This is the true meaning of the verse in John 21:17 where Jesus is reinstating Peter three times after Peter had denied Jesus three times. But, in order to really understand the verse, you have to read it in the original greek language…or in the Spanish language because the English language only has one word for “love”, whereas the original greek had several words for love as does the Spanish language.
So, I have always loved this passage of scripture because I always saw it as demonstrating the compassion and forgiveness of Jesus. I mean, just before Jesus is taken away to be crucified, we hear Peter flat out deny the One whom he earlier identified as the Christ, the son of the living God. Jesus had tried to warn Peter in order to show him that his words of affection for Christ were not yet congruent with his true devotion. Jesus had told Peter and the disciples that all of them would forsake Him in his most critical hour. But Peter did not listen. Peter boldly proclaimed that even if everybody else did that, there was no way that Peter would do that. He even went as far to say that he would even die with Jesus if he had to. It was to this that Jesus told Peter that he will have denied Him three times before the rooster crowed.
And…we all know what happened. It happened just as Jesus said it was going to happen. And Peter did the exact opposite of what he said he would never do. And one of the gospel accounts tells us that as soon as the rooster crowed after Peter denied the Lord, that Jesus looked directly at Peter, and Peter ran away weeping bitterly. (Luke 22:54-62) Imagine the grief that Peter must have felt in that moment as he saw the face of Jesus in the midst of denying Him. And this is the very last interaction that Peter has with Jesus before He is crucified.
Fast forward to the resurrection of Jesus. Peter and the disciples went back to doing what they knew how to do before they had met the Lord. They were fishing. And while they are fishing, the Lord reveals Himself to them. Peter is the first one who jumps out of the boat to run to the shore to meet Jesus. So, even though Peter must have felt tremendous shame for having denied the Lord, there was still obviously a desire that Peter had to follow Jesus. And while the disciples are all eating fish together, we see Jesus go off alone with just Peter for this conversation in which Jesus reinstates him, assures him of His love for him, commissions him to be a pastor, and also lets him know the true cost that will be involved in following Christ.
But here is where we need to understand the greek. Here is where the English version fails to convey the meaning, but the Spanish version more closely resembles the original greek. We who always read it in English understand it to go something like this: Jesus asks Peter three times if he really loves Him, and Peter three times assures Jesus that he really does love Him. And we come away seeing the compassion and forgiveness of Jesus. We see that Jesus gave Peter three times to confess his love for Jesus in order to overcome the three times that he had denied Jesus. And that is the way that I have always seen this passage…until I saw the original greek language that the Spanish version more closely resembles.
The original language would rather read something like this:
Jesus: Simon Peter, do you love (agape – a sacrificial all out devoted love) me more than these? Peter: Yes Lord, you know that I like (phileo – a brotherly friendly buddy kind of love) you.
Jesus: Simon Peter, do you love (agape) me? Peter: Yes Lord, you know that I like (phileo) you.
Jesus: Simon Peter, do you like (phileo) me? Peter: Lord, you know all things. You know that I like you.
So, rather than see this as a time for Peter to re-affirm his love and devotion to Jesus, it is really more of an opportunity for Peter to be humble and real with his level of devotion before Jesus. And this is beautiful! Because even though Peter could only at best say, Lord, I really like you”, Jesus still showed him His agape love, commissioned him for Kingdom service, and invited him to follow Him. This was not so much about a time for Peter to prove that he really did love Jesus even though he denied Him three times, but rather it was a time for Peter to finally recognize that he didn’t really love Jesus as he so boldly proclaimed. It was a time for him to humble himself before the Lord and confess that, at best, he really liked Jesus a lot. And yet Jesus still pours into him His agape (devoted and sacrificial) love. In other words, Jesus wanted Peter to see for himself that he really didn’t love Him with the kind of love that he claimed he did. Remember, Peter was the one who said that he loved Jesus so much that, even if all the other disciples abandoned Him, that he would never abandon Him even if he had to die with Him. And shortly after, Peter’s words of devoted sacrificial agape love meant nothing as he was vehemently denying the One whom he pledged his life to.
So, because Jesus loved Peter so much, He had to give Peter the opportunity to see what the true state of his love was really like. And even though it was hard for Peter to see this (see John 21:17 where Peter was grieved because Jesus asked him on the third time, “Simon, do you phileo (like) me?”) Jesus knew that this would be the beginning of really growing in a healthy relationship with Christ. And, because He loved Peter so much, He also showed Peter without a doubt that he was fully accepted by him even in his lack of agape love for Jesus. Amazing grace!!!
And this is where I find myself these days. I have sworn love and allegiance to Jesus since I was 19 years old when He first opened my eyes to see Him. I have proclaimed it from the pulpit. I have proclaimed it in different countries. I have proclaimed it in my own home. I have proclaimed it in my own secret place with the Lord. And, just like Peter, I think I meant it. I really do. But lately the Lord has been revealing things in my heart that show that my actions, thoughts, and behaviors are not reflecting my words of sold out devotion agape type love. And I, who in so many ways relate to Peter, have been brought to that humble place of having my heart exposed for what is truly inside. And its not all pretty. As a matter of fact, its pretty ugly. Why, in many ways, I have been just like Peter, but instead of denying the Lord only three times, I have denied Him three million times. And in His amazing love and affection towards me still, He has brought me to this humbled awareness where I too must simply say, “Lord, I really like you a lot.” And I am amazed that to that He would still say, “Cody, follow me.” Amazing grace!!!
And I do truly believe that this is where true relationship begins. It all begins with honest assessment and honest confession. I can continue making myself out to be someone who I am not, but I am not really fooling God. He already knows what is inside. Or I can trust the Lord enough to humbly bow before Him and confess that I do not really love Him (agape) as I say I do, but I certainly like Him a lot. I want to love Him, really I do. And just like Peter, I would believe that I would even die with Him if I had to, but then when He begins to squeeze me and place me in the fiery furnace, I soon see that many of those things are mere words. And I can only cry out, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I really like You. You know that I want to really love (agape) you, but that I cannot fashion that type of love on my own. That must be a work of your grace.” And yet this is where true relationship growth takes place. This is where the faulty foundations can be torn down and where the right foundation can be laid. This is exactly where He wanted Peter to be. This is exactly where He wants me to be.
Its amazing because Peter, in mere words that obviously didn’t have mature truth backing them, stated that he would even die with Jesus if he had to. Only in agape love could Peter do such a thing. And this is what was proved that Peter lacked. It was only the agape love of Christ that caused Him to do it for us. But Peter did not have that agape love when he made that statement. He then confesses to Christ that he does not have such an agape love for Jesus, but rather only a phileo like. And then Jesus, after finally bringing Peter to that great realization, turns around and tells him that he will indeed one day stretch out his arms and die on account of his faith in Christ. In other words, Jesus is telling Peter that he will indeed one day truly have agape love for Christ, the kind of sold out devoted love that would cause him to willingly be hung on a cross upside down because he would not feel worthy enough to be crucified in the same way that Christ was. Amazing grace!!!
And so I too am filled with hope that though I am realizing that my love for Christ isn’t as deep and agape like as I have always said it was, that this is exactly the place where He wants to bring me in order to begin giving me a true agape love for Him that will gladly endure suffering, ridicule, and persecution. A love that will gladly give up my rights, my desires for selfish pleasures, my world that is often centered around me. Yes, this is a good thing that the Lord is doing in my heart, although it is never enjoyable to see the junk come to the surface. But I am amazed by His grace that still bids me come to Him even when all that I can often give is a pathetic, “Lord, I like you.” Amazing grace!!!