John 21:15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.
18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
The attention given to Peter by the fishing narrative now sharpens as Jesus and Peter go for a walk along the beach together after breakfast. This is a one-on-one conversation directed towards reconciliation, commissioning and discipleship.
The threefold challenge to Peter looks as if it were designed to parallel his threefold denial, despite his proclaimed loyalty (Mt 26:31-33).
There are subtle differences in the wording of Jesus’ three questions. There is great debate over the nuances that agape and philo bring to our understanding of the word ‘love’. Linguists tell us that agape love is characteristic of God’s selfless love while philo love has more of a ‘brotherly affection’ aspect to it. But we should be wary of this over-simplification. Imagine the frustration of the Eskimo trying to explain to us the nuances of their many different words for ‘snow’. In the end, the non-Eskimo should at least understand that it is snowing and cold outside. Similarly, we should be wary of placing too greater weight on the subtleties of Jesus’ word choice.
However, given that there must be some distinction between agape and philo love, Jesus’ three questions to Peter seem to successively lower the bar. The first question asks Peter to compare his love to the other disciples: it his love really greater than theirs? Peter replies that he loves Jesus with brotherly love (philo).
Jesus’ second question only asks Peter if his love has the qualities of agape. Peter replies again that he loves Jesus with philo.
Jesus’ third question seems to grant Peter his concession. Does Peter love (philo) him as a brother? Yes, replies Peter. He loves him as a brother.
Giving too much attention the nuances of love in v15-17 takes away from the obvious intent of this conversation. It’s really about discipleship. Jesus’ point is that Peter’s love for him is to impel him to tend his flock. Three times Jesus calls Peter to feed and tend to his lambs. In the same way, my love for Jesus (whatever its qualities and characteristics) moves me to tend Jesus’ flock. The role of ‘assistant junior shepherd’ carries with it great honour, not because of the quality of the sheep but because of the status of their owner. Love for Jesus expresses itself in care for his flock.
For Peter this role will ultimately cost him his life. That is the intent of Jesus’ words in v18-19. To ‘stretch out your hands’ and ‘be led where you do not want to go’ refers to Peter’s own crucifixion, some 30 years hence, under Emperor Nero. Tradition has it that Peter was crucified upside down, at his request, so that he would not have the likeness of Jesus. On a hill outside Rome, Bramante’s Tempietto marks the place of this gruesome death.
But even knowing that he will die a martyr’s death, Peter is not to focus on this. Instead, his focus is to be on following Jesus. Even in his absence, Peter is to be Jesus’ disciple: “Follow me!” Jesus last call to Peter is the same as his first (cf Jn 21:22): be my disciple. Imitate me and do as I show you. Ultimately, this is the force of John’s entire gospel. The testimony to Jesus as Lord and Christ over 20 chapters is now all drawn together for the believer: as Peter, so should the reader give themselves, without reserve, to following Jesus.
Lord Jesus, please grant me such grace that I should be your ‘assistant junior shepherd’ serving your flock. Whatever and wherever this flock may be, they are yours. And this gives the job inestimable worth. Thank you so much for such a privilege. Now please also grant me your Spirit’s enabling for the job so I don’t mess it up. Amen.