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.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved 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)
In the previous article I suggested that various interpretations of this passage that hinge on the Greek words for “love” (agapao and phileo) are taking their cues from the wrong place. One commentator called such proposals “sloppy agape”! Because I do not have a strong background in the biblical languages, I have often assumed that the most important work I can do with a text is search out the Greek or Hebrew vocabulary and grammar. This text in John 21 is a great illustration of the primary importance of close attention to the English text found in standard translations of Scripture.
This is not the only time in the Gospel of John that Jesus and Peter have a discussion after finishing a meal. Notice that this exchange took place “after breakfast” (21:15), and that Simon had just stripped off his “outer garment” (21:7). Can you think of another conversation between Jesus and Peter in the presence of other disciples that took place right after a meal? What about the discussion in the upper room in John 13:3-5? After the last supper, Jesus removed his “outer garments” and gave an object lesson to the disciples.
Further, do you remember what Peter claimed about his devotion to the Lord at that time?
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times. (John 13:36-38)
In response to Peter’s boast that he would follow Jesus to death, the Lord told Peter that he would deny Him three times. This is exactly what happened according to John 18:15-18, 25-27. In a curious detail, he did so while warming himself by a “charcoal fire” (John 18:18). Turning back to John 21, notice what had been built on the shore where this conversation occurred. “They saw a charcoal fire in place” (21:9). The setting of Peter’s three denials is now the setting for these three questions.
Next, notice the specific question Jesus asks Peter to begin the dialogue in John 21:15. “Do you love me more than these?” Back in John 13, Peter had no problem boasting of the extent of his love for Jesus. But this time, how does Peter respond. “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” No longer does Peter boast as he did in Matthew 26:33, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” He loves Jesus, but is unwilling to assert that he loves Him more than the other disciples do.
And just as Peter denied Jesus three times, now Jesus questions him three times about his love. This explains why in v. 17 Peter was “grieved” because Jesus “said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me’” – it reminded him of his three-fold denial. More importantly, in asking these three questions, Jesus offers Peter the opportunity to reaffirm his love three times. With each question and every reply, Jesus assures Peter that he still has an important task to accomplish, to feed/tend the sheep/lambs of Christ.
Moreover, while the once brash and boastful Peter failed to follow Jesus to the cross, the forgiven and renewed Peter will be able to do so.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18-19)
The details highlighted by any conventional English translation offer a simpler and more elegant reading of this exchange. Peter’s three-fold denial is replaced by a three-fold question, a three-fold confession, and a three-fold commission.
If you want to know what “love” means, you don’t have to pick up a Greek lexicon. Just read the story of Jesus and Peter. Love is forgiveness. Love is reconciliation. Love is renewal. And through Christ, all of us – undeserving as we are – can be forgiven and restored to greater service than we ever imagined.