Contrary to popular opinion, the author of the Gospel of John apparently uses two different words for love (“agapao” and “phileo”) simply for stylistic reasons.
So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love [ἀγαπᾷς] Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love [φιλῶ] You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love [ἀγαπᾷς] Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love [φιλῶ] You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love [φιλεῖς] Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love [φιλεῖς] Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love [φιλῶ] You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep– John 21:15-17 (NASB)
Rationale is that the author of John uses both “agapao” and “phileo” interchangeably in relation to other things (although “agapao” is his favorite).
For example, John uses roots of both words with respect to…
- Jesus’s love for Lazarus (cf. 11:3 with 11:5),
The sisters therefore sent to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love [φιλεῖς] is sick.” John 11:3 (NASB)
Now Jesus loved [ἠγάπα] Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. John 11:5 (NASB)
- God’s love for Jesus (cf. 5:20 with 3:35),
“For the Father loves [φιλεῖ] the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and greater works than these will He show Him, that you may marvel. John 5:20 (NASB)
“The Father loves [ἀγαπᾷ] the Son, and has given all things into His hand. John 3:35 (NASB)
- Jesus’ relationship to the Beloved Disciple (cf John 20:2 with 13:23), etc.
And so she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved [ἐφίλει], and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” John 20:2 (NASB)
There was reclining on Jesus’ breast one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved [ἠγάπα]. John 13:23 (NASB)
Granted, sometimes John puts the words on the lips of others; but in a sense, they are still his.
So it seems John makes no distinction between the two words in terms of self-giving vs. self-seeking, divine vs. human, big vs. small, or appropriate vs. inappropriate.
Although it’s popular to magnify “agapao” over “phileo,” John uses the latter for the inordinate love of one’s own life– “whoever loves [phileo] his life loses it….” (12:25).” If “agapao” were the stronger term, wouldn’t it have made the paradox more stark?
John also uses “phileo” for the Father’s love for Jesus’ disciples and their love for Him.
for the Father Himself loves [φιλεῖ] you, because you have loved [πεφιλήκατε] Me, and have believed that I came forth from the Father. John 16:27 (NASB)
The allegedly technical distinction between “agape” (divine, self-giving) love and “phileo” (human-level) love simply doesn’t have the explanatory, predictive power one would expect– at least not in the Gospel of John. John, for example, describes the Pharisees’ love of human praise in terms of “agape” (12:43) but he uses “phileo” to describe God’s love for Jesus and His disciples (16:27). Who would have thought that?
So how do we understand John 21:15-17? Some say it’s Peter’s commission as Pope.
If it is, we have Jesus addressing Peter with the allegedly strong term for love, Peter responding with an allegedly weaker form, and Jesus finally giving in to the allegedly weaker form. What’s the chance of that?
In any case though, does it really makes sense for Peter (Pope or otherwise) to negotiate a lesser form of devotion with Jesus and succeed?
A complicating factor is the antecedent of “these” in v.15.
Jesus may really be saying, “Peter do you love me more than these [nets]?”
I believe a better view is that in John 21:15-17, Jesus is restoring Peter to fellowship after his denial. The three-fold questioning simply parallels Peter’s threefold denial.
Thus, the alternation between “phileo” and “agapao” in vv15-17 does not seem to be significant.