Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Tough Love of Jesus

     Despite Simon Peter’s best intentions and valiant efforts, his weaknesses and fallibilities were apparently just too great. With about three years of divine guidance, instruction, and training under his belt, he still didn’t get it. He brashly asserts his unwavering allegiance to Christ, only to forsake him just a few hours later followed by his infamous triple denial (Mark 14:27-31, 50, 66-72). It would seem that Simon Peter was a miserable failure, but the Lord wasn’t quite ready to give up on him.

Special Attention to Peter

      The women who first witnessed the empty tomb were instructed to inform the disciples “and Peter” (Mark 16:7), i.e. especially Peter. Why single him out from the others? Was he in need of special reassurance due to his woeful failings, or did he require extra confirmation because of his dismal faith? Either way, the risen Lord appears to him first before showing himself to the remaining apostles (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5).
     The struggling disciple had disavowed Christ three times, and on the third occasion of the Lord’s post-resurrection appearances to his followers, Peter is singled out again and asked three questions (John 21:14-19). The original discourse was most likely in Aramaic,1 which John has then translated and recorded in Greek. In English translation the same question is asked and answered three times, whereas the Greek text reveals nuances not observable in English involving three separate questions.

The Curious Exchange

     In John’s recounting of this conversation, two verbs (agapaō and phileō) are employed multiple times yet rendered in our English versions by the single word “love.”2 Some have suggested that the Greek terms are interchangeable, citing passages like John 3:35; 5:20; 13:23; 20:2. However, none of these examples is comparable to our current text. They do not show an alternating of the two words within the same contextual setting, and each usage is explicable as distinct from the others.3
     Whatever agapaō entails, it is a concept that Jesus has repeatedly emphasized and one with which Simon ought to have been familiar (cf. John 13:34; 14:15, 21, 23, 24, 28, 31; 15:9, 12, 17). The same is true of phileō. A form of this word is frequently used in the biblical records of the Lord’s teachings and interactions, describing the Father’s regard for the Son (John 5:20), Jesus’ regard for his dear friend Lazarus (11:3, 11, 36), as well as the Father’s regard for Christ’s followers (16:27a) and their regard for Christ (16:27b).4
The First Question

    The exchange in John 21:14-19 makes better sense if agapaō is understood in the cognitive sense of resolute commitment (cf. John 3:16; 14:23-24) and if phileō is understood as more sentimental with respect to natural affection (cf. John 11:36; 15:19).5 Jesus first enquires of Simon, “do you love [agapaō = ‘are you committed to’] me more than these?” (John 21:15a). The distinguishing expression here is, “more than these.” Simon’s reply, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love [phileō = ‘have affection for’] you” (v. 15b), is rather peculiar. It doesn’t really answer the question as asked. He has either misinterpreted the query or has intentionally averted it.6
     A few weeks earlier Christ had predicted that “all” of his immediate disciples would stumble because of him, to which Simon presumptuously retorts, “Even if all are made to stumble because of you, I will never be made to stumble” (Matt. 26:31, 33). His subsequent actions, however, have demonstrated that his professed allegiance to Christ is really not superior to that of his peers, in spite of his bold claims. The Lord’s question is relevant to the apostle’s rashness and lack of humility.    
     Though Simon promptly affirms his heartfelt esteem for Christ, he seems oblivious to his own arrogance or what it means to be a genuine disciple. Jesus responds by simply reminding him that even friendly association involves complementary action: “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15c). In other words, Simon ought to back up his warm verbal expressions by living up to the Lord’s expectations.

The Second and Third Questions

     Jesus’ second question to Simon is simply, “do you love [agapaō = ‘are you committed to’] me?” (John 21:16a). This time the focus is on Simon’s personal allegiance, irrespective of the other disciples. In the recent past Simon’s deeds have not supported his words, and he misses the point yet again by merely repeating his previous response: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love [phileō = ‘have affection for’] you” (v. 16b). Jesus again admonishes him: “Tend my sheep” (v. 16c). Simon is to demonstrate his avowed affection with more than hollow declarations.
     The third question is different from the previous ones: “Simon … do you love [phileō = ‘have affection for’] me?” (John 21:17a). Although Simon has already conceded his emotional affinity for Christ, he has yet to fully grasp what this entails. His frustration with the questioning (v. 17b) is apparently due to his inability (or stubborn refusal?) to understand what the Lord is trying to convey to him.7 Jesus states once again: “Feed my sheep” (v. 17c). Simon needs to step up and fulfill his sacred duty.

The Reason for the Questioning

     All along the impulsive disciple has displayed an earthly focus, inclusive of his own self-reliance, and in so doing has resisted the Lord’s heavenly purpose (cf. Mark 8:33; 9:5-6, 10; Luke 22:24; John 13:7-8; 18:10-11, 36; et al.). He has reverted to fishing for fish (John 21:3) even though his allotted vocation is seeking the souls of men (Mark 1:17). He has been designated “a stone” (John 1:42) yet has failed to exhibit the solid character that would justify such a respectable name. He readily acknowledges Jesus as “Lord” (John 21:15, 16, 17) without backing it up with submissiveness and obedience. He has been quick to profess his loyalty and to claim his devotion and to express his care, but what are mere words without accompanying action?
     Jesus’ questioning challenges Simon’s humility, allegiance, and affection, none of which has been clearly attested. By choosing to follow Christ, he has made a solemn pledge to which he has not been totally faithful. The Lord does not overlook or downplay the apostle’s errors; he confronts and challenges him. In fact, immediately after the questioning Simon is reminded twice to get back on track and be a true disciple of Jesus (John 21:19, 22), the second time emphatically (“You follow me”). Far from being pampered, Simon is given the tough love he needs.


     When I confess Jesus as Lord, it has to involve more than mere words. I cannot claim to be a Christian while neglecting his will in favor of my own. To legitimately wear his name, I am obliged to behave in a Christ-like manner. When I make the inevitable mistakes, shame on me for trying to justify them or make excuses or pretend that it doesn’t really matter. I cannot rely on the Lord’s mercy and grace while ignoring his persistent calls for repentance. “But why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).
     With God’s help Simon Peter did get back on his feet and eventually grow into the effective spiritual leader he was meant to be.8 What made the difference? He finally exchanged his worldly focus for a heavenly one (1 Pet. 1:3-5). He replaced self-reliance with tenacious dependency on God (1 Pet. 1:17-21). He traded arrogance for humility (1 Pet. 5:5-7). He went from unpredictable and erratic to self-controlled (1 Pet. 3:8-12) and steadfast (2 Pet. 3:14-18). He gave up his own stubborn will and spent the rest of his life in faithful obedience to the divine will (1 Pet. 1:13-16; 2:11-12). 
     Application? Following the same course of action will make an everlasting difference in your life and in my life, not to mention the lives of those within our respective spheres of influence.

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 See Aramaic.
     2 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the NKJV, with slight modification in capitalization for consistency. Greek terms are transliterated in their lexical forms for simplicity and clarity.
     3 The verb agapaō in John 3:35 is employed in John’s description of the heavenly Father bestowing divine authority upon the Son, whereas phileō in 5:20 is used in Jesus’ portrayal of his affectionate relationship with the Father. Jesus’ agapaō with respect to John (13:23; 19:26; 21:7, 20) is related to Jesus’ confidence in John (cf. 19:25-27), while phileō in 20:2 pertains to emotional sentiment inclusive of two disciples (“to Simon Peter and the other [allon] disciple whom Jesus loved”).
     4 See also Matt. 6:5; and compare philos (“friend”) in Luke 11:5-8; 12:4; 14:10, 12; 15:6, 9, 29; John 3:29; 15:13-15.
     5 Seeing that both words are used in different contexts with a variety of meanings, this is admittedly a simplified distinction. But the dogmatic assertion that they are (or can be) synonymous is not as definitive as some have made it out to be. While Matthew observes that the Pharisees phileō the chief seats (Matt. 23:6; cf. 6:5) and Luke says they agapaō the chief seats (Luke 11:43), both would be applicable if emotional fondness and mental conviction are respectively in view.
     6 Simon has had a long history of misreading and misunderstanding the Lord’s purpose (Matt. 14:31; 16:22-23; 26:33-35; Mark 9:5-7; John 13:6-8; 18:10-11; et al.).
     7 The expression Legei auto to triton (“He says to him the third”) in John 21:17 would refer to the third question the Lord is asking rather than the same question asked for the third time.
     8 Cf. Acts 1:15; 2:14; 3:6; 4:8; 5:3, 9; 9:32, 39; 10:5-48; 11:1-18; 12:3-17; 15:7; 1 Cor. 1:12; Gal. 1:18; 2:7; 1 Pet. 2:25; 5:1-4; 2 Pet. 1:12-15; 3:1-2.

Image credit: painting by Guercino (1647),

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