If you’ve been following my writings, you know that I have a few different “favorite” Bible passages. For examples, see Psalm 51:10-13 and Matthew 22:34-40. Another of those favorites can be found at the end of the Gospel of John. I think we often gloss over this one and miss the deeper implications of friendship with Christ.
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you 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 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. Very truly I tell you, 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.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
Very often, we get caught up in the meaning of “Feed my sheep.” It is reasonably our nature to do so because we think it gives us insight on the kinds of things we need to be doing, and we would rather deal with actions and directions more than hearts and relationships. Let me just throw you a bone and say that the “Feed my sheep” instruction is simply for Peter to take the reins…take on the role of shepherding the faithful. There is something for us to glean there and much time could be spent in elaboration, but I want to focus my time today more on the relationship between Jesus and Peter as depicted in this interaction.
First, a little background. Jesus had many people who followed him around. There were the crowds that would come and go. There was a smaller group of 72 disciples that Jesus sent out in Luke 10. There were the twelve disciples (or apostles if you prefer). There was the three; Peter, James, and John. And, finally there was Peter. It seems that the smaller the circle, the closer the relationship. It could be argued that Peter, James, and John were equally close, and that may be true, but there are more examples of interactions between Peter and Jesus and that fact drives that relationship to the preeminent position. Jesus had begun to call all of the disciples his friends (see John 15:15), but of those Peter seemed to take the spot of “Best Friend.” That fact is crucial to understanding the interaction in John 21.
As further background, the situation in John 21 is that Jesus has already been crucified, and has been resurrected. Distraught and discouraged, the disciples have gone fishing. Of them all, Peter was particularly troubled because he had failed so miserably on the night of Jesus’ capture. Peter was a broken man due to his disowning of his best friend on the night of his arrest.
Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”
Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!”
That was the prediction. Here was the fulfillment:
“You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?” she asked Peter. He replied, “I am not.”
Meanwhile, Simon Peter was still standing there warming himself. So they asked him, “You aren’t one of his disciples too, are you?”
He denied it, saying, “I am not.”
One of the high priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, “Didn’t I see you with him in the garden?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.
Parallel passages add two more details. First, upon the last denial, Jesus turned and looked him in the eyes. Can you imagine the pain that would have shot through his heart? Second, he then went out and wept bitterly. He was heart-broken at his own failures; he had failed his friend at the point of his greatest need.
With that background in mind, we come back to the morning breakfast described in John 21. Let me condense the conversation just a bit:
Jesus: “Simon, do you love (agape) me more than these?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord. You know I love (phileo) you.”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you.”
Jesus: “Simon son of John, do you love (phileo) me?”
It says that Peter was particularly hurt by this third question.
Peter: “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love (phileo) you.”
To really understand the dynamic of this interaction, you have to understand the differences between the words that are both translated to “love” in the English version of this passage.
Agape is a Greek word that is translated into love, but it’s meaning is more focused on an intellectual decision to seek the best for another; a decision to put yourself second in order to lift up, protect, or provide for someone else followed up by the actions of doing those things. It is more of a decisional and action word than an emotional one. It can be applied whether there is any emotional connection or not.
Phileo is another Greek word that is translated into love in English, but as opposed agape, it is much more emotional. It denotes a deep bond; a closeness of friendship, an emotional engagement of the heart. It is at the heart of being best friends.
I used to really wonder why the third question bothered Peter so much. After all, it is the same question, right? Well, as it turns out, it is not. It is a completely different question, but that meaning is lost in the English translation. Let me paraphrase the passage as it strikes me in light of the Greek meanings:
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, am I more of a priority to you than I am to these other disciples?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know that I am your best friend.”
Jesus said, “Take care of the others.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, am I your first priority?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I am your best friend.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my followers.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, are you really my best friend?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Are you really my best friend?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I am your best friend.”
Jesus said, “Care for the others.”
The reason that third question hurt Peter so much was that it struck at the heart of what he was already feeling. He knew that he had failed in his friendship, and now Jesus was directly asking him if he really was his friend or not.
Have you ever felt that way?
Peter had spent years developing this friendship with Jesus only to fail him miserably. As a result, he had begun to wallow in the pain brought about by that failure. He had lost his spirit to lead, to work, to serve in the name of his Lord and friend.
Are we so different?
Do we not work to build up our ledger of faith only to have it crash down to zero when we fail during a point of personal weakness? Do we not begin to think of ourselves as a great friend to Jesus only to later feel worthless in light of one sin or another? On Sunday morning, we might sing “I’ve got a friend in Jesus” only to later that night feel so separated and alone.
A couple of points to notice about how Jesus dealt with Peter here:
1. He did not beat him up about his failure. Neither did he ignore it. It was a fact. It was reality. However, Jesus did not hammer him about how terrible a friend he really was.
2. Jesus redirected him. He basically picked him up by his britches and told him to get busy. “If you are my friend, then get back in the game and feed my sheep! Here are the reins, Big Boy, now get after it!”
Jesus pushed Peter to the point of pain in acknowledging their emotional bond, and then he told him to think of the others and take care of them.
Doesn’t this also apply to us?
We all fall short. We all sin. In essence, we all deny our friendship with Christ at different points in our lives. When that happens to me, one of my first instincts is to allow that grief and guilt to make me feel worthless. It makes me want to wallow in the guilt and pain. It makes me withdraw from those around me and retreat into my own self-pity. It puts me into the position of being spiritually useless.
Jesus knows. He is aware. He has already seen it in Peter, so why would he be surprised when he sees it in us?...in me?
“Mike, am I really your first priority?” asks Jesus.
“Lord, you know my heart is yours,” I respond.
“Then, get back to work,” he tells me.
“Mike, do I really have your heart…are you really my friend?” he probes as if using a needle to extract a thorn.
Oh, man! Ouch! I have to ask myself….does he really have my heart?...am I really his friend?
“Lord, yes! You know what is inside me. You know you have it all! You know I am your friend”
“Then,” he says, “Get up out of your wallowing hole and get to work!”
We’ve been told in advance that we would fall short. He knew we would have those failures. And, we all do…we all have those sins…those little denials of our faith…those thorns in our flesh…those disgusting, distressing, discouraging weaknesses of character that cause us to fail our Lord. It is fact. It is undeniable. He isn't going to beat us up about it. He just wants to us to get back on track.
So, when he asks, “Are you really my friend?” we will answer both by what we say AND by what we do.
“You are my friends if you do what I command.”
Sounds a lot like “Feed my sheep.”
Get busy doing the work of your ministry!
As I boil this all down, I think the basic summary message is that when we fail in our friendship with our Lord, he is not surprised and we shouldn’t allow that failure to make us withdraw from him or from our responsibilities to him. Instead, we need to renew that commitment in our heart and get back to the work at hand.
Connect your heart, and then connect your life.