ἀγαπάω and φιλέω in the writings of the Apostle John
Introduction: Understanding Syntaxial Range
Ever since the 1960s and the popularity of C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves, authors and preachers have been obsessed with a rigid and significant distinction between each Greek word for “love.” The problem with this, and most attempts to derive an eye-opening meaning from a single word, is that it misunderstands how language works. Words have what is called a syntaxial range. Basically, syntax is the study of how words interact with each other within phrases, sentences, paragraphs, books, and so on. Some words have a small syntaxial range, such as προστρέχω, which means “to run to or towards, run up (to),” and this word virtually never means anything else.[i] Some words have a large syntaxial range, such as πορνεία, which is a broad term that can mean all sorts of sexual sins; for instance, it is often in lists, either referring to fornication or general licentious acts (see Mark 7:21), but it is also used to describe, more specifically, an incestuous relationship in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 5:1). The point here is that every word cannot mean everything, but it does not have to mean just one thing.
It is an unfortunately common error to try and box a word into a single meaning when it in fact has a larger syntaxial range. An equally as common error is to assume that just because one author of scripture uses a word one way, that that automatically means that every other author of scripture uses it the same way. An important example is the word δικαιόω, which means “to justify.”
Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[ii] It is clear that when Paul uses δικαιόω, he means the act of God declaring us as righteous, imputing to us the perfect life of Christ, and extending to us the benefits that Jesus purchased for us on the Cross. In Paul’s use, being justified means to be saved.
However, James 2:21 says, “Was not our father Abraham justified by works having offered his own son Isaac upon the altar?” Is James saying that Abraham was saved by works? No! Because he quotes Genesis 15:6, just like Paul, saying, “And [Abraham] believed Yahweh, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”[iii] We see then James’ point: The faith that Abraham had was not a dead, non-existent faith, but was proven to be genuine because his faith produced works. This is why James then says, “You see that by works a man is justified [proven], and not by faith alone [that is, not by a faith that does not have works]” (James 2:24). Since Paul teaches that we are saved by grace and not by works in Ephesians 2:8-10, if one forces James to have the same definition for δικαιόω that Paul has, they’ve forfeited the Gospel and made the Bible contradict itself!
φιλέω in John
Often, ἀγαπάω (or ἀγάπη, which is the noun form) is presented as “the highest form of love,” or “God love.”[iv] Perhaps this is assumed by verses such as John 3:16, or John 3:35, which writes, “The Father loves [ἀγαπᾷ, present active indicative, third person singular of ἀγαπάω] the Son, and has given all things into His hand.” However, in John 5:20, John writes virtually the same exact thing, but uses φιλέω instead: “The Father loves [φιλεῖ, present active indicative, third person singular of φιλέω] the Son, and shows all things to Him that He does.”
Likewise, despite caricatures of ἀγαπάω being God’s covenant love towards His people, John writes in John 16:27, “For the Father Himself loves [φιλεῖ] you, because you have loved [πεφιλήκατε, perfect active indicative, second person plural of φιλέω] me.” Also, in Revelation 3:19, John writes, “As many as I love [φιλῶ][v], I rebuke and discipline.”
ἀγαπάω in John
The above arguments are to show that when John uses either ἀγαπάω or φιλέω, they are not only practically direct synonyms, but rarely hold any significant or special meaning, unless the context absolutely demands it. To further prove the point, notice how John uses ἀγαπάω in ways that are not only generic, but even far from virtuous.
He writes in John 3:19 (only a few verses away from that famous “God love” of verse 16), “Men loved [ἠγάπησαν, aorist active indicative, third person plural of ἀγαπάω] the darkness rather than the light.” Likewise, in John 12:43, John writes about the Pharisees that “they loved [same as before] the glory of men more than the glory of God.”
It is for these reasons that renowned New Testament scholar D.A. Carson correctly concludes that ἀγαπάω and φιλέω “’are used interchangeably in this Gospel’ and that from the fourth century B.C. forward in Greek literature agapan became ‘one of the standard verbs for ‘to love.’’”[vi] In fact, not only did John use ἀγαπάω in this looser way, but Paul seems to as well: “Demas has deserted me, having loved [ἀγαπήσας, aorist active participle, nominative masculine singular of ἀγαπάω] the present age and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10).
What About John 21?
One prominent example that is often preached is John 21:15-17:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love [ἀγαπᾷς] me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love [φιλῶ] you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love [ἀγαπᾷς] me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love [φιλῶ] you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love [φιλεῖς] me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love [φιλεῖς] me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love [φιλῶ] you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep” (ESV).
Preachers will say that Jesus wanted “God love,” but Peter would only give Him “friendship love,” but, despite Peter’s fault, Jesus met him where he was. Unfortunately, this might preach well, but it’s hardly a reasonable interpretation of the text. Even if we did not have the data above, there are still significant clues within this passage that show that John’s use of both Greek words for love does not carry any distinct nuance between the two.
First, Jesus is talking to the Apostle Peter who denied Him three times. Verse 9 tells us Jesus is sitting by a charcoal fire, the same kind of fire that was by Peter at the denial (John 18:18). Peter’s discouragement at the end likely tells us that Peter gets the point, so “the reader should not focus on the change of the Greek words but concentrate on the growing impact of Jesus’ statements.”[vii]
Second, following this theme, it seems that it’s just John’s stylistic choice to change the words. Notice, he not only changes between ἀγαπάω and φιλέω, but he also changes between “feed” and “tend,” and “lambs” and “sheep.” These words are also close if not exact synonyms, so the context does not demand for us to think any of the pairs are distinctly different. In fact, one could argue that the significance actually lies in the very fact that they are synonyms. For instance, the word for “tend” is the Greek word ποιμαίνω, or “to shepherd.” How does one shepherd a flock? By feeding them! This has incredible implications to the role of a pastor to his church.
Third, John numbers the amount of times that Jesus asks the question to Peter. This not only affirms that He is likely calling back to the denial, but it also tells us that John is seeing each statement as the same statement. Notice, Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” And then John says Jesus asks it a “second time,” and then he says He asks it again for a “third time.” Peter is “grieved because He said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’” Therefore, if John, as the author, sees Jesus as asking the same question three times (and Peter hears Jesus as asking the same question three times), how could the different terms for love delineate distinctly different meanings? The only answer is that John’s intention is for them to delineate the same meaning.[viii]
Conclusion: It’s Greek To Me
The original languages are a vital part of preserving the original intentions of the authors who gave us the teachings of Jesus Christ. One should never find study of the original languages as useless or a waste of time. However, one should also be careful of arguments that put so much weight on a singular word’s niche definition or grammatical tense. Words by themselves rarely carry so much weight, and that’s why context is always key.
It is also dangerous to make large assertions off of a little Greek knowledge. Books are written to sell, and we should always be cautious whenever authors have a “secret that completely unlocks the text.” English translations are rarely perfect, but there are also plenty of very good ones. Be adamite about studying the scriptures. When confronted with a difficult passage, or a new concept, before you run to a commentary, run to the verse, and exhaust all its possibilities. Look at its context. Move from verse, to paragraph, to section, to chapter, to book, to author, and then to the whole Bible. Saturate yourself with the Word and the Word will saturate you.
[i] All definitions, unless otherwise cited, are from the BDAG, a scholarly lexicon that lists every usage of the word in the New Testament, Greek Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), and other New Testament era literature. It is important that this is listed because one does not have to trust their definitions blindly. One can easily test their conclusions themself.
[ii] All New Testament translations, unless otherwise cited, are my own.
[iii] All Old Testament translations, unless otherwise cited, are my own. The Hebrew text is given priority, but influence from the Septuagint is allowed, especially for the sake of New Testament study.
[iv] For instance, see H. G. Liddell and Robert Scott, eds., An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon: Founded upon the Seventh Edition of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Garsington, England: Benediction Classics, 2010), 4.
[v] φιλέω here is a Present Active Subjunctive, First Person Singular. Without getting into the complexities of the subjunctive case, this sentence calls for a reading that parallels the present active indicatives, which is why it is simply translated as “I love,” and not as “I will/would/might/should love.”
[vi] D.A. Carson, Gospel According To John (Nottingham, England: Apollos, 1991), 676, In Gerald L. Borchert, John, New American Commentary (Cape Town, South Africa: Struik Christian Books, 2001), 335. This research would certainly suggest that it is likely that none of the New Testament authors use αγαπη in a special sense.
[vii] Gerald L. Borchert, John, New American Commentary (Cape Town, South Africa: Struik Christian Books, 2001), 335, footnote 164.
[viii] If one was to argue that Jesus’ first statement says, “Do you love me more than these?” and not just “Do you love me?” and that that makes some kind of difference, that would only be proving my point. It’s clear that, despite the word differences, both John and Peter see the essential content of the questions as the same, which is precisely what I’m arguing for.