Jesus & Peter

I continue to be intrigued with this story. but I get really frustrated with those who build on the difference between agapao (supposedly divine unconditional love) and phileo (friendship, warm feeling love) in Peter’s restoration story in John 21. So it goes, "Peter do you love me with a divine love? "Yes, Lord, I love you with a friend love." “"Feed [take to pasture] my lambs." “The second time it goes, "Peter do you love me with a divine love? "Yes, Lord, I love you with a friend love." [same question and response]. “"Take care of [assume total guardianship of a shepherd] my sheep." [a higher level of care] Then the third goes, “Do you love me with a friend love?” “Lord, you know I friend love you.” "Feed [take to pasture] my lambs." 

Trying to make sense of this wording difference by assuming significance to the changes from divine love to friend love, feed to pasture, and lambs to sheep quickly gets weighed down with difficulty. For example in the first question, In effect, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you possess a profound love for me?” and Peter responds, “Yes Lord, I am fond of you.” Peter should answer Jesus question about divine love with a “No” not a yes. In effect, Jesus accepts Peter’s lie.

It’s way better to realize that John, ever the Hebrew poet, loves to play with words. As we see in the Psalms, Hebrew poets love synonymous parallelism, saying the same thing with different words.

It is also true that agapao, supposedly divine love is used for Demas’ love for the world that causes him to desert Paul (2 Tim. 4:10). Hardly godlike! On the other hand, phileo is used of the Father’s eternal love for the Son in John 5:20. The semantic domain of two words have overlaps significantly. Ditto for feed/tend and sheep/lambs.

Here’s how the story goes, I think. Peter, who repented deeply of his terrible sin of denying Jesus (Matt. 26:75), immediately (Matt 28:10) went to Galilee to be where Jesus told the disciples He would meet them. What do you do while you wait for Jesus to show up? You could play video games or sip a latte. But Peter suggests going fishing. It’s not to go desert discipleship and go back to his old profession. It’s to fill moments with a an activity that will ease the excited pressures of waiting. As soon as Peter realized the man on the shore is Jesus, he cannot wait a second: he throws himself in the water to get to Jesus. Hardly the act of a deserter!

Then the point of the passage is that Jesus, standing down wind from a charcoal fire, the same kind of fire as Peter was warming his hands over as he denied Jesus, probes Peter. “Do you love me?” Peter quickly says yes. Jesus tells him to be the pastor. Again. The third time, Peter is hurt. “Jesus, you know I love you. Why do you keep asking? Do you doubt me?” Jesus’ third command to do the pastor work overcomes the triple denial. “Peter, you are my man. I don’t care what your failure. That’s done. Your love is what counts. Pastor My flock.”

It’s an incredible act of grace.

I love seeing Peter restored. I’d like to see all Peter’s restored. Grace is such a powerful thing. But it’s not infallible. Sometimes the hurt is too great. So sadness and loss is extended. It is so hard when there’s nothing one can do to help. So the agonizing emptiness of loss goes on. Will there ever be a time of eating fish at the charcoal fire?

5 thoughts on “Jesus & Peter

  1. John told the story in his own words conveying accurately the encounter with Jesus and Peter. Likely they were speaking in Aramaic, so the old battle of exact words vs. exact truth is by passed completely. More to the point, John’s poetic way of telling the story goes deep into our imaginations.

    Yes, Jim, Jesus keeps messing with our expectations. Grace unending in repentant hearts. But there’s true wrath in hard hearts who refuse His grace.

  2. For me, this encounter of the risen Jesus and the restored disciple casts some playful light and laughter on the sober warning of Jesus in Mark 8:38 about the cost of non-discipleship: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words … the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory …”

    Peter was ashamed in a decidedly un-graceful way. But even the “ashamedness” of Jesus is more gracious than any of us find comfortable.

  3. I just wrote two articles concerning Peter, and his failure and restoration…something about this time of the year always brings me back to the grace the Lord extended to Peter, and me.

  4. WOW!!! Jeremy told me about this after your conversation yesterday at preaching team. He spent the night correcting and researching our spoon fed perception on the vast difference between agape and phileo love. We are so thankful for this post. Shame on us believers for not being better Bereans of God’s word and doing our homework. You inspire us to dig deeper into the words on the page. Thank you for such a provocative and insightful post!

  5. Concerning John’s word choice, are you suggesting that John took some liberties with the actual words that Jesus spoke to Peter. Could this be the difference between the ipsima verba and the ipsima (sp?) vox of Jesus. Could one argue though that since the words John penned were inspired that we should take seriously the different word choices used here. The other uses of phileo and agapeo you mentioned are quite instructive here especially the other reference in John. The Pauline reference I don’t think has as much influence here because I am thinking Paul might have understood the semantic range a little differently. The John 5:20 reference really does challenge us to rethink the interaction between Jesus and Peter.

    I can see the point of missing the forest for the trees here if we overemphasize the differences of the terms and miss the grace that Jesus extends. I think we pastors can be guilty of over emphasizing these textual nuances in order to sound smart instead of emphasizing the point of a passage or the point of the author and letting the Spirit work.

    Thanks for the post. Good to think through passages such as this again.

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