Do You Love Me More Than These?
The disciples have left Jerusalem for Galilee as the angels and Jesus had directed them on that Easter morn. We do not know how much time has elapsed since Jesus revealed himself to the disciples at the end of the festival of Unleavened Bread, the visit that elicited the confession of divinity from the lips of doubting Thomas, a week after Jesus’ first visit the evening of his resurrection. At any rate, the disciples have had time enough to repair to Galilee to the Sea of Tiberias. We may assume that they are waiting for Jesus to appear as he said he would to the women (Matthew 28:10). While they are waiting, they decide to go fishing.
There are some who make much over this detail, the idea being that the men who are to be sent out by Jesus to be witnesses of his resurrection (as he had already informed them they would be, John 20:21), were returning to their old trade. I don’t know that this is fair; I tend to think the men just decided to go fishing. Perhaps they needed food for the group of disciples who may have accompanied them to Galilee. The important point is that Jesus meets them here, just as he said he would, but not when they thought he would. We must be aware that the Lord meets us when we are not expecting him – through his word, through a person in need, through wonderful times and trying times – our Lord meets us and we need to be able to recognize him. Only a thorough knowledge and acquaintance with Scripture and a practice of listening to him and ministering to others in need can make us sensitive to hear his voice.
After they discover that the man calling to them from the shore is Jesus, through a miracle they had seen before (Luke 5:8), they return to shore with a whopping catch of fish. Of course, the important matter is the discussion between Jesus and Peter in which Jesus asks him, not once, not twice, but three times, if he loved him “more than these.” Are “these” the fish (his former profession), the other disciples, or an assertion that he loved Jesus more than the other disciples did, an arrogant statement he learned to regret (Mark 14:29)? Perhaps Jesus meant all three of them. We learn in Exodus 34:14 that the LORD is a jealous God. Jesus himself said as much when he said that anyone who loves even family members more than him is not worthy to be his disciple (Matthew 10:37; Luke 14:26). The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New. At any rate, asking Peter three times if he “loved him more than these” was meant to sting, and Peter felt it. Sometimes the Lord has to sting us so that we never forget how faithless we can be, left to ourselves, so that we will always be humble before the Lord. Peter answers all three times that he loved him. Again people make much over Jesus’ use of a certain Greek word for “love,” agapao, the first two times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, and Peter’s use of another Greek word, phileo, in response all three times. (Jesus also used phileo the third time.) People think that the former Greek word is a higher kind of love than the latter and thus Peter was not meeting Jesus’ use of the word, “love.” I agree with more recent scholarship that does not think that this is the case. Why would Jesus switch to phileo the third time? To meet Peter “where he was?” I don’t think Jesus would sacrifice a particular understanding of love (especially if it were a “better” kind) just to suit Peter.
So why this discussion with Peter? To reinstate him as a disciple, and soon to be apostle. Peter had to know he was forgiven so that he could “strengthen his brothers” when the time came to do so (Luke 22:32). And the Book of Acts indicates that he was the leader of the apostolic band much of the time; every apostolic list in the Bible places his name first. Our God works to reinstate us, to reconcile us, to forgive us, to restore us. Sometimes this is painful as we are reminded of sins we wish we could forget. And some will say we should forget them. I’m uncertain of that. I think Peter understood he was forgiven well enough, but I also believe he never forgot that sin, that act of treachery, which served the purpose of always keeping him humble, that always made him check his tongue, which was so quick to speak in the Gospels. God may forget our sins, but (and I know that I am in the minority here) we shouldn’t. Our sins may fill us with grief, but they also soften our hearts towards others and towards God. Jesus informed Peter that he would one day honor him in an even greater way than he denied him. At the same time he reminded Peter to mind his own business and “follow me,” good words for any Christian.
Finally, John, the beloved disciple, informs us that he is the one who wrote this Gospel, which we already knew. And yes, we know his testimony is true because the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that these are the words of God, and that Jesus is the Son of God. Naturally, there is so much the Son of God did that John can’t imagine recording everything on such a short scroll. And when we think of what he did for us through his life, death, and resurrection, then the world would never hold all the praise and adoration we should render unto him.