) they are servants; then (b) they become friends. He speaks several times of a future where (c) there will be a third dispensation: they will partake in mutual agape. Nor is that future far off.

      Next day at the cross Jesus gathers humanity into one and from there starts a new family (Adam and Eve like) from one man and one woman (John and Mary). Because the one man is the disciple of agape, that defines the nature of the new family. In ch20 Jesus calls the disciples now his ‘brethren’ (family members) so it looks like the new dispensation (c) has been reached. ‘Do you love me more than these?’ suggests that it may be the case that the disciples have generally attained agape. But the author’s perspective on John and Peter means that he never directly associates Peter with agape, so as to emphasise the most important difference between him and John.

      Love is a mutual thing and it seems almost always to be the case that if philia is given, philia is also returned; whereas if agape is given, agape is also returned. The Jesus-Peter conversation is the exception in that respect, and because of that quite deliberate and unusual imbalance is more striking than has been thought.

      • Christopher

        which NT commentator(s) do you recommend for a reading of John along the lines you have shared here? My commentaries reflect my age/era of training: Barrett, Morris, Brown and Carson and more recent Keener. Presumably the Hengel & Baukham you mention above are monographs??

        • Apologies Simon for butting in, but here are a couple of books, of which you may be aware, but they are not commentaries in the traditional sense. It is with some temerity that they are offered. I am merely passing on recommendations and endorsements from those who know far better than I. I have two of the books.
          Temerity. They may bring some surprising delight in scripture and even greater delight in and worship of Christ, as they have in me. They have been well regarded and endorsed, but their basic ideas are all the same: the NT writers reliance on OT, echoes, themes, types, storylines, figures, all being fulfilled by and in Christ Jesus, all this is alongside the direct citations from the OT.
          1 Reading Backwards. By Richard B Hays. Endorsed by Richard Bauckham: “He shows how, precisely in their reading of the OT, each of the Gospels in its own distinctive way presents Jesus as the very embodiment of the God of Israel. Intertextuality and high Christology turn out to be two sides of the same coin.”
          And by NT Wright: “With his characteristic blend of biblical and literary scholarship. Hays opens new and striking vistas on the texts we thought we knew – and, particularly on the early church’s remarkable belief in Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s God.”
          2 Richard B Hays “ Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels”. Again endorsed by NT Wright and many others. I don’t have this book. Both books came to my attention through Alastair Roberts,
          3 “Commentary on the NT use of the OT”. GK Beale and DA Carson editors Again endorsed by Richard Bauckham : “This really is a new sort of commentary! For the first time, we are given a continuous exegetical reading of the way each NT book, quotes, alludes to and evokes OT Scriptures. This volume will be an immensely useful resource for all kinds of study of the NT.”
          From “Reading Backwards”
          1 p 78 “John contains relatively few direct citations of the OT… focuses on a smaller number of OT quotations. …there are also a surprisingly low number of obvious allusions to Israel’s Scripture in John’s gospel. Or, to put the point more precisely, John’s manner of alluding does not depend on the citation of the chain of words and phrases: instead, it relies on evoking IMAGES and FIGURES from Israel’s Scripture.
          2 P 81 “… the prominence of the Psalm passages in the intertextual “genetic code” of the Fourth Gospel.”
          3 “ We see how scripture functions in John…that the identity of Jesus is deeply embedded in Israel’s texts and traditions centered on the Temple and Israel’s annual feasts…Jesus ASSUMEs and TRANSFORMS them…p 82
          4 .”For John, Jesus is not only the Temple – the place we meet God- but he also is the God who meets us and rescues us by gathering us into union with him.. p82
          5 The Good Shepherd at the feast of Dedication (John 10:22-30) Hanukkah victory celebration – Setting Solomon’s Portico that is David’s son. Solomon who extended the national glory. Many were looking for a new “son of David”, a Messiah who would restore the kingdom to Israel.
          “They would have known well from the prophecies of EZ that God had castigated the leaders of Israel, for failing to care for God’s flock: they were selfish and careless who had allowed the sheep to be abused and scattered:”
          Eze 34: 23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.” NIV

          “ Jesus is claiming, figuratively to be the new David.”
          NOT ONLY That, Jesus is claiming to be GOD HIMSELF who would Shepherd of the sheep :

          Eze 34: “15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak,
          And Jesus ends the passage in John 10 with the promise.
          “No one will snatch them out of my hand”.

          6 p 89 Hays sums up the Good Shepherd passage “(Jesus) is promising the redemption of the world on the other side of death and resurrection.”
          Set against this background in John (on the other side of Jesus death and resurrection) we have the love and sheep exchange between Jesus “My sheep” and Peter. Jesus had indeed ensured the lost, strayed, Peter would not be snatched out of his hand, fall away to his old way.
          And ended with God, the Good Shepherds, call…..”Follow me.”
          Good News indeed.

        • Hengel, The Johannine Question – there is a much-expanded second edition in German in the WUNT series.

          Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple (articles appeared earlier 1992-3) and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses 2nd edition.

          These give good arguments for John the Elder being the author. Hengel gives a strong ‘presence’ to John the Apostle too (a sort of dual identity, tho’ still 2 individuals) whereas Bauckham doesn’t. I gave a paper at the British New Testament Conference 1999 giving 4 further arguments in favour of Hengel’s position.

          However, the agapao/phileo arguments I give above are mostly my own. There is literature on the John/Peter rivalry in the Fourth Gospel including a JSNT monograph which I am just chasing up.

          • G W Broomfield, John, Peter and the Fourth Gospel.
            K B Quast, Peter and the Beloved Disciple: Figures for a Community in Crisis.

          • It’s important to add that if the cluster of synonyms (or otherwise) in 21.15-17 is viewed as typically Johannine, it ought actually to be viewed as very atypical. Where else do 14 words that participate in synonym patterns appear within just 3 verses? I wouldn’t think there are any passages that come close to that.

            As mentioned, I explain it *partly* by the fact that the narrative requires the agapao/phileo pattern. Once that is in place, it seems more appropriate to vary the other concepts in a like way; but it is the agapao/phileo thing that is the root cause of the variation. (*Partly* also by concepts that are assigned a numerical value appearing in the correct sequence.)

          • It’s important to add that if the cluster of synonyms (or otherwise) in 21.15-17 is viewed as typically Johannine, it ought actually to be viewed as very atypical. Where else do 14 words that participate in synonym patterns appear within just 3 verses? I wouldn’t think there are any passages that come close to that.

            As mentioned, I explain it *partly* by the fact that the narrative requires the agapao/phileo pattern. Once that is in place, it seems more appropriate to vary the other concepts in a like way; but it is the agapao/phileo thing that is the root cause of the variation. (*Partly* also by concepts that are assigned a numerical value appearing in the correct sequence.)

  24. And finally… one of my favourite subjects at Uni was philology, and I remain interested in it.
    I can conform that my ‘love’ for ‘words’ is very different from my love for the Lord 🙂

  25. Ian, you didn’t refer to the use of those words in 2 Peter 1:7 where there is the suggestion of an improving list of virtues capped with brotherly love and finally agape love; do you think this significant?
    On a more general point of exegesis, how much do you think that the choice of Greek words was made by an amanuensis rather than the author of the letter? Clearly they were not writing with 2000 years of theological scrutiny in mind; so how much weight should we put on the fine meaning of words as opposed to their context?
    In terms of ‘loving’ and ‘liking’, I have posed the sermon question, “Is it really possible to genuinely love someone without liking them?” I mean, would we expect God to say to someone, “I love you in Christ, but I can’t stand you!” – a expressed sentiment I have unfortunately met in church life.

  26. Hi Peter, excuse me for chiming in here!
    ‘Is it really possible to genuinely love someone without liking them?’ I think it is possible.
    For instance, I get the impression from Matthew 23:27 that Jesus didn’t like the Pharisees very much … but I am convinced that he loved them.

    • Hi Christine, of course not.
      I would suggest that his hostility to the Pharisees was to the group and what they stood for rather than personal. I have always been taken by his acceptance of a meal with a Pharisee which was interrupted by the prostitute. Jesus used his first name, Simon, when making his point. As a teacher I often had to rebuke pupils but I never stopped liking them.
      I have come to believe that love can mature (as in 2 Peter 1:7) partly through living in Christian Community with a vast range of character types. Being anointed by the Holy Spirit with brotherly affection for people you would never normally associate with is quite an experience.

      • Hi Peter,
        Thank you for replying. Yes, Jesus was angry with Pharisees and what they stood for rather than with particular persons and he did speak lovingly, though also truthfully and firmly, to Simon the Pharisee.
        ‘…love can mature… partly though living in Christian Community with a vast range of different character types.’ Amen. Being alongside the many different people God has called to be members of our local churches can be very enriching, but, as a friend of mine once said, we are all like rough stones and sometimes (maybe often ?!) we rub each other up the wrong way – but in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can become more loving and patient with each other, and help to smooth each others’ rough edges.

  27. Re Don Carson (sorry, I couldn’t work out how to comment in-line; this relates to earlier comments): the folks at GotQuestions are clearly assuming he agrees with them and haven’t read Difficult Doctrine closely enough. The relevant pages are 25-29.

    He also deals with the topic in his much earlier work, Exegetical Fallacies and makes the important point there, as he does in DD, about the meaning of agape: that we’re told that Demas ‘agaped’ the world, thus not a distinctive word for Christian love.

  28. Many thanks for that, Richard.
    Those pages, however, focus more on the love of God, as does the whole book, do they not?
    But, he does go on to discuss, “How not to proceed” with 7 points/categories, including reference to human relations, concluding with: “My chief point here is that we can not begin to fathom the nature of the love of God by something as superficial as methodologically flawed wors studies.”
    Next comes “How to proceed” opening with:
    “What we must do is study passages with great respect for their contexts, and themes, with great attention devoted to their place in the unfolding drama of redemption.” p34. The book ends at page 111.
    I was careless, perhaps sloppy even, (as I had it in hand) when merely pointing out that John 21 is not in the scripture index of the book, as it gave a false impression of the book as a whole and, as you graciously pointed, out it does not simply read scripturalGod/human love through the lens of CS Lewis’s Four Loves.
    A review of Carson’s book by Ian P may put all this into a much wider context. Carson’s book will likely ruffle a few contemporary feathers.

  29. There is only insider love in the entire Gospel of John, all outsiders be damned.

    The Gospel of John consists of “anti-language” say Social Scientists. It is not a Gospel about “loving one’s neighbor/enemies” (and never commands either), but about indoctrination, or in the idiom of cults, “love bombing,” and maintaining in-group thinking.

    And the conversation with Nicodemus is pure fabrication.

    As is the foot anointing story and raising of Lazarus story.

  30. I’ve just looked up Carson’s comments in the DDLG. He nowhere refers to John 21, but he specifically argues against Anders Nygren’s view on the significance of agapao.

    Among several points he says:
    “In the Gospel of John, as I have mentioned in the first chapter, we are twice told that the Father loves the Son (3:35; 5:20). The first time the verb is agapao, while the second it is phileo. It is impossible to detect any difference in meaning” (p.31)

    I think the link you refer to in your post is unreliable.

    DDLG is a good book by the way. Well worth the very short time it will take to read.

    • Hi Dave,
      Re: John 3.35; John 5:20
      In John 3:35 John was addressing readers of his gospel; in John 5: 20 John quoted direct speech spoken by Jesus to the disciples. I think that this difference may have some implications for the use of agapao in John 3:35, and phileo in John 5:20I have many thoughts about this, but for now I want to highlight this difference.

      • Correction: in John 5:20 Jesus was addressing the Jews (I should know better than to post comments when I am tired!)

  31. Leon Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel 293-319 covers repetition with and without variation, repetition with variation being a Johannine trait.

  32. The 3 commands/commissionings to Peter are almost certainly more than stylistic variation, which suggests that agapao/phileo is likewise more than stylistic variation here too.

    Why are the commands more than stylistic variation? Because they correspond in order with the 3 commands of Jesus in the fishcatch story (and therefore also with the 3 fulfilments of those commands). ‘Little children’ (why else is the word ‘paidia’ used??) being enabled to find food when they had none = feed my *lambs*. Bringing, leading or dragging a (boatful of disciples and a) net full of converts = shepherd my sheep. Eating breakfast fed by Jesus = feed my sheep. Note the proactive role of Peter in much of the above.

    The content of the 3 commands has still to be accounted for, as does their sequence, as does the fact that the same dramatis personae are at one point lambs and at a later point sheep. The answer could be that the 3 commands correspond perhaps to the 3 main tasks of the pastor-teacher that Peter is being commisisoned to become: catechesis, shepherding, teaching.

  33. For me the issue was resolved upon the reference to the somewhat peripheral quote about keeping God’s Word as proof of loving Him. The reference mentions the word “obey” when the greek for the word is assuredly a “keep” rather than “obey”.

    • I become distressed when I hear preachers talk of the different kinds of love since, in the Bible, it is always translated with just one word- love. I realize English does not make these differentiations, but weren’t Jesus and the apostles Hebrew? So I’d like to know the Hebrew translation.
      One thing thar distresses me is that preachers continually, and in one accord, claim that God’s love is unconditional, but that is certainly not what I read in the Bible, Psalm 77 in the Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible ( it may be 76 or 5 or 77 in the protestant Bible – they are in a slightly different order in the Catholic Bible) says twice that God despised his people for their lack of trust, their worship of idols, and their refusal to obey. So I do not know that I buy the Greek differentiations of love. What does the Hebrew translation say about the word love?
      But even more distressing to me is that I have never heard a preacher focus on what Jesus was saying to Peter, in telling him 3 times to feed his sheep. Seeing how Peter was the rock the church was built upon, I believe he was speaking to the leaders of the church- not just Peter, because God foresaw what would happen to the church… Too many pastors would become rich, and not even care that many of the people were homeless and hungry. Deuteronomy ch. 14 says there will be no poor among you, and that the tithes were supposed to be for the people. The priests were not even supposed to own anything, and that is why the priests got a portion of the tithes. Oh, how opposite of this is the church, for the most part, today. They demand the tithes but do not take care of the people. Joel Osteen has a mansion that even has an elevator. Episcopalians say, before communion ” The gifts of God for the people of God.” But they, for the most part, do not see to it that there are no poor among them either. In the church as a whole, the poor are an afterthought, and they get the crumbs. No wonder Jesus said to Peter 3 times “Feed my sheep.”!
      So why is this ignored, while the emphasis is placed on different kinds of love, which I seriously doubt even exist. It is time for the church to obey God and take care of the people…way past time.

  34. I came upon this conversation in a rabbit trail of wondering about the different uses of love in Greek. I am new to fully engaging my mind in study(a ridiculously embarrasing statement for a 54 year old!) I just want to express delight at the beauty of this healthy discourse that allows for varying opinions but still holds the person with respect and, dare I say, “love”. It took my a while to figure out IMHO but what a powerful stance. Thank you all for expanding my thinking and giving ne much to chew on.

  35. I wonder how the passage of John 21:15-17 would read in Biblical Hebrew or Aramaic , the native languages of Jesus and his disciples, which they probably both used for intimate discussions; instead of Koine Greek or other later languages that report the incident. Would Biblical Hebrew or Aramaic have made a linguistic distinction in the use of “love” reported in koine Greek in the passage of John 21:15-17 as agape and phileo.

    • I think that is a good question—and I think the answer is probably ‘no’.

      However, there is the continuing question of whether Jesus spoke and taught in Greek…

  36. Thanks for your prompt response. I asked the question because I’m aware of the Biblical Hebrew word for love as “ahavah” with a corresponding linguistic form for like as “lekhabev” displaying no significant semantic differences between the two linguistic forms. Besides, even in the biblical koine Greek usage in John’s scriptural texts, the two linguistic forms for love (“agapeo” and “phileo”) appear to alternate with respect to intended meaning, suggesting more so perhaps, the author’s ploy and skill of both linguistic and syntactic representation, rather than semantic intent. I wonder, furthermore, how those two forms may have been employed in a wider Classical Greek context that may provide valuable insight into the use of the two forms during the first century in the Graeco-Roman empire.
    Yours sincerely,
    Karl Folkes

  37. There is a bit of a problem with defining agape as a form of ‘higher’ love, that more closely approximates God’s love. This sets us up for a failure to understand the passage. According to Anders Nygren, agape is much more than a higher form of love, it is actually a very radically God-centred form of love. Another way of putting it is that agape is completely unmotivated love. So, agape doesn’t lead us to make sacrifices where necessary; agape represents the complete giving over of self to another. This is why the word makes sense in John 3:19–the people loved darkness more than the light in the sense that they were completely given over to and possessed by the darkness (total depravity rather than a semi-Pelagian preference for darkness). Nygren contrasts agape with eros, where eros is understood to the attempt to ascend upwards to where God is held to be. In this regard we might see eros as representing the great chain of being, while agape, because it is unmerited and unmotivated, represents the creator-creature divide–the divide can only be crossed by God, on God’s initiative, in a self-giving act of love. Agape is God’s grace to undeserving sinners–it freely gives its life for others. I know eros is not the subject of discussion here, but it is important to set it beside agape the better to understand agape.

    Peter had claimed to be better than the other disciples and he had claimed to have agape for Jesus. In Matthew 26:33 and Mark 14:29 Peter claimed to be more committed to Jesus than the other disciples. In Luke 22:33 he said he was ready to go to with Jesus both to prison and to death. But the cherry on the cake of Peter’s failure was where he says in John 13;27, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” In other words, Peter claimed to love Jesus with have agape. I think this is why Jesus asks Peter if he loves (agape) him. I am not sure about Jesus’ third question, when he uses philo, but it might be that he is asking Peter: do you *even* love (philo) me? This might be the reason the question grieved Peter.

    I see Jesus challenging and rebuking Peter in this passage, but also restoring and assuring him that he wouldn’t fail again. Peter’s martyrdom, which Jesus prophesies in verses 18-19, indicates that he did come to love Jesus with agape love.

      • My short answer is: I don’t know, I need to think about it and research it further. I suspect that seeing philo and agape always as synonyms might be oversimplifying the issue, though the evidence you cite is strong. What gives me pause is that if they are only synonyms then this makes John’s use of them appear random, even meaningless, and that makes me uneasy. John’s use of different words for love in John 21:15-19 does allow us to understand how Jesus “debriefed” Peter and challenged his prior claims to love and commitment, and in the process restored him and propelled him forward into his future apostolic ministry.

  38. I think that the progression is important. phileo and agape are very different in meaning. Phileo is more what you feel for your brothers and sisters, and agape is more for a parental figure or spouse. Phileo has conditions, while agape which Paul uses to describe love is more of what we would expect for marriage or for immediate family.

    I agree its not as good with two phileos and 1 agape but these words are not the same. I wouldn’t translate all three as love. I would have translated it do you love me as a brother, and do you love me without condition.

    While the idea that the progression is weak since the first one is phileo, its not something that should ever be dismissed. And its not in other languages, but English only has one word for love Greek has at least 3.

    • The difficulty with this approach is that I provide quite a lot of evidence to show that the words are used interchangeably in the fourth gospel.

      What do you make of this evidence?

  39. No sir! The reason for the progression is Peter had not given an agape kind of love yet that he would later give. He had only failed at the first test and Jesus made the progression to say it’s ok I can use that kind of love too!

    • Except that that does not make sense of the text as we have it, does not make sense of the other synonyms we find in the passage—and, most important, makes a nonsense of the way that the Fourth Gospel uses these terms elsewhere: interchangeably.

  40. Ian,

    Thanks for your illuminating discussion of this passage, which I’m teaching this Sunday. This comment is several years late, but perhaps you could still answer a question.

    In your post you said:

    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.

    But John repeats both the phrase ‘a third time’ and the verb ‘phileo.’ So can we really say that he’s being ‘explicit’ that Peter is grieved by because Jesus asks him a third time? It seems to me that these sentences can be construed as emphasizing either “the third time” or the change in verb:

    λέγει αὐτῷ τὸ τρίτον· Σίμων Ἰωάννου, φιλεῖς με; ἐλυπήθη ὁ Πέτρος ὅτι εἶπεν αὐτῷ τὸ τρίτον· Φιλεῖς με;

    1. Jesus said to him for the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because Jesus asked FOR THE THIRD TIME, ‘do you love me?’
    2. The third time, Jesus said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you care for me?’ Peter was grieved because, the third time, Jesus asked, ‘do you CARE for me?’

    Or am I missing something?


    Happy Eastertide,

    • Hi Mark! Given that the verb changes, if you are right he is not asking ‘for the third time’, but asking something different. The fact that the gospel writer takes this not as a different question but the same question asked again supports the observation from elsewhere in the gospel that the two verbs are synonyms.

      Does that help?


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