Most scholars agree that agapáō is used of God’s love toward man and vice versa, but philéō is rarely used by God of the love of men toward Him. In Joh_21:15-16, it is a statement by Peter to Jesus and in verse seventeen it is only a question by Jesus to Peter. In verses fifteen and sixteen while Jesus was asking Peter, Agapás me? “Do you love me?” (a.t.) Peter was answering, Philṓ se, “I am your friend” (a.t.). In verse seventeen for the third time Jesus asked Peter, but this time He said, Phileís me?, “Are you my friend?” (a.t.). Jesus indeed makes us His friends in His great condescension, but for us to call ourselves His friends is somewhat of a presumption.
In the first question of Jesus to Peter in Joh_21:15, there is the comparison of love (agápē) toward Himself versus love toward material things, possibly the fish and bread which all were eating. The expression “more than these” may very well refer to the love of the other disciples present (Joh_21:2). Jesus was asking whether Peter’s love was greater than that of the other disciples. In this question of Jesus to Peter in Joh_21:15 there is also the comparison of love (agápē) toward Himself versus the love of the other disciples present (Joh_21:2). Again Jesus was asking whether Peter’s love was greater than that of the other disciples. Peter in his answer used the expression sú oídas hóti philṓ se, “thou knowest [oída (G1492), to know intuitively] that I am your friend [philéo (G5368)]” (a.t.). That was an upgrading by Peter of his devotion to Christ. The Lord, however, intuitively knew that Peter had not accepted His determination to die while He could avoid death (Mat_16:22-23). Not only did Peter not acknowledge Jesus as his friend, but denied that he even knew Him (Mat_26:69-75), even as Jesus had predicted Peter would (Mat_26:31-35). The Lord did not accept Peter’s self- upgraded love from agápē (G26) to philía (G5373), friendship. We love (agapáō) God because He first loved us (1Jo_4:10). But none of us, especially Peter, earn the right to declare ourselves friends (phílos [G5384]) of God. He alone can declare us as such, even as He did Abraham (Jam_2:23).
The second question Jesus asked Peter was not the same as the first. It was not a question of comparison. He did not ask Peter, “Do you love [agapáō] me more than these?” but simply “Do you love me [agapáō]?” (author’s translations). The Lord would be pleased with a personal statement of reciprocation of His love without a comparison of oneself to others. Jesus, being God incarnate, has intuitive knowledge of each one of His children. Thus the Lord would not accept Peter’s confession of personal attachment to Himself as that of friendship. Jesus intuitively knew that Peter was not always His devoted friend, for He knew that Peter would deny Him. Some have suggested that in this passage Christ was providing an opportunity for Peter to “redeem” himself from the earlier denial of the Lord.
The third question of Jesus to Peter was different, “Do you love me [philéō, Are you my friend]?” (a.t.). Are your interests, now that you have seen Me risen from the dead, different than before the resurrection? Peter became sorrowful because he understood the deeper meaning of Jesus’ question (Joh_21:17). His answer utilized two similar, but distinct verbs, oída, to know intuitively, and ginṓskō (G1097), to know experientially: “Lord, thou knowest, [oídas, intuitively] all things. Thou knowest [gínṓskeis, know experientially] that I love thee [philṓ, that I am now your friend].” When it comes to the expression of the love of the Father God to the Son God, both verbs, agapáō and philéō, are used. Joh_3:35 states, “The Father loveth [agapá] the Son and hath given all things into his hand.” In Joh_5:20 we read, “For the Father loveth [phileí] the Son, and showeth him all things that himself doeth.”
Agapáō and never philéō is used of love toward our enemies. The range of philéō is wider than that of agapáō which stands higher than philéō because of its moral import, i.e., love that expresses compassion. We are thus commanded to love (agapáō) our enemies, to do what is necessary to turn them to Christ, but never to befriend them (philéō) by adopting their interests and becoming friends on their level.