Where's the [Greek] Love?

During my sermon this weekend I failed to do something that so many who have preached this passage before me have done. I didn’t tell you about the Greek words for “love.” In Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter in John 21:15–17 two different Greek words are used and translated by our one English word “love.” Now if you had never heard a sermon on John 21 before or never read or studied Greek you wouldn’t have noticed anything. Just Jesus asking Peter if he loves Him and Peter responding, “Yes, you know that I love you.”

But some of us know that Jesus uses the word agapaō for love and that Peter uses the word phileō. All of this to say that if you have been around church for a long time you might have been told that there is a big difference between these two Greek words. The difference, so some say, is that agapaō is a divine, heavenly love that is the highest and purest idea of love and phileō is what it means to love your brother. You can stand him for a little while but that’s really it. So preachers have told us that Jesus is asking Peter if he really, really, deeply, divinely loves him and all Peter can muster is a “I kind of like you” response. The third time Jesus asks Peter he lowers the bar and asks if Peter phileō’s him, which makes Peter sad because it’s true, all he can do is Facebook-like Jesus.

Here’s why I think that interpretation is unhelpful and even chips away at the gospel:

  1. John uses these two Greek words almost synonymously in his Gospel. We are told that The Father loves the Son in 3:36 and 5:20 and John uses both agapaō and phileō to describe this love. Jesus loves Lazarus (11:5, 36) and again, both words are used.
  2. The word agapaō is not always used as a “pure heavenly love” in Greek literature. On one occasion it is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament to describe how a rapist “loved” his victim. This definitely isn’t the pure, divine picture of love that many pastors want to paint of the word agapaō. In the New Testament we are told that Demas “loved” (agapaō) this present world (2 Timothy 4:10), certainly not a good thing.
  3. If Jesus is saying “do you love me” and Peter responds, “no but I like you” then we really have no restoration of the fractured relationship. All we get is Jesus compromising on what it means to be a follower of His. In this view we have Jesus accepting people who merely like him but don’t really love him. This contradicts what Jesus has said all throughout John’s Gospel. True followers of his love him and obey his Word (see John 8:42; 14:15, 21, 23).

There is one other reason I didn’t bring out the different Greek words here and that is a pastoral reason. If I tell you that what the Bible says in English isn’t really what it says and that you have to know Greek or Hebrew to really get at the meaning I’ve placed seeds of distrust in your head and heart about studying the Bible. I’ve essentially told you that you aren’t smart enough or educated enough to clearly understand what the Bible means. I’ve stolen some confidence from you about studying the Scripture for yourself. Unfortunately, translations are not perfect (even though the original text is). However, we can be very confident that our copies of the Bible have been well translated and that the meaning of the Bible can be very clearly understood by anyone who will take the time to read, think, observe and ask good questions of the text. You don’t have to know Greek or Hebrew to know what the Bible means. If I told you about the different Greek words this Sunday I might have undermined your confidence in studying the Bible for yourself.

I want you to have full confidence that you can personally sit down and understand the Bible because it has been translated well and that you can live it out and share it out because you understand it. If you want to learn the languages and work towards understanding the Scripture in the dialects they were written in this is fantastic. Personally, I find knowing Greek to be very useful and helpful to me in studying the Scripture. But it isn’t a prerequisite to knowing what the Bible means, merely a tool to go in deeper. So have confidence that what the Bible says, in English, it means and work hard to study it for yourself!