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Peter, Lovest Thou Me?

Bro. Mike Miller

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So many things are so obvious in the Word of God, yet many times we will go for years with a misunderstanding, or a wrong idea of some passage of Scripture because of what we have heard others say it means. Such is the case with John 21:15-17 where the Lord says to Peter, "…lovest thou me?" and Peter's answer to him. Someone provoked us to think recently about this Scripture, so we took a little closer look and got a surprise, and quite a blessing.

The words used here for love are agapao and phileo. Of course, we have heard all the through the years that agapao means divine love and phileo means human love. That agapao is a much higher and nobler love while phileo is much lower and more base. Agapao is what Jesus was looking for but phileo is what Peter gave him. If that be the case, then Jesus settled for the lesser love because the third time He asked Peter He said phileo and Peter answered with the same.

Just a look at Strong's definitions for these two words will shed much light on the conversation between Peter and Jesus in John 21. Agapao, according to Strong's, means to love in a social or moral sense, embracing the deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety. Phileo means to be a friend, to be fond of, to have affection for (denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling; to kiss (as a mark of tenderness). Phileo is chiefly of the heart, while agapao is of the head. We love our neighbor with agapao love because it is commanded us of God, and it is our duty to do so. We believe God and know that it is right to love our neighbor, but we don't feel toward our neighbor the kind of love we feel toward our spouse, or our children - that is phileo love. Emotional love of the heart cannot be commanded - it is something that grows with time and experience. Peter's answer to Jesus's question "agapao me?" was "no Lord, phileo thee." "Peter do you even love me with agapao love because of who you know I am?" Peter answered, "Lord, I love you with phileo love because you have my heart."

A simple search of the New Testament for both of these words and a look at the context in which they are used will give a clear understanding that what we have always heard about them is exactly opposite of the truth. Phileo is translated at least eleven times in the New Testament as "kiss," meaning a sign of deep affection. Judas betrayed the Son of Man with a kiss - that is with phileo love. All the other disciples thought he really cared for Jesus. It was a much more hurtful thing to them than the fact that Judas simply disobeyed the commandment of God, or didn't fulfill his duty.

Try this one: (John 5:20) "For the Father loveth (phileo) the Son, and showeth him all things that himself doeth:" The Father loves the Son with phileo love? Human love, huh?

Here's another illustration of phileo love: (John 11:36) "Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!" They said this because Jesus wept. While Jesus was weeping because of their unbelief, and not because of sadness over Lazarus, the point is how this word is used. It was obvious to them that his heart was broken and they thought it was because of how much He loved him. Love that is commanded, or love that exists because of duty, doesn't affect your heart this way.

(John 12:25) "He that loveth (phileo) his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal." Understanding the words is really important here. If you love your life with phileo love you will lose your life. That is to say that if your life and the things you fill your life with have your heart, then you will lose your life. Who doesn't love life? But we better not love our life with phileo love!

(John 16:27) "For the Father himself loveth (phileo) you, because ye have loved (phileo) me, and have believed that I came out from God." I am glad to know that the Father loves me with phileo love and not with agapao love. God loves me with his heart! I really mean something to God!

(1 Cor 16:22) "If any man love (phileo) not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha." Now, honestly, do you think Jesus was trying to get Peter to say that he loved Him with agapao love?

Allow us to do a little paraphrasing here to illustrate what was really going on in the converstaion in John 21 between Peter and the Lord. Jesus said, "Peter, you said once that I was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, but now do you even care about me at all?" Peter said, "Lord, I love you with all my heart." Jesus said again, "Peter, you were with me on the mount of transfiguration and saw my glory, but now do think anything of me at all?" Peter answered again, "Lord, you had my attention then because of your power, but now you have my heart." Jesus then said, "Peter, do you mean it? Do I really have your heart?" Peter said, "Yes, Lord, I love you with my heart now, it's not because of the loaves, or the miracles, or the power I've seen you display, but because of the love you've shown you have toward me."

Now make up your own mind. Look up some verses on your own. There are many more that illustrate what we are saying. Of the two, phileo is to be preferred. It is the stronger, heartfelt, emotional love that people will die for in a heartbeat, while agapao is a much lesser decision of the mind based upon right and wrong and duty. Much more could be said on this subject.

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