What Agape Really Means

Bible pages curved into a heart to represent agape and what it really means

“Love” is the third most commonly looked up word at Merriam-Webster.com. Do you want to know what “love” means? You ought to. “Love God” and “love others” are the two most important commands of the Bible, on the authority of Christ himself.

Maybe you’ve already heard that agape (ἀγάπη) is the standard word for love in the Greek New Testament, and maybe you’ve heard that it points to a specific kind of love: a selfless, giving, non-emotional love—as opposed to the friendship love of philia (φιλία).

But I want to question these common assertions, give you a liberating tip for using Greek in your Bible study (whether you know Greek or not), and then apply that tip to one passage in which the meaning of agape figures prominently.

How to think about Greek and Hebrew if you don’t know them

Linguist and theologian Moisés Silva encourages us to read Scripture carefully—but not too carefully, or with the wrong kind of care:

Surely an inspired text must be full of meaning: we can hardly think that so much as a single word in the Bible is insignificant or dispensable. True enough. But we must never forget that God has spoken to us in the language of the people. Much of what passes for biblical interpretation, whether in books or sermons, implies that God has used an artificial, coded, or even esoteric language. . . . We must recall this basic principle: the richness and divine origin of the biblical message are not compromised by the naturalness and simplicity of the form in which God has chosen to communicate to us.

From God, Language and Scripture: Reading the Bible in the Light of General Linguistics. In M. Silva (Ed.), Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation (pp. 200–201).

Τo be very frank, it is hard to apply this Bible-reading tip if you don’t know Greek and Hebrew. (Not that everyone who knows these languages is immune from this temptation!) It’s important for Bible readers who know the original languages, those who don’t, and those who don’t but who have access to them through Logos Bible Software to think properly about the role the original languages ought to play in Bible study.

And that role is not usually related to word meaning, but to sentence structure and the flow of argument. Your goal in using Greek and Hebrew should not be mainly to look up the (supposed) “real meaning” of Bible words.

Listen to a dean of evangelical Old Testament study, Walt Kaiser:

Greek and Hebrew study involves more than a mere ability to parse verbs and look up words in a lexicon or concordance or in one of several analytical tools in ways that can be taught in a matter of two to four hours of instruction. In involves, instead, the patient tracing of the “threads” of meaning through the syntax of the original languages. Translations are unable to expose the “joints” or “seams” of the units of thought to the degree that a working knowledge of the original languages is able to give. It is the tracing of these connecting points in the syntax of a passage that is so vital in constructing sermons that reflect the original authority of the word of God. (citation)

I as a Bible teacher try to live by the wisdom in this little point from the late Greek grammarian and seminary professor Rod Decker:

I often tell my students that if you cannot show a local church audience the meaning of a passage from an English Bible, then you should think twice as to whether you really want to insist on a particular interpretation. (citation)

Do You Love Me?

And now to love, because John 21 provides a perfect example of what Dr. Decker is talking about. I actually remember the day as a college freshman when I was given the (supposed) secret Greek key to unlocking Jesus’ famous conversation with Peter in that passage. Jesus asks three times, “Do you love me?” Peter replies each time: “Yes, I love you.” I was told that, hidden underneath the surface of the weak, imprecise English word “love” were two different Greek words: agapao (ἀγαπάω) and phileo (φιλέω). I was further told that these two Greek words pointed to two vastly different kinds of love, the one selfless and non-emotional and the other merely emotional and friend-ish. Peter, so the interpretation goes, twice couldn’t bring himself to say he loved Jesus selflessly and unconditionally, so Jesus asked him, in effect, “Do you even love me like a friend?”

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This very common interpretation sounds so rich at first glance that I could wish it were accurate. But it runs afoul of the Bible study guidelines I laid out earlier, because it relies heavily on alleged Greek word meanings instead of a contextually sensitive reading of the entire passage in its context. Bible students who interpret the passage the way my teacher did that day can’t point to anything in English translations to back them up. The fact is that the Bible never says anywhere that real love, ideal love, is non-emotional. In Jesus’ conversation with Peter he appears to be varying agapao and phileo for purposes of style, not meaning.

One of the problems with using Greek without knowing it well is that you tend to fail to apply your principles rigorously. Are all synonyms in John 21 used to point up their differences rather than their similarities?

As D.A. Carson points out in one of the most valuable little collections Logos sells, Jesus doesn’t just vary his words for love in his conversation with Peter, he varies his word choice for the noun “sheep”:

  • Feed my lambs,” he says.
  • Then, “Shepherd my sheep.”
  • Then, “Feed my sheep.”

Is it lambs or sheep? If Jesus intends to highlight a significant difference, he does not choose to make that clear. There do not seem to be obvious differences among the three imperative verbs, either: “feed,” “shepherd,” “feed.” The verb “shepherd,” in fact, also means “feed” sometimes, especially in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament).

And John 21 isn’t the only place where Jesus varies his use of agapao and phileo in the Gospel of John. In John 3:35, Jesus says, “The Father loves the son,” and in John 5:20 he says precisely the same thing—only in one verse he uses agapao and in the other phileo, with no discernible difference in meaning. Jesus isn’t invoking two radically different kinds of love in his conversation with Peter.

John Piper adds a few more uses of the word agapao (among many that could be cited) to show that it doesn’t necessarily point to a special kind of love every time it’s used:

One of the most popular linguistic and exegetical fallacies in modern times is that the Greek word for love, agapao, carries in it the implication of a divine love that is unconditional and comes to us in spite of our sin.

That is not true. Context must decide if agapao refers to our proud, cliquish love for our cronies (as in Matthew 5:46), or if it refers to God’s merciful and sacrificial love for sinners (as in John 3:16), or if it refers to our love for leaders, not unconditionally but precisely because of their labor (1 Thessalonians 5:13). (citation)

To be clear, the New Testament does speak of a special kind of love, but we don’t know that by looking up Greek words in the dictionary. We know it by reading the New Testament. People who can read the Bible only in English can still know what love is.

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Constructive Help for Bible Study

Debunking beloved interpretations of Scripture is a favored pastime of young seminarians. But constructive help, not destructive criticism, is my goal here. It is my impression that the church in general—and perhaps the most studious of us in particular—put too much weight on looking up Bible words and not enough weight on reading Bible sentences in their contexts. There is nothing necessarily wrong with looking up words, and Logos can do it so incredibly well! I do it all the time—and if you’re curious as to what I think “love” really means, I actually believe the standard Greek dictionary (BDAG) defines it pretty well if you put senses one and two together: “to have a warm regard for and interest in another; to have high esteem for or satisfaction with something, cherish, have affection for, love, take pleasure in.” (citation)

But you’ll learn far more about “love” by reading the resurrection accounts in the Gospels, or by reading the story of the Good Samaritan—Scripture passages which don’t even use the word—than you will by looking up agape in a dictionary. By all means do both, but know in advance which one weighs more than the other.


To dig into John 21 and the stylistic variation therein, check out D.A. Carson’s top-rated commentary on the book.

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Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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  • Hey Mark,
    Great article—thinking about having my Greek students read it today. One question on the John 21 passage. Certainly the agapao / phileo thing gets pretty ridiculous sometimes—maybe most of the time. I’ve still gone for the intentional distinction view in John 21, mainly because I found Leedy’s statistical analysis in Advanced Word Study pretty compelling. Any thoughts? [Sorry to allude to a specific thing in a public form; I’m just not up to reconstructing the entire argument here.]

    • “Statistical analysis” can only be “pretty compelling” if it contains statistics or analysis. I am still searching for the first distinction in the New Testament anywhere between fileo and agapao. Who was the disciple that Jesus “loved”? (both verbs are used.) The Father loved the Son with both verbs and command us to love with both verbs. The Pharisees “loved” seats, positions, and clothes with both verbs. Where are they used differently? Have you ever considered the term “third time” in John 21:17 by both Jesus and Peter? Was it the third question about agapao love or the third question about fileo love? The obvious answer it was the third question about love and neither Jesus nor Peter (with his broken heart) was much concerned about an artificial (“intentional”) distinction you mention. If you post your email, I will be glad to send some related assignments for your Greek students.

      • Gregory,

        It appears as if you’ve relegated the “intentional” view to the realm of the uninitiated novice or the status of an “artificial” heuristic. However, their are grammarians of greater experience and noteworthiness than someone, such as myself, who hold to the “intentional” distinction. Therefore, some of your assertipns in “What Agape Really Means” are undermined by the omission of this fact. As you are obviously skillful enough to deduce, this detracts from your very valid assertion of learning the language and not just the vocabulary. Another observation, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The denotative meaning of words is synthetic until placed within the organic “sitz im liben” of sentences, paragraphs, and extended discourse. To this end, Carson does not argue in his editorial in the Pillar New Testament Commentary from the vantage point of discourse but rather from the vantage point of vocabulary, as you have done, my Brother!

        Grace and Peace,


        • Louis, can you point to some of these “grammarians of greater experience and noteworthiness”


          • Werner,

            The editors/translators of the NIV, K. L. McKay, Hendriksen, Trench, Wescott, et. al. Additionally, my assertion was “…there are grammarians of greater experience and noteworthiness than someone, SUCH AS MYSELF, who hold to the intentional view.” I didn’t want to objectify anyone, so I used myself as the referent. Question: Which position do you take, my Brother?

            Grace and Peace,


        • I know some extremely skilled and trustworthy exegetes who take the opposite view, Dr. Randy Leedy (who did the BibleWorks diagrams of the entire Greek New Testament) being one of them. He’s no novice. Nearly any controversial position is controversial precisely because accredited people hold to opposing viewpoints. We can line up our grammarians and exegetes and count their Twitter followers, maybe… =) All I can do is repeat and build on the arguments I find convincing.

          My concern, actually, is not so much whether or not Jesus intended any difference between the verbs here. There’s a broader, theological reason that this discussion is significant; and that is that the difference between the two verbs is very commonly taken to be that one (φιλέω) is emotional and therefore inferior, and the other (ἀγαπάω) is non-emotional, willed, self-sacrificial, “spontaneous and creative of value.” Beyond the fact that Koine usage in and outside the NT doesn’t fit this view (in my opinion), my concern is that if this is the kind of love we are called to have for our neighbors—and for God—we are actually lowering the bar set by the New Testament. We can all choose to do what is best for our neighbors regardless of how we feel about them. But I do not believe this is what Christian love in the New Testament is.

          Anders Nygren says that “God’s love is always spontaneous.” In other words, “it is not called out by anything outside itself. Hence, when it is said that God loves man, this is not a judgment on what man is like, but on what God is like.” Agape is not “conditioned by the worthiness of its object.” Instead,

          Agape is creative….It is not that God loves that which is in itself worthy to be loved: but, on the contrary, that which in itself is without value acquires value by the fact that it is the object of God’s love. Agape is the direct opposite of that love which is called out by the worthiness of its object and so may be said to be a recognition of the value and attractiveness of its object. The man whom God loves has not any value in himself. His value consists simply in the fact that God loves him.

          I stand in an Augustinian tradition which views Nygren’s position as problematic. I respond to him that the new covenant gives me a new heart that responds precisely to God’s value. My love isn’t a gift I give God or my neighbor, but something that arises out of my regenerated nature as a response to his glory and greatness—and my neighbor’s status as an image-bearer of God. I could go on at much greater length (and I have in my dissertation!), but I’ll stop here for now.

    • After all I’ve written, I admit to enough doubt that I couldn’t absolutely rule out the alternative viewpoint (though I don’t recall that specific Leedy lecture—do you have notes?). The strongest point in its favor, I think, is actually contextual: the fact remains that Jesus alternated the key word. If there is any passage in the New Testament which points up the difference between the two synonyms, you’d think this would be it.

      But then I wonder: exactly what difference is intended, if there is one? There isn’t a pattern in John, or in the New Testament, of noticeable difference between ἀγαπάω and φιλέω—so what’s the difference here?

      The first use of ἀγαπάω in John is in 3:16: God loves the world so much that he gives his one and only Son. Okay, there’s love leading to self-sacrifice.

      But the next use, three verses later, is people loving darkness rather than light (3:19). Is that a self-sacrificial love?

      The next few uses are the Father loving the son; people loving Jesus (or not); and Jesus loving Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Plausibly, this is more self-sacrificial love.

      But then the next use of the word is of people who “love the glory of that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (12:43).

      I think it’s simpler to say that ἀγαπάω is as flexible as “love” is an English (lexicographically speaking, anyone can “love,” and pretty much anything can be “loved”). Yes, of course many instances of ἀγαπάω in the New Testament speak of love that leads to self-sacrifice, because that’s the Christian ethic modeled in Jesus. But that doesn’t mean ἀγαπάω means self-sacrificial love. That’s a confusion of word and concept.

      I like this Colin Hemer quote I saved years ago from my Logos library:

      I am not sure that the first Christians can be shown to have done much more than use some of the semantic resources of the group with an unusual frequency and characteristic focus dictated by the subject-matter of their gospel.

      —Colin Hemer, Tyndale Bulletin 38:1 (1987) pp. 79-80.

      • Would it be any help in clarifying what Leedy said to re-read his Biblical Viewpoint article on the topic?

        • A brilliant idea! I just put it up on my shelf at home, I believe. I’ll take another look. I read it in detail years ago, but it’s not fresh in my mind.

  • Love must be lived. I believe we need separate working definitions for “loving God’ “loving our brothers”, and “loving our enemies” (those who hurt us or persecute us). 1 Corinthians 13 gets us started on defining love.
    1 John 3:16 says we know love because Jesus laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. This approach to John 21 is a start to learning by what standard we will give account to Jesus when we appear before Him.

  • I have read DA Carson's exeetical fallacies. I noticed in a place or two in Peter's epistles that he too uses the two terms for literary variety. But then there is 2 Pet 2:7 where he seems to treat the two terms as distinct. Can you comment or clarify?

  • Having grown up in a farming community I do see a difference between lambs and sheep. Jesus said to feed the lambs and shepherd the sheep. Then He connects the two by saying Peter should also feed the sheep, not just protect them.

    The lambs need to be fed, but they usually stay by the sides of their family while the adults are grazing, not wandering off too often because they are easily frightened and because their food source is mom, not the pasture. While very little, they are closely connected to mom.

    Sheep are the adults and teens that need shepherding; watching closely because they will look for better pasture or desire to wander too far from the group and are, therefore, easily picked off by predators. Providing proper pastures from which to feed and providing protection from predators is the work of a shepherd, but Jesus also connects these to love, and He even connects them to Peter's past experience and his future. If you just were asked about how you love Jesus and are given instructions about caring for those following Him, then you would be sharply aware of the next part. He reminds Peter about what life is like as a strong adult, but when we are quite old we lose that freedom. Though this passage is also prophetic for Peter, it is definitely an insight into how Peter needs to consider caring for the sheep. When you care for others (pastor) you need to consider what they can do, expect in their lives, and what they have experienced and do so out of love for their Creator/Savior. Peter stayed honest about the kind of love he knew he had for Jesus. I believe that Jesus was showing him that Peter had a difficult calling placed on him and that to do it well, he would need to grow in that love toward agape.

    The ideas I mentioned above I see as another level of understanding, but the main understanding using just the English translation is the main point: love Jesus and care for others.

  • I notice you say that Jesus used alternate words for love. Would it not be more accurate to say that John used alternate words. Jesus would have spoken Aramaic in all these conversations which were written down by John in Greek later. Which brings up the further question. Does Aramaic have a distinction in words for love? If not then why did John pick different words for love at different places? Possibly for stylistic reasons?

    • Some scholars think Jesus may have spoken Greek, or at least understood it. The minimalist view, as I take it, was one I just heard from Gerald Bray—the idea that Jesus at least understood Greek because of Nazareth’s proximity to Sepphoris, a town in whose construction Jesus and his father quite likely participated.

      The maximalist view is also held by some scholars. Stanley Porter himself argued that “Jesus not only had sufficient linguistic competence to converse with others in Greek but also even to teach in Greek during his ministry” Tyndale Bulletin 44, no. 1 (1993): 196.

      And even if Jesus taught in Aramaic and the Gospels are translations of what he said, the Gospels are what the church has been given by inspiration.

  • Great article, great argumentive points in favor of the absolute value of contextual definition as opposed to simple word definition! However, I just do not have the stomach to refer to any of Dr. Carson's exegesis' as being fallacies. When I have attained or surpassed his education and experience, perhaps then I will call into question his direct interpretations. Until then, I will interpret the Bible as best I can understand it with the direction of the Holy Spirit and the aid of every commentator who believes the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God and a thorough study of the original languages. I will do so without calling into question the interpretations of others who differ with me by name. Not rebuking, just saying…

  • Robert le Clus said, “Jesus would have spoken Aramaic in all these conversations which were written down by John in Greek later”. I used to think that. But lately research is beginning to swing the other way – i.e. that Jesus and his disciples might have been speaking in koine Greek. Have a look here. http://www.tms.edu/m/tmsj20e.pdf

  • Mike Moore You misunderstand. Carson has written an excellent little book called Exegetical Fallacies. Mr. Peters is not calling Carson's exegesis fallacious. I recommend picking up a copy of Exegetical Fallacies if you have not read it.

  • I am not a Greek scholar. My best sources other than that the Bible is said to interpret itself is the Holy Spirit. Because I want to know what God wants me to know I depend on the Holy Spirit to reveal it to me from the Scripture. I think God speaks from His Word to say to the reader what the reader needs to know and not necessarily a precise exegesis. Recently in a Bible study group there was some discussion about Isaiah 9:6. Isaiah in prophesying of the coming Mesiah calls the One to be born as (among other things) Mighty God and Everlasting Father. Yet we often find the New Testament Jesus referring to His Father, praying to His Father, deferring to His Father (only the Father knows the final end time) and also claiming equality of Himself and the Father. John 14:6-11 and John 17. Is it possible for finite man to fully understand the Trinity? Does God deliberately give us hard to understand words in order to motivate us to become more intimate with Him. I don’t know the mind of God but I do know that the more I pour into these puzzles the more intimate I tend to become with Him. So, whatever the Greek or Aramaic says in translation or textual use I praise Him for His infallible word and what it says to me.

  • It has often been said that the Greek words agapao, phileo, erao mean different kinds of “love”. But I have so far not been able to see any concrete proof that it is the case.
    I am no Greek scholar but I found in Plato’s Phaedrus (241d) such words as “ὡς λύκοι αρνας αγαπῶσιν, ὣς παιδα φιλοῦσιν ἐρασται”.
    Can any of our learned friends please enlighten me what is the difference in meaning between the three Greek words for love in this sentence?

    • The most responsible proponents of the alternative view (the idea that ἀγάπη does or can refer to a different “kind” of love than φιλέω) would say, with some justification, 1) that Plato’s Greek is from a different era on the diachronic timeline of Greek, and that 2) the New Testament is allowed to develop something of a technical sense for ἀγάπη.

      • With the click of a button, my Logos6 shows me that there are 72 appearances of the word group agapao in Philo’s writings, whereas erao and phileo appear 97X and 65X respectively. I have yet to analyse if there is significant difference between these three Greek words in Philo, but I have the gut feeling that there wouldn’t be.

        Computer programmes, particularly Logos6, have opened up a new horizon for Bible study not available to exegetes of last generations. They might not have ready access to the primary resources to recheck their work but might have to rely on the work of other exegetes of bygone generations spanning back to the church fathers who tried to assign alleged meanings to Greek/Hebrew words.

        I note that NIV1984 tries to particularize agapao in John 21 by rendering it “truly love”, yet NIV2011 has dropped that idea by simply rendering it the same as phileo, “love”.

        The love of God, quoting Dr. D.A.Carson, is a difficult doctrine. Trying to define that love into a single Greek word is, to me, as dangerous as trying to confine the living God into something physical.

        Many people know that there are four Greek words for love (e.g. “The Four Loves” by C.S.Lewis): eros (commonly understood as a kind of physical/sensual love); storge (affection or heartily kind of love); philea (friendship or emotional kind of love) and agape(sacrificial or spiritual love). The Bible tells us “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (Mark 12:30) The Greek verb here may be agapao but we are to love Him with our strength (eros), with our heart (storge), with our mind philea) and with our soul (agape). It is this kind of omnidirectional love that He has shown us, and it is this kind of omnidirectional love He wants from us.

        I have been thinking how to love Him with my mind!

  • I have read and come to realise that there are differences between Bible words and Bible sentences. however, language issue is another area that requires mutual understanding. which language was used to enterpret the Bible direct from the time of moses with the ten commandments on the tablets of stones to bible writers who were led and inspired by the holy spirit to write the entire Bible, from old testament to new testament?

  • Merrill Tenney pointed out in his comments on the gospel of John that Jesus most likely spoke to Peter in Aramaic, in which neither one of the greek words would have mattered. John: The Gospel of Belief p.291
    He further noted that Syriac or Aramaic has only one word for love from which the Greek was translated. So the actual conversation took place in Aramaic even though the report of it was in Greek
    If all this is true then perhaps the grief of Peter was, as the text states, “because he asked the third time”. Kind of interesting is the fact that three was a sore spot for the disciple along with the fact that John chose to open the narrative with the fact that this was the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples.
    Love to all who love our Lord Who restores

    • I wrote about this in an article at the Logos Academic Blog, “Did Jesus Speak Greek?”

      I sometimes feel the tug of the appeal to Aramaic—but I’m not sure it’s a healthy tug.

      But your appeal to context (“because he asked the third time”) is the way forward on this question of verb alternation in John 21. I like that a lot.

Written by Mark Ward