Traditionally, John 21:15-17 has been a rich source of what Bible
scholars call "eisegesis"reading into the text something the text itself
does not contain.
Some translations of these verses are based on the two different Greek
verbs for "love" that appear. Jesus asks the first two times, "Do you love
me," using the verb agapao. Peter responds, "I love you," using phileo.
The third time, however, Jesus himself uses phileo in his question, as does Peter
in his response.
It is usually argued that agapao signifies a higher form of
love divine, selfless, altruistic love. However, the most Peter will claim for
himself is phileo love friendship love. This probably accounts for the
distinction in the NIV between "truly love" for agapao, and
"love" for phileo.
But this cannot be. In the first place, it is Johns style to use
the verbs agapao and phileo interchangeably, without any distinction in
meaning. Thus, the expression "the disciple whom Jesus kept on loving" can be
based on either verb. Again, the Father loves the Son and both verbs are used (3:55;
Second, Peter could hardly answer "Yes, Lord, I love you" if
in fact he meant "No, Lord, I like you as a friend."
Finally, it is clear that Peter got upset, not because Jesus changed
his verb in the third question, but because Jesus asked him the same question three
timesan obvious allusion to Peters threefold denial of Jesus.
If this passage is not about the two Greek words for "love,"
then what does it teach? Two simple, but profound, truths.
The first is this: What the Lord Jesus Christ is looking for in his
disciplesin Peter, in John, in Paul, and in us todayis our love above
everything else. We may think we can impress with him with our knowledge, or with our
accomplishments, or with our bank accounts. But if the risen Lord were to do a heart
examination on each one of us today, he would ask us one question: "Do you love me?
Do you love me? Do you love me?" Hence the priority of love in the New Testament (see
Galatians 5:22; 1 Corinthians 13:13; Revelation 2:4).
But is it enough to say the words, "I love you"? Im
sure the Lord enjoys hearing these words from his dear children, just as we do from ours.
Yet it is all too easy to become enamored with words and fail to back up our words with
I remember reading in Ripleys Believe It Or Not! about the
longest love-letter ever written. It was written by (who else?) a Frenchman to his
sweetheart, and it contained the words "I love you" (je taime) 1,870,000
times. So enraptured was the writer with those words that he would say them aloud as he
wrote them down.
Such pronouncements are undoubtedly attractive, but deeds speak louder
than words. And that is the second great truth in our passage. Jesus is saying that the
best way to prove that we love him is by taking care of his people: "Feed my
lambs"; "Take care of my sheep."
This is the "Love Triangle" of 1 John: God loves us; we love
others; and only then is love returned to God. Thus John can write, "Whoever says,
I love God, but hates his brother is a liar. The one who doesnt love the
brother whom he has seen cant love a God whom he hasnt seen" (1 John
4:20). And so Jesus tells Peter that his pronouncement is not enough. Peter must show how
much he loves his Lord by humble service to others in his name. Love God. Love others.
This is the Great Commandment in a nutshell.
Farewell sloppy agape!