Most translations fail to bring out that two different words are translated as "love" in John 21:15-17. Twice, Jesus asks Peter if he had agape love for Him, and both times Peter says, "Yes, You know that I love you"—but Peter does not use agape but phileo, which indicates personal warmth, regard, and affection. Phileo is a more fickle, more human love than agape, which is a reasoned, intentional devotion with a moral core. Agape love comes from God, and it is focused on what is right and best for the other person, regardless of how one feels.
Jesus twice asks Peter if he has this agape love, and both times Peter can only truthfully respond that he has tremendous personal affection for Him. Peter cannot say he has agape love for Him, when he had recently demonstrated that he did not love Jesus as much as he had claimed. Peter feels personal warmth and affection for His Messiah, but when it came to putting His will above his own, Peter is not as devoted as he has claimed. We can see that the love of God cannot be separated from the will of God. His will forms the basis for agape love; if an act is outside of God's will, it cannot be agape love.
Peter probably thought his intention to sacrifice his life was an act of agape love! After all, that same Passover night, Jesus had told the disciples that "greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:13). So Peter may have reasoned that dying with Jesus would demonstrate godly love. Yet, because that was not God's will for Peter, such a great sacrifice was not actually the love of God!
The third time that Jesus questions Peter, He uses the word phileo. He lowers the bar, essentially asking Peter if He were a close friend and felt affection for Him. This upsets Peter, because, undoubtedly, his recent failure is still fresh in his mind, and these reminders are painful. The gospels record that after Peter had denied Christ the third time, and the rooster crowed, that Peter "wept bitterly," indicating painfully moving grief.
In John 21:17, that grief is still present: "Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, 'Do you love Me?' And he said to Him, 'Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.'" Here the translations obscure another important distinction. In addition to the two Greek words for "love," these verses also contain two different Greek words translated as "know." When Peter says, "You know all things," it is the same Greek word that he uses in his previous answers—eido—and it means "to see," usually in a figurative sense. It has the sense of understanding, comprehending, and perceiving.
But this third time, after Jesus asks if Peter had phileo love for him, he responds with a different word that means "to know." This time he uses ginosko, indicating an experiential knowledge. His third response, then, implies that Jesus understood all things and had experienced Peter's phileo love toward Him, yet the humbled Peter will not claim that Jesus had experienced agape love from him. The lesson for Peter (and for us) is that we cannot have agape love if Christ does not supply it. If He is active in us, however, then the meager efforts we put forth—if they are His will—will begin to produce abundantly, just like the earlier great catch of fish.
Each time Peter responds, Jesus commands him in a way that links to Peter's answers. The meaning is that because Peter loves Christ, here is what Christ wants him to do. His commands apply mostly to the ministry, yet there are aspects of them that every member can put into practice. This is not to suggest that we try to take on a role that God has not given to us, but these commands provide guidelines for how each of us can support those God puts in our path.
In verses 15 and 17, Jesus tells Peter to feed those under his care. In verse 15, it is with regard to the lambs—that is, Christians who are either young in years or new in the faith—and in verse 17, it refers to more mature sheep. Christ's emphasis is on providing spiritual food. In verse 16, Jesus tells Peter to "tend [His] sheep." "Tending" encompasses all of what a shepherd does for his sheep, which goes beyond just feeding, indicating total guardianship of the sheep, including tasks like guiding, governing, defending, putting them in a fold, checking for disease, etc.
On occasion, lay-members can contribute similarly. If, in our interactions with our brethren, we are reminded of a sermon or article that may edify them, we can certainly mention it. Perhaps we find ourselves in a position to give helpful advice or to warn other sheep about a wolf. Maybe we can keep someone from going astray by exposing some religious deception.
Yet, before assuming that we know what is good—and loving—it is wise for us to seek God's direction before pursuing our ideas of how someone can be "helped." Peter neglected to seek God's will before plunging into a course of action, and he ended up stumbling badly in trying to show agape love. If we act by our own will, even if it is out of the deepest of human regard and affection, it will not to bear the same good fruit as if it were God's will. Sometimes, in spite of what initially seems best to us, what is actually best is for God to work it out in a way that does not involve us or in a way in which our part is very different from what we had imagined. There is a time to speak, and a time to remain silent; a time to act, and a time to sit on one's hands. The only way to know the time is to seek the Good Shepherd and wait for His response.
Jesus continues His instructions to Peter in John 21:18-19:
"Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish." This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, "Follow Me."
When Peter was younger, he was his own man. Even within the parameters of God's law, he was accustomed to living on his own terms. His rebuke of Jesus regarding His death and resurrection, his determination to go to the death with Him, and his triple denial, are all examples of Peter "girding himself" and "walk[ing] where [he] wished." Until this point, he had been largely self-directed, but Jesus prophesies that, by the time he was old, Peter would be directed by somebody else, even to the point of a violent death. The language invokes an image of Peter being led by a Roman soldier to his crucifixion.
But there is something else to consider: This prophecy accepts Peter's pledge to Christ to lay down his life and endure both prison and death, but it also indicates that at his life's end, Peter would be fully submissive to God's will. God would be directing Peter's life, and he will have surrendered, even to the point of martyrdom. By allowing God to gird and carry him where he did not wish, Peter would then follow Christ in glorifying God by making a faithful witness.
Submission to God, seeking His will, and surrendering to it are encapsulated in Jesus' final two words: "Follow Me." Practicing that now is what will set the stage for Him to produce abundantly through us, both in this life and in the age to come.
- David C. Grabbe
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