In John 21:15-19 Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him. This is one of those times we must go to the Greek to see what is really happening.
The first two times Jesus asked if Peter agape’ed Him, to which Peter replied he phileo’ed Him. The third time Jesus asked if Peter phileo’ed Him, which grieved Peter.
There is an important difference between agape and phileo. It appears Peter thought phileo was more important than agape, while Jesus believed–thereby setting the standard–that agape is more important than phileo.
So what’s the difference?
Phileo is defined in the Strongs concordance (5368) as to be a friend to, to be fond of, or have affection for, as a matter of sentiment or feeling. This contrasts with Agape (25, 26) which is to love in a social or moral sense, with affection, or benevolence, including the judgment and deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety.
Consider Proverbs 17:17,
A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.
You have affection with friends, while siblings–notably brothers–have an adversarial role which prods us to learn conflict resolution. Conflict with friends is painful and might end the friendship. Conflict with siblings is painful, yet the loyalty of siblings usually wins out.
God does not merely want our fond affection of sentiment and feeling that changes with circumstances. Instead of that shaky structure He wants the foundation of our love for Him to be our loyalty based on our judgment and deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety.
God defined Agape in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love is not proud; love is not rude; love is not selfish; love is not easily provoked; love thinks no evil, does not rejoice in evil but in truth; love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.
When God asks a question it is for us to think and learn, because He already knows. Jesus asked Peter if he agape’ed Him, and Peter said he phileo’ed Jesus, but Jesus challenged him on that. He wanted Peter’s agape and it appears by His question He was not even getting phileo. Note that phileo runs from the cross while agape embraces it.
Peter had a lot to think about, and when the Holy Spirit came on the day of Penticost and indwelled him, he did agape Jesus, with the ultimate evidence of embracing the cross.
How do you love God, phileo or agape?
How do you love your spouse?
Is your love based on circumstances and emotion–which change like shifting sands, or on the decision of will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety–an immovable foundation able to endure the storms of life? Are you able to embrace the cross?
Remember Jesus said we are to take up our cross to follow Him. He wants us to be ultimately dedicated lovers of Him, and our spouse is our practical training ground.
If it’s not costing you your life–putting to death your corrupt nature with its selfish desires–then it’s not agape.