Not long ago announced that I was going to do a series on mistakes I had made in preaching. One member said such a series would take several years! But like a lot of preachers, when I look back on lessons I have preached, I often cringe. Made lots of mistakes.
One of the most common ones was to misuse word studies. To think that the answer to every question about a passage was to try to understand the Hebrew or Greek. The most important task of Bible study is careful attention to the English text. I’d like to illustrate that with passage in John 21:15-17, and then draw some applications from this story.
I. The “Traditional” View and Its Weaknesses
A. Common View of John 21 hinges on the interpretation of the different Greek words used in the exchange between Jesus and Peter:
1. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and three times Peter replies, “you know that I love you.”
2. But if we were reading the language in which the NT was first written, we would notice that the words translated “love” are actually two different Greek words: (agape the noun, agapao the verb, and phileo):
a. Jesus: Do you love (agapao) me more than these?
b. Peter: Yes Lord; you know that I love (phileo) you.
c. Jesus: Do you love (agapao) me?
d. Peter: Yes, Lord; you know that I love (phileo) you.
e. Jesus: Do you love (phileo) me?
f. Peter: You know that I love (phileo) you.
B. What is the point of the use of these two different words? Why does Peter only use phileo, and why does Jesus switch and use phileo as well in this third and final question for Peter?
1. Some have suggested its because the two words express such different concepts.
a. Agapao = selfless love, act of good will toward undeserving, “divine love”.
b. Phileo = mutual love, relationship between brethren, “human love”.
2. If this is the case, then what would the significance be in the use of these different words?
a. One scholar suggested that agapao is so selfless it can be unemotional, and was too cold for Peter’s affectionate love for the Lord. Peter wanted the Lord to know how affectionate his feelings were for him, that his love went far beyond the calculating love represented by agapao, and so declared to Jesus his phileo love.
b. Another scholar has suggested that the agapao is far superior to phileo, and that Peter cannot bring himself to profess more than a natural love (phileo) for Jesus.
c. As one commentator suggested, when two scholars reach polar opposite conclusions on the premise that there is a radical difference intended in these two words, maybe it’s because they are making a bad assumption, namely, that the point of this passage has to do with Greek vocabulary.
C. Actually, these two words, agapao and phileo, have far more in common with each other than they the hold in distinction from each other.
1. It is true that words have a certain range of meanings, and it is also true that the range of meanings for agapao and phileo are not identical. But for the most part they overlap.
2. You can see this by looking up their definitions in the standard Greek lexicon for the NT (BDAG).
a. Agapao, first definition is “to have a warm regard for and interest in another, cherish, have affection for, love.”.
b. Phileo, first definition “to have a special interest in someone or someth., freq. with focus on close association, have affection for, like, consider someone a friend, and then gives as a second definition, to kiss as a special indication of affection, kiss.
3. It is an overstatement then to say that agapao represents the highest love, selfless or even divine sort of love, distinct from phileo. Notice these uses:
a. For Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me (2 Tim. 4:10).
b. For even sinners love those who love them (Luke 6:32).
c. And men loved darkness rather than light (John 3:19).
d. For they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God (John 12:43).
4. And while it is the case that these words can have their own specific nuances, they also broadly overlap, and while not identical they are certainly synonymous.
a. Notice these parallel passages about the Pharisees:
i For you love (agapao) the chief seats in the synagogues (Luke 11:43).
ii Beware of the scribes who love (phileo) respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues (Luke 20:46).
b. In John’s gospel, consider these parallels:
iii The Father loves (agapao) the Son and has given all things into His hand (3:35). For the Father loves (phileo) the Son, and shows Him all things that he is doing (5:20).
iv The disciple whom Jesus loved, which is both agapao (21:20) and phileo (20:2).
D. So if these words are basically synonymous, why in John’s record of the conversation between Jesus and Peter does he use different words?
1. Why does any writer use synonymns rather than just say the same words over and over? More interesting.
2. In context John used synonyms regularly:
a. Feed (bosko) in 21:15, 17 and tend (poimaino) in 21:16
b. Lambs (arnia) in 21:15 and sheep (probata) in 21:16, 17
c. Know (oida) in 21:15, 16 and know (ginosko) in 21:17
3. If there is no drastic difference to be draw in these cases, why assume there is a drastic difference between the words for love if they can be considered synonymous anyway?
I’d like to suggest that a better line of interpretation is to look not the technical Greek vocabulary but instead at the emphasis in the English text itself.
II. A Suggested Interpretation
A. Context of John 21
1. This is not the only time in the Gospel of John that Jesus and Peter have a discussion after finishing a meal.
a. “After breakfast” – 21:15; Simon had just stripped off his “outer garment”- 21:7.
b. Cf. 13:3-5. Clues in the context connect this conversation in John 21 with the conversation in John 13.
2. And during this meal, what did Peter claim about his devotion to the Lord? 13:36-38.
a. Vowed he would remain steadfastly loyal, even to lay down life.
b. Jesus warned him that instead he would deny him three times.
3. Look then at John 18:15-18, 25-25.
a. How many times did Peter deny Jesus? Three.
b. And where did he do it? By a charcoal fire.
B. Turn back now to John 21.
1. First of all, notice what has been built in v. 9 – a charcoal fire. The same setting of Peter’s three denials.
2. Next, notice the specific question Jesus asked Peter to begin the dialogue – 21:15.
a. “Do you love me more than these?”
v These fish? More than your business.
vi More than you love these disciples? We should love Jesus more than anyone else.
vii Do you love me more than these other disciples love me? Is your love of a greater level than the other disciples?
b. What does Peter say? 21:15b. I love, but no longer boasts as he did in Matt. 26:33, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.”
3. What I am suggesting is that the real significance of Jesus’ three questions is not the lexical meaning of the words but the fact that just as Peter denied Jesus three times, now Jesus questions him three times about his love.
4. This explains why in v. 17 Peter was “grieved” when Jesus asked him the third time if he loved him – it reminded him of his three-fold denial.
a. May seem like Jesus was twisting the blade to ask three times and conjure up the horror of that failure.
b. But it is not the blade of an enemy, but the scalpel of the Great Physician, because in asking these three questions Jesus offers Peter the opportunity to reaffirm his love for each time he denied him, and most important, with each question and every reply, Jesus says, I have work for you to do. Feed my sheep/tend my lambs.
III. Some Applications for Us
A. The most important question any of us can ever answer is, do you love Jesus?
1. Not, do you know a lot about Jesus? Are you a member of His church? Do you work hard for Jesus? Do you obey Jesus? Do you suffer for Jesus? Have you been baptized in Jesus’ name? But do you LOVE Jesus?
2. Well, of course if I am willing to obey, work, keep commands, I love Him! Didn’t Jesus say, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (14:15)?
a. Yes He did, but he didn’t say, if you keep my commandments that necessarily means you love me.
b. It is possible to keep commandments and not love, in fact, to hate.
c. See Rev. 2:2-4.
d. It is even possible to give your life in a grisly death and not love Jesus – 1 Cor. 13:3.
3. The issue is, why are you doing obedient? Why are you suffering? Is it because you love Jesus? There is a name for people who go through all of the correct outward motions but no to love Jesus – hypocrite.
4. “Talk about loving Jesus lacks doctrinal soundness, minimizing commands.” Love is the supreme doctrine. It is the greatest command. There is no doctrinal soundness without love.
5. If Christ is not your heart’s greatest passion, if he is not the pearl of great price, the hidden treasure of your heart, then you need to repent.
B. No matter how great we have failed Jesus, He stands ready to forgive us and give us a fresh start.
1. Have you ever been haunted by a failure? Broken hearted because you betrayed a relationship. Peter was – Lk. 22:60-62.
2. Can you imagine how Peter must have felt when Jesus appeared to him (alluded to in Luke and 1 Corinthians). What may or may not have been said.
3. But if I am correct in associating the events of John 21 with Peter’s denial, then as painful as this must have been for Peter, at the same time, how reassuring it must have been to see that Jesus was not kicking him out of the Twelve, but instead gave him work to do.
4. I don’t know precisely what to make of this, but Jesus doesn’t call him “Cephas” or Peter, but “Simon, son of John,” the very way he addressed him at the start of the gospel in 1:42. Maybe this was a way to tell Peter, you can have a fresh start.
5. Whether we are to infer that from this text, 1 John 2:1-2 tells us that Jesus stands ready to forgive us.
C. A third lesson is that if we will turn to Jesus after our failures with hearts filled with love for Him, He can make us far better servants.
1. Peter was humbled by his experience, no longer boastful, content to say, “Lord, you know.” Now that he has a humbled heart fired with love, he is ready for the mission Jesus has – feed/tend lambs/flock.
a. It is a mistake to do what some Catholic commentators do with this passage and conclude Peter has some special assignment to be the Chief Shepherd – notice in 1 Peter 5:1-3.
b. But Peter has learned a lesson we all need to learn – humility and love are the keys to being used by Christ.
2. And now that Peter has been humbled by the love of Christ, he can finally do what he said he would – lay down his life for the Lord – John 21:18.
a. Remember in 13:36 Jesus told him you cannot follow me now but you will follow afterward?
b. Look at 21:19. “Follow me.” Peter did.
If we want to know what “love” means, we don’t have to pick up a dictionary. Just read the story of Jesus and Peter. Love is forgiveness. Love is reconciliation. Love is renewal. And through Christ, all of us – undeserving as we are – can be forgiven and restored.