From phileo to agape

“Would you die for your beliefs?”

That might be an odd question to ask here in the U.S., in an age that promotes “tolerance” above all, but it’s a question I’ve asked myself. When I’ve read about martyrs—in the past or present—or about believers being persecuted for their faith, I’ve wondered, “How devoted am I? If I were going through what that believer is, would I be able to stand strong?”

I tend to think of those believers as “better” Christ-followers than I. One day, as I was leafing through a Voice of the Martyrs magazine (www.persecution.com), I expressed this thought to my husband, Dave.

“I disagree,” he said. First, he argued, what does it mean to be a “better Christian”?

All the answers that popped into my head, I realized, had to do with ME, with what I do or don’t do. They had nothing to do with Christ’s work in and through me.

Second, Dave exposed the root of my guilt. “You feel like a second-rate Christ follower because you’re not enduring really hard things, but in doing this, aren’t you kind of questioning God? He’s the one Who has placed you exactly where you are. When you feel guilt over not being somewhere else, suffering like someone else, you’re not willing to be the person He created you to be in this time and place.”

His third argument is one I’m not sure I agree with. “I think loving God and loving neighbor is in many ways a harder task here in suburban American than it is in violence- and poverty-riddled cultures,” he said. “With so many distractions and such a great emphasis on comfort, it’s harder to focus on what is really important.”

As I thought about all this, I studied Peter’s declaration that he could die for his beliefs, for Christ. After Jesus told the disciples they would “all fall away on account of me,” Peter said, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”

Jesus disagreed. “Truly I tell you…you will disown me three times.”

Yet Peter was still certain of himself. He protested, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” (This story can be found in both Luke 22 and Matthew 26. The above quotes are from the Matthew passage.)

Here’s what strikes me about the passage: Jesus didn’t ask Peter to make a declaration; He wasn’t impressed when he did make it; and He didn’t seem too fazed by Peter’s denial of Him. I’m not saying Peter’s denial wasn’t a big deal (it certainly was for Peter), but I am saying that Peter’s statement of devotion had a lot more to do with himself than with Christ, and Christ knew that.

As part of my study on this, I also looked at the John 21 passage, in which Christ restores Peter. I found it significant that Christ asked Peter three times if he loved Him—the same number of times Peter denied Him—and that Christ ended with telling Peter that he would actually die for Christ. He would eventually have the level of devotion that Peter had wanted and claimed to have before Christ’s death.

But I was still puzzled.

Then, a couple weeks ago, I listened to a sermon in which the pastor pointed out the difference in the Greek verb forms used in the John 21 passage (in the English they are all translated simply as “love.”) I went home and looked it up in my Amplified Bible and was amazed at how that shed light on my understanding of devotion.

When Jesus first asks Peter, “Do you love me?” He uses the Greek verb “agape” for “love,” which the Amplified translates as “reasoning, intentional, spiritual devotion, as one loves the Father).

Peter answers, “Lord, You know that I love you,” but he uses the Greek verb “phileo,” which the Amplified translates as “deep, instinctive, personal affection, as for a close friend.” Jesus asked using a higher form, but Peter, more knowledgeable of his shortcomings at this point, answered with a lesser form.

Jesus accepts Peter’s answer and gives him a charge: “Feed My lambs.”

Then Jesus asks again, “(D)o you love me?” using the agape form.

Peter answers, again, with the phileo.

And Jesus again charges him: “Shepherd My sheep.”

Then a third time Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” but this time He, too, uses the phileo form of the verb.

Peter is “grieved that He should ask him the third time,” and he says, “Lord, You know everything; You know that I (phileo) You.”

Peter now understands his own limitations. He longs to say that he agape-loves Christ, but he knows he cannot produce that kind of love. So he says only what he knows to be true: he does phileo-love Christ.

And that is enough. Christ tells Peter again, “Feed My sheep,” and then He tells Peter something that sounds very, very strange to our modern, Western-world ears. “You will indeed die for me,” He says to Peter, and John, the writer of this gospel, adds, “He said this to indicate by what kind of death Peter would glorify God. And after this, He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’”

That must have been very, very encouraging to Peter. Jesus is telling him, “Peter, I know that you want your love to pure and beautiful and deep, but in reality your love is small, weak, and limited. That’s okay. I am still entrusting you with a great charge: to feed and care for My people. And as you follow Me in this—aware that you must abide in Me to find what you need—I will work transformation in you so that when you are old, your devotion will be such that you will not only not deny me, you will die for Me—and in so doing you will glorify Me.”

Father, I, too, want to love you with my entire heart, soul, mind, and spirit, and I want to love my neighbor as I love myself. But I am learning that my love, like Peter’s, is weak and frail. I am grateful that You understand and accept my weakness. Please help me to accept it, too, for You tell me that Your grace is enough for all my weaknesses. Help me to follow You in what You have set in front of me and to trust that You will transform me.

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