We fail at love. These failures are often humbling because we’re forced to realize how truly self-centered we are. In John 21, Jesus takes issue with Peter’s failed attempt to love and follow Him. We might wonder about Jesus’ intention in appearing to Peter after His resurrection. Is He making Peter feel guilty? Is He vindicating him?
Step One: Consider the Greek words for “love.”
The dialogue between Jesus and Peter features two different Greek words for “love.” Jesus twice asks Peter whether he “loves” (agapaō, άγαπάω) Him. Peter twice answers that he does “love” (phileō, φιλέω) Him. Jesus then uses the word phileo in His third question, and Peter again responds using phileō. The NIV translation of agapaō (“truly love”) and phileō (“love”) might seem to imply that Jesus switches to phileō because He accepts Peter’s lesser form of love for Him. But is that what Jesus expects from His followers—mediocre commitment? Is that why Jesus appears to Peter?
Step Two: Consult an expository dictionary and a commentary to understand key words.
For help in answering this question, we can turn to Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. When we look up “love,” we see considerable overlap in the definitions for agapaō and phileō. We read that these verbs for love are used for variation—a stylistic element John uses throughout his Gospel. D.A. Carson’s commentary, The Gospel According to John, shows that John uses agapaō and phileō interchangeably to describe the Father’s love for the Son (John 3:35; 5:20).
In addition to this, other instances of stylistic variation occur in the same passage. Different Greek words are used synonymously for “lambs” and “sheep,” and “feed” and “tend” (21:15, 16). We can conclude, then, that this stylistic variance is not the key to understanding Jesus’ question or Peter’s response. Instead, we should note two other important clues—one in the immediate context and one in John 21:15–19.
Step Three: Look for repetition in the passage and the Gospel of John.
In John 21:15, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” The word “these” connects the discussion to the preceding context—the scene featuring a charcoal fire, a large haul of fish and a group of sleepy disciples (21:1–14). Jesus’ question could mean, “Do you love me more than you love the life you’ve returned to—fishing?” Or it could be setting up a comparison: “Do you love me more than these other disciples love me?” Either way, Peter is being put on the spot.
Another clue to understanding this passage is an element we might easily miss. Jesus and Simon Peter’s conversation takes place around a “charcoal fire” (21:9). The smoke stinging Peter’s nose would have prompted him to recall a previous fire. By doing a quick word search using Bible software, we can see that the word for “charcoal fire” is used one other time in John’s Gospel—in John 18:18. In that passage, a charcoal fire burns in the court of the high priest. It was there that Peter huddled for warmth after Jesus was arrested. And it was there that he denied Jesus.
Finally, we’re not simply told that Jesus repeats His question three times; the passage actually repeats the question (21:15–19). Why is the three-fold repetition of the question so important that it’s noted twice? John adds this detail because he wants to point us back to the same passage where the charcoal fire burned, where Peter denied Jesus three times. These three denials fulfilled Jesus’ prediction to Peter that “the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times” (13:38).
By asking Peter three times “Do you love me?”—even using a synonym the third time—Jesus graciously provides Peter an opportunity to affirm his love. Jesus is restoring Peter. This explains why Jesus immediately prophesies Peter’s death in John 21:18–19, showing him that he will stay faithful to Jesus; he will love Him even unto death. Jesus’ call upon Peter now is the same call He used to beckon His disciples the very first time: “Follow me” (1:43; see Mark 1:17).
This call, once again extended to Peter, is the real message that we should take away from this passage. Although Peter failed—and although we fail—God expects more than subpar love and commitment. He has restored us through a great sacrifice, and we are commanded to live out that good news by following Him completely, out of love.
Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).