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Some thoughts on John 21:15-17

May 27, 2010

Today I was at a Bible study where we were talking about the First Epistle of Peter.  The speaker pointed us to John 21:15-17, that famous passage where our Lord asks Peter if he loves Him not once, not twice, but three times.  He pointed out that the first two times that Jesus asked Peter that question, He used the Greek word agape that English translates as “love” – but Peter replied using the Greek word phileo, again translated as “love”.  On the third time our Lord asked that question, He used phileo, matching Peter’s usage.  I have to say I had never noticed this.

There are two noteworthy aspects of the way this exchange was framed – the first being that Jesus was asking Peter if he loved Him with complete devotion (which is contained in that word agape), and Peter, certainly realizing this, knew that he could not truthfully say he loved Jesus with complete devotion at that point in his life.  Therefore he answered using phileo: with a simpler type of love – a “being fond of you” form of love.  Is not agape the kind of love we should all have for the Lord?

But the second aspect is just as striking: that third time the question was asked by Jesus, He Himself used the same word phileo that Peter used!  That is, He came down to Simon Peter’s level.  Campbell Morgan (who was a mentor of Martyn Lloyd-Jones!) writes about this, in his The Gospel According to John:

He said,  Simon, are you devoted to Me?  The word our Lord used is far more than emotional.  It describes complete devotion.  Simon dared not climb to the height of the word used by his Lord.  He honestly replied that he loved Him, using the purely emotional word.  He asked him again, Simon, are you devoted to Me?  and again he dared not climb.  He said, I love You.  Then with infinite grace, the Lord came down to Simon’s word, Do you love Me?  Simon did not like that.  He did not like Jesus coming down to the lower word.  But still he used it, “Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee.”

Bishop Ryle adds, in his commentary on this passage:

We should notice first, in these verses, Christ’s question to Peter–“Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Three times we find the same inquiry made. It seems most probable that this three-fold repetition was meant to remind the Apostle of his own thrice-repeated denial. Once we find a remarkable addition to the inquiry–“do you love Me more than these?” It is a reasonable supposition that those three words “more than these,” were meant to remind Peter of his over-confident assertion–“Though all men deny You, yet I will not.” It is just as if our Lord would say, “Will you now exalt yourself above others? Have you yet learned your own weakness?”

“Do you love Me” may seem at first sight a simple question. In one sense it is so. Even a child can understand love, and can say whether he loves another or not. Yet “Do you love Me” is, in reality, a very searching question. We may know much, and do much, and profess much, and talk much, and work much, and give much, and go through much, and make much show in our religion, and yet be dead before God, from lack of love, and at last go down to the pit. Do we love Christ? That is the great question. Without this there is no vitality about our Christianity. We are no better than painted wax figures, lifeless stuffed beasts in a museum, sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. There is no life where there is no love.

Let us take heed that there is some feeling in our religion. Knowledge, orthodoxy, correct views, regular use of forms, a respectable moral life–all these do not make up a true Christian. There must be some personal feeling towards Christ. Feeling alone, no doubt, is a poor useless thing, and may be here today and gone tomorrow. But the entire absence of feeling is a very bad symptom, and speaks ill for the state of a man’s soul. The men and women to whom Paul wrote his Epistles had feelings, and were not ashamed of them. There was One in heaven whom they loved, and that One was Jesus the Son of God. Let us strive to be like them, and to have some real feeling in our Christianity, if we hope to share their reward.

I take away two lessons for myself from all this, the first being that Jesus will meet us where we are – He does not ask more of us than He did Peter when we start the path of discipleship.  But the second lesson for me is that He does not ask less of us than He did Peter: we should strive toward loving Him with that agape love – with complete devotion!

We should notice first, in these verses, Christ’s question to Peter–“Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Three times we find the same inquiry made. It seems most probable that this three-fold repetition was meant to remind the Apostle of his own thrice-repeated denial. Once we find a remarkable addition to the inquiry–“do you love Me more than these?” It is a reasonable supposition that those three words “more than these,” were meant to remind Peter of his over-confident assertion–“Though all men deny You, yet I will not.” It is just as if our Lord would say, “Will you now exalt yourself above others? Have you yet learned your own weakness?”

“Do you love Me” may seem at first sight a simple question. In one sense it is so. Even a child can understand love, and can say whether he loves another or not. Yet “Do you love Me” is, in reality, a very searching question. We may know much, and do much, and profess much, and talk much, and work much, and give much, and go through much, and make much show in our religion, and yet be dead before God, from lack of love, and at last go down to the pit. Do we love Christ? That is the great question. Without this there is no vitality about our Christianity. We are no better than painted wax figures, lifeless stuffed beasts in a museum, sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. There is no life where there is no love.

Let us take heed that there is some feeling in our religion. Knowledge, orthodoxy, correct views, regular use of forms, a respectable moral life–all these do not make up a true

Christian. There must be some personal feeling towards Christ. Feeling alone, no doubt, is a poor useless thing, and may be here today and gone tomorrow. But the entire absence of feeling is a very bad symptom, and speaks ill for the state of a man’s soul. The men and women to whom Paul wrote his Epistles had feelings, and were not ashamed of them. There was One in heaven whom they loved, and that One was Jesus the Son of God. Let us strive to be like them, and to have some real feeling in our Christianity, if we hope to share their reward.

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