“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.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt 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 (NRSV)
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Matthew 28:19-20a (NRSV)
While the celebratory date on the calendar for Resurrection Sunday has come and gone, the reality is that we live with the resurrection every day. That may seem like an obvious thing, but some of us don’t recognize just how non-resurrection minded we truly are. I hear you saying, “How can you say that? I accepted Jesus into my life with the full confidence and understanding of what He did for me.” Well, my retort to that is simply, therein lays the beginning of the issue. Many of us are singularly focused when it comes to life after the resurrection. We are pleased with the fact that we have ensured our salvation when we come to Christ. We are pleased with the fact that Jesus, who rose with all power in His hands, is perpetually on our side. We are pleased with the promise that our lives will be made better in Christ. All of this is wonderful and true, but our faith is at once personal and corporate in nature. In short, we love Jesus for dying the death we deserved and being raised from the dead but not necessarily for what he requires of us afterwards.
The age-old adage, actions speak louder than words, has never lied. Here in John 21:15-17, Jesus repeatedly asks Peter if he loves Him. If we’re being 100 percent truthful, this transcript could have been written with our names taking the place of Peter’s as the interviewee, so to speak. Some of us would do good to undergo some self-examination about what our response would be if Jesus was asking us, “…do you love me?” instead of Peter. But, first, let’s examine the text.
Beginning in verse 15 of the Gospel of John chapter 21, Jesus has now appeared to his disciples three times after being raised from the dead. It begins by saying, “After they had finished breakfast,” which mirrors the last supper in the sense that they had all just enjoyed eating and fellowshipping with one another, and then everything got real. In addition, verses 15 to 17 in its entirety parallels Peter’s thrice denial of Jesus when he was arrested, tried, and sentenced in a kangaroo court. We can say this was a moment for Peter to recognize his wrong, grapple with the shame of what he had done, and redeem himself. If we look deeper, however, we discover much more about what is actually happening that is far more relevant for us in 2020 than the redemption of this one (although prominent) disciple.
After they have feasted, verse 15 states, “Jesus said to Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs”” (NRSV). There are a few things going on here. What exactly does “more than these” mean? I wrestled with this, and the truth is that there is no clear answer of what Jesus means when he says this. There are a couple theories that stand out. The first theory is that He is referring to the disciples. The next and probably more interesting theory is that Jesus is referring to huge 153 count haul of fish he had just taken in. This theory supports the notion that you can’t remove scripture from its context and the story that is being told. John 21:2-8 precedes verses 15-17. It reads, “Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off”(NRSV). Not only does this passage confirm that your labor is in vain if Jesus is not in it, scholars suggest that when we get to verse 15, Jesus is referring to the haul of fish, or fish in general (Peter was a fisherman), when he says, “…more than these?”
This theory puts us in hot water because if Jesus is referring to the fish as “these,” then we have to take an earnest look at the “these” in our lives. The fish would have represented multiple things in this passage. For Peter this great haul of fish was representative of success. This was his occupation before he took a three-year sabbatical to travel the world with Jesus. They represented potential wealth. Furthermore, they represented a return to normalcy or what Peter was used to. This was the life he knew and was effective and competent in. Even more subtly, the fish were representative of what Jesus could do for him, the blessings He could bestow, and the prosperity He could bring. The Lord was essentially asking Peter do you love me more than these: your professional success, wealth and possessions, the life you know and are comfortable with, and what I can give you?!
How many of us can answer that in the affirmative with clear conscience and conviction? Let’s come back to that question.
With this in mind, we have to examine the type of love that Jesus is asking about and the type of love Peter is talking about when he responds. The Greek word for love that Jesus is using is agapao, which commonly translates to us as agape. Agape love is unconditional love. It is self-sacrificing. The Greek word for love that Peter responds with is phileo. This is a love that indicates warm feelings and affection. It is not to the extent of agape love. Peter is essentially tiptoeing up to the line of unconditional love but proceeds to stop short in favor of the easier love that doesn’t ask anything of him. How many times are we not fully committed in all of our relationships, let alone with Jesus? We have affection (phileo) for Him, but it is not love that prompts us to do anything (agape). We often say that if you love someone you will show it; words are empty. Jesus says in scripture, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34-35, NRSV). He also tells us,
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12-14, NRSV). Jesus tells us that those who truly love Him, those who are closest to Him are those who do what He commands.
Ask yourself, how am I showing Jesus that I truly (agape) love Him? We will return to this question as well.
Jesus tells Peter to, “Feed my lambs.” Verse 16 goes on to state, “A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep” (NRSV). Jesus directly links His question about love and Peter’s affirmation of his love for Jesus with doing something. For Jesus, Peter’s love will be shown in how he is faithful to the directive to, “Feed my lambs,” and “Tend my sheep.” The lambs and sheep are the people of the world, specifically Christ followers. Jesus is instructing Peter to feed spiritually those who are only babies in their faith and those who are unbelievers. When they are fed, they will grow in faith and maturity in Christ Jesus. He is also instructing him to look after believers who have a certain level of maturity in their faith walk with Christ Jesus. They may not need to be nurtured in the same way, but they still need his care and attention in order to not stray from the flock. You don’t have to be a pastor, minister, or deacon to feed or look after God’s people. As Baptist, we believe in the priesthood of all believers, which means that God gives wisdom, interpretive knowledge, and autonomy in faith to all who confess with their mouths and believe in their hearts that Jesus is Lord. When is the last time you have led a prayer group, supplied those around you with scripture that brings light to their lives, or been an accountability partner for a fellow believer? These are things that we can all do to show Jesus that we love (agape) Him.
Lastly, verse 17 wraps up our scripture focus in John 20 with this, “He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt 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” (NRSV). The Greek word for love that Jesus uses this time is the phileo, which indicates affection and warm feelings toward. Peter is hurt by this and responds to Jesus by saying that He knows everything, therefore He knows that he loves Him. The irony of Peter’s hurt and response is that he is 100 percent correct that Jesus knows everything. Jesus knows he does not yet love him in the agape sense, so he lowers the standard or bar that Peter much reach. This hurts Peter but he has only himself to blame for Jesus presenting him with a lower standard. In addition, he once again presents a directive with His question of love and Peter’s affirmation of love for Him – “Feed my sheep.” Most of us are comfortable with staying in position to be fed, but we each must make the step of seeking to feed others as well. We’re all a part of one body in Christ.
The directives of love, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep” can be summed up in the great commission at the end of the book of Matthew. Matthew 28:19-20a records the words of Jesus saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (NRSV). If we love Jesus in the agape sense of the word we will go and make disciples of all people, feeding and tending to their spiritual needs and development in order for them to live the full and abundant lives The Lord bought on the cross at Calvary.
Now, let us return to our previous reflection questions:1) How many of us can answer yes to Jesus’ question “Do you love me?” with clear conscience and conviction?2) How am I showing Jesus that I truly (agape) love Him?
These are two sides of the same coin, but they are inquiries that convict us and hopefully stir up inside of us the resolve to address where we may be lacking.
The ultimate question that arise from all that has been discussed is:
What will you do for love?
In this post-resurrection season let us shift our focus away from having affection (phileo) for Jesus because he died and rose again for our salvation and let us shift our focus to (agape) loving Jesus through acting on what he instructed us to do.