The two loves.

Two verbs in the New Testament get translated “love.” They’d be φιλέω/filéo and ἀγαπάω/aghapáo. They’re synonyms like “boat” and “ship,” or “couch” and “sofa,” or “Christ” and “Messiah”—they’re the same idea, with maybe a little different nuance, but not enough to make a big deal over.

But some of us wanna make a big deal over minor things, so of course people are gonna insist there’s a major difference between them. Aghapáo is related to the noun Paul and Sosthenes defined in 1 Corinthians 13, ἀγάπη/aghápi, KJV “charity.” That’s the sort of love which God is, 1Jn 4.8, 16 and therefore it’s gotta be of an infinitely greater quality than the other sort of love, the noun φίλος/fílos, KJV “friend.” Therefore aghapáo has gotta mean “to love like God would,” and filéo has gotta mean “to love like a friend would.”

Fine. Let’s say I agreed with this deduction. So… shouldn’t we love our friends like God would? And doesn’t Jesus consider his followers his friends? Jn 15.15 If we’re loving one another properly, in the way Jesus expects and instructs us to, should there be any functional difference between filéo and aghapáo?

And for the most part the ancient Greeks didn’t see any functional difference between ’em either. C.S. Lewis did, and in his book The Four Loves he went on and on about the differences he saw in those concepts. But having studied Greek for a few decades now, I’m pretty sure he just used the slight differences in nuance to riff on his own ideas about love.

The ancients used fílos and filéo to talk about familial, relational love. Like between family members; it’s why our American city of Philadelphia (named for the church of Φιλαδέλφεια/Filadélfeia in Revelation) is nicknamed “the city of brotherly love.” Thing is, a sovereign’s closest allies became known as his fílë, “friends.” Jn 19.12 True, the familial love is supposed to be unconditional, whereas the “love” for political allies is nearly always conditional, so political “love” is hardly a synonym for aghápi. It’s fair to say the political usage may have tainted the word a bit, and it’s further tainted by its use in a lot of compound Greek words:

  • Φιλάργυρος/filáryiros, “loves silver” or “loves money.”
  • Φίλαυτος/fílaftos, “loves oneself.”
  • Φιλήδονος/filídonos, “loves hedonism.”
  • Φιλόνεικος/filóneikos, “loves to fight.”
  • Φιλοπρωτεύω/filoprotévo, “loves to be first.”

But at the same time it’s found in compounds with positive connotations:

  • Φίλανδρος/fílandros, “loves men,” particularly “loves [one’s] husband.”
  • Φιλανθρώπως/filanthrópos, “loves people.”
  • Φιλόθεος/filótheos, “loves God.”
  • Φιλοξενία/filozenía, “loves strangers,” i.e. hospitable.
  • Φιλοσοφία/filosofía, “loves wisdom.”
  • Φιλόστοργος/filóstorgos, “loves family.”
  • Φιλότεκνος/filóteknos, “loves children.” (And not in a creepy way.)
  • Φιλόφρων/filófron, “loves the mind,” a synonym for “friendly.”

You don‘t find as many compounds made of aghapáo, which is part of the reason you won’t find as many variant definitions for it in an ancient Greek dictionary. But as I said in my article on love, you will find lots of definitions, for both words, for the ancients pulled them every which way, exactly the same as present-day people do with our word “love.”

The result was filéo and aghapáo overlapped a lot. So much so, it’s not wholly correct to insist they mean different things. They don’t really. When the authors of the bible used aghapáo they meant love; and when they used filéo they meant love. Not a different love; not a lesser love. They’re synonyms.

But what about Peter and Jesus in John 21?

When preachers touch upon John 21, in the story when Jesus asks Simon Peter whether he loves him, most of the time they point to Jesus’s three questions, and try to match ’em up with Peter’s three denials of Jesus on the day Jesus was killed. That, they imagine, is what makes the passage so profound: Peter denied Jesus thrice, so Jesus expects Peter to declare Jesus thrice. ’Cause that’s how karma works: Peter’s gotta earn his way back into leadership.

Rubbish, as anyone who knows Jesus can tell you: Jesus doesn’t make us jump through ridiculous hoops before forgiving us. We don’t have to undo three sayings with three other sayings, as if these are magic incantations we have to undo. That’s not how grace works; that’s not how any of this works.

And if you learned a little Greek, or if you have a preacher who learned a little Greek, they’re quickly gonna point out the real issue is Peter and Jesus were using two different words for love. Peter was using filéo; Jesus aghapáo. Jesus wanted to know if Jesus loved him, and Peter was only willing to say he liked him. So Jesus, ’cause he’s kind, came down to Peter’s level and asked him if he liked him, and it kinda broke Peter’s heart because it highlighted his own sense of unworthiness.

And that’s also rubbish. Because like I said, filéo and aghapáo are synonyms, so Peter’s response isn’t properly interpreted “I love you but I don’t love-love you.” You’ll notice the bulk of our English translations (CSB, ESV, GNT, KJV, ISV, MEV, NASB, NET, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV) deliberately, intentionally do not make any distinction between filéo and aghapáo, and translate ’em both “love.” The translators know what they’re doing. There is no real distinction.

At the same time it is relevant that Jesus and Peter are using two different words here. The problem isn’t that Peter is claiming a lesser love and Jesus is trying to get him to go for more… and then gives up and settles for Peter’s lesser love. They’re using synonyms. They’re both talking about the same level of love and commitment and friendship and devotion. So if you’re gonna translate it so they’re using different words, the words had better mean the same thing. That’s what I went for.

John 21.15-17 KWL
15 So when they ate, Jesus told Simon Peter, “Simon bar John, do you love me more than these others?”
Peter told him, “Yes Master, you’ve known I’m wholly devoted to you.”
Jesus told him, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Jesus told Peter a second time, “Simon bar John, do you love me?”
Peter told him, “Yes Master, you’ve known I’m wholly devoted to you.”
Jesus told him, “Pastor my sheep.”
17 Jesus told Peter a third time, “Simon bar John, are you wholly devoted to me?”
Peter grieved, for Jesus told him the third time, “Are you wholly devoted to me?”
He told him, “Master, you’ve known everything. You know I’m wholly devoted to you.”
Jesus told him, “Feed my sheep.”

Peter wasn’t trying to weasel out of anything, like he did when he denied Jesus. That was a major mistake, Peter knew it, and knew Jesus forgave him and accepted him again. (Jesus had appeared to him multiple times by now, y’know.) And now that Jesus was alive again, Peter was sure he wasn’t gonna blow it again.

And then he kinda blew it again, ’cause he kept using filéo when Jesus wanted him to say aghapáo. Because sometimes we don’t want synonyms. We wanna be on the very same page, using the very same words. Diversity is important, but sometimes unity is, and that’s what Jesus wanted at this time. ’Cause shepherding Jesus’s sheep is a big, big deal.

But if Jesus expected Peter to have aghápi instead of fílos—because, as undereducated preachers claim, they’re two different words—he’d have demanded Peter quit waffling and love him, exactly the same as he commanded all his students to love one another. Jn 15.2 Instead Jesus was fine with the synonym. Peter was wholly devoted to him, after all.

Do a word study on these different words for “love” in the New Testament, and you’ll quickly see they’re treated as interchangeable. True, filéo tends to get used when the authors write about loving things we shouldn’t… but then again so does aghapáo. People igápisan darkness rather than light; Jn 3.19 Paul complained Dimas agapísas this present age when he shouldn’t, 2Ti 4.10 and John warned Christians not to agapátë the world nor the things in it. 1Jn 2.15 If aghapáo only ever refers to godly love, it’d make no sense to use it to talk about ungodly love; but that’s not how the ancients used it. How they shoulda used it falls back on Paul’s definition in 1 Corinthians, and we should use it that way too. But don’t read that definition into every use of aghápi and aghapáo in the bible. Our culture’s loosey-goosey definition of love works just fine, in most contexts. For both words.