"When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon, son of John, do you love (agapao) me more than these?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love (phileo) you.' He said to him, 'Feed my lambs.'  He said to him a second time,'"Simon, son of John, do you love (agapao) me?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love (phileo) you.' He said to him, 'Tend my sheep.'  He said to him the third time, 'Simon, son of John, do you love (phileo) me?' Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, 'Do you love (phileo) me?' and he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (phileo) you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep.'" (John 21:15-17)
How many of us have not heard a sermon on this passage? Probably everyone reading this who has been a regular church attendee would have heard a sermon on this passage at least once in the last ten years.
I will do my best to remain objective at all times, even though objectivity is one of the most difficult frames of mind to keep and practise. We all have our rose-coloured glasses on, and that is how we look at the world.
The differences between these two words intrigued me ever since Bible college in the years between 1985 and 1989. I will be drawing from various resources, e.g. lexicons, e-mail discussion groups, and finally, the highest authority I could find on this subject, the Scriptures.
Before we carry on to execute our study, let me clarify my assumptions concerning the God kind of love, whether it be agape or not. Firstly, it must be unchangeable. Why? God is unchangeable. Any attribute of God has to be unchangeable if God is unchangeable. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Secondly, it has to be pure. Due to the holiness of God any attribute of His has to be holy and pure. No stench, or darkness can be associated with any attribute of God.
The meanings I present here I have gleaned from several lexicons (dictionaries), and one theological dictionary. They are:
Strong's exhaustive concordance of the Bible found in the Online Bible, version 7.03;
The Expository dictionary of New Testament words by W.E. Vine, Seventeenth impression, 1966, Oliphants;
A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament by Joseph Henry Thayer, Twenty-first Zondervan printing 1981, Zondervan;
Theological dictionary of the New Testament by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, reprinted, May 1986, William B. Eerdmans;
Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains Volume 1 Introduction & Domains, Second impression, 1988, United Bible Societies;
Bauer's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (commonly known as BAGD), Second edition Revised and augmented by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker from Walter Bauer's Fifth edition, 1958, published 1979, the University of Chicago press.
Agape means the following: to be fond of, to love dearly; to love, to be full of good-will, to have a preference for, regard the welfare of: . . . to take pleasure in the thing, prize it above other things, be unwilling to abandon it or do without it; a spontaneous feeling which impels to self-giving, the weak sense to be satisfied, to receive, to greet, to honor, or more inwardly, to seek after; to have love for someone or something, based on sincere appreciation and high regard.
". . . It would, however, be quite wrong to assume that [phileo and philia] refer only to human love, while [agapao and agape] refer to divine love. Both sets of terms are used for the total range of loving relations between people, between people and God, and between God and Jesus Christ."
Louw and Nida says this concerning agape and phileo: ". . . Though some persons have tried to assign certain significant differences of meaning between [agape and phileo] (25.33), it does not seem possible to insist upon a contrast of meaning in any and all contexts. For example, the usage in Jn, 21:15-17 seems to reflect simply a rhetorical alternation designed to avoid undue repetition. There is, however, one significant clue to possible meaningful differences in at least some contexts, namely, the fact that people are never commanded to love with [phileo], but only with [agape]. Though the meanings of these terms overlap considerably in many contexts, there are probably some significant differences in certain contexts; that is to say, [phileo and philia] are likely to focus upon love or affection based on interpersonal association, while [agapao and agape] focus upon love or affection based on deep appreciation and high regard.
BAGD adds that agape and phileo "seem to be used interchangeably here; cf. the freq. interchange of synonyms elsewh. in the same chapter [boskein - poimanein, arnia - probatia, elkuein - surein]."
Phileo means the following: friendship, to be friendly to one; phileo more nearly represents tender affection; To love; to be friendly to one, to treat somebody as one of one's own people; to have love or affection for someone or something based on association; love, have affection for, like.
Kittel says, "In the LXX phileo, which is less common than agapao, is mostly used for 'hb. In meaning it is very similar to agapao. . . . Like the LXX, the NT prefers agapao to phileo. . . . Alternation between agapao and phileo occurs in Jn. 21:15ff. Some exegetes think that Peter is grieved because Jesus uses phileo the third time (21:17), but the words are mostly synonymous in John, and Peter is more likely grieved because Jesus asks for a third time. . . ."
We have now seen what the lexicons have to say concerning agape and phileo. Even so, the best way of finding out what is meant by a word is to see how that word is used in a certain context.
How are these words used in the Scriptures?
Lets look at agape
1. Loving the unlovable
In Mt. 5:43-46, and Lk. 6:27-35 we are exhorted by Jesus to love our enemies and not just those who love us, and are kind to us. Verse 46 puts a twist on this love. "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?" If agape is the God kind of love, then how is it that a hated tax collector could also love with agape? The very idea of agape - as proclaimed by many - as a special God kind of love is made redundant if a hated tax collector can also love with this kind of love. Our very idea of sinners makes it impossible for us to believe that a sinner can possess this kind of love. Romans 3:10-11 has this to say concerning the condition of mankind without the salvation that Christ bought for us, "None is righteous, no, not one;  no one understands; no one seeks for God.". This makes it clear to me that the unsaved sinner does not have the capacity to love like God does.
John Calvin (one of the greatest theologians of the sixteenth century) expresses the condition of man so well, "For our nature is not only utterly devoid of goodness, but so prolific in all kinds of evil, that it can never be idle. Those who term it concupiscence [lust] use a word not very inappropriate, provided it were added, (this, however, many will by no means concede,) that everything which is in man, from the intellect to the will, from the soul even to the flesh, is defiled and pervaded with this concupiscence; or, to express it more briefly, that the whole man is in himself nothing else than concupiscence." (Institutes, Vol. I, Bk. II, Chap. 1, Para. 8; A New Translation, by Henry Beveridge, Esq). Now, if this is the condition of unsaved man, how on earth can he love like God (agape)?
2. Levels of love
If we think of our first assumption concerning God's love, that it is unchangeable, then we have to conclude that it cannot have different levels. In Mt. 24:12 agape is portrayed as growing cold, "And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold." We know that Godly love cannot change, and therefore, we have to conclude that agape cannot be construed as a higher love such as Godly love. If God's love grew cold, surely, we all would have been in hell by now.
In Lk. 7:42 Jesus asked this question, "When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?" In this passage from verse 42 to 47 Jesus explains that if someone has been forgiven little he will agape little, and if someone has been forgiven much he will agape much. If agape is the God kind of love then it follows that either you agape or you do not. Does God have different levels of love? I dare to say, no! "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." God's love was complete from the beginning, and that can be seen in the depth of love He showed us in the death of His Son!
Paul writes to the Corinthians in 2 Co. 12:15 and tells them that he loves them more, "I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less?" Paul's love for the Corinthians is growing more and more. Our premise at the beginning says that God does not change, and therefore His love cannot change. If we therefore have the love of God in our hearts, surely that love cannot change then either.
In his epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul writes in the first book, chapter 3 verse 12, "and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you." We have handled this type of love in the above paragraph, how Godly love cannot grow to become more.
Jude 1:2, "May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you." Can God's love be multiplied? No! God's love is already infinite!
3. Loving things
Jesus is speaking out condemnation over the Pharisees who have been living out their religion just to be seen. In Lk. 11:42-43 Jesus says, "But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.  Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces." Would a God kind of love, love the chief seats like these Pharisees did? Our second assumption has it that the God kind of love has to be pure, just as God is pure. Following from the above passage we have to conclude that if agape is used in such a defiling way, that it cannot be the God kind of love. Jesus would not have acted this way.
Based on our second premise Jn. 3:19 proves to us that agape cannot be claimed as the God kind of love. This God kind of love cannot love the darkness. If one reads the section on Loving the unlovable it will be seen that mere man without Jesus in his life cannot express the God kind of love. Yet, in this passage agape is used as love for the darkness. We also find in John 12:43 that these unrepentant people loved the approval, or praise of men rather than that of God. Would a God kind of love, love the approval of men, rather than that of God? Would the God kind of love, love this present world as against what God desires? (2 Tim. 4:10) Would the God kind of love, love the wages or money of unrighteousness? (2 Pet. 2:15) Would the God kind of love, love the world and the things of this world? (1 Jn. 2:15) The love of God cannot be in us if the love of the world is in us. Agape is used 3 times in this verse. Once referring to loving the world. Can this be the God kind of love?
What about phileo?
1. Loving things
It is amazing how similar passages are between the agape and phileo counterparts. When looking at Mt. 6:5, it seems so similar to what Jesus told the people in Lk. 11:43 where agape is used. The cross-reference for the Lk. 11:43 passage can be found in Mt. 23:6. Guess what word it uses? Phileo! Here we have two passages by two different writers about the same words that Jesus said. Yet, two different words are used by these writers for our one word, "love"! In one passage agape is used, and in the other phileo. It seems to me that in the Scriptures we can almost see these two words as synonyms. We have the same kind of idea in Lk. 20:46.
2. Levels of love
In Mt. 10:37 we see that even with phileo there are different levels, or intensities of love, "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." We have seen that there are different levels, or intensities of agape, and now we find the same of phileo. It seems to me that there are no real differences between the two words.
Probably the one passage that has caused the most controversy in the agape vs phileo debate, has been Jn. 21:15-17. Just about every preacher has preached on it some time or another in his career. Many have their ideas on this passage, and many staunchly so. I have always been taught that the two different words in this passage are two almost diametrically opposing words, with almost completely different meanings.
According to Kenneth S. Wuest in Wuest's Word Studies From the Greek New Testament For the English Reader, Volume Three, Bypaths In the Greek New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Reprinted, January 1979, p. 109) there are four words for love in the Greek language. Stergein, which "is a love that has its basis in one's own nature. It speaks of the constitutional efflux of natural affection." Eran, which "is a love that has its basis in passion, and its expression takes the form of a blind impulse produced by passion." Filein, which "is a love that has its basis in pleasurableness, and is the glow of the heart kindled the perception of that in the object loved which affords one pleasure." Agapan, which "is a love that has its basis in preciousness, a love called out of one's heart by an awakened sense of value in the object loved causes one to prize it."
In Wuest's Word Studies From the Greek New Testament For the English Reader, Volume Three, Golden Nuggets From the Greek New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Reprinted, January 1979, p. 63) Wuest has this to say, "In John 21 : our Lord uses 'agapao' in verses 15 and 16, 'phileo' in 17. Peter uses 'phileo' three times. Our Lord uses the noblest word in the Greek language the first two times and changes to Peter's word the third time, but assures Peter that his coming martyrdom speaks of the fact that his future love for his Lord will be based not only upon his delight in his Lord but upon his apprehension of His preciousness."
In contrast to Wuest, BAGD, on p. 4 has this to say concerning the uses of agape, and phileo, "a. and phileo seem to be used interchangeably here; cf. the freq. interchange of synonyms elsewhere. in the same chapter [boskein - poimanein, arnia - probatia, elkuein - surein]." These are the meanings of the above synonyms. boskein - actively of shepherds to feed or tend the sheep. Passively of livestock to graze or feed. Poimanein - herd, tend, (lead to) pasture. Arnia - sheep, lamb. Probatia - sheep. Elkuein - drag, draw. Surein - drag, pull, draw. From John's multiple uses of synonyms in this passage, it is reasonable to assume that agape, and phileo are also synonyms.
Some other passages to point to agape, and phileo as synonyms, are Mt. 23:6 (phileo) and Lk 11:43 (agape) - where Jesus is speaking of the Pharisees as loving the chief seats in important places, and Jn 13:23 (agape) and Jn 20:2 (phileo) - where it mentions the disciple whom Jesus loved.
Don Wilkins, one of the translators of the New American Standard Bible (Updated Edition) - regarded as one of the most accurate translations of the Bible today - has this to say about this passage (while discussing it with other Greek scholars on the B-GREEK e-mail discussion list), "On the more specific question of PHILEO/AGAPAO, I would like to suggest that PHILEO is a higher form of love than AGAPAO. AGAPAO seems to be a 'charitable' love in that one provides for another's needs, without developing a relationship as a friend to the other person (i.e. no personal ties). PHILEO, on the other hand, implies the close connection between friends and the related obligations that were so important in the ancient world. By this interpretation, then, Jesus twice asks Peter if he is committed to him at the lower level of love, and Peter responds by raising the commitment to the higher level of a true friend. The third time, Jesus questions whether Peter is really committed to him at this higher level, or perhaps whether Peter really understands what such commitment really entails, and this would explain Peter's hurt feelings. So it is not that Jesus asks him the question three times, it is rather (as I think the Greek implies) the fact that Jesus uses PHILEO the third time. Some people object to the notion that AGAPAO would not include the bonds of friendship, but in every passage where the objection would be raised, I think there is a reasonable answer--sometimes that friendship is not being denied, but that it is just not the focus of AGAPAO." He also has this to say, "As to my view that FILH is a higher form of love than AGAPE, I suppose that you can interpret 'higher' in various ways. I stand by my original comments, at least until proved otherwise. Carl's explanation of FILH seems consistent with my own; I think it implies a relationship between people while AGAPE does not, and in either case there is a willingness to do good to the other person. We can see AGAPE expressed in charitable activity, without the personal relationship. However I would not argue for a natural/unnatural (and certainly not 'divine') distinction."
Trench says this (as quoted on the B-GREEK list), "agapasthai ... expresses a more reasoning attachment, of choice and selection ..., from a seeing in the object upon whom it is bestowed that which is worthy of regard; or else from a sense that such is due toward the person so regarded, as being a benefactor, or the like; while [phileisthai],without being necessarily an unreasoning attachment, does yet give less account of itself to itself; is more instinctive, is more of the feelings or natural affections, implies more passion" (Trench, Syn., sect. xii)
Yet another participant on this list had this to add, "To be sure, etymologically and apparently originally the root FIL- seen in the adjective FILOS,-H,-ON, the noun PHILIA, and the verb PHILEO referred to the affection of kindred persons (or things?) Odysseus, according to Homer, repeatedly spoke PROS hON FILON HTOR (which we translated gleefully as under graduates, 'to his own dear liver' but now more appropriately we render 'to himself'), i.e. to HIS OWN (hON is the reflexive pronominal adjective) KINDRED (belonging to himself) HEART (the liver being the seat of affections?). So PHILIA is the affection of those who recognize a kindred affinity with each other and express kindred affection for each other (PHILEO may mean 'kiss'): call it 'familial love,' if you like. Is it more 'personal?' Perhaps it needs to be studied again, but I'm not convinced that the usage is clearly distinct in the NT to suggest it is a 'superior' kind of love."
Another one also adds, "I repeat that I fail to find any evidence in the NT that any distinction is preserved between the words AGAPAO and PHILEO."
I guess that for many this is a difficult question to answer. Yet, we have to consider that both agape, and phileo are used to describe the Father's love for Jesus and mankind; man's love for God and his fellow Christians. We also have to take into account the parallel passages where agape, and phileo are used interchangeably. Lastly, we also have to consider the synonyms used in the passage of John 21:15ff. The vast usage of agape as opposed to the relatively little use of phileo is striking. With agape used approximately 320 times, and phileo approximately 45 times, makes me think that agape is more a general word for love whereas the other Greek words for love are the detailed words for love.
In today's English we have lost the meaning of love, and it has become a general word for love. We say things like, "I love this ice-cream", etc. It is almost like saying "I love you" the one day and the next day you say "I am crazy about you." The second phrase ("I am crazy about you") in today's usage of the language has a greater force behind it. It almost puts detail to the first phrase ("I love you"). I believe that agape is used in this sense in the New Testament. According to Wuest in Wuest's Word Studies From the Greek New Testament For the English Reader, Volume Three, Bypaths In the Greek New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Reprinted, January 1979, p. 113), ". . . when Attic Greek was spread over the world by the conquering armies of Alexander the Great, and remained in its simplified and modified form as the international language of the period between Alexander and Constantine, agapan suddenly sprang into the ascendancy. Because it was the common word for 'love' during these centuries, the New Testament writers naturally found it not only desirable but necessary to use it. It became the general word for love in the New Testament."
Still, everyone has to be convinced in his own mind as to the validity of this post and what it has to say. There are groups from both sides who would die rather than change their minds. After all the evidence, I have decided that I was wrong all those years to believe in agape as a God kind of love. I just pray that this study was helpful, maybe just to make you think along different lines.