Acts 17:11 Archives

Agapao & Phileo in Peter's Restoration

A dialog about Peter's restoration as a case study of the use of agape and phileo in scripture.

An interesting use of agapao and phileo is in John 21:15-17, with the translation of Jesus' restoral of Peter, where the words seem to be used to convey some import:

  • Jesus asked, "do you agapao me?"
  • Peter replied, "I phileo you."
  • Jesus asked, "do you agapao me?"
  • Peter replied, "I phileo you."
  • Jesus asked, "do you phileo me?"
  • Peter replied, "I phileo you."

    Since the actual dialogs almost certainly took place in the Hebrew-Aramaic [Ac 22:2,26:14] that Jesus and His disciples spoke in, why this word-play in the Greek record of scripture? This Greek construction seems designed to communicate something distinct. Is it the emotional texture of the conversation? Perhaps it was a tone of voice he was trying to communicate?

    Were it not for this passage, we might consider agapao and phileo near synonyms; selected elsewhere in scripture more for how they sound in a sentence than for any real differentiation in meaning. To be sure, if you trace out agapao in actual scriptural use it is not used exclusively for "the love of God" as popularly advertised. The examples given in the Agape: A Correction in Love? posting make this plain enough, since men agapao: 1) darkness, 2) the praise of men, 3) this world, etc. (Thus, agapao cannot be the love of God unless we are ready to blame God for our agapao of sin.) So what is agapao outside the misguided notions of the current fad? From the document previously mentioned, my definition is: "an abstract or spiritual love", as opposed to phileo, which seems to be more "from-the-heart", more "of-the-feelings sort of love".

    If phileo is "palpable" love, which I think Scriptural use elsewhere supports, it is interesting to note that in the restoration of Peter phileo is saved for last by Jesus. So here is the issue: Were Jesus' questions cascading to a climax; or were they petering [pun intended] out? I am not sure we can say dogmatically, but this is the critical issue of interpretation. I will hazard a guess along the lines of my above definitions of the words.

    Consider the context of Peter's restoration in light of what had happened previously.

    Mat 26:33 (NKJ) Peter answered and said to Him, "Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never..."

    Mark 14:29 (NIV) Peter declared, "Even if all fall away, I will not."

    After these bold claims of will power, Peter had a shameful fall. This is the context of Jesus' restoration. Afterwards, Jesus asks him, "Do you love-agape [love me with your will, a dedicated kind of love] Me?" and Peter responds that he loves-phileo, [a heart-felt and deeply emotional kind of love--that God shows towards man as well in Scripture, do not forget] the Lord. I take this to mean that Peter has learned his lesson about bold claims of will power and dedication, and is resorting to a more humble and contrite response. (Jas 4:6 "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.") Jesus, in the third case, asks in resonance with Peter by using phileo and the two finally are in sync. My interpretation is that phileo is what Jesus was after here, and was acceptable to Jesus as to what Peter was really capable of. My guess is that for Peter, such a simple and emotional answer was real spiritual progress, and Jesus acknowledges that it is enough.

    In any case, we have a Bible Study to the spiritual point of what Peter went through at:

  • Shame: God's School of Love
  • ...where you will be happy to know that neither agape or phileo show up. <smiles> This is one of my favorite Bible Studies posted.

    If you have not seen it already, for a general case against popular teaching on agape and phileo, see the document: Agapao, A Correction in Love.

    For a few more examples of how agapao and phileo are used synonymously in scripture, click to the left.

    For more Greek misogesis gaffs, see Harmatia, Rhema, and Logos in the Sacred Cows section.

    For an appeal to stop dropping Greek words where it is not edifying, but rather an obvious a form of showing off for teachers, see the document: Use and Misuse of Greek and Hebrew.

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