Commentary on John 21:15-17
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
The Text of Joh 21:15-17
Today's English Version, New York: American Bible Society, 1976, 1992
 After they had eaten, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these others do?" "Yes, Lord," he answered, "you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Take care of my lambs."  A second time Jesus said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" "Yes, Lord," he answered, "you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Take care of my sheep."  A third time Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter became sad because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" and so he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!" Jesus said to him, "Take care of my sheep."
A literal translation of the Greek text by BibleTexts.com:
 After they had eaten, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you spiritually love (from the Greek word agapao) me more than these others do?" "Yes, Lord," he answered, "you know that I love you as a friend (from the Greek word phileo)." Jesus said to him, "Take care of my lambs."  A second time Jesus said to him, "Simon son of John, do you spiritually love (agapao) me?" "Yes, Lord," he answered, "you know that I love you as a friend (phileo)." Jesus said to him, "Take care of my sheep."  A third time Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you love me as a friend (phileo)?" Peter became sad because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me as a friend (phileo)?" and so he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you as a friend (phileo)!" Jesus said to him, "Take care of my sheep."
Commentary on Joh 21:15-17
Though all of the books of the New Testament, including the Gospel of John, were first written in Greek, Jesus primarily spoke in Aramaic, a colloquial Semitic language related to Hebrew and entirely different from Greek. (Having come from Nazareth, Jesus also certainly did know and speak Greek, as appears to be the case from the account of his conversation with the Syrophenician woman in Mar 7:26 and other accounts, including possibly Joh 12:20.) With only a few exceptions, all of Jesus' authentic dialogue in the Greek New Testament is a translation from Aramaic to Greek. In Aramaic there are no two words that distinguish "spiritually loving" from "loving as a friend." In the dialogue between Jesus and Peter, if the Gospel of John intended there to be a significance in the distinction between agapao and phileo, it could not be as the result of a direct translation of Jesus' words from Aramaic to Greek. However, though John was written in colloquial Koine Greek, it was written with very careful symbolic use of Greek words to articulate Jesus message, if not his actual words. (In terms of the artistry of its symbolism in the Greek language, the Gospel of John is unique in the New Testament. Even Revelation, which is full of outward symbolism, does not weave the symbolism into the use of the Greek language nearly to the extent that the Gospel of John does.)
There is much that is very special about the Fourth Gospel. Comparing the Fourth Gospel with the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the Fourth Gospel might be described as being more like a painting of Jesus' life; whereas, the synoptic gospels might be described as being more like snap-shot photographs. The synoptic gospels may have some of the dialogue and many of the "sayings" more literally correct and from earlier recorded sources; however, the author/s of the Fourth Gospel with his/her/their artistry, Greek-language symbolism, and spiritual insight seems to present the authentic texture and essence of Jesus' message. This may be due to the writing of the Gospel of John representing a source with more intimate familiarity with the life and ministry and thinking of Christ Jesus.
Few commentaries and few translations conclude that there is any significance in the use of both agapao and philia in chapter 21 of John. Most consider the Gospel of John's use of the two Greek words as synonymous. However, there has been enough lingering attention to this issue that most commentaries on the Gospel of John do directly address the issue and take a position.
Is the use of two different words intended to add "texture" to the Gospel of John's "painting" of the life of Jesus -- in this case further revealing the essence of the Aramaic dialogue that Jesus had with Peter? Considering the fact that the Gospel of John generally uses the Greek language very carefully, and often quite subtly, it is possible that there is significance in the use of the two different words. On the other hand, virtually all patristic commentators and most modern commentators on the Gospel of John (Barrett, Bernard, Brown, Bultmann, Howard, Schnackenburg, and others) conclude that the Gospel of John used agapao and phileo synonymously.
There are some notable modern exceptions (Goodspeed, Marsh, Phillips, Robertson, Rotherham, Weymouth, and others) to that conclusion. John Marsh (Saint John, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968, page 672) respectfully addresses Bernard's two pages of notes, by which Bernard intended to demonstrate John's synonymous use of these two Greek words. Marsh comments, "Though such lexical evidence as Bernard produces proves the general point of rough synonymity, it does not prove that the words are used synonymously here, even though synonymity may be admitted elsewhere in John."
In support of both positions, it can be at least be noted that Peter had shown a lack of both agape and philia love, when he cut off Malchus' ear (John 18:10) and when he denied Jesus three times (John 18:25-27).
(One issue that further complicates both positions is the generally accepted conclusion that chapter 21 was written by a different author than chapters 1-20, and maybe at a slightly later date. Werner Georg Kummel in his near-definitive Introduction to the New Testament, Revised Edition (translated from German by Howard Clark Kee, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1973, page 207) writes,
That Ch. 21 represents a supplement is incontestable, because 20:30 is unmistakably the end of the book. The question is only whether this supplement originates with the evangelist or with someone else. On the basis of the MS [manuscript] tradition available to us, Jn never circulated without Ch. 21. Yet Jn 21 offers some striking differences from Jn 1-20...
This is representative of the position of most modern scholars. Kummel addresses the entire issue in a section of the book titled, "The Literary Character and the Sources of the Gospel of John" (ibid., pages 200 to 217). Here, as throughout his entire Introduction to the New Testament, he provides a comprehensive survey of the conclusions of virtually all known authors on the subject. Most commentaries on the Gospel of John also address the issue of "The Epilogue," Chapter 21, though their conclusions on authorship/editorialship and date of Chapter 21 vary widely.)
Some good examples of agapao, as typically used by early Christians, are found in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, and 1 John, chapters 2 through 5. Wherever the word "love" or "charity" is used in any of those chapters, it refers to agapao or a related word. Agapao is overwhelmingly used in John, but phileo is used in John 5:20; 11:3, 36; 12:25; 15:19, 16:27, and 20:2, in addition to its use in John 21:15-17. Phileo appears in the Greek New Testament in only twenty-one verses. In all but three of those twenty-one verses, the KJV translates phileo as "love." In the other three verses (Matthew 26, 48, Mark 14:44, and Luke 22:47), it translates phileo as "kiss."
Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Co, no date) describes agapao as follows:
AGAPAO and the corresponding noun agape present "the characteristic word of Christianity, and since the Spirit of revelation has used it to express ideas previously unknown, enquiry into its use, whether in Greek literature or in the Septuagint, throws but little light upon its distinctive meaning in the N.T. [New Testament].
"Agape and agapao are used in the N.T. (a) to describe the attitude of God toward His Son, John 17:26; the human race, generally, John 3:16; Rom 5:8; and to such as believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, particularly, John 14:21; (b) to convey His will to His children concerning their attitude one toward another, John 13:34, and toward all men, I Thess. 3:12; I Cor 16:14, 2 Pet 1:7; (c) to express the essential nature of God, 1 John 4:8.
"Love can be known only from the actions it prompts. God's love is seen in the gift of his Son, I John 4:9, 10. But obviously this is not the love of complacency, or affection, that is, it was not drawn out by any excellency in its objects, Rom. 5:8. It was an exercise of the Divine will in deliberate choice, made without assignable cause save that which lies in the nature of God Himself, cp. Deut. 7:7,8.
"Love had its perfect expression among men in the Lord Jesus Christ, 2 Cor. 5:14; Eph. 2:4; 3:19; 5:2; Christian love is the fruit of His Spirit in the Christian, Gal. 5:22.
"Christian love has God for its primary object, and expresses itself first of all in implicit obedience to His commandments, John 14:15, 21, 23; 15:10; I John 2:5; 5:3; 2 John 6. Self-will, that is self-pleasing, is the negation of love to God.
"Christian love, whether exercised toward the brethren, or toward men generally, is not an impulse from the feelings, it does not always run with the natural inclinations, nor does it spend itself only upon those for whom some affinity is discovered. Love seeks the welfare of all, Rom. 15:2, and works no ill to any, 13:8-10; love seeks opportunity to do good to 'all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of the faith,' Gal. 6:10. See further I Cor. 13 and Col 3:12-14."
In repect of agapao as used of God, it expresses the deep and constant love and interest of a perfect Being towards entirely unworthy objects, producing and fostering reverential love in them towards the Giver, and a practical love towards those who are partakers of the same, and a desire to help others to seek the Giver.
Note: Vine's wording in quotations above indicate references from "Notes on Thessalonians" by Hogg and Vine, page 105.
In Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Mary Baker Eddy provides many descriptions of love that are consistent with the New Testament agape love, including this thought-provoking depiction, "Love never loses sight of loveliness. Its halo rests upon its object." (page 248:3-4) In fact such love is the very foundation of Christ's Christianity (and, thus, of Christian Science). One can be a Christian (and, thus, a Christian Scientist) only to the extent that one is representing that agape love in every aspect of one's life. (It is noteworthy that throughout Mrs. Eddy's writings, every time that she quotes Jesus using the word "love," the Greek word translated as "love" in that particular verse always derives from the verb agapao or the noun agape.)
G.B. Caird, in his commentary on Saint Luke, wrote another excellent description of agape love. To read it, simply browse or click on http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/agape-c.htm. For biblical and other references to agape love, browse or click on http://www.bibletexts.com/topics/l.htm.
Copyright 1996-2004 Robert Nguyen Cramer