You don’t have to reference Greek or Hebrew to study the Bible. It certainly helps, and more pastors should devote the time to learning and retaining the original languages. But you can observe, interpret, and apply using a decent English translation (such as the ESV or NET). And in some cases, knowing just a bit of Greek can actually distract you from careful study of a passage.

In John 21:15-19, Jesus and Simon Peter eat breakfast and chat about love and lambs. Three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times, Peter affirms his love, and Jesus calls him to be a godly shepherd.

Those who dig into the Greek text of John 21 quickly discover that John uses two different words for “love.” Jesus’ first two questions use the word agape. Jesus’ third question and all three of Peter’s responses use the word philia.

“Do you love (agape) me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love (philia) you.”
“Do you love (agape) me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love (philia) you.”
“Do you love (philia) me?”
“You know that I love (philia) you.”

The question arises: What is the difference between agape and philia? What’s really going on in the conversation that doesn’t come across in English?

So the student reads commentaries and consults lexicons. Many blogs address this particular question (just Google “agape philia john 21,” and you’ll have no shortage of reading material). Some say that agape love is the higher form of love, and Jesus comes down to Peter’s level the third time. Others reverse it, saying that by the end Peter convinces Jesus that he has the right kind of love.

The problem with this approach is that it assumes that each Greek word has a focused, specialized meaning. It approaches lexicons as technical manuals, almost as if there’s a code to be broken, and the right tools offer the key. But no language works that way. Not English or German, Greek or Hebrew.

Words certainly have histories. They have ranges of meaning. Lexicons help us to understand their range of usage. But literature is as much an art as it is a science. Writers advance their agendas by making them beautiful. So they use synonyms, turns of phrase, metaphors, and other such devices.

Referring to John 21:15-19, D. A. Carson explains:

Some expositions of these verses turn on the distribution of the two different verbs for “love” that appear. . . . This will not do, for at least the following reasons . . . . The two verbs are used interchangeably in this Gospel. . . . The Evangelist constantly uses minor variations for stylistic reasons of his own. This is confirmed in the present passage. In addition to the two words for “love,” John resorts to three other pairs: bosko and poimano (“feed” and “take care of” the sheep), arnia and probata (“lambs” and “sheep”), and oida and ginosko (both rendered “you know” in v. 17). These have not stirred homiletical imaginations; it is difficult to see why the first pair should. (The Gospel According to Johnpp. 676-677)

If Greek expeditions hadn’t distracted us, what treasure might we mine from this passage? Note the following observations, which could easily be made from the English text.

  1. Setting: The scene takes place at a charcoal fire (John 21:9), the same setting where Peter denied Jesus three times (John 18:18). By no accident, charcoal fires appear in only these two scenes in John’s Gospel.
  2. Flow: Peter begins the chapter chasing his former vocation as a fisherman (John 21:3). Jesus wants to turn him into a shepherd (John 21:15-17). Peter gets it. Later, when he instructs church elders, he doesn’t call them to be fishers of men. He commands them to shepherd the flock of God (1 Pet. 5:1-2).
  3. Model: Jesus wants Peter to follow him (John 21:19b). Peter should be a shepherd like Jesus was (John 21:15-17), which means dying for the good of the sheep, just like Jesus did (John 21:18-19, 10:11-15).

John 21 shows Jesus restoring and commissioning Peter for sacrificial leadership in the church. This much is clear even in translation.

Sure, the Greek (or Hebrew) text of Scripture occasionally reveals wordplay that doesn’t translate well. Sometimes the structure of a passage or argument is clearer in the original language than in translation. And Greek and Hebrew are simply beautiful and fun. Again, I would encourage pastors not to settle for using online tools and instead devote themselves to truly understanding these biblical languages.

But the main point of a passage does not usually depend on intimate knowledge of the original languages.