So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep, John 21:15-17.
Sooner or later a Bible believing Christian will be confronted about this passage as a place where knowing the Greek can enlighten the reader. For the pseudo-intellectual who thinks that his Greek lexicon gives him a deeper insight into the mind of God, the interplay between two Greek words used by the Apostle John makes him conclude that there is a deeper meaning here than can be expressed in English. This is one of the first passages to which biblical lightweights will turn when confronted by the concept that the English Bible is more than adequate.
They commonly try to explain that Greek is superior to English when expressing love. They then tell us that there are three Greek words that express love; agape, philos and eros. They then define "agape" as being the highest love. "Philos" is defined as brotherly love (as if that was a lessor love), and "eros" is seen as erotic love. "Sadly", they tell us, "English only has one word for love". According to them, this is why we need to study Greek to get the full meaning of a passage.
They then go on to explain the switch that the Apostle John makes in terminology between verses 16 and 17. In the Greek passage the first two times that Jesus says love, John records it using the Greek word "agape". In verse 17 John switches his Greek words and uses the word "philos". They point to this as proof that Jesus changed what he was asking Peter. According to their thinking, the first two times that Jesus asked the question, he was asking if Peter loved him with the highest love. Then he switches and asks Peter if he loves him with brotherly love.
I remember the intense pride I felt almost 40 years ago when someone taught me that little trick with the Greek. I breathlessly taught it to others with the smug satisfaction that my vast knowledge of Greek was leading the blind out of a ditch. In reality, I was a fool. Now multiply the sense of pride and false insight that I had by a thousand fold, and my reader can get a sense of just how blind the modern Greek student is today.
The first problem with the suggestion that Jesus was trying to convey two different types of love in John 21:15-17 is that Jesus did not say what he said in Greek. He said it either in Aramaic or Hebrew. John then recorded it in Greek. Whatever reason he had for using two different Greek words, we know that a change of meaning was not the reason. That is evident in the passage itself. He saith unto him the third time. Do you see that? Regardless of what Greek word that John used to express the question that Jesus asked, he wants you to know that the question is the same as the first two times he asked it. John tells us twice in the 17th verse that Jesus has asked, "lovest thou me" three times.
It is the height of ignorance to say that English has only one word for love. Any thesaurus can fill a page with synonyms. On top of that, writers often switch words around while meaning to convey the same thing. This is a case in which John switched the word for love that he was using and then waved a big red flag, not once, but twice to tell you that he has not changed questions. He tells you twice that Jesus asked the exact same question three times.
The King James translators had done a lot more than take three or four years of Greek at Pensacola Christian College or Tennessee Temple. These were men who could have conversed with each other in Greek by the age of 12. These were men who read Plato, Aristotle, Homer and Socrates in the original Greek before they ever entered into college. To have told them that "philos" or "agape" had static meanings that could never be interchanged would have provoked mirth.
We have an example right in front of us. The Apostle John interchanged the two words in the text and then told us twice that the meaning did not change. That, of course, is not enough to convince Chicken Little with his lexicon. By the time he is done explaining what he thinks the different Greek words are trying to tell us, the meaning of the passage is obscured.
For those who would like help understanding what the Greek Bible really is saying, there is a book that will help. It was prepared by over 40 of the top linguists of all time. They took every Greek word used in the New Testament and carefully considered every nuance of meaning when examining them in their proper context. They then agreed that every definition they conveyed must have the unanimous agreement of each expert. The book is called the King James Bible.