More than 25 years ago, Raye Jeanne and I met. Our relationship was progressing fairly rapidly and I was trying to sort out my thoughts about her and us while at the same time feeling an emotional pull in a particular direction. There was a topic I wanted to address with her, but knew that it was a “fish or cut bait” issue and was uncertain about when and how to initiate that discussion.
Not knowing how to get into it very graciously, one evening I just said it: “I love you.”
There was silence for a couple of moments in the car. I knew that the direction of our relationship would likely be determined over the next few minutes of conversation. Then she responded. “Wow. That’s a heavy.”
While that may not have been the immediate response I wanted, it did lead to a profitable discussion about our relationship. (It must have gone well, as we were married less than a year after I uttered that sentence.)
The question of our devotion, commitment and affection for any other person is significant. The answer to the question, “Do you love me?” is vital for every marriage, and actually, every friendship. But nowhere is that question more important than in evaluating one’s relationship with Christ. In fact, it could be said that the most important question that anyone will ever answer is if he loves Jesus Christ. I say that because to love someone (including Christ) means that we are committed to that individual with our will and affections regardless of the cost to ourselves. To love another means to serve him out of devotion to him.
So the great question of life is, “Do I love Christ — am I committed to Him in such a way that I will serve, follow, and obey Him regardless of the cost to me?”
It was this very question that Jesus asked the apostle Peter after Jesus’ resurrection (John 21:15-18). You also remember that these questions were not only asked after Jesus’ resurrection, but also after Peter’s three-fold denial of Christ (Mt. 26:69-75) on the night of Jesus’ arrest — and on the night where he vehemently denied he would ever deny Christ (see Mk. 14:29; Lk. 22:33; Jn. 13:37).
It seems that a private restoration between Jesus and Peter had already taken place (Lk. 24:34) and now in John 21 a public restoration also takes place. For Peter’s three denials, Jesus offers Peter three opportunities to assert his love for Christ, and then also gives Peter three commands to obey.
Much has been made of the use of the verbs for “love” in these verses — in verses 15 and 16, Jesus asks, “Do you love (agapao — a “committed” love) Me?” while in verse 17 He asks, “Do you love (phileo — a “friendship” love) Me?” And since in all three answers Peter is said to use the verb phileo, some suggest that he is subtly asserting that he does not agapao Jesus, but only has phileo for Him. Yet Jesus likely was speaking to Peter in Aramaic and not Greek, and there is only one primary word for love in Aramaic, so the change in verbs was probably made by John. Additionally, John also uses a different words for caring for the sheep (“tend” and “shepherd”) and different words for the ones Peter was to tend (“lambs” and “sheep”). So it is likely that John is simply making stylistic changes that have no significant differences.
So the question of Peter was not so much “are you committed to Me?” or “are you My friend?” but “Do you love Me?” Three times Peter had denied association with Christ and now three times he was being given an opportunity to publicly declare both his association with Christ and also his love for Christ.
Before His denial, Peter had asserted that even if all others denied Christ, he would not. So Jesus begins by asking that question — “do you love Me more than these?” A humbled Peter drops the comparison and simply asserts, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” So Jesus presses further, “Do you love Me?” That is, “Do you? Do you really love in the way that you say you do?” And Peter asserts that he not only loves Jesus, but that Jesus knows that he does. One final time Jesus asks, “Do you love Me?” The force of this seems to be, “Peter, as you reflect on your inward desires and passions, do you really love Me?” Peter was grieved over this third question, perhaps because it reminded him of his denials and perhaps because it had to be asked three times, but he responds, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.” In this final affirmation he is just as emphatic as he was in his final denial in which he invoked the curses of God (Mt. 26:74). Yes, he loves Christ.
And with the three affirmations, Christ also gives three commissions to care for His people and His church. And here is still more encouragement and grace for Peter and us — even after failure, there is still ministry. With Peter’s repentance there also eventually came more ministry. This is the work that Christ accomplished on the cross for both Peter and us — that which Satan would use to destroy us is redeemed by God and used for His honor and glory.
The only question that remains for us now is, “Do you love Jesus?” Are you committed to following and obeying Him no matter where He will lead and what He will command?