Poor Peter. No doubt he was miserable. He had done the very opposite of what he promised. Would he ever step up to the plate and be a sacrifice for Jesus the way Jesus was a sacrifice for him? Would Jesus even let him back into the fold after his betrayal. Yes, it was a betrayal as much as was Judas’ betrayal. He had verbally denied Jesus three times, calling down curses and taking oaths. He abandoned Jesus after promising to fight alone for him if he had to. Now Jesus was back. I imagine Peter could hardly look at Jesus in the eye.
However, Jesus pulls him aside and let’s Peter know there is a place for him in the kingdom. He let’s Peter know there is a job for him in the kingdom. He let’s Peter know that he will grow and keep his promise, he will sacrifice himself for Jesus.
There is an interesting textual occurrence here that we miss in the English. I know some think I make too much of this and I hope they add their thoughts into this discussion. But I’ll share what I get out of this.
In John 21:15, when Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, the author used the Greek word “agapao.” When Peter responded, “You know that I love you.” The author chose the Greek word “phileo.” This does not mean that Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” and Peter responded, “You know I like you very much.” Both words meant “love.” But these words had a different coloring. “Agapeo” is a selfless, ready to serve at all costs love. “Phileo” is an intense affection based on constant relationship. “Agapeo” means I’ll do anything for you. “Phileo” means I esteem you above everything.
Can you see why Peter might have balked at using “agapeo”? He loved Jesus, but his actions had already demonstrated he wasn’t able to do anything for Jesus. Peter wasn’t quite ready to say what Jesus said, but he did love Jesus. I have felt like that. I love Jesus, but my actions show I’m not quite there on the sacrificing part yet. Do I love Jesus enough? That has to be in Peter’s mind.
Jesus’ first question was “Do you love me more than these?” I have to think that was in reference to the apostles based on Peter’s earlier claim that even if all the apostles fell away, he would die for Jesus. Peter was humbled. He couldn’t say that. However, he did love Jesus.
So Jesus asked a second time, this time without reference to anyone else around. It was just, “Do you love me?” (agapeo). Peter again responds, “Yes, Lord I phileo you.” Even without the modifier, Peter has been humbled. Not only will he no longer brag about his greater love than anyone else. He can’t bring himself to say he would do anything. He is weak and small and he doesn’t think he can make it.
Finally, Jesus says, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you phileo me?” Peter was grieved that it was brought to this. But he responded, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I phileo you.” Jesus gave Peter a mission–”Feed my sheep.” In other words, “Peter, you are not called to make the ultimate sacrifice yet. If you love, just feed my sheep.” But then He provides the ultimate for Peter, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” In other words, “Peter, you didn’t make the ultimate sacrifice a few days ago. Right now you think you won’t ever be able to do it. But I’m telling you, you will. You will grow. You will keep your promise.”
The great lesson for me is that Jesus accepts us where we are. We don’t have to be the ultimately mature disciples to be on Jesus’ side. If we simply devote ourselves to Him, He will grow us. Our love will increase. With each passing day, our sacrifice will become greater.
If Jesus would accept Peter back, He will take us and use us as well. And He will help us grow.
Keep the faith and keep reading,
PS: If you would like to read or hear more about this and more about the lessons I learn from this occurrence, check out the sermon I presented to the Franklin church at the following link.