Agape & Phileo in the Life of the Believer
The Greek language has many variations on the word love, where English is unfortunately limited to a single word. By using only one word to describe such a vast sentiment, the English language has lost much of the meaning and nuance. Because the Bible recognizes variations of the word, we are able to gain deeper understanding from the text.
In John 21:15-19 Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him three separate times. The first two times the Bible uses the Greek verb agapao when Jesus speaks to Peter, which is understood to be a general meaning of the word. This love is not based on merit of the person loved, but rather it is unconditional and sacrificial. This love is kind and generous. It continues to give even when the other is unkind, unresponsive, and unworthy. It desires only good for the other and is compassionate. But the third time that Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him, He uses phileo, which speaks of tender affection, fondness, and the love of companions.
However, the Bible teacher who might express the idea that our Lord had any special intent for using these two verbs for love has often been belittled as being ignorant of the Greek text. Many learned writers heap scorn on any who attribute special meaning between the two words, because they hold that these two verbs are used interchangeably in the gospels.
In 1990, Dr. D. A. Carson, in his commentary on John’s Gospel, in reference to the two Greek words used in John 21:15-19 explains,
Some expositions of these verses turn on the distribution of the two different verbs for “love” that appear…This will not do, for at least the following reason…The two verbs are used interchangeably in this Gospel…1
It seems to the modern scholar that the principle of “interchangeable use” rules the day. Nevertheless, we find that Bible scholars of a former generation seem to give special intent to these two Greek words in John 21:15-19.
In the past many capable Bible teachers reminded us that in the New Testament the verb phileo is to be distinguished from agapao. In the gospels the two words are used for the love of the Father for the Son, Christ’s love for the believers, and Christ’s love for John the apostle. Yet the distinction between these two verbs remains, and they are never used indiscriminately in the same passage. Additionally, phileo is never used in a command for men to love God, but rather the verb agapao.
Bible scholars and expositors of a former generation saw meaning in the rich language of this well-known passage. Richard Chenevix Trench (1807-1886), the former Archbishop of Dublin and renowned Greek scholar, wrote in his excellent work The Synonyms of the New Testament, when referring to agapao and phileo in John 21:
In that threefold “Lovest thou Me?” which the risen Lord addresses to Peter, He asks him first, do you agapao me; at this moment, when all the pulses in the heart of the now penitent Apostle are beating with a passionate affection toward his Lord…And now when his Lord puts the question to him a third time, it is not agapao anymore, but phileo. All this subtle and delicate play of feeling disappears unfortunately, in a translation which either does not care, or is not able, to reproduce the variation in the words as it exists in the original.2
Again, concerning the nuance between verbs agapao and phileo in John 21, New Testament Greek authority W. E. Vine writes,
The distinction between the two verbs finds a conspicuous instance in the narrative of John 21:15-17. The context itself indicates that agapao in the first two questions suggests the love that values and esteems. It is unselfish love, ready to serve. The use of phileo in Peter’s answers and the Lord’s third question, conveys the thought of cherishing the Object above all else, of manifesting an affection characterized by constancy, a form of the highest veneration.3
While agapao is a more universally understood meaning of love that is shown to a person rising from no action of their own, did our Lord also want Peter to know that He loved him despite his denials? Did our Savior choose to use phileo to force Peter to think a little deeper about his love for Christ?
How do we apply these rich truths in our lives? I believe that the Bible is asking us to go deeper in how we express love to others. Let me illustrate. Dr. T. E. McCully was the father of Ed McCully, one of the five missionaries martyred by the Auca Indians in Ecuador. One night when Dr. McCully and William MacDonald were praying, McCully’s thoughts went back to that day when his son was killed on the Curaray river in Ecuador. Bill MacDonald writes, “He prayed, ‘Lord, let me live long enough to see those fellows saved who killed our boys, that I might throw my arms around them and tell them I love them because they love my Christ.’ When he arose, I saw rivulets of tears zig-zagging down his cheeks.”4 This is the display of deep, sacrificial agapao love the Lord desires. But phileo love is just as important.
Jack Wyrtzen, the founder of Word of Life International, conducted a Bible camp each summer at Schroon Lake, N.Y. At one of the adult conferences, a guest with a serious physical impairment attended. Because he could not control the muscles of his mouth, this guest was not able to swallow all his food. Much of it came back out of his mouth and fell down on newspapers with which he covered his chest and lap. At mealtimes, this dear believer usually sat by himself. Whenever, Jack Wyrtzen would arrive at the dining room, people would beckon to him to come sit at their tables. But Jack never did; he always went to the table where his guest was eating alone. Jack loved this man with phileo love—a love that is brotherly, affectionate, and the love of a companion. Both agapao and phileo are crucial and needed in the church of God and the world today.
We are humbled by these simple and yet profound displays of love and I think that is what God calls us to. He wants us to go deeper, to offer love unconditionally, despite the actions of others. It is a kind of love that says, “I will love you, even when you deny me love in return.” We need believers in Christ who will show agapao love to a needy world, but also those who will sacrificially show phileo love. Will we be the kind of Christian who will show both of these forms of love?
1. D. A. Carson, Gospel of John, (Grand Rapid, MI: Eerdmanns, 1990), p. 676-677
2. R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, London, 1880, Section xii, p. 41. (Digitized by Ted Hildebrandt, Gordon College, Wenham, MA March 2006)
3. W. E. Vine, Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. 3, (Revell: Old Tappan, NJ, 1981), p. 21-22
4. William MacDonald, One Day at a Time, (Port Colborne, Ontario: Everyday Publications, 1985), p. 66
by David Dunlap