So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapao) Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love (phileo) You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapao) Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love (phileo) You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love (phileo) Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love (phileo) Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love (phileo) You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.” John 21:15-17 (NIV)
Much has been written about this passage of scripture. Many have thought that it was Jesus’ way of reinstating Peter after his three denials on the night Jesus was arrested – the three declarations of love wiping out the three denials – and I believe that was part of it. And many have pointed out the two forms of the word “love” used in these verses and wondered about the possible meaning. Jesus uses the word agapao in his first two questions, but phileo in his last question to Peter. Peter replies, “yes,” but uses phileo in all three of his answers.
Agapao simply means to love in a social or moral sense. E. Stauffer[i] writes that agapao, or love, of God means total commitment and total trust. So, when Jesus asks Peter, “do you agapao me?” He may have been asking also, “are you totally committed now, do you trust me?”
Peter replies, “yes,” but then goes on, not answering with agapao, but with the Greek word phileo. Phileo means to be a friend to, to be fond of an individual or an object, to have affection for, to kiss, to love. It would appear at first glance that this is a lesser form of love. And some have thought that Jesus was prodding Peter to the higher form of love, but Peter, after his devasting failure in the denial episode, could only promise the lesser form of love – to be a friend. They have concluded, “that Jesus finally concedes defeat and accepts only the lower form of love which is all that Peter is capable of offering.”[ii] But, when I looked further into the meaning of this word, phileo, I was amazed.
Phileo is the verb form of the noun philos, which means friend, dear friend, associate, neighbor. But, it also means this: “one of the bridegroom’s friends who on his behalf asked the hand of the bride and rendered him various services in closing the marriage and celebrating the nuptials.” This friend is acting as the best man. This friend carries a huge trust and responsibility. He asks for the hand of the Bride on behalf of the Bridegroom! This is the word for friend that John the Baptist used in this verse.
The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. John 3:29 (NIV)
Jesus said, “You are my friends (philos) if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends (philos), for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you (John 15:14-15 NIV). This sounds like a greater call, a greater trust, a greater service to our Lord than to be a mere servant who is not privy to what his master is about. He’s calling us to be the friend, the best man, of the Bridegroom! To go out and ask for the hand of the Bride on His behalf. Isn’t that what evangelism is all about? What a precious thing this Bride! What an amazing responsibility and calling is given to us!
This completely turned upside down my thinking about John 21. I don’t think Jesus is settling for a lesser form of love from Peter. I don’t think this is another failure for Peter. I think Peter is saying, “Yes Lord, I love (agapao) you! I fully trust and am committed to you. But even more, I accept the calling and responsibility to go out and bring back to you your Bride.” That’s why Jesus can ask, in a way, the third time, Are you prepared to be my Best Man? Go find and take care my Bride.
Am I prepared? Are you? Can we say, Yes Lord, you know I phileo you!
The people I love (phileo, I am a friend to), I call to account–prod and correct and guide so that they’ll live at their best. Up on your feet, then! About face! Run after God! Revelation 3:19 (MSG)
[i] E. Stauffer in Kittel, G., Friedrich, G., & Bromiley, G. W. (1985). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
[ii] NetBible.org. Translator’s Notes.
Photograph of the bride with the best man and groomsmen by Caitlyn Brouwer. All rights reserved by Jessica Bair.