Summary: God models the grace we are to give to one another in his restoration of Peter.
The church has men in her pulpits who like to hear themselves talk and members who do good works to be applauded. People give money to purchase God’s favor and friendship. Some make a show of religion because they hope friends will notice. Some announce their beliefs quite loudly, convinced that their right profession pacifies God. There are even those who endure much in the name of Christianity because they imagine, thereby, to appease God. But in the end, one question matters: do you love Jesus?
J. C. Ryle: “Knowledge, orthodoxy, correct forms in worship, a respectable and moral life – these do not make a true Christian” (497). Do we love Jesus? That is the issue; it is the question Jesus asks Peter in John 21; we must also answer it.
[Read John 21.15-19. Pray.]
You may have heard sermons on this passage which focused on the different Greek words for “love.” From the perspective of sermon-craft, many pastors cannot resist building around that idea. Jesus asks three times, “Do you love me?” and Peter responds each time, “You know that I love you.” But the key, so it seems, is that Jesus asks, “Do you [Greek word] [agapaō] me?” and Peter realizing that he cannot profess the high ideal of “agape love” (having denied Christ), responds, “You know that I [Greek word] [phileō] you.” The same thing happens again. Then the third time, Jesus lets Peter off the hook by saying, “Do you (at least) [Greek word] [phileō] me?” and Peter responds, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I [Greek word] [phileō] you.” According to this theory, [Greek word] [agapaō] is a higher love, even, “Divine Love,” and Peter, having failed, is humbled enough to refuse such a claim. He will only profess [Greek word] [phileō], a friendly affection far short of perfection.
If you have either the New International Version or the New King James version, you will see this distinction right in the text. The NIV translates [Greek word] [agapaō] as “truly love,” but [Greek word] [phileō] as simply “love.” John 21.15 (NIV): “When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’” The New King James draws a similar distinction by way of a textual note. In the actual verses, [Greek word] [agapaō] and [Greek word] [phileō] are both translated “love,” but the four times that the word [Greek word] [phileō] is used, there is a footnote explaining: “have affection for.”
In spite of the subtle difference there may be between these two Greek words, I do not agree with the distinction that is often made in sermons. Here are five reasons:
First, both words describe God’s perfect love: John 3.35: “The Father loves [Greek word] [agapaō] the Son and has given all things into his hand.” John 5.20: “For the Father loves [Greek word] [phileō] the Son and shows him all….”
Second, the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) uses the words interchangeably: Genesis 37.3-4: “Now Israel loved (Hebrew: [Hebrw word] [Greek word] [agapaō]) Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved [Hebrew word], [Greek word] [phileō]) him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.”
Third, [Greek word] [agapaō] does not always denote a good object or a divine love. 2Timothy 4.10: “For Demas, in love [Greek word] [agapaō] with this present world….”
Fourth, though modern interpreters say that [Greek word] [agapaō] is the higher, “divine” love, that has not always been the case. Puritan pastor Matthew Henry (late 1600s): “In the first two enquiries, the original word is [Greek word] [agapaō] – ‘do you retain a kindness for me?’ In answer to which Peter uses another word, more emphatic, [Greek word] [phileō] – ‘I love thee dearly.’” R. C. Trench (Synonyms of the New Testament, 1880, p. 40) agrees, saying that [Greek word] [agapaō] is philanthropic and altruistic, but without emotional attachment, and therefore much too cold for Peter’s affection. That is why the apostle prefers [Greek word] [phileō].
Fifth, John often seems to use synonyms. In this very passage, he uses two words (which we translate “feed” and “tend”), but which are very similar in meaning; he uses the words, “lambs” and “sheep” when Jesus seems to refer to his people in both cases; and in verse 17, when Peter says, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you,” there are two different Greek words for “know.” Donald Carson comments: “These have not stirred homiletical imaginations; it is difficult to see why the first pair should” (677).