So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep. -John 21:15-17
This week brings us to a passage that is ripe for word studies. No doubt many a preacher cut his teeth on this passage early on in his preaching career. The story takes place after Jesus’ ressurection. The disciples have gone fishing, and Jesus appears to them and aids them in catching a great number of watery creatures. They then come ashore to find a meal prepared for them. This brings us to what has been called Peter’s recomissioning, wherein Jesus asks him three times if he loved Him. This is where the word study begins, and also, sadly, where many a preacher has missed the mark
The two words used for “love” in this section are “agapao” and “phileo.” It has often been said that “phileo” means a brotherly love and “agapao” means a self-sacrificing love. This preaches well: Peter confesses he only loves Christ as a brother, not in a way that is self-sacrificing, and Jesus still takes him. As wonderful and glorious as this is, it is sadly incorrect. It is true that “phileo” can mean a brotherly relation, but it is wrong to say it always means that. In point of fact, these two words were what are called synonyms: they meant almost the exact same thing. Ancient authors used them interchangebly with no difference in meaning. This would mean that, in our text, when Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him, no matter which word He uses, He is asking the same question.
What, then does this mean for out text? Mainly, we must be careful of digging so deep we let dirt fall on our heads. The point of this passage is not Peter’s confession of a love for his Master that was not deep enough. The point, on the other hand, is the wonderful, encouraging fact that Jesus comes to Peter after he has denied the Lord, gets Peter to confess his love for Him, and then, in spire of the failures, the Lord takes Peter back in to His service with a prophecy of his life. This is the encouragment here: the Lord takes back those who are fallen.