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 (, 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.

The Lists We Make

“So how was your week?”

Absolutely crazy!

Dave coached three away games and had an evening meeting.

Em and Kelly’s junior high team had five games.

Em had a choir concert.

Judy and I had three dress rehearsals and two performances of the international student production.

And on Wednesday, Patrick broke his arm!

So–how was your week?


I had that conversation several times this past weekend, and it made me think about the “lists” we make. I would call the above list a “suburban mom” list. There’s a little bit of an undercurrent of, “So how busy are you—in comparison with me?”


That’s not the only kind of list we make. Our lists change depending on the people we’re with. It’s a little bit like small kids talking about their dads: “My dad can run faster than a car.” “Well, my dad can run faster than a rocket!”

We can have academic lists, job lists, travel lists, sports lists—even spiritual lists.

I’ve certainly been guilty of using a list to make myself seem higher than the person I’m talking to—or at least to feel myself equal to that person.

What a nasty thing to do.

What a dangerous thing to do.

These lists separate us from other people. They deceive us into thinking that we have more differences between us than commonalities. They make us forget that we are all fellow creations, that we are all sinners, that we are all loved by God. We are all so much lower than the God who created us that our individual differences count for nothing. After all, a flea with an impressive list of accomplishments is still, well—just a flea!

And that brings me to the second dangerous thing about these lists: they separate us from God. Aren’t all of these lists ultimately ways to identify ourselves as worthwhile? Don’t we use them to convince others—and often ourselves—that we have purpose and value?

Purpose and value apart from simply being a creation of God. From simply being a flea, if you’ll pardon the extended metaphor. A flea among fleas, but each one uniquely created.

Paul had lists, too. In the context of church-planting, his were pretty impressive. In Philippians 3, he talked about his credentials as a Jew of Jews: circumcised on the 8th day; full-blooded Israelite; tribe of Benjamin; a Pharisee; strictly obedient to Jewish law—without fault! And zealous to boot! In II Corinthians he feels he must make a list simply to point out the Corinthians’ wrong way of thinking. You want to judge me the way the world does? he asks. Well, my list is better: beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, stoned, hungry, thirsty, cold, naked…

But Paul says this about his list-making: In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool (2 Cor. 11:17). I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him (Phil. 3:7-9a).

That’s the choice we face: we can hold onto our lists—the things that, according to the world, give us value—or let them all go and gain Christ!

When we gain Christ, we no longer have to carry around our value-less lists. Like Paul, we have other things to boast about it: (For the Lord) “said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

For when we are weak, then we are strong! Because HE is strong in us.

What a difference it would make if we boasted in these kinds of lists! When we share our weaknesses and how God meets them, it unifies us; it reveals common ground; it encourages and gives hope to others. It creates real, authentic, ultimately beautiful relationships.

Let’s start making a different kind of list!