Word of the Week
May 22, 2021
Agapē and Phileō: Multi-Level Love
But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:13
As the old song says, “What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love.” Anyone who takes even a cursory look at our society will conclude that love is in short supply.
People talk endlessly about love, but the word is often just a description of overactive hormones or holiday sentimentality. We need to understand love at a much deeper level, and to do so, we must consult the Word of the God who embodies perfect love. After all, 1 John 4:8 declares that “God is love.”
There’s no better place to begin than by delving into the Greek words for “love” used in the New Testament.
The best-known Greek word
Even the person who says, “It’s all Greek to me!” recognizes the Greek word agape, the most common word for love (the noun occurs 117 times and the verb agapaō appears 142 times). You have probably also heard about phileō, the other word for love (used 25 times). Phileō also happens in combination with other words: Philadelphia, for instance, means “love” (philos) plus “brother” (adelphos). Thus “brotherly love.”
People sometimes try to explain the distinction between the words by saying that agape is divine love, while phileō is human love.
There is truth in that slogan, but it’s not the whole story. God the Father loves the Son with phileō-style love (John 5:20), and many passages command Christians to love one another with agape-style love. In fact, there is much overlap between the words, and they can often be interchangeable.
There are, however, some distinctions between the two:
Used very little in secular Greek, but becomes the predominant word in the New Testament.
Primarily a matter of choice rather than emotions.
One-way love that can flow even toward someone who does not deserve or return it.
Used in secular Greek as the love of friends, which they considered the highest kind of love.
Often an emotional response to someone or something that appeals to you.
Two-way love that instinctively flows toward someone who returns your love.
The best-known passage
We all know 1 Corinthians 13 as the Love Chapter. However, John 21:15-17 is the place where you are most likely to discuss the interplay between the two words for love.
The risen Jesus has just finished a beachside breakfast with some of His disciples. Now He arranges a private moment with Peter, who is still smarting from the guilt of his three-fold denial of the Lord.
Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” Peter says, “Yes.” And Jesus replies, “Take care of my sheep.” The same bit of conversation replays three times. Why? Jesus is reassuring Peter, restoring him to fellowship, and recommissioning him for ministry.
That much is clear. But is there more going on?
When Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” he uses agapaō twice, then switches to phileō. Peter uses phileō every time. Commentators have discussed this passage at great length, aiming to explain this fascinating pattern of word choice.
Many devout scholars believe that the shifts between words are not significant. They point out, accurately, that the two Greek words are often used interchangeably, and that John often seems to use synonyms for the sake of variety.
However, I believe that Christ chose His words deliberately, taking advantage of the distinctive flavor of each word to restore a beaten-down disciple. Two observations support this view:
- The Bible presents agape as the highest love.
The greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Peter’s list of Christian virtues climaxes with agape. Brotherly love (philanthropia) comes one notch lower on the list (2 Peter 1:7).
- Jesus added the phrase “more than these” in his first question. He establishes a progression that starts with the highest demand (“love more than these”) and descends to simply “love” (agapaō). When he changes to phileō in the last question, he continues to come down.
Here’s an imaginative version of how I perceive the conversation:
Jesus: Do you love me with a committed love (agape) that is deeper than the other disciples have?
Peter: After my denial, I can’t claim such a love. But I do have an emotional response to you (phileō).
Jesus: This time, we won’t compare you with the others. Do you genuinely love me at all with committed love (agape)?
Peter: I hesitate to claim that for myself after all I’ve done, but I do love you as a friend (phileō).
Jesus: All right, I’ll come to your level. Do you genuinely love me as a friend (phileō)?
Peter: Yes, Lord! You know that I love you at that level, despite my failure!
Peter was deeply humbled by his failure, fearing that he had forfeited any chance of further ministry. But Jesus came down to his level and started there. The faltering disciple who could only claim a friendly affection for Jesus would later be transformed by the Holy Spirit into a committed lover of the Lord.
That can be your story too!
Synonyms are words with overlapping meanings. A writer could choose either of two words to describe something, and a careful writer would take pains to select the best word for the occasion.
Thin, lean, and scrawny are synonyms. They may all be equally accurate, but a wise husband will be careful which one he chooses to describe his wife!
How do you study synonyms?
- Do a regular word study on each synonym.
- Notice the meanings that both Greek word share.
- Notice the meanings that the words do NOT share.
- Look at the context of each verse to determine whether you are dealing with a shared meaning or a distinct one.
You can find a full discussion of synonyms in Lesson 7 of the Greek Word Study Course. For details on how to register for the course, click Word Study Course.
Q & A
Q – Why does Paul use the aorist tense in Romans 8:30, especially when he says that we are glorified?
A – In this passage, Paul describes God’s grand progression of salvation for each of His children. He wants us to know that nothing can short-circuit the Lord’s master plan. If God has foreknown you, He will also call you and justify you. And if you have been justified, you can be confident that glorification is guaranteed.
All of these verbs are in the Greek aorist tense, which often describes past events. In this case, however, Paul uses the aorist to describe our glorification, which doesn’t take place until Christ returns or we arrive in heaven. It is so certain that it is “as good as done.”
You can see an explanation of the aorist tense on the Ezra Project Web site at https://ezraproject.com/aorist-tense-a-closer-look/
Do you feel as if you’re ready to drop? Jesus paid attention to a crowd who were on the verge of collapse, and the Greek word He used is an apt description of our condition at times. Join us next week for a closer look.
©Ezra Project 2021