Monday, February 23, 2009

The Danger of Misusing Greek and Hebrew Word Studies-Part 2

Yesterday, I talked about the difficulty that arose in my sermon on John 21 last night.  I was speaking to a group of churches in Brownsville, OR and had been asked to speak on “Trust” within a healthy church.  I chose to use John 21 as the text and Peter’s restoration to relationship with Jesus (or however you want to describe it). 

The principle that I ended with yesterday after all was said and done was: “you should only use Greek & Hebrew when it provides insights that cannot be recognized by reading the English translations.”

And I struggled with what to do with the word “love” in the passage. 

The NIV (which is what they had in the pews) is quite unhelpful. 

John 21:15-17 (TNIV)
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

You MIGHT (from the English) wonder why Jesus keeps asking, except to make Peter feel guilty for denying him three times, so he makes him say three times that he loves Jesus.

That is exactly what is NOT going on. But you wouldn’t know that from the English. In fact, two different Greek words are used there:

In our English Bibles, the meaning of this interaction is blurred because of the use of the word “love” for two different Greek words. There are two words that are bounced back and forth by Jesus and Peter: agapao, which is usually God’s unconditional love. And phileo, which is generally described as brotherly love or affection.

We might rephrase the dialogue like this (from my sermon): image

Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love (agapao) me more than these?” (“These” being the other disciples—Peter had said “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.”-Matthew 26:33)

Peter replied, “Lord, you know that I have affection (phileo) for you.”

Peter refuses to claim the strong type of love (agapao) and now refuses to say that he loves Jesus more (or even as much) as the other disciples.

Jesus then asks a second time: “Simon, by your silence with reference to these others you have indicated that you no longer believe that you love me more than they do. But now, dropping all comparison, do you really love (agapao) me?”

Peter replies his answer as before, “Lord, you know that I have affection (phileo) for you.”

A third time, matching Peter’s three denials, Jesus descends to Peter’s own level, using the very term for love which Peter had used. The Lord seems to question whether Simon really had even such humble affection as he was claiming.

“Peter, do you really have affection (phileo) for me?”

And it says that Peter was grieved when Jesus asked him this.

How could Peter not be grieved when Jesus seems to call in question even his subjective attachment, his affection for the Lord (phileo)? Within his heart Peter is convinced that he possesses this humbler love. But he has learned his lesson. He does not dare to appeal to anything within himself. So he appeals once more, and now more emphatically than ever, to his Lord’s omniscience. Says he, “Lord, you know all things.”

And because Jesus knows all things, he must be able to realize that Peter has affection (phileo) for Jesus.

Although I tried to heed Strauss’ words, how could I NOT bring out this differentiation?  I believe it is critical to understanding what is going on here. 

But that being said, Strauss is correct.  Much quoting of Greek and Hebrew is simply posturing by preachers.  We must be very careful to make sure to only use Greek & Hebrew when it provides insights that cannot be recognized by reading the English translations.


(The picture is “St. Peter Repentant” by Goya, painted appx. 1823-1825.)


Charles said...


You probably know this already, but a number of interpreters (e.g., D. A. Carson, Leon Morris)do not see any major significance between the use of the two words for love. They would suggest that the change is merely stylistic.

But if you do believe that the distinction is present and significant, then I do believe that mentioning it in your sermon is appropriate.

daniel said...

for most of high school i went to Rolling Hill's youth group. the only sermon i still remember from our youth pastor in the 3 and a half years i went was when he meticulously compared and contrasted Jesus' call and Peter's response in the greek concerning this passage.

that said, i think there are certainly dangers with word studies. after grading a semester's worth of tools papers for dr grana i actually started to include less word studies in my own sermons/papers and make the ones i do include be a result of the hours of study i have done. ive noticed that if i wait until the end of my study to decide on whether i should point out nuance in the greek or hebrew text, the words (if there are any) that have a deeper significance that what can be explained in plain english are more than apparent. i haven't been given a reason to regret including those words...yet.

another temptation for preachers that is worth mentioning is to do a whole sleuth of word studies and treat the meaning of the text as the sum total of the words used. too many people turn their entire sermon (and exegetical papers for that matter) into a bunch of word studies tied together. by the end the preacher sounds really smart but leaves everybody confused.

thanks for this post. i will be keeping this in mind as i begin my interim preaching opportunity this weekend...

Ed said...


Great point. I remember a preaching professor who made the point that Greek and Hebrew were tools to be used in the preacher's study. Very seldom does a carpenter hold up a tool and say to someone, "this is a hammer." Instead, he shows the final work.

Similarly, it seems to me that overtly including word studies (rather than your understanding of the passage - vs. the words - that was developed through them) should only be done when it helps the listener better understand or remember the interpretation and implications of the text.

Thanks for calling this to our minds!

Milton Stanley said...

I tend to agree with Charles on this one. The more I get to know Greek, the less confident I am in my use of word studies. Thanks for two excellent posts on the cautions preachers ought to use here.

eddie said...

Thanks for these two thoughtful posts. However, I have to agree with those that suggest that the difference between agape and phileo in John 21 is more to do with style than significance. Elsewhere in John, (3:19) agape is used for worldly love, and (12:43)phileo is used for the Father's love for the Son. I blogged on this here:

That being said, you hve done very well to raise these questions - well done and thank you.

Cal Habig said...

Thanks to those of you who have responded. I will have to rethink my interpretation.

Ken said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

Visits Since Dec. 11, 2007