WEEK 9: Simon, bar Yonah [son of Jonah], do you love Me more than these?

Jesus and Peter

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.’” (NIV)

From the shore, Christ called to the disciples to throw their net out again. Oh, what a precious, delicate memory it must have triggered inside of them to think back on the first encounter where they had witnessed Christ filling their nets with a great catch (cf. Luke 5:1-11)! Clearly, this command was a lot more personal as it gave a subtle hint to Who was, in fact, speaking. John immediately connected the dots of intimate experience and said to Simon Peter: ‘’T’s the Lord!’ In reaction, Simon Peter is again the first to jump in the water; eager to prove his loyalty to Christ (Matthew 14:22-31).

The setting in which the question (John 21:15) was asked, was that of a charcoal fire — the very same word in Greek anthrakia ἀνθρακιά is used to describe the fire Simon Peter was sitting at when he betrayed Christ weeks before (cf. John 18:18). This Greek word is only found twice in the whole New Testament! The Apostle John would not have made a point of using both occurrences in his account, if it was not to point to something: Christ, so deliberate in His setup of the scenario, was actually staging a second scene in order to confront and restore a broken heart. A similar fire, a similar setting, but two very different outcomes (betrayal vs. restoration)! Christ asked three questions, because Simon Peter had denied Him three times. This was not an arbitrary, random act. It was for the very reinstatement of Simon Peter to discipleship. Everything was planned.

Now, in my personal opinion, this passage in John 21, is probably one of the most unfortunate, limited passages to read in the English translation. Therefore, allow me to run with you through a quick and important exegesis to better understand why Jesus repeatedly asked this question. Let’s jump in!

Simon Peter — a man who often revved his mouth, while his brain stayed in neutral — had committed the very sin he claimed he never would:

‘Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will […] Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”’ (Matt. 26:33)

Within this genius setup that Christ had prepared for Simon Peter, Jesus was reminding him of this very promise he had made just a few weeks before. “Do you love Me more than these [disciples]?” The concept of love in the Greek, has quite a few different terms. Within this passage, Jesus and Simon Peter use two different Greek words in their discussion: Agapao ἀγαπάω (to love unconditionally and sacrificially, as God Himself loves sinful men) and Phileo φιλέω (a natural affection, fondness). See table below:

John 21:15 – Simon, son of Yonah, do you love Me?
Jesus asks Simon Peter replies
John 21:15 Love – Agapao Love – Phileo
John 21:16 Love – Agapao Love – Phileo
John 21:17 Love – Phileo Love – Phileo

Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love (Agapao) Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love (Phileo) You” [How could Simon Peter have the right or the courage to rise to Christ’s love after denying Him thrice?]. He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Yonah, do you love (Agapao) Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love (Phileo) You.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of Yonah, do you love (Phileo) Me?” At the third time Jesus asks the question, He changes to Phileo love.

 Notice how Simon Peter is referred to by Jesus as ‘Simon’, not ‘Peter’. Perhaps Jesus was exemplifying Romans 7, in that it was not Peter who had sinned, but Simon — the old flesh. Also note how Peter reacted: it was not his usual boisterous personality that was speaking. Here, however, we see a very different man confronted with his inabilities and his false perception of his own strength and dominance. He does not answer arrogantly, but with a repentant spirit, opens up in himself a potential usage by reflecting Jesus’ own glory back to Him in saying, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You” (cf. Ezekiel 37 – “Sovereign Lord, You alone know!”). But what follows, is the truly beautiful reinstatement:

   “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.” (John 21:18)

One might think this a terrible prophecy to hear from the Messiah, but to Simon Peter, this meant reinstatement to the point of being worthy to die for the Son of God (cf. Matthew 20:20-28). Jesus was telling Peter that he was going to have faith great enough to be the kind of man he hoped to become. We can only imagine the joy and relief that he felt! Peter begins the chapter by chasing his former vocation as a fisherman, but Jesus reinstates him to the role of a shepherd of the Church, the future body of Christ in Jerusalem, and Simon Peter did just that. He became one of the greatest apostles and servants of Christ that has ever lived. He was given the “keys to the kingdom” (Matt. 16:18-19) and allowed to preach the first gospel sermon to both the Jews (Acts 2) and the Gentiles (Acts 10).

What does this mean for you and me? It means that, even though we may have failed the Lord miserably, it is never too late. Christ looks at His children with possibility and potential, not with condemnation. When we slip, He will go to great lengths to intimately poke at our hearts, in order to reinstate and strengthen us again. The Lifter of our heads — yes, indeed, He is.

Thank You, my dearest Saviour, that You pursue such intimate conviction with us. Thank You, Jesus, that You do not settle for second best in our lives and that You pursue man with such passion when You see potential. Help me, Lord, to run into Your arms and not let shame keep me from kneeling before Your surgical hand of restoration. Reinstate me, oh Lord, I pray, to live and die for You! In Jesus’ mighty name, Amen.

BBC. 2011. The Disciples. [Online]. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/history/disciples_1.shtml [2020/02/01].

Bible Hub. John 21. [Online]. Available at: https://biblehub.com [2020/02/01].

Blue Letter Bible. The Quest for Love. [Online]. Available at: https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/smith_chuck/SermonNotes_Jhn/Jhn_151.cfm [2020/02/01].

Discover the Bible. 2015. John 21:15-17 — Agape & Phileo Continued. [Online]. Available at: https://discoverthebible.wordpress.com/2015/05/16/john-2115-17-agape-and-phileo-continued/ [2020/02/01].

Precept Austin. 2019. John 21:15-25 Commentary. [Online]. Available at: https://www.preceptaustin.org/john_2115-25_commentary [2020/02/01].

St. Mark’s Kennington. 2010. Holy Fire: The Charcoal Fire. [Online]. Available at: https://www.stmarkskennington.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/CharcoalFire.pdf [2020/02/01].

The Expository Files. Bitter Tears. [Online]. Available at: https://www.bible.ca/ef/expository-john-21-15-19.htm [2020/02/01].