Do you love me? John 21:15-25

It was a few weeks after Jesus rose from the dead. Peter took some of the other disciples out fishing. Perhaps they just wanted to do something ordinary and mundane. Maybe especially Peter felt a sense of failure and he just wanted to get back to doing what he knew he was good at – fishing. In any case they fished all night but didn’t catch anything. Until early the next morning a stranger on the shore gave them some strange advice. Cast your nets on the other side of the boat. They did and immediately caught more large fish than their nets could hold. It is no surprise that it was the disciple that Jesus loved, the apostle John, who first recognised that it was Jesus. Jesus called them to the shore and cooked them breakfast.
And then it was the time of reckoning. Peter had been the natural leader amongst the apostles. But then on the night before the crucifixion outside the high priest’s house Peter had denied Christ three times. By a fireside Peter had denied being a disciple. Now beside another fireside, what would Jesus say?
We know the story so well. There were no words of rebuke. No words of condemnation or disappointment. Just a simple question.
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
That is the only question that matters. For Peter or for any of us. Do you love me? Do you love Jesus?
Jesus knew everything about Peter – just like he knows everything about all of us who let him down and fall short time and time again. And here is the wonderful point of this story for all of us, miserable sinners. Our God is a God of second chances. Peter doesn’t need to apologise. God is ready to forgive him. Like the prodigal son, or the woman taken in adultery, God forgives before they ever repented. No confession of sins here – just the simple question – do you love me? That is grace! Amazing grace.
No matter how far any of us have fallen, whatever we have done wrong, God can restore us. By Christ’s death on the cross for our sins, even we can be justified. God can make it “just as if I’d” never sinned. And so Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?” Because in the end that is the only thing that matters! Do you love me? How much do we love Jesus?
But actually Jesus asks just a little more of Peter. “Do you truly love me more than these?”
That question could mean at least three things.
Do you love me more than you love these boats and these nets? Do you love me more than you love your job and your livelihood? Do you love me enough to leave your job and your family and everything which is familiar, just to follow me? Do you love me more than these?
Or the question could mean something else. Do you love me more than you love these other disciples. Your brother Andrew. Your business partners James and John. These other friends you have made since you have been following me? Do you love me more than you love everybody else.
Then the question could have a third meaning, Do you love me more than these other disciples love me? Because that is what Peter had rashly claimed on the evening before Jesus was crucified.
Matthew 26:33 Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”
34 “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”
35 But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”
At that point Peter believed that he loved Jesus more than any of the other disciples did. But then Peter had discovered just how wrong he was. So Jesus is asking him, do you really love me more than all these others love me? You were the one who promised if everybody else let me down you wouldn’t. Yet you were the one who denied that you knew me, three times, even in front of a little servant girl. Do you love me more than these?
Yes Lord, you know that I love you.
Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” For each occasion Peter had denied Jesus, he has to declare afresh his devotion to Jesus. “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”
And with each response Jesus gives Peter a job to do.
Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep.
This is the ministry Jesus commissions Peter for. To lead the church. And it has three parts.
Feed my lambs. To nurture new-born Christians, feeding them on pure spiritual milk.
Take care of my sheep. Tend the sheep – take care of the whole flock of God.
Feed my sheep. Feed established Christians on spiritual solid food.
Feed and take care of the flock. Jesus entrusts Peter with caring not only for the sheep, the established believers but also for the lambs, the newly born. And I also think there is significance in Jesus commanding Peter twice to feed the lambs and the sheep and then once to tend the sheep. That is a reminder that the Christian Minister cares for the flock principally by feeding them, by leading them to pasture, by teaching them the word of God.
As Peter had denied Jesus three times, so Jesus draws out of him three declarations of love. In that way Jesus reinstates Peter as chief of the apostles and commissions him to lead the Early Church.
But in all of this we have glossed over the most important point of this passage for Peter, and for us. For this, without the aid of a safety net but with the assistance of PowerPoint, we are going to venture into the world of New Testament Greek. There were a number of words in Greek which we translate as “love”, and we find two of them in this story.
AGAPE – God’s kind of love, charity – the original New International Version translates this word as “truly love”
FILIA – brotherly love, friendship – NIV translates this just as “love”.
Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” (NIV84)
The first two times Jesus asks Peter do you love me with agape love, God’s kind of love. Peter replies, you know that I love you with filia love, brotherly love, friendship.
The third time Jesus changes to the word Peter has been using, and asks him, do you love me with filia love. To which Peter says again, Lord, you know that I love you with filia love, with friendship.
J.B.Phillips translation renders this most effectively.
BEST – JB PHILLIPS:-
Q “Do you love me?”
A “You know I am your friend.”
Q “Do you love me?”
A “You know that I am your friend.”
Q “ARE you my friend?” (Are you really my friend? Are you even my friend?)
Peter was deeply hurt because Jesus’s last question to him was, “Are you my friend?”
A “Lord, you know I am your friend!”
Why does this Greek matter? Because Jesus asks Peter for God’s kind of love, sacrificial love, the kind of love Christ Himself had shown on the cross just a few weeks before. But Peter was conscious of how much he had failed by denying Jesus three times. So Peter is open and honest enough to say, I can’t promise you that kind of self-sacrificing love. I can only offer you human love, friendship, brotherly love.
So Jesus asks again, can you offer me God’s kind of sacrificial love?
And Peter answers again, I can only offer brotherly love.
So Jesus asks – can you even offer me that kind of friendship? And that’s why Peter was deeply hurt at the change of wording. But Peter insists, “Yes I can. You know I love you with filia love.”
And Jesus accepts that. What God looks for is agape love. Sacrifice. That we love one another with exactly the same kind of agape love that Christ showed on the cross when he died for our sins. Jesus demands agape love – and deserves agape love. Jesus demands and deserves that we love him enough to take risks for him.
But Jesus will accept filia love, brotherly love, friendship. When we can’t love him in the same way as he loved us, to the same extent that he loved us, Jesus accepts that. He demands agape but accepts filia – from Simon Peter and from us today. That is the amazing grace of God!
But Jesus also has a warning for Peter. Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
Following Jesus carries a cost. Peter would lead the Early Church and preach the gospel but Peter would be crucified just as Jesus had been. Jesus invites us to love him more than everything else, and to love him more than we love anybody else. And Jesus calls us to follow him, whatever it costs.
So the simple question Jesus asks each one of us is the same as the question he asked Peter.
Do you love me?

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