This is the question Jesus asked Peter as he was revealing himself for the third time after his resurrection to some of his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias (Galilee). There were seven of his disciples who had “gone fishing,” returning to their former occupation.
“Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” (John 21:2-3).
Maybe they were disillusioned now that Jesus had been crucified and even though they had seen him after he had been resurrected maybe their hope of what Jesus had promised had been dashed. Whatever had motivated them, it is evident that they needed to have their faith in the Savior renewed.
After having toiled all night and caught nothing, Jesus called to them from the shore, “Children, do you have any fish?” (v. 5). They answered him that they had not caught anything. He instructed them to lower their net on the other side of the boat, which they did, and caught so many fish they couldn’t haul all of them into the boat! At this point it began to dawn on them that this had to be the Lord. Peter, apparently overwhelmed with emotion, quickly put on his outer garment and jumped out of the boat, probably to reach the shore – and Jesus – more quickly.
After they had dragged the net to shore, they found that Jesus had made a fire, cooked some fish and had bread for them. He then instructed them to bring some more fish and invited them to have breakfast with him. (See John 21:6-14).
The exchange that took place there on the seashore between Jesus and Peter after they had eaten is quite interesting and revealing. But before we look at what Jesus said to Peter we must first remember that before Jesus was betrayed, Peter had boasted of his faithfulness to the Lord. Jesus had told the disciples that the night of his betrayal all of them would fall away from him. Peter, ever the impetuous one, answered, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” When Jesus told Peter that he would deny him three times that night before the rooster crowed, Peter very vehemently denied that he would do so. “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same. (Matthew 26:33-35).
Now, as Jesus is with these disciples on the seashore, he turns his attention to Peter and asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Scholars have long disagreed over what Jesus meant by “these.” Some hold the idea that Jesus is asking him if he loved him more than fish, his fishing equipment and the business of fishing. They were, of course, surrounded by just those things when Jesus asked him this.
But I am persuaded that there is something more to Jesus’ question. There are two things about the exchange between the Master and the disciple that leads me to this conclusion. First, and most importantly is the subtlety of the words used in this conversation. Our difficulty in understanding what is said lies in the fact that our English word “love” translates several different Greek words. The Greeks is much more precise in describing different kinds of love.
Jesus asked Peter, “do you love me more than these?” The word Jesus used is the verb form of “agape,” which is the highest form of love. After all, he had professed to love Jesus supremely – even more than his own life. He had made the claim that his love was greater than the love of the other disciples when he said, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” (Matthew 26:33). Now Jesus is asking him if his love was greater than the other disciples. They had all made the same profession of fidelity to him, and all had failed him. Peter was no different from the rest.
All Peter could bring himself to say in answer to Jesus’ question was, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” but he doesn’t use the same word for love that Jesus used. The word he used was the word for “friendship,” making his reply something like, “Yes, Lord; you know that I am your friend,” or “Yes, Lord; you know that I really like you.” This is not at all what Jesus asked Peter. Jesus went on to say to Peter, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15)
A second time Jesus asked Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And again Peter answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” His answer was the same as before. “Yes, Lord; you know I am your friend.” No doubt he was aware of how terribly he had treated the Lord in his denial. We are seeing in this exchange between Jesus and Peter a much humbler, much less sure disciple – one who is far less sure of his ability and willingness to endure anything for the Lord. Peter no doubt realizes just what a demand it is to love like Jesus loved him. He seems not to think that he can live up to that kind of demand. Once again Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” (v. 16).
Yet a third time Jesus asked Peter…
“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 21:17-18).
John tells us that this third time Peter was “grieved” by Jesus’ question. This wasn’t the same question he had been asking, however. This time Jesus uses the word Peter had been using… “Peter, are you really my friend?” Don’t you know Peter was really looking deep within himself by this time. Realizing his humanity, he knew he didn’t really live up to the highest form of love. Jesus knew that kind of love would come later. But when Peter was asked if he were really Jesus’ friend it got to him. I doubt there had been a day gone by but that Peter had thought about what he had done. He probably had asked himself the same question a thousand times. But when Jesus asked it, it was almost more than he could bear.
The second reason I believe Jesus’ question to Peter was in reference to the other disciples is that Peter needed to see that he was no different from the others. There is no doubt but that Jesus knew what was in Peter’s heart. He knew whether Peter loved him or not and he knew his love was no greater than that of the other disciples. Peter needed to be brought down from his feelings of superiority over the other disciples.
Jesus also knew that Peter’s love for him would grow and blossom into something far stronger and more beautiful than it had ever been. But first Peter had to be brought face to face with himself. By bringing Peter to face himself and allowing him to see the deficiency of his faith he knew Peter would be a far more valuable servant in the days and years to come. Such is the power of the love of our faithful Lord.
It is also noteworthy that Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. Peter had denied the Lord three times and now Jesus asks him to confess his love for him three times. Poetic justice? You tell me!
But one thing I know is that no matter the kind of love Peter had for the Lord at that particular time, Jesus still could use him to do his work. Peter had been a fisherman. Now Jesus appoints him to a different occupation as a shepherd to tend or feed his lambs – his sheep. Jesus knew that the more a person works in his service the more he will grow to love him.
Do you really and truly love Jesus? Are you working for him? If not, why not begin today? If we are no more than a “friend” to him, remember he said that one who is truly his friend would obey him.
“You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:14).