“When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?'” — John 21:15 (NIV)
Shane Stanford, whose The Seven Next Words of Christ (Abingdon Press, 2006) provided the framework for this series of devotions, considered the entire 21st chapter of John as a single word. There is a certain symmetry to seven last words balanced by seven next words. Besides, according to the number symbolism in biblical times, seven is the number of completion. Still, I think Jesus’ interview with Peter is too important to combine it with anything else.
Peter had always been brash and impulsive. When the disciples argued over which of them was the greatest, Peter must have been in the thick of it. At the Last Supper, when Jesus predicted that all the disciples would desert him, Peter boldly contradicted him. Then, of course, he denied Jesus three times. After the resurrection, he decided to go back to the fishing trade.
Jesus’ question to him has three possible interpretations: Do you love me more than 153 fish? Do you love me more than you love the other disciples? Do you love me more than the other disciples do? As to the first two interpretations, Peter and every other Christ-follower must answer an unqualified yes.
As for the third interpretation, no one can possibly make that comparison, but Peter had as much as claimed so when he declared that even if all the other disciples deserted Jesus, he never would. Put that way, the question demands humility.
However Peter interpreted the first question, he answered, “You know I love you.” As Greek is richer in shades of meaning than English, it bears repeating that Jesus asked his question using agapao for love and Peter replied with phileo. It is as if Jesus asked, “Do you love me with a sacrificial love” and Peter responded, “You know I consider you a friend.” He could not bring himself to claim that higher love.
Jesus asked the question a second time, and Peter responded the same way. Then to Peter’s great embarrassment, Jesus asked the third time, but this time using phileo: “Do you even love me to the extent your choice of words suggests?” That broke Peter’s heart, but three hurtful questions balanced out three denials.
Every time Peter confessed his love, Jesus reminded him of his commission. Jesus had chosen Peter for a particular role in establishing the church. Peter’s shameful sin did not cancel that assignment, but sin requires restoration. Jesus certainly hurt Peter’s feelings, but restoration must cost something.
Jesus also reminded Peter that his assignment would ultimately cost his life and commanded him, “Follow me.” In this case, it explicitly meant “follow me to death by execution.” But now that Jesus had restored Peter, he could trust him to complete his mission.
No Christian since has avoided confrontation with this same question. We must love Jesus more than any activity, more than any possession, more than any relationship. Until we do, we live below his expectation for us and below our kingdom privileges.
Do you love Jesus with the special sacrificial love the Holy Spirit gives?