Explanation of John 21:15-17 and the Greek words φιλ∈ω [phileo] and αγαπαω [agapao] meaning “to love”: “These two words are not used indiscriminately; αγαπαω [agapao] never means to kiss; φιλ∈ω [phileo], never means to acquiesce or cherish with reverence. φιλ∈ω [phileo] denotes the sense or passion of love, but in αγαπαω [agapao] is the implied cause of φιλ∈ω [phileo]. αγαπαω [agapao] is to make much of a thing, to admire for some good and sufficient reason, but φιλ∈ω [phileo] denotes the love which springs naturally from the thing loved, even where no just cause to love exists. αγαπαω [agapao] is never used of improper love; φιλ∈ω [phileo] is. Hence, in the N. T. φιλ∈ω [phileo] is never used of man’s love to God, but αγαπαω [agapao], always [is]. Both words are used of God’s love to man, αγαπαω [agapao], when He said to ‘Love the world’ (John iii.16, etc) and when He wishes men good, and seeks their salvation; and φιλ∈ω [phileo] is affirmed of His love to His people who please Him (John xvi. 27, etc.) Again φιλ∈ω [phileo] is used of Jesus’ love for Lazarus, (John xi. 3, 36); but in verse 5 the word is αγαπαω [agapao], because there the sisters are included, and therefore this word is more correct. Again, we are commanded to love our enemies, etc., but here αγαπαω [agapao] is used, never φιλ∈ω [phileo]; love cannot be required in this case, though kindness and compassion are. Again, in John xxi.15-17, in the first question Jesus uses αγαπαω [agapao], but Peter uses the word φιλ∈ω [phileo] in his reply; this is repeated [the second time], and then Jesus uses Peter’s word in the third question. Once more, to love (φιλ∈ω) [phileo] life, from an excessive desire to preserve it, and so to lose sight of the real objective of living, is reproved by our Lord, (John xii. 25.) Whereas to love (αγαπαω) [agapao] life, is to consult its real interest [i.e., the purpose of life]” (A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament, E. W. Bullinger, p. 470).
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