Rinse & Repeat
Jesus and Peter were locked in a verbal skirmish that Peter knew he was sure to lose. Getting reprimanded for his denial was something he expected, but this? Jesus seemed to be giving a pop quiz on the relative breadth and quality of Peter’s love. And Peter wondered to himself how to prove a positive – how to say “Yes!” loud enough. Of course he loved Jesus – just like a brother. But then…there was that denial thing. And so, Peter responded with: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” ~John 21:15b And then Jesus had followed it up with a rather peculiar command: “Feed my lambs.” ~John 21:15b.
Peter was not gifted at these sort of verbal jousts. His was a world of action, of manly man stuff. As he was trying to absorb the question and the command, Jesus had another go at it: 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.” ~John 21:16
Well, it was almost the same exchange except the command had grown from lambs to sheep. Peter was now back on his heels. As a man of action he simply wanted to have it out with Jesus and be done with it. He could handle a sharp rebuke for his denying and cowardly ways. But the tact that Jesus was now using was perplexing. Was the resurrected Jesus a bit deaf or daft? Before he could fully process that thought Jesus came at him again: 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.” ~John 21: 17
The Greek word for love from Jesus changes and it is not without some significance. Peter’s reply has remained the same throughout. “I love (phileo) you like a brother.” The first two times Jesus had asked whether or not Peter loved (agapeo) him as one whom Peter could not live without (A strict meaning of the word agapeo). On the third go, Jesus, quite surprisingly drops it down to (phileo). “Peter, do you love (phileo) me like a brother?” Peter simply couldn’t confess to the high call of agapeo love. He had proven that with his denial. The denial was self-evident proof that Peter could live without Jesus. So, in great linguistic mercy Jesus asked a love from Peter which he could muster – the noble but lesser “phileo” love. And that subtle change of just one word opened up for Peter the unlimited mercies of heaven. In effect, Jesus was saying, “I’ll take the love you have at present, such as it is. We’ll go and grow from there.” And it’s the same for you and me.