Before a preacher preaches on the subject of agape love he/she ought to be required to read the treatment of this word in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDNTTE). It is a breath of fresh air to read Silva’s discussion. I’ve abridged his discussion below. I’ve transliterated the Greek for non-Greek readers.
“It has become commonplace–not only in popular lit. but in scholarly treatments as well–to say that while Eng. has only one word for ‘love,’ Gk. has three, each of which has a clearly distinguishable meaning: eros (vb. erao) supposedly has a negative connotation and indicates a desire for personal satisfaction, so that it is often applied to sexual matters (this word group is rare in the LXX and totally absent in the NT); philia (vb. phileo) is said to be a somewhat neutral and colorless term, referring primarily to friendships and family relations; agape and agapao, finally, signify a self-giving attitude that seeks the best for others, even if unlovable.” Silva notes that this is “an oversimplified picture of the Greek vocabulary” and “it is inaccurate in several respects.” First, Greek has far more than three words “whose use can come within the broad category of ‘love,'” and he gives six other examples. As for English there are numerous terms which express the concept of love. Here he gives over 20 different options. Furthermore, the Greek words do not “have inherently favorable or unfavorable meanings.” “There are plenty of negative contexts in the LXX where agapao is used. By the same token, erao freq. occurs in positive contexts . . . phileo, it is true enough that this vb. occurs freq. in contexts of friendship, and that often it is used in the mild sense of ‘like (something) (cf. Gen 27:4 et al.), but it can be also be applied to Jacob’s strong love for his son Joseph (cf. 37:4 [agapao in v. 3]), to a person’s love for wisdom (Prov 29:3), to love for parents (Matt 10:37) . . .”
He then turns to the most popular passage cited to show a distinction between Greek words, namely, John 21:15-17. Silva begins by noting that two notable Greek scholars–B.F. Westcott and R.C. Trench–had completely opposite views on what the words implied. “That two erudite Gk. scholars should each such contradictory conclusions raises doubts about the validity of the enterprise.” Silva notes that John’s writing style “is characterized by wordplays of various sorts”. Noting other synonyms used in the same passage he says “these terms (like virtually all synonyms in any language) are semantically distinguishable in some contexts, it is hardly believable that the writer here intends to differentiate between two different types of people with the first pair of terms and between two distinct types of ministry with the second pair (note also three different words for ‘fish’ used in 5-13). . . Among patristic writers who discuss John 21:15-17 (many of whom were native Gk. speakers), virtually all fail to note any significant distinction between these two vbs. here. . .” Most modern standard commentaries also see no distinction. Of course there are some who do see a distinction of Silva points to those as well. (Vol. 1, pp. 112-14 – for the full discussion see pp. 103-115)
What I take away from this is that if there is a distinction in this passage between apapo and phileo then the argument must be made on something more than just the use of the words themselves.