Author: Jim Colson
In the Gospel of John, chapter 21, Apostle Peter has a verbal interaction with Jesus that has often been depicted as Peter’s “Reinstatement”—that Jesus is ready to move him along toward his apostolic ministry and has forgiven him for his denials leading up to the crucifixion.
Jesus challenges Peter with the question “Do you love me more than these?”
A lot is going on here.
He addresses him as Simon, not Peter; the listener, not the rock.
It’s not entirely clear in the English whether Jesus is asking him, Do you love me more than you love these others or Do you love me more than these others love me.
Most people assume the latter, which is supportable by the Greek; if so, Peter might have justly been in a bit of quandary. “Why should I be expected to love Jesus more than the others?” he might have thought. If this was about the crucifixion, certainly none of the others deported themselves in a particularly exemplary manner. Sure, Peter’s called-out denial was bad, but where were the others? At least he had tried to hang around. Why did Jesus have to focus on him now?
His commitment to the response is less than inspiring. He just says, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
Yes to what? Does he really mean to say that he loves Jesus more than the others do? While Jesus used the encompassing love-term agape which would make sense for someone who laid down his life for another, and didn’t deny knowing him, Peter responds with the still strong but more mundane phileo, which would be something like saying, Yeah, we’re brother-buddies.
If he was going to make his case for loving Jesus more than the others did, why couldn’t he at least have mustered the wherewithal to use the same love term Jesus did?
Of course, Jesus has to ask it threetimes, which must have reminded Peter of his three denials. He became upset the third time, perhaps because that memory was being evoked. But more immediately, in his third query, Jesus had changed his terminology and used the term phile rather than agape.
Peter might have felt the Lord was suggesting, “Okay. I get it you’re not in the agape business, so let’s just go with brother-buddies.”
It might have felt like a nice wrap-up if Peter could have finally said, “Yes, Lord. I agape you.”
But he didn’t. He assured Jesus again on the third time that he phile’dhim, including the point that Jesus would already know the answer.
Peter understood something that he hadn’t when he had assured Jesus that he would never deny him—that Jesus already knew what would happen, what Peter was capable of, where he was spiritually. Peter was just simply keeping it real with phileo.
But good news for him. Just like Jesus had looked forward before and knew Peter would deny him thrice, Jesus was looking ahead again and seeing something different. Peter hadn’t arrived spiritually yet, but he would soon enough. The time would come for Peter when he would face the fear of suffering the same fate Jesus had, and maybe say as Thomas was reputed to have said when faced with the same death, “I wouldn’t be teaching the glory of the cross if feared the death of the cross.”
This dialog between Our Savior and Peter has long been a fascination for me. But as I read through it again, I found something else.
Jesus never said to Peter, “You’re not there yet; just give it time.” Instead, he said, “Feed my lambs.”
The thought struck me that maybe I have been focusing on the wrong thing. Jesus was always growing people by challenging them where they needed to be challenged. And so he did with Peter. But it was growth with purpose. Jesus wasn’t going to be walking the Earth much longer, and he had a task for Peter.
And that task wasn’t about Peter. It was about those precious lambs!
Maybe I’m not in the agape business yet. But I know I want to be, and in His grace, I believe that someday I shall.
And in the meantime, maybe I need to quit worrying about my own faith failures and get down to the business of feeding His lambs.