John’s gospel was written with a specific purpose in mind, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). John focused his attention on the fact that Jesus was an eternal being, but never lost sight of the human qualities that made Jesus like everyone else. In the last chapter of his book, John recorded a conversation between Jesus and Peter that centered on the affection and devotion that had developed between these two men. John wrote:
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.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 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. (John 21:15-17)
Jesus began by asking Peter a question that was intended to reveal the motive behind Peter’s commitment to him. Jesus asked, “Do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15). The word that Jesus used that is translated love, agapao (ag-ap-ahˊ-o) means “to regard with strong affection” (G25) and is used to describe the love that God has for his Son Jesus (John 3:35). The reason why Jesus asked Peter if he loved him more than these may have been because Peter’s priorities were skewed toward personal satisfaction, rather than serving the Lord.
All four of the gospels indicate that Peter and his brother Andrew were among the first group of disciples that Jesus called into his ministry. John makes note of the fact that Andrew was originally a disciple of John the Baptist (John 1:35-37) and introduced Peter to Jesus. John states, “One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter)” (John 1:40-42). Jesus clearly discerned Simon’s inner character and gave him a new name that described him perfectly, Cephas or Peter, but the personal connection between them apparently wasn’t enough to convince Peter to follow Jesus. Luke’s gospel identifies a second encounter that resulted in Peter making a commitment to follow the Lord. Luke states:
On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:1-11)
The incident that occurred the day that Jesus called Peter to follow him is very similar to what was going on the third time Jesus revealed himself to his disciples after his resurrection. John states:
After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. 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.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on 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 of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. (John 21:1-8)
Peter’s decision to go fishing contradicted the statement that Jesus made when he called him into his ministry, “from now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5:10), and yet, Jesus didn’t rebuke his disciples, but encouraged them in their efforts by providing so many fish that they couldn’t haul them all in (John 21:6).
Peter’s response to Jesus’ question, “do you love me more than these” (John 21:15) indicated that Peter was aware that there was a difference between the way that the Lord loved him and the way that he loved Jesus. In his question, “do you love me more than these,” Jesus used the word agapao to signify the type of love that he expected from Peter. John 21:15 states, “He said to him, ‘Yes. Lord; you know that I love you.’” The Greek word that is translated love in this verse is phileo (fil-ehˊ-o) which means, “to be a friend to…Phileo is never used in a command to men to ‘love’ God…agapao is used instead, e.g., Matthew 22:37; Luke 10:27; Romans 8:28; 1 Corinthians 8:3; 1 Peter 1:8; 1 John 4:21. The distinction between the two verbs finds a conspicuous instance in the narrative of John 21:15-17. The context itself indicates that agapao in the first two questions suggests the ‘love’ that values and esteems (cf. Revelation 12:11). It is an unselfish ‘love,’ ready to serve. The use of phileo in Peter’s answers and the Lord’s third question, conveys the thought of cherishing the Object above all else, of manifesting an affection characterized by constancy, from the motive of the highest veneration” (G5368). Peter’s response seems to be appropriate given that Jesus asked him, “do you love me more than these” (John 21:15). Peter cherished Jesus more than anything or perhaps even more than anyone else, but the kind of love that Peter had wasn’t enough to keep him from denying that he knew the Lord (John 18:15-17) or from deciding to go fishing when he should have been telling people about Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:21; 21:3).
Jesus talked about love in the context of abiding (John 15:1-17). As a vine and its branches are intimately connected and dependent on each other for nourishment and support, Jesus encouraged his disciples to rely on him for their spiritual well-being. Jesus said, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5). Jesus demonstrated this principle when he told his disciples to “cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some” (John 21:6) after they had been fishing all night and had caught nothing (John 21:4-5). The Greek word that is translated abide, meno (menˊ-o) means “to stay (in a given place, state, relation or expectancy)” (G3306). John elaborated on this point in his first epistle. It states specifically, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:15-16). John’s statement, “God is love” (1 John 4:16) is confusing unless you understand the kind of love that John was talking about. John used the word agape (ag-ahˊ-pay), a derivative of the word agapao, to describe love as something that exists rather than something that we feel or something that we have to see in order for it to be real to us. “In respect of agapao as used of God, it expresses the deep and constant love and interest of a perfect Being towards entirely unworthy objects, producing and fostering a reverential love in them towards the Giver, a practical love towards those who are partakers of the same, and a desire to help others to seek the Giver” (G26).
God’s relationship with the Israelites was based on love (Deuteronomy 4:37) and in a similar way to Jesus’ illustration of the vine and branches, the people of Israel were expected to remain in constant fellowship with God. Moses told the Israelites, “Your eyes have seen what the LORD did at Baal-peor, for the LORD your God destroyed from among you all the men who followed the Baal of Peor. But you who held fast to the LORD your God are all alive today” (Deuteronomy 4:3-4). The Hebrew word that is translated held fast, dabeq (daw-bakeˊ) has to do with adhering to something (H1695). Dabeq is derived from the word dabaq (daw-bakˊ) which is translated cleave in Genesis 2:24 where is says, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” The relationship between God and the Israelites was designed to be a permanent one that would last throughout eternity, but the basis of their relationship was sinless perfection and the Israelites could not achieve that status. Moses’ instruction to the Israelites before he died was, “Only take care and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life” (Deuteronomy 4:9). Keeping your soul diligently implies a constant effort to remain aware of and responsive to the word of God and in particular, with regard to the Israelites, living each day according to the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 4:13). If the Israelites did what they were supposed to, it would go well with them, but Moses said, if they provoked God to anger, they would “soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed” (Deuteronomy 4:25-26).
Jesus explained to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:9-13). Jesus made it clear that obedience was still a requirement for having a relationship with God, but he also pointed out that we are expected to keep his commandments, not the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. Jesus said that he had kept his Father’s commandments and then stated his commandment to us, “that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Jesus used the Greek word agapao to describe the kind of love that we receive from him and that he wants us to give to others. As a standard of measurement, Jesus added, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). In this final statement, Jesus used the word agape, suggesting that God’s love is larger or of a greater magnitude than what humans can achieve, as was demonstrated through Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross. Jesus’ suffering, which is depicted in Psalm 22, shows us the extreme lengths that he went to in order to save us. Jesus’ command that we love one another meant that it was his desire was for us to express his essential nature to others. “Love can be known only from the action it prompts as God’s love is seen in the gift of His Son (1 John 4:9, 10)” (G26).
The second time that he asked Peter, “Do you love me?” (John 21:16), Jesus likely wanted to make Peter aware of the fact that his affection for him was the result of an inferior type of love that wasn’t reliable. After Peter gave the same response, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (phileo) you” (John 21:16), instead of saying “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15), Jesus instructed Peter to, “Tend my sheep” (John 21:16). One of the analogies that Jesus used to illustrate his relationship with his followers was the good shepherd. Jesus compared the good shepherd with a thief and a robber and said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:10-13). When Jesus told Peter to “Tend my sheep” (John 21:16), he was placing him in a position of responsibility that was comparable to his own. The Greek word that is translated tend, poimaino (poy-mahˊ-ee-no) means “to tend as a shepherd” and “refers to the whole process of shepherding, guiding, guarding, folding, and providing pasture” (G4165). Rather than just feeding his lambs, Jesus wanted Peter to care for his sheep as if they were his own. Jesus’ illustration of the hired hand as someone that sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, may have brought to Peter’s mind his denial of the Lord and perhaps made him realize that he was unworthy of the role of being a shepherd to Jesus’ followers.
When Jesus asked Peter the third time, “Do you love me?” (John 21:17), he used the Greek word phileo instead of agapao to signify the kind of love he expected from Peter and therefore, seemed to be lowering his standard of Peter’s ability to love him. John tells us, “Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love (phileo) me?’” (John 21:17), indicating that Peter felt convicted of his sin and realized that his failure had diminished his credibility as a leader. The point that Jesus probably wanted to make was not that Peter had been disqualified from serving him, but that Peter’s failure was evidence that his phileo love for Jesus was insufficient to accomplish his mission of spreading the gospel throughout the world. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus identified the key to continuous fellowship with God, unity. Jesus prayed:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:20-23)
The phrase become perfectly one is translated be made perfect in one in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. The difference is significant in that the KJV indicates that the result is that we are made perfect, whereas the English Standard Version (ESV) focuses on the type of oneness that is to be achieved, perfectly one, the same kind of unity that Jesus had with his Father. Psalm 133, a song of ascents, opens with the statement, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1) and concludes with, “For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore” (Psalm 133:3). It might be said that unity is the channel through which eternal life flows to mankind.
Jesus concluded his conversation with Peter by reconfirming his calling. After he told Peter by what kind of death he was going to glorify God, Jesus said to him, “Follow me” (John 21:19). The Greek word that is translated follow, akoloutheo (ak-ol-oo-thehˊ-o) is properly translated as “to be in the same way with” (G190). In order for someone to be a follower of Christ, a union must take place. Paul explained in his letter to the Ephesians that God has united all things in Christ by the shedding of his blood on the cross (Ephesians 2:13) and that God is in the process of making all believers into a single unit or body (Ephesians 2:14-16). Paul went on to say, “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16). The Greek word that Paul used to signify love is agape, suggesting that God’s love is developed in us through the building up or the spiritual strengthening that results from teaching the word of God. That’s why Jesus’ final command to Peter was, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17), meaning, if you really love me, then provide spiritual nourishment to my followers so that they can grow in their faith.