At CrossCulture, the church I minister at, we are currently studying the gospel of John. In John 21:15-20, we read Jesus reinstating Peter into ministry after previously denying Jesus three times. Jesus asked Peter three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” before asking Peter to look after His sheep. Upon investigating the original language, one notices that Jesus uses different Greek words for love in His three questions to Peter. In the first and second question, John recorded Jesus using ‘Agapao‘ (the verb for Agape) while in the third question, he used ‘Phileo’ (the verb for Philia).
I am not sure about you, but earlier in my journey as a Christian, I stumbled across the idea that there are four different kinds of love in the Bible. This idea was made famous (or perhaps was introduced) by C. S. Lewis in his book titled “The Four Loves.” Lewis points out the four different Greek words used in the Bible to describe love: (1) Storge – affection or brotherly love, especially between family members, (2) Philia – love between friends, (3) Eros – love between two lovers, and (4) Agape – charity or unconditional love. I became familiar with the idea that God’s love is Agape love because it is the highest kind of love – love that demands no return. Christians are to pursue that kind of love towards one another.
Using this framework, some people then conclude that Jesus ‘lower’ his expectation of Peter by changing from Agape to Philia in his third question because Jesus knew that Peter could not love with Agape love, which perhaps makes sense.
However, closer examination would prove that the above conclusion is incorrect. In verse 17, John wrote, “Peter was grieved because he [Jesus] said to him [Peter] the third time, “Do you love (phileo) me?” However, if we have to distinguish between Agapao and Phileo, then we must say that Jesus has only asked Peter “Do you phileo me?” once, not three times. The fact that John wrote that Jesus has asked Peter three times means that John does not make any distinction between Agape and Philia, at least not in this particular instance.
D. A. Carson, in his book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (available freely here) gives more examples. In the Septuagint Old Testament (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the word agapao is not always used to refer to the noble kind of love. In 2 Samuel 13, when Amnon incestuously rapes his half-sister Tamar, both phileo and agapao are used although his love for her is far from noble. It is vicious, sexual, emotional, and even violent. In the Gospel of John, we are told that the Father ‘loves’ the Son using agapao in 3:35 and phileo in 5:20. There is no way we can say that God loves the Son differently in both instances. When Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4:10 that Demas ‘loved’ this present evil world, the word agapao is used. In the end, we must say that Lewis’ neat categorisation of the four loves does not hold well. Carson concludes this particlar section of his book rightly that
” … we cannot begin to fathom the nature of the love of God by something as superficial as methodologically flawed word studies.”
Does it mean then the word ‘love’ is used in the same way in every text? Of course not. We must see the context, not the Greek word, to understand the nature of love in particular text of the Bible. I would seriously recommend the reading of Carson’s small-but-by-no-means-insignificant book on this topic.
So, coming back to Jesus conversations with Peter above, we cannot say that Jesus ‘lower’ His expectation of Peter, especially when we know what kind of death that Jesus predicted for Peter in verse 19. Jesus wanted Peter to love Him, to glorify Him, and it means for Peter labouring with all his might to proclaim the gospel and to shepherd His church. Therefore, as Christians, one way for us to love Jesus, regardless of what Greek word it is, is to not be ashamed of who we are in Christ and to be ministers of the gospel wherever we are.