When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you 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 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.”
John 21 tells the story of the miraculous catch of fish. Let me set the scene. Jesus has died and been resurrected. He has appeared to Mary Magdalene, the disciples, and Thomas. Then Peter and the others decide to do a little night fishing, at which time they catch nothing. In the morning, they see a stranger on the shore who instructs them to cast their nets out one more time. They do as they’re told and come up with a net full. At this point, they realize that this stranger is the Lord. Peter immediately jumps into the water and swims the 100 yards to Jesus. The others follow in the boat and the friends enjoy a nice breakfast together.
After breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him three times to reaffirm his love. When many read this passage, they presume that Jesus is making Peter profess his love three times to make amends for the three times he had earlier denied him. But what many don’t realize is that, in this passage, Peter is not answering in the affirmative. Not really. You see, Jesus uses the word agape throughout the exchange. But in each of Peter’s replies, he uses the word phileo. Both mean love, but they are not synonymous. The latter describes a brotherly love shared among friends, whereas the former refers to an unconditional, sacrificial kind of love. So, in essence, Peter’s response to Jesus is more like a, “No. I really want to love you like that, but I don’t. I can’t.”
Jesus goes on to tell Peter that he will in fact be crucified for his faith. I used to think that Peter’s love for the Lord must have grown during the ensuing years, and that he was somehow transformed into one with a sacrificial love for his Savior. And maybe that is the case—it does happen. But I’ve recently become convinced that Peter already had an agape kind of love for Jesus. After all, when he recognized Jesus on the beach, he couldn’t even wait another minute or two to see Him face to face. He threw off all dignity and hurled himself headlong into the sea and toward his Lord. I think he loved Jesus with every fiber of his being.
He was just scared to say it out loud. He had espoused this love before when he had pledged his loyalty to Jesus just prior to His crucifixion. And when he failed, he became riddled with self-doubt. For many people, to hear straight from Jesus that their destiny was to be martyred for their faith would be the most frightening revelation imaginable. But I believe that, for Peter, this prophecy brought an uncanny sense of comfort and relief. Jesus restored Peter’s confidence by basically saying, “Peter, I know that you’re doubting yourself, and the conviction of your faith. But trust me. As surely as I foretold that you would thrice deny me, I am telling you now that your love and commitment to me are true. You can boldly proclaim your love for me—as agape—because you WILL remain faithful. You have my word.”
Oh the weight that must have been lifted off of his shoulders in that moment—freed from the burden of his past and commissioned for his future service. What a sweet, sweet time that must have been for him. And may you and I also embrace that same forgiveness, allowing God to use us in His service, confident that He has made and is still making us new in Christ Jesus.