Biblical Studies

Urban Legend: Agape Love is Superior

Urban legends are un- (or dis-)proved stories that have been passed down for decades, such as how Coke will dissolve a tooth overnight, how alligators live in New York’s sewers, or how Mr. Rogers was a sniper in the Navy SEALS. David Croteau, in his new book Urban Legends of the New Testament (review here), covers 40 of the most commonly misunderstood New Testament passages, or 40 New Testament “urban legends.”

Last time I covered Philippians 4.13, this time I’ll look at the two loves in John 21.15-19, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” 

The Urban Legend of John 21:15–19

Most Christians who have been in church for some years have probably heard a teaching on John 21.15-19. And if you’ve heard a teaching on John 21, you’ve heard that in the original Greek text there are two different kinds of love being talked about here: agapē love” and “phileō love. As the story goes, “agapē love” is “the highest, greatest, most noble, divine kind of love. It is an unconditional, self-sacrificing, God-type love” (86). “Phileō” love is “a lesser form of love, dealing more with a human friendship-type of love” (86).

Now we’ll look at how these definitions are used with John 21.15-19, 

Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love [agapaō] Me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter said to Him, “You know that I love [phileō] You.”
“Feed My lambs,” He told him.

A second time He asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love [agapaō] Me?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter said to Him, “You know that I love [phileō] You.”
“Shepherd My sheep,” He told Peter.

He asked him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love [phileō] Me?”
Peter was grieved that He asked him the third time, “Do you love [phileō] Me?”
Peter said, “Lord, You know everything! You know that I love [phileō] You.”
“Feed My sheep,” Jesus said.

Why was Peter grieved at Jesus’ third question? As the legend continues, 

Peter was sad because he knew his weakness. He had just experienced the high point of his own weakness when he denied Christ. Peter did not have the audacity to claim a God-type love for Jesus. Peter knew himself. He did not think more of himself than he should have. We also need to recognize our weaknesses” … Jesus says, ‘If what you have to offer me is phileō love, I’ll take phileō love’ (86).

It makes for a good, heart-stirring sermon, but is it accurate?

The Main Problems

Croteua says that the main problems of this faulty interpretation “are a misuse of Greek and a lack of attention to the narrative context of John’s Gospel…. The first question we must answer is this: Are these the correct definitions of the Greek words?” (86). 

Should we really beleive that when Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me unconditionally?,” that Peter really responded with, “Lord, you know that I like you a lot!”?

Love” in the Gospel of John

In John 19.26, John tells us,

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple he loved standing there, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’” 

According to the definitions of love we saw earlier, would you expect to see agapaō or phileō love here?

Unconditional Godlike love from Christ? Or simple brotherly love?  

Croteau answers and says, “Not surprisingly, Jesus, being fully God, has an agapaō love for John—this supposed unconditional, Godlike love” (87).

A few verses later, John 20.2 says,

“So [Mary Magdelene] ran to Simon Peter and to the other disciple, the one Jesus loved [phileō] …

Phileō love?

Croteau asks, “Why, between John 19:26 and 20:2 did Jesus’ love for John decrease? Does this mean Jesus ceased having unconditional love for him? Did John do something to cause Jesus to love him less? If so, does that mean we could do things to cause Jesus to love us less?” (87).

Perhaps John is using these words to mean the same kind of love.

The Father Loves the Son

John 3.35, “The Father loves [agapaō] the Son and has given all things into his hand.

John 5.20a, “For the Father loves [phileō] the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing.”

If the legendary interpretation of John 21 is true, then Croteau asks: “Did Jesus make a mistake between John 3:35 and 5:20 so the Father loved him less?” (87).

Then the final kicker.

Amnon’s Love for Tamar

Agapaō love does not ecessarily mean a self-sacrificial, Godlike love. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT written before Jesus was born (also noted as ‘LXX’), we have the story of Amnon and Tamar. Croteau tells us,

The story in 2 Samuel 13 about Amnon having love for Tamar is helpful to study. Amnon is said to have loved Tamar in verses 1 and 4 utilizing the Greek word agapaō. Verses 14–15 say: “But he refused to listen to her, and because he was stronger than she was, he raped her. After this, Amnon hated Tamar with such intensity that the hatred he hated her with was greater than the love he had loved her with. ‘Get out of here,’ he said.” So Amnon is described as loving Tamar four times in these verses, and every single time it is using either agapaō (the verb) or agapē (the noun). And what does he do with that love? He rapes her. So if agapaō is an unconditional, self-sacrificial, Godlike love, how could it lead to rape? The fact is that agapaō doesn’t always refer to a Godlike, sacrificial love (87-88, emphasis mine).

Interpreting John 21:15–19

Why does Jesus question Peter about his love three times? Because Peter denied Jesus three times. Peter grieved, not because Jesus switched to the lesser Greek word for love, but “because [Jesus] said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’” (Jn 21.17). “Peter is remembering his denials, and that is what is grieving Peter” (88).

Also, Croteau points out that the word charcoal only occurs twice in the entire New Testament. It never occurs in the LXX. The first time it occurs is in John 18.18, and Peter is standing by a charcoal fire right after denouncing his loyalty to Jesus. The second time is in John 21.9. Jesus already has a charcoal fire set up “with fish laid out on it, and bread.” This is the scene where we find Jesus question Peter’s love for him. Peter is to abide in Jesus (15.4) and in his love (15.9) by keeping the commandments of Jesus (15.10).

“And after saying this Jesus said to Peter, ‘Follow me.’” Peter is being restored to follow Jesus (21.19; also see 13.36.38).

Urban Legends

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  1. Thanks for posting. This is most interesting since all along I was given to understand that the 3 Greek words for love (agape, phileo and eros, there might even be a 4th one) were used exclusively…apparently not.


    1. And I grew up hearing this too from a lot of teachers. I was taught that agape = highest, Godly love, phileo = brotherly love, and eros = erotic love. It makes sense, until one looks at the Greek text and see that some things are quite right.

      And it causes me to wonder what else we’ve been missing. Which, when it comes to the original languages, there are plenty of meanings/nuances that we miss in the English translations. The translations do a great job getting the point across, but as Arne, my CCBC Germany director, said, reading the Bible in the original languages is like kissing your bride without the veil. It only serves more reason for me to learn them!


  2. There are actually 4 or 5 words in Koine greek that could be translated as love. Storgeo refers to love in the context of affection between family members. Epithumeo is usually translated as lust. The problem isn’t so much how we translate each word. Rather, it’s how we deal with language as if it is a more stable target than it really is. Languages and cultures are moving targets. A lexicon may give the impression that everything about a word is known and trustworthy, but that isn’t always the case. Lexicons are not inspired, and can be misleading for a variety of reasons, some of which are hard to detect.

    The problem with the agape/phileo issue is only partially about how it is translated. Those who teach about it (assuming they actually research it at all) may look the words up in a lexicon, and may understand it, but then still add their personal/cultural bias to it. Often (but definitely not always) you can discern if this is happening when a teacher uses several sentences or more to explain a greek or hebrew word. I have heard entire sermons about the 4 greek words for love!

    When a teacher talks about agape being a godly form, or the highest form of love, this is not a scriptural point; it is an argument based on the language itself. Assuming that the teacher had a good lexicon and understood the information… the teaching assumes that there is actually some wisdom inherent in the greek vocabulary itself. Think about what we know about greek history, culture, and mythology. Does it make sense to believe that greek would have a word that denotes love from a biblical, godly perspective?


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