He said to him the third time, “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. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:17-19 ESV)
Peter was the rock of the early church. While I strongly disagree with the Catholic Church’s interpretation of Peter’s role and position, there can be no doubt that Jesus saw his leadership skills and called him to action in leading this group of rag-tag Christ followers. Peter is the leader of this group and Jesus is going to challenge him to really step up and lead. But the part of this conversation I’d really like to focus on today is Peter’s destiny and our aversion to anything that might be painful, difficult or extremely challenging.
Peter indicates that Jesus knows all things, even those very things He’s questioning Peter about at the moment. I think we all wish we knew what tomorrow held. We think we could handle things better if we knew what was coming. I’m not so sure… I think if we truly knew what tomorrow held we might actually stay in bed with the covers pulled up over our heads. Let’s take a look…
Jesus has asked Peter a third time if he loves Him. I mentioned last week that this third question is somewhat different from the previous two based on the word choice Jesus used. The text says that Peter was grieved because Jesus “said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’” It isn’t clear whether Peter’s grief is focused on this being the “third time” Jesus has asked the question or if it is because Jesus chose to use Peter’s terminology in the third question. The first two times Jesus asks Peter “do you love me?” and uses a form of the Greek verb agape and Peter responds using a form of the Greek verb phileo. In the third question and answer dialogue, Jesus asks Peter the same question but uses the verb Peter used, “do you love (phileis – have brotherly love and affection for) me?”
While we aren’t entirely sure why the early church chose to use this particular verb for love of God (agape – pronounced ah-gah-pay), it does seem clear that they intended to distinguish love for God as higher, greater, distinct and separate from other types of love. While we use a single verb to convey love in English, we obviously express meaning and type by the context of the statement. To say I love my wife is not the same as saying I love chocolate ice cream. At least, it had better be very different types of love. We know they aren’t the same, even though we use the same verb. But in our story, John seems to be drawing attention to a contrast between what Jesus asks and how Peter responds, but Peter’s use of phileis (brotherly love) doesn’t mean that Peter doesn’t love Jesus.
Love is fickle. Love is a many splendored thing. Love is love. Love can be won and lost and won, again. You can fall into love and fall out of love. To be honest, I’m not sure we even know what love really is. We do have other words in our English language to describe love-like emotions; infatuation, obsession, crush, lust. Some of these terms may describe more accurately our true feelings for someone. The New Testament uses marriage terms to describe the relationship between Christ and His bride, the Church. So, how does this fit into our discussion regarding Jesus and his questions to Peter? Stay with me and I’ll explain…
When I first met the young lady (Tina) that I eventually married, I was attracted by her physical beauty. While she and I first met at church, I must admit that my initial attraction was not because of her commitment to and love for God, I just thought she was beautiful (she was and, by the way, still is). But after forty years of marriage, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that thankfully my love for her has matured, developed, and fundamentally changed even while retaining that initial physical attraction. I love her, but much more deeply and, yes, differently than I did forty years ago. If that hadn’t happened, I’m certain our marriage would likely not have survived. To be perfectly honest, I think that’s why many marriages don’t survive. We just don’t understand or have a grasp on true love. We somehow expect physical attraction to sustain our love relationship and it simply can’t. Real love, God’s kind of love, lasts (see 1 Cor. 13:7) but the stuff we see in the movies, on TV or in our modern culture’s view of love simply doesn’t last. In fact, it can’t last.
Let’s be honest and open with one another for a few minutes. Lust or physical attraction is actually quite selfish, but biblical love isn’t. Indeed, real love cannot be self-focused and survive. This is where our culture gets quickly confused and lost in this whole discussion. They don’t distinguish the difference between physical desire or attraction (actually, I’d call it lust) and real, actual love for someone. Physical attraction is completely self focused. It is all about fulfilling my personal needs and desires. We often say ‘I love you’ when what we really mean is ‘I want or desire you.’ Some of you may be growing a bit uncomfortable with this discussion, but please, please stay with me. Let me finish and you’ll understand my point.
If my love for Tina had stayed at the same level it was when I first met her, at age 15, then I am pretty sure that our marriage would have ended up in the same trash heap that most marriages do today. You see, my love for her was pretty much just selfish lust. I wanted her more than I loved her. Fortunately, my love for her began to mature along with my faith and my marriage. It took several years and lots of struggles, but I began to understand that what I had initially felt for her was not adequate and would not sustain our relationship. My love for her needed to deepen, it needed to widen, it needed to be so much more than just a wide-eyed, lust-filled teenager’s understanding of love. I needed to love her more than I loved myself. In fact, I needed to love her the way God loved me.
I mentioned above that I believe the use of the verb (agape) for man’s love of God and God’s love of man is intentional and designed to contrast and distinguish it from other forms of love. However, I don’t think we initially recognize and understand love of God in this way. I think our love for God must grow and develop much like our love for our spouse. I think our love of God often starts out as simple, selfish desire and He’s trying to draw us along into a more mature, deeper, eternal love.
So, back to our story… I think this is what is happening with Peter. Peter is the wide-eyed, self-focused teenage boy in the relationship. He loves God, but mostly for what he gets from the relationship. Jesus is trying to draw Peter into a deeper, more mature and lasting relationship. One that can survive the struggles ahead. Especially, one that can sustain him in those tough, final days of Peter’s life. More about that, a little later.
Peter recognizes that Jesus “knows all things” and that Peter really does love him (phileis). Truthfully, Peter does love him. He loves Jesus in the way he currently knows and understands, like a brother. I don’t think Jesus is disparaging Peter with his questions, I think He’s trying to guide Peter into a deeper understanding of his love for Christ. If Peter’s love for Jesus had stayed at the level it was at that moment then Peter’s relationship with Him might not survive the days ahead.
I think this is why our marriages struggle to survive and why our faith often struggles to survive. Our marriages often struggle because our love does not matured beyond the adolescent, self-focused, I’m just in this for myself stage. Our faith in God often struggles for the same reason, it has never matured beyond an adolescent, self-focused, I’m just in this for myself stage. As believers, we need both relationships to mature properly and to develop a deeper, lasting love. A love that enables us to survive the storms of life because of the very next thing Jesus draws into the conversation with Peter.
Lord, you know all things… Indeed, He even knows that Peter is going to face some intense, powerful personal life storms. Jesus tells Peter that he will face a time of testing that will take him into places and situations where he won’t desire to go. So, consider the implications of what Jesus has just revealed to Peter about his own future. Peter loves Jesus. Jesus loves Peter. Jesus is Lord and KNOWS all things, including the persecution Peter will face and, ultimately, the when and how of Peter’s own death. Jesus knows! But, Jesus not only knows what is coming, he encourages Peter to embrace it and that’s really my main point.
This dialogue between Peter and Jesus has really been all about Peter’s love and commitment to Christ. Three times he’s asked, “Do you love me?” Three times he responds, “Yes, I love you.” Three times Peter is challenged to “feed/tend my lambs/sheep.” The repetition of Jesus’ question and Peter’s response brings his personal failure and denial of Christ pouring back into his mind, but also Chris’s restoration (see last week’s post). Jesus knows Peter’s love must get deeper and wider than it ever has been if he’s to endure the days ahead. Days that will be filled with tremendous blessings and spiritual achievements, but also filled with dark, lonely nights in prison cells. Difficult days that will eventually lead Peter down a path he won’t desire to tread. A path that, John says, “shows the type of death by which he would glorify God.”
But, catch Jesus’ final words to Peter… “follow me.” Jesus hasn’t abandoned Peter to his fate, He’s leading him towards it. Peter acknowledges that Jesus “knows EVERYTHING” and Peter is slowly learning to trust Him and trust is a direct result of Peter’s growing love for Christ. But his love for and trust in Christ is leading him down a difficult path, a path that apparently ends in Peter’s death. But, herein lies the truth of Jesus’ love for Peter and His love for you and me.
Jesus tells us that the things that we typically concern ourselves with in this life are not really worth our attention…
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31-33 ESV)
Jesus’ call for Peter to follow Him was a call for Peter to abandon his nets, his boat, his personal ambitions and goals and to pursue a path of struggles, of persecution, and even death in order to find what he truly wanted, a life full of God’s blessings and presence. Jesus’ call upon your life is, in essence, the same call. Don’t be anxious about those things everyone else pursues, like money, homes, or even food and clothing. Pursue those things that have eternal significance, God’s kingdom and righteousness.
Somehow, we’ve taken Jesus’ demands upon His followers and softened them. We’ve taken His words and stripped them of their demands, of their commitment, of their personal sacrifice. We’ve stripped them of their authority and, in doing so, we’ve stripped them of their power. In the end, by stripping Jesus’ demands and authority from our lives we’ve stripped our lives of His presence. We gather for worship but our worship is focused upon our own needs and desires and not focused on Christ. We develop church programs but they are focused on entertainment and not discipleship. We make our own plans and chart our own course, then look around and wonder why we never hear from God. And Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” Wonder, no more…