“He said to him a third time, ‘Simon, Son of John, do you love Me?’”
For the last three years of my life, I lived beside the beach. On certain weeknights, my friends and I would gather to pack a picnic, blankets, and games. We’d then march down to the shore to eat and play. We called it “golden hour,” because we would go at five o’clock when the sun was reflecting gentle golden rays off the water. Our skin was dusted with a thin film of sea salt, toes were sandy, and laughter harmonized with the percussion of the waves. I thought it was the most sublime hour of my life. Those moments flood my mind when I imagine the reunion between Christ and His disciples in John 21. I imagine Jesus making a joke about the disciples being subpar fishermen; I imagine the smiles broadening as they realize who it is on the shore; I imagine Peter clumsily leaping out of the boat and clamoring to the shore for a hug.
But then, I remember John 19. Suddenly, this reunion on the beach feels strange, incongruent. There is still the whole matter of while Jesus was bleeding and battered, Peter publicly dissociated from Him. Breakfast on the beach seems an entirely inappropriate follow up to gut wrenching betrayal. As if cutting through the tension, Jesus asks Peter: “Simon, Son of John, do you love Me?”
Jesus asks this question three times: “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” Though the question is translated the same in each case, the Greek wording makes a minor shift the third time. In the first two instances, Christ uses the word agape for love, yet the third time He asks, He uses the word phileo. The semantic difference is slight, but the word agape is defined as the unconditional love of God, while phileo is typically associated with brotherly or friendly love.
Plenty of scholarly ink has been spilled over these verses, but I’ll offer my own humble interpretation. It seems that with these three questions, Jesus is tackling Peter’s former bravado of “never falling away” and subsequent three denials. It’s also interesting to ponder the progression of agape, agape, phileo—divine, divine, brotherly. It doesn’t seem to be a diminishing or cheapening of terms; rather, Jesus seems to be getting to heart of the matter. From the beginning, Peter recognized Jesus’ Lordship and again right before he flung himself off the boat. But did Peter truly see Christ as his friend, his brother? Jesus had said earlier, “No longer do I call you servants…but I have called you friends” (John 15:15). In three short questions over breakfast, Jesus deals with Peter’s sinful lack of love but still invites him back into brotherly relationship—a relationship Peter possibly never fully embraced until now. So the final question using the word phileo provokes the most reaction and seems to break Peter’s heart. It brings him to tears.
So often, when we sin shame creeps into our hearts and whispers: does God really love you? Does God want to associate with the likes of you? Could God ever love someone like you? That sinister voice is not only wrong in its implication, but also in its focus. God does indeed love us, but His heart isn’t the one in question when we are faithless. It is akin to a husband cheating on his wife and then questioning her love for him. The question after I sin is not, “Does God love me?” but “Do I love Him?” That question takes us from the courtroom where God is an imposing judge looming over us and instead places us on a beach in the presence of Jesus, our friend and brother, whom we have betrayed. Sin weighs heavily on us when we consider God as our righteous Judge, but only when we see Jesus as our betrayed brother will it truly grieve us.
However, when we see Christ as our friend, not only do we grieve more over sin, but we rejoice more in our reconciliation. The reunion and forgiveness we find tastes so much sweeter. It evokes the words of Joseph Scriven’s hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”—“Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share?” The answer to this rhetorical question is quite simply, no. No, we could never imagine a friend so longsuffering and gracious as Christ. No, we could never find a friend so patient and kind. No, we could never find a friend waiting on the shore for us a few mornings after such a grievous failure.
With that kind of a friend in view, we have no choice but to leap out of the boat and run to Him.