When Peter denied Jesus 3 times, he went away and wept bitterly. We really don’t see much of Peter until after Jesus’ resurrection though. The first two times Peter saw Jesus, it was when He appeared to the disciples from behind a locked door. In that first appearing, Jesus said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21-22) and in the second appearing He addressed Thomas’ doubt directly.
I don’t know about you, but if I were Peter, the thing that would come into my mind when Jesus first appeared would be a mix of joy in seeing Him alive and a sorrowful repentance over denying Him 3 times before His death, but we don’t see that addressed here. Then when Jesus appeared a second time and addressed Thomas’ shortcoming of doubt, I would think my issue of denial would be next, but we don’t see that addressed here either. We don’t even see Peter assert himself the way he usually did before Jesus was crucified. It wasn’t until the next appearing when Jesus comes to the Sea of Tiberias as Peter and some disciples had been fishing all night, that we see Peter jump into the water and swim to Jesus when John told him it was Jesus standing on the shore.
The next thing we see is this interaction between Jesus and Peter after they had finished having breakfast.
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 a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him a 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)
On first reading, it is understandable why Peter was grieved that Jesus asked him if he loved Him a third time, yet when looking even deeper, we see that Jesus was indeed being loving by meeting Peter where he was at that moment.
It’s important to know that in the Greek, the language the New Testament was written in, there are different words used for love. In English we have one word and we use it interchangeably to be interpreted according to context. However, we don’t love our favorite food the way we love our family, friends, or spouse. So in that sense, the English language falls short when it comes to the word “love”. The Greek, on the other hand, has 4 words for love to represent familial love, brotherly love, spousal intimacy love, and the unconditional and sacrificial love of God.
Understanding the Greek:
In this section of Scripture, both brotherly love (phileō) and the unconditional and sacrificial love of God (agapaō) are used.
(On a quick side note: we often hear this love described as Agape love, and this is because agapaō is the root word that agape, or Agape as it’s said in English, is derived from)
When Jesus asked Peter the first time, He asked, “Do you agapaō me?” and Peter replied, “You know that I phileō you.”
When Jesus asked Peter the second time, He asked, “Do you agapaō me?” and Peter replied, “You know that I phileō you.”
When Jesus asked Peter the third time, He instead asked, “Do you phileō me? And Peter replied, “You know that I phileō you.”
We see that Peter is honest in his reply that while Jesus is asking if Peter loves Him unconditionally and sacrificially, at that moment the love that Peter could honestly profess was a brotherly love. Yet, the third time, Jesus met him where he was at and asked if he had brotherly love for Him. Three times Peter had denied, and three times he professes his brotherly love for Jesus.
Further on in this encounter, Jesus tells Peter that he will indeed be martyred for His sake to glorify God, and then Jesus ends that encounter by saying, “Follow me.” While it did cause grief in Peter because Jesus asked him 3 times, it was also encouragement from Jesus, because while in that moment of time Peter could only honestly profess to have a brotherly love for Jesus, he would eventually grow in his unconditional and sacrificial love FOR God by abiding IN God.
I would also be remiss if I don’t mention the second part of Jesus’ interaction, which was regarding the tending of His sheep.
The first time Jesus says, “Feed my lambs”, it is boskō egō arnion in the Greek.
The second time Jesus says, “Tend my sheep”, it is poimainō egō probation in the Greek.
The third time Jesus says, Feed my sheep”, it is boskō egō probation in the Greek.
This is important because Jesus was not only stating the importance by repeating Himself, but He was including how to view His followers and care for them.
Here is what those Greek words mean:
Boskō – to pasture, fodder/feed, graze
Arnion – lambkin, a little lamb
Poimainō – to tend as a shepherd to, feed, rule
Probation – sheep, sheepfold
Jesus views us as His lambs, some are little and some are bigger, which speaks to our spiritual maturity, but we all need to be fed. Now as far as it was speaking to Peter, who would later take on the roll of a pastor/shepherd in the Jewish community of those who would come to believe in Jesus Christ as Messiah, it also speaks to the heart of God towards us and how we should view one another.
If we are viewing our brothers and sisters in Christ in any way other than how God sees them, then we’re in the wrong and we’re not showing that agapaō love of God. When Jesus gave the new command in John 13:34-35 to love one another as He has loved us and that people will know we’re His disciples if we have love for one another, He uses the word agapaō in reference to the love He has and the love He expects from us towards one another. We cannot show that agapaō love of God if we’re not abiding in Him, because we cannot give what we are not receiving. At best, we’ll peak at phileō brotherly love, which while sweet, still falls short of what God intends for us.
If you have been or still are in the place Peter found himself, whether in moments of weakness or denial or only able to offer brotherly love, heed the words of Jesus and follow Him, abiding in Him the vine, whom apart from you can do nothing (John 15). And may you, when asked by our Lord Jesus, “Do you agapaō me?”, be able to answer with full confidence, “Yes Lord, I agapaō You!”