In my last post, I discussed some key features of the 21st chapter of John’s gospel. Towards the end of this chapter, there’s an interesting exchange between Jesus and Peter:
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’
A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’
He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.”
The Gospels were written in Greek, which has several words for “love”. English only has one word. As a result, the English language cannot do justice to the intricacies of this dialogue.
When Jesus asks Peter the first time: “Do you love me?” the word for love used by Jesus is agape, which means unconditional and self-giving love that is willing to even lay down one’s life for the beloved. Agape is the highest form of love, which Jesus demonstrated throughout his life and which we are called to imitate.
However, when Peter responds “you know that I love you”, the word for love that he used was filia, which is a much weaker form of love, akin to friendship. This is clearly not the response that Jesus wanted to hear. I imagine that Jesus was saddened by this lukewarm answer.
So Jesus asks Peter a second time, again using the word agape. Peter responds once again by saying that he has filia-love for Jesus.
When Jesus asks the third time: “Do you love me?” he uses the word filia (friendship love) that Peter had been using. In other words, after two failed attempts to get Peter to profess agape-love, Jesus is now asking Peter: “Do you even love me as a friend?” That’s why Peter feels hurt after the third interrogation. He realizes that his love is deficient and that he does not love Jesus as he deserves. When Peter replies to the third question, he finally steps up to the plate and uses the term agape to express his love for Jesus, meaning that he loves Jesus unconditionally, even if it means giving his life.
How does Jesus respond to Peter’s profession of agape-love? Let’s read the following verses:
“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ ”
Since Peter has just professed self-sacrificing love, Jesus tells him that he’ll take him up on that offer. He tells Peter that he will eventually die as a martyr for Christ.
All this begs an important question: what kind of love do you have for Jesus? Agape or filia? Would you be willing to lay down your life for Christ? If not, don’t despair, but pray for an increase in love. Pray for the grace to follow Peter’s example and lay it all down.
You may never be required to actually die for Christ, but you certainly are called to make important sacrifices for Christ by serving others and by standing up for the truth of the Gospel. This can be very painful and sacrificial in this day and age. But that’s what Jesus is requiring of you.
Do it. God will love you for it. Other people will benefit greatly from it. And you will inherit an eternal reward for it.