15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” – John 21:15-19 ESV
The moment Peter had been dreading finally arrived. Ever since he had peered into the empty tomb, he must have experienced a growing sense of irrepressible joy at the thought that Jesus was alive and he might get see Him again. But his excitement was tempered by a nagging sense of guilt over his public denials of Jesus. On that night in the upper room, when Jesus had announced that one of the 12 would betray Him, Peter had boldly proclaimed, “I will lay down my life for you!” (John 13:37 ESV). But Jesus had responded with an equally bold statement of His own:
“Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.” – John 13:38 ESV
And that very same night, as Jesus was being interrogated by the high priest and the members of Sanhedrin, Peter fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy.
The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” – John 18:17 ESV
Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” – John 18:25 ESV
One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed. – John 18:26-27 ESV
Three separate times, Peter had been asked about his personal relationship with Jesus. Three different individuals asked him to confirm his identity as a disciple or follower of Jesus, and three times he vehemently denied any knowledge of or relationship with Jesus.
Now, standing on the shore of the sea of Galilee, Peter’s worst fear was realized. He found himself alone with Jesus. Peter had been avoiding the inevitable. The weight of his guilty conscience must have become unbearable, preventing him from fully experiencing the joy of being with Jesus. Every time Peter looked at Jesus’ face or caught a fleeting glimpse of the nail prints in His hands and feet, a sense of shame and self-loathing must have welled up within him. It is difficult to imagine just how tortured Peter must have felt each time he looked on his resurrected Master and friend.
And now, Jesus approached him one on one. There is no way of knowing what was going through Peter’s mind at that moment, but one would expect that Peter had been rehearsing the apology he would need for just such a moment. Yet, mercifully, Jesus broke the awkward silence by speaking first. And what Jesus had to say to Peter speaks volumes. One might have expected Jesus to say something like, “I told you so” or “Well, what have you got to say for yourself?” But instead, Jesus asked Peter a series of three questions.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” – John 21:15 ESV
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” – John 21:16 ESV
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” – John 21:17 ESV
Actually, it was one question asked three different times. That night in the garden, Peter’s inquisitors wanted him to confirm his relationship with Jesus, and three times he had denied having one. But now, Peter is being asked to publicly confess and confirm his love for Jesus. And this time, the one asking the questions is the very one Peter had denied.
Peter’s brash and impulsive nature had finally caught up with him. Over the years he had been with Jesus, he had made a habit of speaking his mind and trying to set himself apart from the rest of the disciples. He was naturally competitive and driven to do whatever it took to stand out from the crowd. All three of the Synoptic gospels record his pride-filled response when Jesus had declared, “You will all fall away because of me this night” (Matthew 26:31 ESV). Peter had boldly proclaimed, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (John 26:33 ESV). He was declaring himself to be better than the rest. He was made of better stuff. But little did Peter know that his bold claim was going to be put to the test and he would end up failing miserably.
But at the heart of Jesus’ questions is the issue of love. The very first iteration of Jesus’ question compared Peter’s love with that of the other disciples. When Jesus asked, “do you love me more than these?,” He was not asking if Peter’s love for the other disciples was greater than his love for Him. This was a question designed to expose whether Peter still harbored feelings of superiority, and considered himself to be more committed to Jesus than his fellow disciples.
Remember, Peter had accused the rest of the disciples of a lack of commitment. He had predicted that they would all fall away at the first hint of trouble. But he was different. He would stay the course and remain by Jesus’ side through thick or thin. Or so he had thought.
But standing face to face with Jesus, all Peter could say was “Lord; you know that I love you” (John 21:15 ESV). No comparison. No competition. He was not willing to speak for or compare himself with the other disciples. All he could do was confirm his own love for his friend.
Over the years, much emphasis has been placed on the two Greek words for “love” that appear in this passage. One is the word agapaō and the other is phileō. The first is said to be a description of divine love – a selfless, sacrificial love expressed by God to men. While the latter was more commonly used to refer to a lower, earthly form of love – the love between two human beings. And while there is some truth to this distinction, it is also true that these two words were often used interchangeably in the Greek language. Yet, John seems to establish a clear pattern in this passage. He records that Jesus repeatedly used the word agapaō, while Peter responded by using the word phileō. There is a subtle, yet important, point of clarification being made as Jesus discusses the nature of Peter’s love. Does Peter love Jesus in the same way that Jesus loved him?
Jesus had laid down His life for Peter. He had personally demonstrated the very definition of love He had given to the disciples.
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13 ESV
Jesus had faithfully fulfilled His role as the Good Shepherd.
“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” – John 10:11-12 ESV
By his actions that night in the courtyard, Peter had proven himself to be a hired hand. The wolf had come and he had fled. But now, Jesus was offering Peter an opportunity to prove his love. With each successive query, Jesus responded to Peter’s answer with a directive.
“Feed my lambs.” – John 21:15 ESV
“Tend my sheep.” – John 21:16 ESV
“Feed my sheep.” – John 21:17 ESV
In essence, Jesus is demanding that Peter prove his love for Him by loving those for whom He died. Jesus had told the disciples, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16 ESV). And now, Jesus was turning the care and feeding of the flock over to Peter and his companions. If Peter wanted to prove his love for Jesus, he was going to love and care for those whom Jesus gave His life.
In His teaching on the Good Shepherd, Jesus had stated, “he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:4 ESV). In a sense, Jesus was turning over to Peter the responsibility for shepherding and leading His flock. Peter and the other disciples would become under-shepherds, commissioned by the Good Shepherd to feed and tend His sheep. These men could express no greater love for Jesus than to care for His sheep. Jesus was leaving and He was going to turn over the care and protection of His flock to His disciples.
And then Jesus reveals to Peter that his shepherding of the sheep will be costly. Peter too will end up laying down his life for the sheep. This impulsive, self-assertive man will one day find himself being led by others. But as a sheep to the slaughter. This somewhat poetic-sounding prophecy by Jesus was meant to reveal to Peter “by what kind of death he was to glorify God” (John 21:19 ESV).
“I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” – John 21:18 NLT
Peter’s life was going to be dramatically different from this point forward. No longer would he live the self-willed, ego-driven life he had known up until that day. He will live a long life, but one that will be dedicated the the flock of Jesus Christ and end in him laying down his own life for the sheep – just as Jesus did. And according to the early church father, Eusubius, Peter was crucified in the midsixties A.D. during the purges of the Roman emperor, Nero.
But when Jesus had completed His one-on-one conversation with Peter, He ended it the same words He had used when they first met: “Follow me.” But this time, Jesus wasn’t asking Peter to become His disciples. He was inviting Peter to follow His example of selfless, sacrificial love for the sheep. And one day, when Peter had fully followed Jesus’ example, he would follow Jesus to heaven.
“When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” – John 14:3 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.