Do You Love Me?

Jesus loved Simon Peter. He had seen in him the potential to be a great leader. And thus, Jesus had given him a new nickname, Petros, the Rock. Peter had not yet lived up to that lofty moniker. He had turned into a wee pebble in a moment of fear. Yet any who might be tempted to harshly judge Peter for his denials should proceed with both caution and humility. We’ve all denied Jesus now and again for lesser reasons than that which Peter faced. We are not at risk of being co-crucified with Jesus, as was Peter. Sometimes the most meager of critiques, a social slight or a bit of mocking buffoonery toward our faith is enough to mute our witness.

Knowing that Peter was deeply ashamed and rudderless, Jesus began the restoration with a provocative question: “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” ~John 21:15a The word for “love” here in the Greek is: ἀγαπάω (ä-gä-pä’-ō). There are other words translated as “love” throughout the New Testament, but “agapeo” is the ultimate expression of that word. Agapeo describes God’s love toward us; and, when all goes well, our love towards God. The definition runs as follows: “to take pleasure in a thing, prize it above other things, be unwilling to abandon it or do without it.” Let’s insert that into the text to grasp the depth of Jesus’ question: “Peter, do you take pleasure in me? Do you prize me above other things? Are you unwilling to abandon me or do without me?”

Well, we know the answer to that last bit don’t we? Peter was indeed willing to abandon Jesus. The choice of “agapeo” was an arrow to Peter’s heart. Therefore, Peter reached for his thesaurus and dug up a different word for love by way of response: “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” ~John 21:15b The word for love that Peter uses is: φιλέω (fē-le’-ō). There is nothing at all wrong with the word. It would be great if there was a lot more “phileo” in the world. But it is primarily affective in its meaning. It evokes a sense of natural affection and friendship. “Sure Jesus I phileo you! What’s not to phileo? We’re dear friends. Friends phileo!” Peter was hedging. He was dissembling. It wasn’t the answer that Jesus was looking for nor the one that Peter needed to get to. The questions would continue.