“Do you truly love me….?”
The test of love is a searching of the heart.
Soon after his resurrection Jesus this question to Peter, “Do you truly love me more than these?” (John 21:15). Such had been Peter’s proud boast earlier (see Mark 14:29); but now the setting in which he found himself would surely have reminded him of his later denial:
- a charcoal fire. He had been standing by one when he first denied knowing his Lord, and he is standing by one now as Jesus prepares breakfast on the shore of Galilee.
- three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him; three times he had dissociated himself from Jesus, just as Jesus had said he would.
- Jesus had introduced his prediction of Peter’s denial with the words, “I tell you the truth…” and now those same words introduce another prediction following Peter’s confession of love concerning the kind of death he would die, thereby glorifying God.
How thoroughly we see Jesus searching Peter’s heart! It is the same kind of heart-searching of which the psalmist speaks in Psalm 139 where says that God knows him when he sits down or gets up, goes out or lies down, what he is thinking and what he is going to say before he says it.
Jesus’ question to Peter uses a significant word for ‘love’ (‘agapeo’). It is the usual word for love in the New Testament, with a special quality about it. It is used of God’s love for it emanates from the heart and nature of the lover, regardless of the state of the one loved. It loves no matter what, totally and unreservedly. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him like that.
In Peter’s answer a different word is used, a word that describes love between brothers (‘phileo’). Some scholars argue that there is no distinction to be made between the two words, but I prefer to see Peter’s response as implying that he loves Jesus but is not prepared to be so rash in is claims as he has been in the past.
With the third question, however, Jesus comes down, as it were, to Peter’s level; he now uses Peter’s own word, the somewhat weaker word, phileo. Understandably, Peter is hurt by this. Is Jesus now questioning even his affection for him? It could not have been a comfortable experience for Peter, but after his cowardly denial his love had to be subjected to a test. And if we are going to avoid making, or failing to live up to, rash claims of discipleship, then our love also has to undergo such a test. Peter has learned his lesson. He is no longer relying upon his own estimation of his heart, he surrenders to the fact that Jesus knows him through and through and still has time for him. “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you”.
With each question and each response there came a commissioning: ‘feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep’. The Lord knows our weaknesses, that we make bold claims that we cannot sustain, that we do our best in this matter of discipleship even if that falls short of what it could be, that our total love is, as often as not, more like fondness. But he still has a place for us in his service. He did not dismiss Peter as a failure, he tested then re-commissioned him as a follower. And he still does that!
The Lord cannot bless the proud, false claims of love and loyalty which will, sooner or later, become apparent for what they are. But he can and will bless the humble acknowledgement of weakness and the humble appeal for grace.
Your brother in Christ,