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Words for Love in Biblical Greek

This Sunday, I am preaching on Peter’s restoration from John 21. Since it’s my endeavor to speak on the main point of the passage, i.e. loving Jesus and thus feeding his flock, I will try to abstain from spending too much time droning on and on about the Greek verbs agapao and phileo in the passage. I’ll do a bit of that here instead.

We’ve all heard the well-intentioned sermons that have presented agapao as a sort of ultimate love, while phileo is presented as representing a lower sort of love. Quite frankly, I can’t go along with that distinction, and I don’t think you should either.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Someone just read D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies and now he has to share!” Granted, Carson certainly nails it in Exegetical Fallacies, advances the argument again in the Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, and then sums it up nicely in his commentary on John’s Gospel from the Pillar New Testament Commentary series. However, I want to point out that rejecting a sharp distinction between the two words isn’t really breaking new exegetical ground. In other words, one does not need to rely on D.A. Carson’s works (albeit incredibly valuable) to come to the conclusion that drawing a significant contrast between the two words is exegetically unwise.

If one does a simple study in the Gospel of John alone, we come to realize that both agapao and phileo are used interchangeably when speaking of the Father’s love for the Son (compare John 10:17; 15:9 in which agapao is used to speak of the Father’s love for the Son with John 5:20 where phileo is used to signify the Father’s love for the Son). In the same Gospel account, John typically referred to himself as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Again, what’s interesting is that he is content to use both agapao and phileo as though they can often be used as synonyms.

Further, the go-to lexicon in Greek studies, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), presents this for John 21 and the use of agape and phileo: 

[Agapao and phileo] seem to be used interchangeably here; cf. the freq. interchange of synonyms elsewhere in the same chapter [boskein – poimanein, arnia – probatia, elkuein – surein].

Louw and Nida agree,

Though some persons have tried to assign certain significant differences of meaning between [agapao and phileo], it does not seem possible to insist upon a contrast of meaning in any and all contexts. For example, the usage in Jn, 21:15-17 seems to reflect simply a rhetorical alternation designed to avoid undue repetition.

It’s my contention that when preaching a sermon on John 21, our congregations would be better served by our preaching the main point of the passage, i.e. the connection between Peter’s love for Jesus and his ministry to Jesus’ flock, than by our coming to the text with unfounded notions (that really have been imposed upon the text) about the Greek words for love and then challenging our audience to muster up some sort of super-charged-super-spiritual love.

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