It is not uncommon for an explanation of John 21:15-17 to include secret underlying meanings in the Greek for our English word “love”. It is said that the Greek has many words for ‘love’ which supposedly give more clarity to the passage than the English translation.
The word ‘agapao’ is used in John 21:15 and 16 and the word ‘phileo’ is used by Jesus in John 21:17. It is explained that ‘agapao’ is an unconditional wholehearted love, while ‘phileo’ is merely a brotherly sort of love. What is not explained is that they can also have the same meaning.
The idea that our English translation is somehow lacking in substance is false and is a great disservice to the church. Not only is there nothing missing from the English translation of John 21, but the critics are wrong. Here’s why.
The Internal Evidence
John 21:17 is the “third time” Jesus asked Peter “lovest thou me?” This is confirmed in Greek and English. Yet it was the first time he used the word ‘phileo’. If Jesus was asking a different question in John 21:17 then it would not be the third time to ask it.
Peter was grieved by the Lord’s repetitious inquiry to which he gave the same response three times. Recalling Peter’s denial of Christ three times we can see a possible purpose in Jesus’ triple questioning. This connection is lost if the meanings for love are different.
Furthermore there is no coherent explanation for why Jesus would use the word for unconditional love two times and then revert to brotherly love the third time. This internal evidence is strong that the passage requires the same English word “love” all three times.
Multiple times John uses the words ‘agapao’ and ‘phileo’ interchangeably.
John 3:35 says that the Father ‘agapao’ loves the Son, while John 5:20 says that the Father ‘phileo’ loves the Son. The English translation is correct.
John 20:2 describes the disciple whom Jesus ‘phileo’ loved. Yet, John 21:20 describes the disciple whom Jesus ‘agapao’ loved. Once again, the English translation is correct and consistent.
Ephesians 5:28 describes the unconditional love a husband has for a wife as ‘agapao’. However, perhaps wives should only love their husbands with brotherly love since a word related to ‘phileo’ is used in Titus 2:4. Nonsense!
God’s Words Preserved in English
The truth is both ‘agapao’ and ‘phileo’ in John 21 are correctly translated ‘love’. The two Greek words can be used interchangeably. Some words in English have the same capability such as ‘unlearned’ and ‘ignorant’.
There is nothing lost in the translation to English. Correctors who present the English translation as mistaken or incomplete only inject confusion, error, and doubt into the church which should stand as a pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim 3:15).
Students of scripture would be better off if they stopped looking for secret meanings in other languages and started learning the doctrinal truth from God’s words rightly divided in their own preserved translation.
The church needs to move past the 400 year old issue of translating into English and into studying a trustworthy Bible rightly divided. You can trust God’s perfectly preserved words in the Authorized Version.