An open Bible with the word love spelled in tiles.

Love Means Love (Even When the Greek Words are Different)

The longer I study the Bible, the more I appreciate how challenging it can be to translate the text effectively, especially into English. Where we might have one word for a particular object or emotion, Greek might have four. They all mean the same thing, but they have nuances—a range of meanings that, together, give us a comprehensive picture than our one English word can.

Love is a great example of this. Throughout the Bible, there are several different words that are translated as love. And the particularly studious among us might be inclined to dig into the nuances of those words. This can sometimes be helpful and lead to valuable insights when the text warrants it. But these types of word studies can also wind up confusing what is actually fairly clear in a passage.

Making (Too) Much of Different Words (That Mean the Same Thing)

John 21:15–17, Peter’s restoration to ministry, is a passage where this happens often because of John uses two different words for love: agape and phileo.

For the sake of an illustration, some teachers will make much about the differences between these two words. Agape is a stronger form of love, one of absolute devotion, whereas phileo is potentially a weaker form, primarily denoting friendship. And so someone might infer a kind of weakness on Peter’s part, that he cannot bring himself to answer with the kind of intensity Jesus asks for. When Jesus himself switches to the weaker form in his final question, it is condescension on his part.1

Sounds very convincing, right? But there’s a problem: it doesn’t seem to be what John said.

Yes, the words can have different emphases depending on the context in which they’re used, but John didn’t seem to be making any different emphasis between the two. Instead, he seemed to be using them as synonyms, as two words that mean the same thing, even if their range of meaning might vary.

So love means love.

John 21 wasn’t the only time John did this, either. He used different words for love interchangeably in John 3:35, 5:20, 11:5, and 36 too. And there are other places where he used synonyms that we don’t make too big a deal out of (including in this passage). So it seems like the best way to understand this text is that when Jesus said “love,” he meant “love.” When Peter says “love,” he means “love.” Together, they suggest the kind of whole-hearted love we are all called to have for Jesus, the friend of sinners. And it doesn’t seem to be any more complicated than that.

Jesus’ Love in Peter’s Restoration

But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t something significant going on here. But we miss it if we spend all our time focusing on John using two different words to mean love.

In John 21:15, Jesus asked, “Do you love me,” he asked, “Do you love me more than these do?” (emphasis mine).

The “these” refers to the other disciples who are present around the fire. And that’s the first significant aspect of this exchange: Jesus was talking to Peter with all the others present. This wasn’t because Peter was more important than the rest of the Eleven. It was because of Peter’s past public bravado—and his public failure on the night of Jesus’ arrest.

In John 13:37, after Jesus said that he was going somewhere that the disciples could not follow, Peter insisted that he would lay his life down for Jesus. In Matthew 26:33, he boldly proclaimed that even if they all fall away—all the other disciples—“I will never fall away.” But responded to him, “On this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And that is exactly what happened.

Three times, Peter denied him publicly.

Three times, Jesus asked, “Peter, do you love me?” publicly.

Peter understood what was happening. That’s why he was distressed, or saddened, in verse 17. Peter knew his failure, and Peter knew that Jesus knew his failure. But he also knew that Jesus knew his heart and that Jesus was the only one who could restore him. And this is exactly what Jesus was doing—he was offering Peter the restoration he needed: a public restoration in response to his public rejection of Jesus. To do the work of feeding and shepherding Jesus’ people, his “sheep” and his “lambs.”2

The Love We Need—And We Might Miss

And that might be one of the most beautiful things in this passage. Peter wasn’t just restored to Jesus. He was restored to Jesus’ people—he was restored in community and to community.

The same is true for you and me. Jesus knows our faults and failures, our hidden sins and struggles. He knows them all better than we do. And he invites us to come to him. To find help and healing—to be restored, not just in our relationship with him, but in our relationship with one another.

Restoration doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens in community. To a people who bear one another’s burdens. Who spur one another on to love and good works. Who, together, bear witness to the gospel in our words and deeds.

But that’s the love Jesus showed Peter. It’s the love he shows us by coming into the world. It’s the love he shows every time we turn to him in repentance. And it’s the love he wants us to demonstrate to all in need of it. A love that we miss if we emphasize differences rather than unity in different words.

Photo by Emmanuel Phaeton on Unsplash

  1. And in full disclosure, I’ve made this error in the past too, so I’m not just throwing stones here. ↩︎
  2. These are the other two pairings of words John included where synonyms are used to parallel one another. ↩︎

1 thought on “Love Means Love (Even When the Greek Words are Different)”

  1. This blog post offers a refreshing perspective on the complexities of translating biblical texts, particularly in exploring the nuances of love as portrayed in John 21:15–17. I appreciate how it challenges the tendency to overanalyze linguistic differences, emphasizing instead the unity in the message conveyed. The insight into Peter’s restoration within the context of community highlights the profound grace and love of Jesus, inviting us to reflect on our own need for restoration and the role of community in that process. Thank you for shedding light on this passage in such a meaningful way.

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