There is a transition in the text that states,
This was already [the] third [time] Jesus had appeared to the disciples, risen out of death.John 21:13
It seems more appropriate to begin today’s post with that transition, for now Jesus will ask Peter a question three times in a row, giving Peter three opportunities to affirm his fealty to the Lord.
Do You Agapeo Me?
Everything Jesus had been doing on this morning was deeply meaningful and yet also very simple.
- He had waited patiently until the disciples came back to shore.
- He furnished a net full of fish for them, making their long, hard, fruitless night of fishing now meaningful and worthwhile.
- He kindled a warm fire for their cold, numb hands and their chilled and tired bodies.
- He broiled a delicious and hearty breakfast for their many hours of hard, hungry-making work.
Jesus was feeding and tending his sheep. Now, as they sat warm and well-fed, feeling loved and cared for, Jesus turned to Peter.
Simon (son) of John, do you love (agapeo) me more than these?Jesus to Peter, John 21:15
To use his birthname, “Simon (son) of John,” might have symbolized a fresh start for Peter. And who or what were “these”? If Jesus meant the other disciples, he might have been preparing Peter to go on a solo mission. But if Jesus meant the superlative haul of fine fish, then he might have been speaking to the core of Peter’s desires and sense of himself as an able fisherman, a good provider, a successful workman in his field.
To love Jesus more than his feeling successful and good at his craft, to love Jesus more than the sense of stability and security his good work gave him, to love Jesus more than the comfort of the familiar, to love Jesus more than the things of this world—career, financial security, reputation, connections. These were all at stake when Peter had stood before another fire just weeks before, and had been presented with the dilemma of his relationship to the Nazarene.
In Greek that word agapeo refers to selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love, God’s gracious love. Peter had earlier boasted that he did love Jesus more than the others, that even if all the other disciples fell away from Jesus, he, Peter, would go to the death for Jesus. At the time he was illegally packing not one, but two short swords, hidden in his robes. He was thinking of himself as a hero would fight to the death, going down in a blaze of glory for Jesus.
Now a much-humbled Peter answered,
Yes, sire. You know that I love (phileo) you.Peter to Jesus, John 21:15
You know me, you can see straight into my heart, and you can tell the depth of my loving affection for you.
In the last fifty or so years great piles of ancient papyri and inscriptions have been unearthed, and the weight of the evidence support agapeo and phileo having the same power to them, the same high meaning and regard. Peter’s response not only acknowledged Jesus’ choice of the word agapeo but added the layer of deep brotherly affection as well.
Graze My Lambs
Graze my lambs.Jesus to Peter, John 21:15
Or, as one scholar has suggested, “See that my lambs can graze.”
Jesus was returning to the theme he had spoken of when he had washed their feet,
A new commandment I am giving to you, that you would love one another just as I loved you all so that also you all yourselves would love one another.Jesus to the twelve, John 13:34
Now, sitting by the fire Jesus had made for them, having enjoyed the meal Jesus had cooked for them, and able to rest secure in the great catch of fish Jesus had arranged for them, Peter would recall how the God of the Universe, King of all kings and Lord of all Lords, had also washed his feet. This is the meaning of agapao.
If Peter did indeed love Jesus then he would tend to the ones Jesus loves, his little ones, his lambs. This might have seemed a strange metaphor to use with a seasoned fisherman, but Jesus was drawing Peter into a whole new life, the work of an apostle. It was one thing to use Peter’s career as a fisherman in a metaphor about fishing for souls. But now, as a disciple of the rabbi, as a student of the Good Shepherd, Peter needed to let his old life and old ways of thinking behind.
For Jesus was preparing his disciples to take upon themselves their rabbi’s mantle.
Three Questions Reinstate After Three Denials
But then Jesus asked the same question again “Do you really love me, Peter, with selfless love?” and Peter answered again in the same way, “Yes, sire, you know my deep brotherly affection for you.” Peter again added his phileo to Jesus’ agapeo, for it was the warm bond of heartfelt love that made selfless sacrifice for Jesus come naturally, as a pleasure for his sake. “Shepherd my flock,” Jesus replied. Make fires to warm each other, feed each other, fellowship with each other. Take care of each other.
And again a third time, “Peter, -do- you love me from the -heart-?” Jesus had now used the word phileo as well, the kind of heart tie that made blood thicker than water, the loyalty and faithfulness of family, that when the chips are down you know who you can count on—those who phileo you.
Perhaps some of Peter’s shame now stirred, for it distressed him with a heavy sorrow that Jesus would ask a third time, and that Jesus would question Peter’s own declaration of brotherly love, especially in front of the others. Perhaps the echoes of that night when Peter had denied Jesus, the charcoal fire, the question asked three times and denied three times with increasing vigor, the people crowded in to listen, cut close to the bone. But here was a much-humbled Peter who now knew his own weakness and frailty, and the Lord’s discernment into his heart.
Later, as a mature apostle and elder, Peter would write,
God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God in order that he lift you up in the proper time.1 Peter 5:5-6
He may also have been thinking of the Psalm David had written when he, too, was deeply ashamed of his own wrongdoing and offense against God,
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;Psalm 51:10-12, 17 (NRSV)
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
So with a broken and contrite heart, Peter gave his testimony,
Sire, you perceive and know all, you know that I love you with brotherly affection, from the heart.Peter to Jesus, John 21:17
Peter gave his heart, all of himself, to Jesus in that moment. His soul was laid bare. And I think Jesus’ answer did change Peter, for he became the man that preached to thousands the morning of Pentecost, the man who was full-out for the Lord, completely fearless, completely invested, a bold apostle of the Gospel in the name of Jesus.
Graze my flock.Jesus to Peter, John 21:17
 Jo-Ann A. Brant, John, 284
[Jesus prepared a breakfast for them | provenance unknown, James Tissot, Public Domain]