You don’t have to reference Greek or Hebrew to study the Bible. You can observe, interpret, and apply using a decent English translation (such as the ESV or NET). In fact, knowing a bit of Greek can actually distract you from careful study of a passage.

In John 21:15-19, Jesus and Simon Peter eat breakfast and chat about love and lambs. Three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times, Peter affirms his love, and Jesus calls him to be a godly shepherd.

Those who dig into the Greek text of John 21 quickly discover that John uses two different words for “love.” Jesus’ first two questions use the word agape. Jesus’ third question and all three of Peter’s responses use the word philia.

“Do you love (agape) me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love (philia) you.”
“Do you love (agape) me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love (philia) you.”
“Do you love (philia) me?”
“You know that I love (philia) you.”

The question arises: What is the difference between agape and philia? What’s really going on in the conversation that doesn’t come across in English?

So the student reads commentaries and consults lexicons. Many blogs address this particular question (just Google “agape philia john 21,” and you’ll have no shortage of reading material). Some say that agape love is the higher form of love, and Jesus comes down to Peter’s level the third time. Others reverse it, saying that by the end Peter convinces Jesus that he has the right kind of love.

The problem with this approach is that it assumes that each Greek word has a focused, specialized meaning. It approaches lexicons as technical manuals, almost as if there’s a code to be broken, and the right tools offer the key. But no language works that way. Not English or German, Greek or Hebrew.

Words certainly have histories. They have ranges of meaning. Lexicons help us to understand their range of usage. But literature is as much an art as it is a science. Writers advance their agendas by making them beautiful. So they use synonyms, turns of phrase, metaphors, and other such devices.

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