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Musings -- A Continuing Series of Comments on Specific Translation Issues within the International Standard Version New Testament

by Dr. David Alan Black

"So great is the force of established usage that even acknowledged corruptions please the greater part, for they prefer to have their copies pretty rather than accurate."

Jerome

drblack.jpg (5141 bytes)
Dr. David Alan Black
Associate Editor
, ISV NT

Sloppy Agape

Traditionally, John 21:15-17 has been a rich source of what Bible scholars call "eisegesis"—reading into the text something the text itself does not contain.

Some translations of these verses are based on the two different Greek verbs for "love" that appear. Jesus asks the first two times, "Do you love me," using the verb agapao. Peter responds, "I love you," using phileo. The third time, however, Jesus himself uses phileo in his question, as does Peter in his response.

It is usually argued that agapao signifies a higher form of love— divine, selfless, altruistic love. However, the most Peter will claim for himself is phileo love— friendship love. This probably accounts for the distinction in the NIV between "truly love" for agapao, and "love" for phileo.

But this cannot be. In the first place, it is John’s style to use the verbs agapao and phileo interchangeably, without any distinction in meaning. Thus, the expression "the disciple whom Jesus kept on loving" can be based on either verb. Again, the Father loves the Son— and both verbs are used (3:55; 5:20).

Second, Peter could hardly answer "Yes, Lord, I love you" if in fact he meant "No, Lord, I like you as a friend."

Finally, it is clear that Peter got upset, not because Jesus changed his verb in the third question, but because Jesus asked him the same question three times—an obvious allusion to Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus.

If this passage is not about the two Greek words for "love," then what does it teach? Two simple, but profound, truths.

The first is this: What the Lord Jesus Christ is looking for in his disciples—in Peter, in John, in Paul, and in us today—is our love above everything else. We may think we can impress with him with our knowledge, or with our accomplishments, or with our bank accounts. But if the risen Lord were to do a heart examination on each one of us today, he would ask us one question: "Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?" Hence the priority of love in the New Testament (see Galatians 5:22; 1 Corinthians 13:13; Revelation 2:4).

But is it enough to say the words, "I love you"? I’m sure the Lord enjoys hearing these words from his dear children, just as we do from ours. Yet it is all too easy to become enamored with words and fail to back up our words with actions.

I remember reading in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! about the longest love-letter ever written. It was written by (who else?) a Frenchman to his sweetheart, and it contained the words "I love you" (je t’aime) 1,870,000 times. So enraptured was the writer with those words that he would say them aloud as he wrote them down.

Such pronouncements are undoubtedly attractive, but deeds speak louder than words. And that is the second great truth in our passage. Jesus is saying that the best way to prove that we love him is by taking care of his people: "Feed my lambs"; "Take care of my sheep."

This is the "Love Triangle" of 1 John: God loves us; we love others; and only then is love returned to God. Thus John can write, "Whoever says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother is a liar. The one who doesn’t love the brother whom he has seen can’t love a God whom he hasn’t seen" (1 John 4:20). And so Jesus tells Peter that his pronouncement is not enough. Peter must show how much he loves his Lord by humble service to others in his name. Love God. Love others. This is the Great Commandment in a nutshell.

Farewell sloppy agape!

Introduction Poetry Lettuce? Press on? Good Giving Good Citizens Can Faith Save? On Poets & Liars An Ode to Love The Disciple Teachable? Sloppy Agape Mustering Mystery Alliteration Whom Sweet Whom Conclusion

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