When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. (John 21:15-17)
This exchange between Jesus and the Apostle Peter is both interesting and perplexing. Upon reading it, one of my first questions was: “Didn’t Jesus already know that Peter loved him?” Yes, certainly, Jesus knew what the answer would be -- his question was “rhetorical.” In other words, Jesus was asking Peter the question not to get an answer but, rather, for Peter to learn something about the nature of love. This is clear both from the nature of the exchange as well as from the context in which we find it.
The second question which popped into my mind when I first read this passage was: “Why did Jesus ask Peter the same question three times ... especially when Peter answered him back the same way?” It does seem a little pedantic, doesn’t it? Or, perhaps Jesus is just getting a little hard of hearing? No. To put it simply, Peter’s response elicited Jesus’ repeated questions because Peter wasn’t really answering Jesus.
“Huh? But he was answering Jesus! After all, he said “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”"
In English it does appear as though Peter answered Jesus in the affirmative. But, in fact, the English language lacks the precision necessary to convey the essential meaning of the Greek words which Peter and Jesus were using for love.
In the passage Jesus asked Peter, three times, if he loved him. The first two times he asked the question Jesus used the Greek word for the ultimate, divine form of love:
Or, in English letters: “agapao.” Each time Jesus asked the question, he was asking if Peter had the divine form of love ... the form of love that God has for us and which sent Jesus to the cross to die for our sins. Peter’s response was not with this divine form of love, but with the earthly, humanly, brotherly form of the Greek word for love:
Or, in English letters: “phileo.” It’s as if, each time Jesus asked, “do you love me?” Peter’s response was: “Yes, Lord, you know that I like you.” Twice Peter showed that he didn’t have the ability to respond to Jesus with the unlimited, divine, self-giving love that Jesus was searching for in Peter’s heart. The grace for you and me -- and the grace which Jesus had for Peter -- comes in the fact that Jesus didn’t just drop Peter and turn to another disciple, nor did Jesus just leave him with phileo love. No, the third time Jesus asked him he stooped down to where Peter was and asked: “Do you love [phileo] me?” Jesus was willing to reach down to where Peter was, at that specific point in his life, and relate with Peter in a way that this rugged fisherman could accept. And, yet, again, Peter’s response was, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love [phileo] you.”
There is an indication of God’s sanctifying grace in this -- grace that was present for Peter throughout his life and, indeed, which is present for us in our lives today. Jesus didn’t leave Peter in the state of being able to express only phileo love. No, much later on his life we discover that Peter had grown in grace to the point where he was able to write:
Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy... (1 Peter 1:8)
Here, we find the apostle using the word agapao, not phileo, to assert that even those who had never seen Jesus nevertheless love him. This is an amazing recognition and affirmation on Peter's part for, even though he had seen Jesus, he himself had been slow to come to the point where he could use agapao to describe his attitude toward Jesus. In many respects it must have been a very humbling experience to find that those who had never met Jesus in the flesh nevertheless expressed true agapao for the Lord. It was also an experience of the Sanctifying grace of God, which does not leave us alone, but will transform and empower us for greater and greater expressions of the power and presence of Jesus in our lives.
We are called to have this divine form of love for God -- a love that is more than just the human love of phileo, which is given in order to receive. We are called to have divine love not only for God, but also for our brothers and sisters in Christ and, indeed, for the whole world. May we strive to allow God’s grace to so transform us that we can answer Jesus’ question: “You know that I love [agapao] you.”
© 2004, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
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