Do You Love Me?
John / Chapter 21 / V15-19
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?"
"Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?"
He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."
The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!" ~Jn 21:15-19
In the quoted passage, Jesus asked Peter thrice, “Do you love me?” Bible interpreters had given various explanations to this passage and the most common one was based on the use of the two different Greek root words for “love.” The first word was “agapao” which meant a divine sacrificial love, and the second “phileo” meant brotherly love. When the Lord asked Peter three times “Do you love me?” He referred to “agapao” in the first two times and “phileo” on the third. Peter replied the Lord three times with the word “phileo.” It was said by some Bible scholars that Jesus used “agapao” initially because He wanted to encourage Peter to respond with an unconditional, sacrificial love (agapao). However, from Peter’s replies, he showed that he could only love Christ with a brotherly love (phileo). Thus, the Lord accepted that Peter was only able to love Him with a “phileo” love and not with an “agapao” love. Therefore, the Lord on His third attempt, lowered His expectation and asked Peter if he could love Him with a “phileo” love.
Based on the above interpretation, it created some issues. Even language experts of the original Greek text held different views on the intended meaning of the root words. Some felt that “phileo” as compared to “agapao” was a more excellent love, a love of a higher degree. Another concern was how the two root words were often being used interchangeably in the original Greek bible. The clearest example could be seen in the Gospel of John 3:35 “The Father loves (agapao) the Son” and later in 5:20 “The Father loves (phileo) the Son.” Both verses described precisely the same love that the Heavenly Father had for the Son, yet different Greek words “agapao” and “phileo” were used. Hence, it is not possible to draw a conclusive answer to the reason why Jesus asked Peter three times “Do you love me?” simply by interpreting the Greek root words for “love.”
The bible is never vague or ambiguous in its meaning. By studying the whole passage carefully, we will be able to understand why the Lord had to ask Peter the same question three times.
When they finished eating, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you truly love me more than these?” “These” referred to the breakfast consisting of bread and fish that they had just eaten. Peter’s answer to the question was an assertive “yes.” His experience was not unique. If the Lord were to ask any Christian the same question, no Christian would hesitate but surely reply, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Hardly would a believer love a few fishes more than the Lord or betray Him for just a few loaves of bread! Immediately, the Lord told Peter, “Feed my lambs,” implying that if what he said was true, he was worthy to shepherd the sheep of God. When the Lord asked Peter the same question the second time, He received the same firm reply. However, when the Lord asked Peter the third time “Do you love me?” he was hesitant and hurt as this stirred up his most painful memory. Just a few days ago, Peter had denied the Lord three times. Therefore, when the Lord asked him the same question three times, it reminded him of his denial of Jesus, that he tried so hard to forget.
On the eve before the Lord went to the cross, He told all His disciples that they would fall away that very night. But Peter did not believe the words of the Lord and confidently proclaimed: “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” Sadly, Peter not only ended up denying the Lord three times, he even cursed and swore an oath. Consequently, he wept bitterly over it. Now when the Lord asked him “Do you love me?” for the third time, it brought to mind that incident. From Peter’s response to the Lord, we know that Peter’s self-confidence had been completely shattered. No longer would Peter believe that he would be the only one left standing when all others would fall; nor would he believe that even if he had to die with the Lord he would never deny Him. He even began to doubt whether he would deny the Lord for the few fishes and loaves of bread that he had just eaten for breakfast. As a result of this, he was deeply grieved when the Lord asked him the question the third time. Now Peter was convinced that the Lord was all-knowing. Perhaps the Lord already knew he would deny Him again for these few fishes and bread, and therefore asked him the same question three times. Here, we find Peter no longer doubted the words of the Lord, unlike the betrayal night. Even if the Lord were to tell him that he would deny Him for a grain of barley, he would believe wholeheartedly without reservation because his self-confidence had already been totally shattered on that night of denial.
Now, Peter was no longer the same Peter that denied the Lord. Perhaps, since the denial, Peter had been under tremendous guilt for not being able to die with Him. However, at this juncture the Lord declared to Peter that he would surely die for Him: ‘“I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.’
All this while, Peter thought that he was ready to sacrifice his life for the Lord; but because of his overconfidence, not only did he fail to die for the Lord, he even ended up denying the Lord three times. After this incident, Peter came to realise he was weak and lost complete faith in himself. Yet this realisation was necessary for God’s will to be accomplished in his life - Peter was now truly ready to die for the Lord. His wish of becoming a martyr for the Lord had finally come true with no regrets.
In the past, the Lord could not entrust His sheep to Peter because of his confidence in the flesh. However, now, the Lord could fully entrust His sheep to Peter’s care because he was no longer the same person who trusted in himself, but had become one that truly put his trust in the Lord.