Phileo: Brotherly Love in the Bible

Definitions and examples of friendship-love in God's Word

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The word "love" is very flexible in the English language. This explains how a person can say "I love tacos" in one sentence and "I love my wife" in the next. But these various definitions for "love" aren't limited to the English language. Indeed, when we look at the ancient Greek language in which the New Testament was written, we see four distinct words used to describe the over-arching concept we refer to as "love." Those words are agape, phileo, storge, and eros.

In this article, we'll see what the Bible says specifically about "Phileo" love.

Definition

Phileo pronunciation: [Fill - EH - oh]

If you're already familiar with the Greek term phileo, there's a good chance you heard it in connection with the modern city of Philadelphia -- "the city of brotherly love." The Greek word phileo doesn't mean "brotherly love" specifically in terms of males, but it does carry the meaning of a strong affection between friends or compatriots.

Phileo describes an emotional connection that goes beyond acquaintances or casual friendships. When we experience phileo, we experience a deeper level of connection. This connection is not as deep as the love within a family, perhaps, nor does it carry the intensity of romantic passion or erotic love. Yet phileo is a powerful bond that forms community and offers multiple benefits to those who share it.

Here's another important distinction: the connection described by phileo is one of enjoyment and appreciation.

It describes relationships in which people genuinely like and care for one another. When the Scriptures talk about loving your enemies, they are referencing agape love -- divine love. Thus, it's possible to agape our enemies when we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, but it's not possible to phileo our enemies.

Examples

The word phileo is used several times throughout the New Testament. One example comes during the surprising event of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In the story from John 11, Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is seriously ill. Two days later, Jesus brings His disciples to visit Lazarus's home in the village of Bethany.

Unfortunately, Lazarus had already died. What happened next was interesting, to say the least:

30 Jesus had not yet come into the village but was still in the place where Martha had met Him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house consoling her saw that Mary got up quickly and went out. So they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to cry there.

32 When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw Him, she fell at His feet and told Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died!”

33 When Jesus saw her crying, and the Jews who had come with her crying, He was angry in His spirit and deeply moved. 34 “Where have you put him?” He asked.

“Lord,” they told Him, “come and see.”

35 Jesus wept.

36 So the Jews said, “See how He loved [phileo] him!” 37 But some of them said, “Couldn’t He who opened the blind man’s eyes also have kept this man from dying?”
John 11:30-37

Jesus had a close and personal friendship with Lazarus. They shared a phileo bond -- a love born of mutual connection and appreciation. (And if you're not familiar with the rest of Lazarus's story, it's worth a read.)

Another interesting use of the term phileo occurs after Jesus' resurrection in the Book of John. As a bit of backstory, one of Jesus' disciples named Peter had boasted during the Last Supper that he would never deny or abandon Jesus, no matter what may come. In reality, Peter denied Jesus three times that very same night in order to avoid being arrested as His disciple.

After the resurrection, Peter was forced to confront his failure when he met again with Jesus. Here's what happened, and pay special attention to the Greek words translated "love" throughout these verses:

15 When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love [agape] Me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said to Him, “You know that I love [phileo] You.”

“Feed My lambs,” He told him.

16 A second time He asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love [agape] Me?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said to Him, “You know that I love [phileo] You.”

“Shepherd My sheep,” He told him.

17 He asked him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love [phileo] Me?”

Peter was grieved that He asked him the third time, “Do you love [phileo] Me?” He said, “Lord, You know everything! You know that I love [phileo] You.”

“Feed My sheep,” Jesus said.
John 21:15-17

There are a lot of subtle and interesting things going on throughout this conversation. First, Jesus asking three times if Peter loved Him was a definite reference back to the three times Peter had denied Him. That's why the interaction "grieved" Peter -- Jesus was reminding him of his failure. At the same time, Jesus was giving Peter an opportunity to reaffirm his love for Christ.

Speaking of love, notice that Jesus started out using the word agape, which is the perfect love that comes from God. "Do you agape Me?" Jesus asked.

Peter had been humbled by his previous failure. Therefore, he responded by saying,"You know that I phileo You." Meaning, Peter affirmed his close friendship with Jesus -- his strong emotional connection -- but he wasn't willing to grant himself the ability to demonstrate divine love. He was aware of his own shortcomings.

At the end of the exchange, Jesus came down to Peter's level by asking, "Do you phileo Me?" Jesus affirmed His friendship with Peter -- His phileo love and companionship.

This entire conversation is a great illustration of the different uses for "love" in the original language of the New Testament.