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Let’s Stop Over-Interpreting Agape vs Phileo

John uses phileo (in various forms) about 13 times

Hover over these references to see them if you like (Jn. 5:2011:311:36, 12:2515:1916:2720:221:1521:16, 21:17).

Does John always use that word as a form of love that is lower in quality than agape love? Again, nope! If John thinks that phileo love is of a lower quality than agape love, then why does he say that…

  • The Father loves (phileo love) the Son in Jn. 5:20.
  • Lazarus, who Jesus loved (phileo love) was sick in Jn. 11:13 and 11:36.
  • God The Father loves (phileo love) the disciples because the disciples love (phileo love) Jesus in Jn. 16:27.
  • After Jesus was raised, Mary Magdalene came running up to Peter and the disciple who Jesus loved (phileo love) to tell them the body of Jesus was gone in Jn. 20:2.

Again, if phileo love is categorically not the unconditional “God kind” of perfect love, and is by nature and essence necessarily lower in quality than agape, then why can’t the Father love the Son with agape-love? Why only phileo love? Why doesn’t the father love the disciples with agape love, and only love them with phileo love, and why do the disciples only love Jesus with phileo love? Surely, God could love them with agape love and not this lower form of love! After all (we are told) agape is way better than phileo! And why can’t Jesus love (with agape love) this disciple who is with Peter? Why can’t Jesus muster up the best and highest kind of love (agape love) for his own disciple?

Here’s the answer to all these questions: Both agape and phileo can be used as synonyms, and it is the usage in the context of conversation or narration that tells us the degree of love or the object of love in focus.

So—let’s stop over-interpreting the Greek words for love.

UPDATE (on 4.2.18) – Josh Shoemaker had some really great comments below, and linked to a post that he wrote back in May of 2015 that is incredibly helpful. See his post HERE, and then my exchange with him in the comments below for a possible better and perhaps more natural reading of the text where the implications of both agape and phileo are taken into account.

For the reader, if I embrace Josh’s proposal as I understand it, here is how I would read the text (and I think this is the best and most natural reading, and demonstrates that Peter was trying to respond with the HIGHEST form of love he could think of, not a lower form that is somehow qualitatively diminished and different from agape):

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you like my own flesh and blood. You are family to me.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you like my own flesh-and-blood brother—like my own kin!” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you really love me like your own brother—like your own flesh and blood?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me like your own brother?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that you are family to me. I love you as though we were brothers—like you were my own flesh and blood!” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

Thanks Josh! I think you have given me my new-and-improved perspective.

Update (on 4/10/2018) — After Brian Fulthorp’s great reminder in the comments below that “even sinners agape love others,” I thought I’d just go ahead and list every occurrence of love in the N.T. in which it’s obvious that sinful people are the ones doing the agape loving (supposedly God’s perfect love), or people are agape loving things they should not (how is that possible if agape is God’s perfect love?). Hover over every text below. In each case, the English word for love is a form agape in Greek.

Mat. 5:46Lk. 6:32Lk. 11:43Jn. 3:19Jn. 12:432 Tim. 4:102 Pet. 2:15.

And finally, those who translated the O.T. into Greek (the LXX/Septuagint) did not seem to think that agape meant God’s holy, perfect and unconditional love. If they did, they never would have used agape to refer to anything but God’s perfect and holy love. Is that what they did? Hover over a few examples below to see. All of these use agape in the LXX.

Ps. 4:252:3-4Prov. 1:228:36Hos. 3:14:18Jer. 5:3114:10 — and on and on we could go. This is just a sample.

Here’s the point. In the end, context and situational usage is the “content” (meaning) that goes inside of and gets hauled around by the “suitcase” (word). Words function as carriers of meaning, and meaning derives from the way in which the word is being used in a particular context. In nerdy language, this is known as the semantic range of a word. One word may have a label on the outside of it that reads “love,” but you can, depending on context, load that word up with the kinds of things that fit in that package. Context and situational usage will always tell you what’s inside the suitcase. There is a range (a semantic range) of possibilities with most words.

So, for example, God can agape love a sinner, and that love will take on the meaning of whatever actions God is demonstrating toward the sinner. In that case, agape will mean whatever it means in that context. Likewise, a sinner can agape love sin and darkness and self-aggrandizement. In that case, agape will mean whatever it means in that context. Were this not the case, those who had an opportunity to protect the word agape from being used to refer to anything other than God’s perfect and holy love would have done so!


This article on agape vs phileo originally appeared here.