I’ve always been intrigued by the story of the Lord and Peter in John 21:15-17.
15 So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.
16 He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
17 He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
I’ve read it over many times, and I always wondered to myself, what’s the point? Why does Jesus ask Peter the same questions over and over—three times, to be exact? I’ve heard it explained before that Jesus had to ask him three times, once for each time he had denied knowing Jesus. That could be the case, I don’t know. What’s really interesting is to see the words used here.
In verse 15, Jesus says, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” The word “lovest” here is the Greek word “agapao”, which is the kind of wholehearted, unconditional, devoted love Jesus showed when He died for us.
Peter replies, “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.” Peter replies, but uses a different word—“phileo”, which means to just love like a friend.
Jesus asks again, “Simon, son of Jonas, do you agapao me?” Do you love me unconditionally, so much you’d lay down your life for me?
Peter says, “Yes, Lord; you know that I phileo you.” Peter loved Jesus like a friend but he wasn’t willing to try go agape Jesus—he’d already failed at that.
You can almost hear Jesus sigh as he asks the third time—“Simon, son of Jonas, do you phileo me?” Are you even willing to love me like a friend, Peter?
Peter was (naturally) very distressed at this point. Here Jesus had been asking him to lay down his life for Him, and he wasn’t sure he had the strength to do that. So he replied, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I phileo you.” Peter was so ashamed of his denial of Jesus, and he wanted to make things right but he was afraid he wasn’t up to the task the Lord had set for him. Thankfully, we know history and we know that, in the end, he did end up agapaing Jesus—he died for Him.
I find this bit of scripture very interesting because here, very soon before Jesus went up to heaven, he’s testing Peter. Seeing how far he’s willing to go.
And that makes me think of myself, of my own life. Of the fear that I have. What if I don’t agapao Jesus? What if my love is only phileo? Would I still stand strong for Jesus if I had to choose between Him or my life? I find it pretty scary to think about. Because I don’t think I am that strong. I don’t think I have enough faith. And that’s scary.
So I pull out my Bible and read, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (1 Corinthians 12:9) And my fear is stilled.
Now it’s your turn. What do you think Jesus’ purpose was in talking with Peter like this? Do you agapao Jesus? Or is it just a phileo love? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
First photo courtesy La Vista Church of Christ Pictures.