RE: John 21:15-17

From: Mike Adams (
Date: Sat Nov 11 1995 - 22:39:24 EST

Eric Vaughn wrote:
>I was discussing this passage with someone a good while ago, and I'd like
>to know what you think. Jesus asks Simon, "AGAPAS ME" But Simon answers,
>"FILW SE" This happens twice and then Jesus finally asks the question
>Simon had been answering, "FILEIS ME;" Is this a deliberate refusal to
>answer Jesus' question on Simon's part (and why) or do you think that
>John's recount of the story is not very careful and this difference has
>little significance? I understand the symbolism of Simon's three
>confessions of love after denying Christ three times, but why would he only
>half answer Jesus' question? Is the difference John's fault or Simon's?

Patrick Brennen in response cited Carson's "Exegetical Fallacies" proposing
that agapaw and philew were synonyms, and nothing more. Bible teachers often
enjoy contrasting the two verbs, making as I agree, too strong a
distinction. Many define agapaw as loving with pure and altruistic motive.
But agapaw can also refer to a love for things that are worldly or even
ungodly. II Tim 4:10 which Pat cited is a good example. Might I add that I
John 2:15, "Love not the world..." is a pointless statement if agapH
strictly means a godly affection. However, agapaw and philew are two
different words; the distinction between the two should neither be
overstressed nor ignored. As agapaw is used far more frequently in the New
Testament, I would assume it is a much broader, more commonly used term than
philew. It also appears to imply a love encompassing strong motivation, just
as the word "love" in English expresses a stronger emotion or commitment
than the word "like". Philew seems to imply a concept of affection or
fondness in its meaning. In a given context whether agapaw or philew are
used, the denotation might be the same, but the connotation may be somewhat

This is why professional writers are careful when choosing between one of
two or more acceptable synonyms. They select the word whose connotation and
denotation best express the intended meaning. Of course, at other times
their choice is merely variation (or repition) for stylistic flow.

None of us can say for certain whether John varied his usage in chapter 21
for stylistic or definitive reasons. One can look at other incidents of
these two words in John's writing (and they are frequent) for further
insight. Personally, I think the variation was for the purpose of contrast,
rather than just for style. However, as a friend pointed out, if the
original conversation between Jesus and Peter were in Hebrew (or Arameic),
as some would contend, we are splitting hairs over nothing.


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