Last week I wrote a story based on Peter’s encounter with Christ found in John 21. The Bible says that after they all had breakfast together, Jesus asked Peter a series of questions. It wasn’t actually a series of questions, but three questions that at a surface level, seem ridiculously repetitive.
It’s translated into English as the same question, 3 times: “Do you love me more than these?”
And each time Peter essentially responded with, “I love you.”
There’s a couple of things I’ve always been curious about. First of all, who are these? People say different things. Some people say that when Jesus asked His question, he nodded at the disciples as if to say, “Peter, do you love me more than the rest of these guys love me?” But I wonder if maybe Jesus wasn’t nodding at the other disciples; maybe He was referring to the fish they had just eaten.
Maybe Jesus was asking, “Peter, do you love me more than you love these fish? I mean, you went back to fishing. And the job isn’t done. So do you love me more than these? Do you love me more than the safety, comfort, and familiarity of your old life?”
Secondly, there is the nature of their conversation. It’s pretty widely known that Jesus and Peter use two different words for love in their statements. Jesus asked Peter each time, “Do you agape me?” Agape is the God-kind of love. It’s unconditional. It’s not based on merit. It’s freely given. It’s the way Jesus loves us.
But Peter responds with, “Jesus, you know I phileo you.” Phileo is a different kind of love. It’s friendship. It’s affection. It’s a great kind of love, but it’s not agape. That’s what Peter said back. It seems like he’s saying, “Jesus, I know what you’re asking me. But you and I both know my track record. So as much as I want to say I agape you, I have to, in all honesty, say that I phileo you.”
They go back and forth like this twice, and then finally, in the last question, Jesus comes down to Peter’s level and asks, “Peter, do you phileo me?” And Peter was grieved.
It’s one thing to say it yourself; it’s another thing to hear Jesus say it.
Peter couldn’t handle Jesus using the words he himself had just used to describe their relationship. And then in verse 18, Jesus did something strange: He transitioned into talking about Peter’s death:
I assure you: When you were young, you would tie your belt and walk wherever you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will tie you and carry you where you don’t want to go… Follow Me!
I think Jesus was trying to encourage Peter with these words. I think He was saying, “Peter, I understand that you feel unworthy of the task before you. I understand you are battling with insecurity and guilt about your level of commitment. But I want to crack the door of eternity for you a little, and let you in on a secret.
There will come a day when you will courageously, bravely, and with conviction oozing out of your pores – a day when you will be tested beyond your wildest imagination – and you will pass. And the truth is that I can use even your failures of the past for good. So don’t worry about your level of commitment. It will come. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other and follow me.”
That’s encouraging for guys like me who know very well the truth that as much as I want to agape Jesus, most of the time I phileo Him.