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There is considerable debate over John’s use of two different words for love in John 21. I have read a lot of scholarship and arguments from both sides.  Here’s where I am at this point:

1. The linguists are fundamentally correct in their assertion that the two words for love are often used synonymously and interchangeably, both in the NT and elsewhere (LXX and papyri).

2. However, it is not correct to say that they are used in John 21:15-17 for purely stylistic purposes with no distinction intended between the two.

3. I believe that John intends a play on words in this passage, with a subtle distinction that reinforces the plain message of the passage.

4. The proper translation of agapao and phileo in this passage would be “love” and the meaning that is underscored by the play on words is still distinguishable in English. This translation is preferred over some of the alternatives suggested during this discussion.

Fun with words in the Gospel of John

Here are some examples of intentional ambiguity and other word play in this Gospel:

1:5 - The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome (katalambanomai) it.
The word katalambanomai can mean both “overcome” or “understand.”I believe this is a rare case where both meanings fit and John was intentionally ambiguous in choosing this word.

3:7-8 - Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again (anōthen).’ The wind (pneuma) blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound (phōnē), but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (pneuma).”

The word anōthen means both again and from above. The word pneuma means both wind and spirit. The word phōnē means both sound and voice. The meaning is clear, but a pun is clearly intended.

9:11 - The man called Jesus made mud and anointed (epechrisen) my eyes…

The word epichrio means “rub on by anointed or smearing.” The word Christos means “Anointed one, Messiah.” You can almost detect a pun in the sense of “the man Christ-ened my eyes” as the blind man received his sight and saw the Christ.

The context of John 21

Here is the context:

1. We have Peter boasting that he will never forsake Jesus, even if all the others do (implying that he loves Jesus more than the others).

2. We have Peter denying Jesus 3 times.

3. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than the other disciples?”

4. Peter tells Jesus that he loves him, but no longer boasts of doing so more than the others.

5. Jesus repeats his question 3 times, matching the number of time Peter denied him.

6. After each answer, Jesus issues a charge to Peter – “Feed my lambs” / “Tend my sheep” / “Feed my sheep

The subtle distinction in John 21

I don’t believe the internal evidence in John 21 is strong enough to insist that Peter and Jesus are speaking of two different kinds of love in the passage, with one being higher or lower or of a different nature than the other. Rather, it seems more likely from the context that the distinction is to be found, not in the type of love being discussed, but in the manner in which the love is recognized. Moreover, I think that the significance is probably to be found in the use of phileo, not agapao (though I will suggest a possible distinction for each).

Assume for the sake of argument that Jesus and Peter are referring to the same “type” of love, and that when Jesus says “do you love me?” and Peter replies “you know I love you” that they both have in their mind the same concept of what this “love” is. The distinction between the verbs would be this:

Agapao – Jesus’ question could be simply using the common word “love” with nothing special signified. If a special significance must be given to agapao here (though it isn’t necessary in this case), then it would probably be this: showing love by action.

Phileo – The significance of Peter’s response with phileo would be that Peter did, in fact, love Jesus, but the only basis with which he could make the claim was his feeling of love toward Jesus because he had no actions to stand on which would demonstrate his love.

(Let me emphasize, in this context these would not be two different kinds of love, one which feels and one which does. It would be two different ways in which we recognize or show the one love. One would be demonstrating love by action and the other would be demonstrating love by feeling. )

In this interpretation, the use of the two verbs serves to underscore what is already apparent in the text. That is, Peter professes to love Jesus, and Jesus calls him to live out that love in obedience to him. The last question is the most significant, because in using the phileo verb, Jesus questions even Peter’s feeling of love and follows with the same charge as he gave previously. The implication of this is that if Peter’s feeling of love is genuine, then it will be demonstrated in obedience. What the passage, (and John’s word play) seems to accomplish is the destruction of the false distinction between a love that feels and a love that acts when it comes to loving Christ. In other words, Jesus says to Peter (and all of us) “if you love me, keep my commandments.”

Summary Paraphrase

Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you show your love for me (or do you love me) more than these other disciples do?

Peter: Yes, Lord, you know that I have strong feelings of love for you (leaving out comparison with other disciples)

Jesus: Show me your love by feeding my lambs.

Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you show your love for me (or do you love me)?

Peter: Yes, Lord, you know that I have strong feelings of love for you.

Jesus: Show me your love by tending my sheep.

Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you really have strong feelings of love for me?

Peter (grieved because he has remembered his 3 denials and now Jesus questions not only his demonstration but actually feelings of love): Lord, you know everything, including my feelings; you know that I have strong feelings of love for you.

Jesus: Then show me your love by feeding my sheep.

Why do I think, even though I make a subtle distinction above, that “love” is still the best English translation of the two words in this passage? Because the sense which the above distinction draws out it still readily apparent from the flow of conversation even if it is unknown that two separate words are used. Using different words, such as “like”, “truly love”, “love as a friend”, etc., all denote more than the context allows and would steer the interpretation away from the main point of the passage.

Contemporary Example

A husband and wife have been married for a while. The husband has often boasted of his love for his wife and that he will always remain faithful. The husband falls in a night of temptation and cheats on his wife. He is devastated with guilt and genuinely repentant. He pleads with her for forgiveness, and she graciously receives him. This would be the equivalent conversation:

Wife: Would you say love me as you’ve boasted in the past?

Husband: I know my actions don’t show it, but I’m certain in my heart that I love you.

Wife: Show me by staying with me and remaining faithful.

Wife: Would you say that you love me?

Husband: I’m certain in my heart that I love you.

Wife: Show me by not leaving me and by caring for me.

Wife: Are you certain in your heart that you love me?

Husband: I don’t know what else to say, but I really do love you.

Wife: Show me by staying with me and caring for me.