John 21 has one of the most interesting of all incidents recorded in sacred history. It’s the conversation between Jesus and Peter.
Jesus and the disciples are having breakfast. After they finish, Jesus proposes three questions to Simon Peter. The conversation goes like this as rendered in the New American Standard Bible.
“Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord: You know that I love You.”
“Tend My lambs.”
He said to him the second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?”
“Yes, Lord: You know that I love you.”
“Shepherd My sheep.”
He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John do you love Me?”
Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.”
“Tend My sheep.”
From reading this, one wouldn’t notice a shift of words, but the Greek text brings out a pictorial reality. It is this reality that makes it thought provoking.
The word love as used by Jesus in His question and the word love as used by Peter in his answer are different in the first two instances. Let’s examine the two words.
Jesus employs agape — the highest form of love — the principle. It’s the essence of divinity. Agape is the heart of the Father as expressed through the Son.
Peter answers using phileo — the brotherly form of love — the emotion. It’s the closest tie that can exist between two people.
In the last instance of question-and-answer phileo is used. Jesus asks again not using agape but phileo, and Peter responds the same.
Why did Jesus condescend to Peter? The answer is simple — in order for Peter to reach the level of agape, he must first begin where he is — the level of phileo.
Jesus shows supreme patience in meeting us where we are. It takes time for an acorn to become an oak. So it is in our spiritual life.
Spring planting must precede summer. Harvest comes only after summer. Growth follows natural laws.
As a lamb becomes a sheep, so a child matures to a full human. Advancement brings maturity and maturity brings love — the agape of Jesus’ questions.
We need to come to the realization of this. What we are is as a grain of sand in comparison to what we can become through the process of growth nourished by the Holy Spirit.
Did Peter ever reach the level of agape? His words are his testimony:
“Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge; and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, Christian love (agape).”2 Peter 1:5-7
Peter progressed to that level. So may we if we choose to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, and the truth shall set you free. John 16:13; John 8:32
G.D. Williams has worked in Adventist higher education for 30+ years and is happily counting down to retirement. His other pursuits include photography, genealogy, collecting antique books, and working on his old farmhouse. This essay was originally published on March 24, 1977 in Southern Accent, the student newspaper of Southern Missionary College (now Southern Adventist University), and is reprinted here with permission from the author.
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