Like Terms

John 21John 21

He’s hunched over the table across from me, studying for his algebra final. If he passes, his time in eighth grade math counts for high school credit. If he does better than passing, he keeps his A for the quarter.

I have his study packet and recite equations. He scratches numbers and symbols and x and y into empty spaces on lined paper, tight-gripping a dull pencil I wish he’d walk downstairs and sharpen.

We get stumped on one and both try to show our work to come up with what we already know is the right answer. The old test has already been graded. I write the numbers on my tablet, where between math problems I’m working out my own equation.

Like Terms

We seek like terms to simplify the algebraic expression.

And yet in my case I’m finding it’s the like terms themselves that are that have made the expression such a riddle to simplify.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”

 “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

 Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15)

It wasn’t very long ago we watched Peter — after much up-puffing and his “I will go to prison or death” speech — pretend not to know Jesus while soldiers nearly thrashed the life out of Him.

Dust of sifted wheat still between my fingers and under my nails, I see Peter through the cynic’s eye. Peter held such promise. At least he had the courage to take a swipe at one of the guards in the garden, and had he run off in naked terror like one of his companions, he’d not have been in the courtyard at all.

But even Peter, even after Jesus prayed for him not to, fell flat. He collapsed in a heap of cowardly muck as soon as the first guy tried to connect him with the mass of mortal and divine bleeding all over the pavers across the way.

Even after Jesus prayed.

And if I can’t stand straight after Jesus prays, when can I stand at all?

I Phileō You from my Toes

We see this encounter with Jesus, the Living, Resurrected One, and somehow we want to believe Peter gets a little comeuppance.  Yes, the Lord would put him back into service, but not before a little vinegar and Tabasco.

So Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him. Truly loves Him, more than any other thing. Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these? He asks. Do you agapaō Me?

And Peter, speak-before-you-think Peter, insists, in a quieter sort of bluster, that Yes, of course. You know that I love you. phileō You from my toes.

And here are these like terms, two words that look and sound the same to our English-speaking eyes and ears but have each their own place in the Greek-speaking language of love.

To agapaō, we understand, is something more otherworldly. It’s unconditional, swells out from the goodness of the lover, not pricked by the merits of the one loved.

It is an act of the will, to love in this way.

But to phileō, this is to let loose a tender love, an affection. The one who offers love up in a phileō sort of way cherishes the object of his affections.

It’s as though he cannot help himself.

And since we see these terms in this oddest of exchanges, where the Lord asks about one thing and Peter answers with clearly another — and nobody seems to find it odd in the moment — we are left to presume that Peter’s phileō is somehow other than, less than, what Jesus wanted.

And since I’m still finding fault with Peter long after Jesus wrapped forgiveness around his heaving shoulders, it’s easy for me to suppose that Jesus loved Peter while Peter just liked the Lord. That’s how I’ve always been preached the distinction.

Jesus asks him again.

“Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” (John 21:16)

When Jesus asks the third time, Peter is hurt. Whether he’s hurt because Jesus asked over and over, or he’s hurt that Jesus changed terms — it’s somewhere out there beyond my reach. But this time, Jesus doesn’t ask Do you agapaō Me? 

He asks, Do you phileō Me?

Just as Peter’s been saying all along.

Loving from the Heart

When God declared His love for Jesus, He loved Him agapaō style: The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. (John 3:35)

But then again, He also loved Him the phileō way: For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. (John 5:20)

Peter, as it turns out, loved Jesus in the pattern God set, the same way that He loves us.

When Jesus echoed God’s call to His people to love, the call was far reaching. This was no one-dimensional love. The command had depth and breadth:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength

I’m scribbling these words around searching out a way to simplify the expression. And I wonder it has less to do with Peter coming up short, liking Jesus with a cheap knock-off of real love and more to do with getting our whole self involved in the act of loving — with our hearts, souls, minds and strength.

The two [phileō and agapaō] thus stand related . . . the former being chiefly of the heart and the latter of the head. (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, G5368)

Peter was loving with his heart, just as he’d been told to do. And it seems, perhaps, that Jesus embraced that love that rushed from the very tippy toes of His disciple.


Linking with Michelle at Graceful today.
Stop by and see what God’s showing the
folks in the Hear It – Use It community.

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17 responses

  1. Solveig Engh

    This is the first time in my experience when someone has noted the discrepancy between agapao and phileo in this passage. I don’t know why I noticed it, but after I did I’ve been amazed when hearing sermons on the passage that fail to deal with it. My take has been a bit different than yours–Peter knew he couldn’t pretend with Jesus so confessed his love was only the phileo type. I hadn’t checked on the meanings in Strong’s–just relied on the teaching I’ve had on the two words.

    A quick look at Strong’s was enlightening. However, I had looked at a secular Greek dictionary which defines the Greek words differently. There, meanings of phileo include: to regard with affection, to love and cherish as one’s wife(marriage was quite different in that culture–wives were property), to treat affectionately or welcome as a guest, to kiss, to love, like, aprove. The meanings of agapao include: to treat with affection, to be fond of, to be well pleased or contented at or with.

    I’ve always found this definition of agapao unsatisfactory. I remember hearing at some point that agapao was an obscure Greek word which Jesus used to convey God’s love because it implied something distinct–sorry, I can’t remember what–that was a long time ago before I noted the use of the word in this passage.

    This could become an exercise in linguistics–and that isn’t the point. It wasn’t your point, for sure. But I do feel Jesus accepted Peter’s statement because He accepted Peter. That was part of the message for the beleagured fisherman that day. God accepted him and would use him with whatever he offered. God was, as you made the case, pleased with his response. It was, after all, an honest statement.

    And let me add, what I’ve said here in no way negates anything you shared in your post. I absolutely love it when you offer your thoughts on passages of Scripture. You dig deeply and bless your readers with revealed Truth.

    2011/05/17 at 12:31 PM

    • I’m hearing it as I think you intended it, Solveig, and I so appreciate your thoughts here. I don’t get it, really, this distinction in terms and how so much can pack into a couple of words.

      But yes, I love this: that at the end of it all, we know that Jesus accepted Peter, and He accepted his love.

      Thank you, Solveig, for helping me think this through even further. Someday, if work gets me up your direction, I think we’re going to have to sit down for coffee. 🙂

      2011/05/17 at 9:08 PM

      • Solveig Engh

        Sitting down with you would be great. I’m ready!

        2011/05/17 at 9:11 PM

  2. I’ve been grappling with these two meanings of love lately two. It was good to see them in the context of Peter. I hadn’t noted either how they were used here. Thanks for sharing and linking up with Michelle!

    2011/05/17 at 4:25 PM

    • Thanks for stopping by, Jenn. I love Michelle’s place!

      2011/05/17 at 9:03 PM

  3. I had never noted the shift on Jesus’ part in that final verse. This love of the heart and head–interesting. If that’s the case, I think I have a Peter problem–this loving with the heart but having trouble with the head love because I’m constantly learning more of who God is. How does one head-love an almighty God beyond our very thoughts?

    2011/05/17 at 8:59 PM

    • It’s an interesting question. One thing that still perplexes me is that phileo is never commanded. Agapao is.

      But I suppose, that’s part of what phileo is. Not an act of the will but just the thing that happens when the heart gets going?

      2011/05/17 at 9:02 PM

  4. The depth and breadth. Yes. So often, there is such a divide between head and heart. I hear faithful followers of Jesus say, “I don’t care about doctrine, just give me Jesus.” We tend to think of faith as an either/or proposition–either head or heart. That’s what I was thinking about as I read this. It’s not either head or heart. It’s not either phileo or agape. It’s both/and. This following Jesus thing has depth and breadth.

    2011/05/17 at 9:14 PM

    • Yes! I think that’s it right there. It’s hard for us to get that, you know, that things can be more than one way at the same time. My brain doesn’t work well that way; I like things in their orderly places. But Jesus isn’t like that. He doesn’t draw lines the same way as I do.

      Thanks Nancy!

      2011/05/17 at 9:19 PM

  5. When Peter starts writing his own story, and writes about love, doesn’t he then write about agape? Curious about your thoughts on that.

    I would love to sit and talk with you about these verses, Lyla. Our English translations fall short, don’t they?

    Thank you for this…

    2011/05/17 at 10:44 PM

    • You’ve done your homework on that one. He makes the transition, yes. Some would suggest, and probably rightly so, that absent the Holy Spirit we can’t hope to get anywhere near agape love. And that may explain some of Peter’s difficulty there given He hadn’t yet come.

      But I imagine that even while he wrote to agapao, he still phileo’d Jesus from his toes. 😉

      I just got called up short here, always seeming to see this exchange as one where Jesus is shaking his head, wondering how He got saddled with this character who could never quite get it right. I think he was getting it right.

      2011/05/17 at 11:08 PM

  6. Well I’ll just put this right out there, because that’s how I operate after all…but I have to admit, I think I’d have to read this post through 4 times slooooowly to get what in the world you are talking about. Agape, phileo — which is which, which is being used when and by whom…it’s all so much simpler in English when we just use one word: love. I guess love isn’t love isn’t love, is it? I should have figured it would be more complicated.

    I should have known when you started with algebra that I was going to be in big trouble…

    Still grateful you linked up though, Lyla. I’m going to go back to the start and read this through again. I need the Sparks Notes! 😉

    2011/05/18 at 3:06 PM

    • Love is love — perhaps that’s what I need to see here. And my apologies. Sometimes I have to write my way out of these things… 😉

      2011/05/18 at 3:56 PM

  7. Three denials. Three questions. Are they connected?

    I’ve never been able to get my arms around this exchange. I love how you break it apart into head and heart. There’s part of me that thinks yes, Peter loved Him with all His heart, but did He love Him enough to do the hard stuff and go to the hard places? I often wonder if I ever would really be willing to die for my children. I say I would, but would I?

    And I don’t know if I’m making any sense or if it even goes with the passage. I should come back when I’m more rested. 😀

    I love how you wrestle with the hard stuff.

    2011/05/18 at 9:45 PM

    • A lot of folks with bigger brains than I can dream of see that connection, the three times repeat. The reconciliation of these two had already happened (this was their, yes, *third* meeting since the resurrection). But here Jesus was reaffirming Peter still held a significant role in the kingdom work. And it’s been put out there that Jesus asked three times to answer each time Peter fell. If that’s the case, I’m glad that He did. It’s a good reminder to me that He will — He does — forgive every. single. time.

      I hear you, tired or not. I like to talk tough like Peter but I can’t see where, when pushed, I’d do any better than he or his companions.

      But I want to.

      2011/05/18 at 9:50 PM

  8. i see…

    1st . an unconditional love of God, with heart, soul, mind and strength.

    2nd , an unconditional love of the neighbor as the self.

    commitment of a decision.

    and it is proactive.

    2011/05/19 at 9:24 PM

  9. Pingback: Christian Words, Part Three – Love « Ginzo Talk

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