Do you love me?

This Sunday is the 3rd Sunday of Easter. Our gospel describes the Apostle’s encounter with Jesus at the Sea of Tiberias. As noted previously, after a fruitless night of fishing, Jesus sent the disciples back out with the result that they just caught a “boatload” of fish. They had not recognized Jesusm, but now they have hauled catch ashore and Jesus (whom they now recognize) has prepared breakfast.

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 then 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 distressed that he had said to him a 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. 

This encounter of Peter with his risen Lord is filled with beautiful material. Jesus offers Peter a public opportunity to profess repentance through love, surely a striking example of what it is that reestablishes our relationship with the Lord after sin. The One who Peter denied at the charcoal fire, restores Peter at another charcoal fire. The threefold denial is forgiven by this threefold profession of love.

This encounter is also a recommissioning of Simon Peter. It begins, When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” The name “Simon, son of John,” used in all three verses, provides an important link with Peter’s first appearance in the Fourth Gospel. The risen Jesus’ use of this name repeats the words he spoke when he first met Peter (“You are Simon son of John,” 1:42) and once more portrays Jesus as the good shepherd who knows the name of his sheep (cf. 20:16). But what is being asked of Simon Peter?

Jesus could have been asking whether Peter loved him (1) more than the other disciples who were present did; after all Peter had boasted during the Last Supper that he (more than the others) was willing to lay his life down for Jesus. Perhaps Jesus was asking if Peter loved him (2) more than he loved those other disciples or (3) more than the large catch of fish, the boats and fishing gear. The second is unlikely because there is no mention elsewhere of Peter’s love for the other disciples. The third is possible if one thinks that Peter’s decision to go fishing (21:3) represented a turning away from Jesus to go back to his old trade. If this is unlikely, then the first option is to be preferred, remembering that Peter had been the most forward in asserting his dedication to Jesus (13:37–38; cf. Matt. 26:33).  The first option is the most likely.

In answer to Jesus’ question, Peter said, Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Peter’s response was positive, but involved no bold claims like those he had made previously. He simply said that his Lord knew the truth about his love for him. In response to Peter’s affirmation of love for him, Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’ His commission to Peter was to feed (boske) his ‘lambs’ (arnia), meaning he was to provide spiritual nourishment for new believers.

This verse (v.15) establishes the basic pattern that is repeated with minimal variation in vv. 16–17: Jesus’ question of Peter’s love for him; Peter’s affirmation of his love; Jesus’ charge to feed/care for his sheep. Two different verbs for “to love” are used in vv. 15–17: agapaō, vv. 15a, 16a and phileō, vv. 15b, 16b, 17. These verbs are used as synonyms throughout the Gospel, with no difference in meaning. For example, both verbs are used to speak of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (ēgapa, 13:23; ephilei, 20:2); God’s love of Jesus (agapa, 10:17; philei, 5:20); God’s love for the disciples (agapēsei, 14:23; philei, 16:27); and the disciples’ love of Jesus (agapa, 14:23; pephilēkate, 16:27). There is no reason, therefore, to ascribe gradations of meaning to their usage here (as do many commentaries).

There seems to be no real difference between Jesus’ three commands: “Feed my lambs,” Tend my sheep,” to which is added the composite “Feed my sheep.” The language continues the shepherd theme of John 10. The function of Yahweh-shepherd in Ezek 34 passes to Jesus-shepherd in John 10 to Peter-shepherd in John 21. It is important to note how Peter’s shepherd role is tied to love (vv. 15–17) and to a willingness (like the good shepherd of 10:11–18) to lay down his life (vv. 18–19). Note, too, how Peter’s laying down his life glorified God, as did that of Jesus. Love, love to the limit, selfless, life-giving love manifests (glorifies) God because that is God’s nature. An act of selfless, life-giving love is God’s name published before the world.

Brain Stoffregen notes that Jesus said in 10:11: “I am the good shepherd [poimen]. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Although Jesus never refers to Peter as a shepherd [poimen], he does tell him “to shepherd” [poimaino] his sheep.” Like the “good shepherd” of ch. 10, Jesus indicates that Peter will die. In the upper room, Jesus had this conversation with Peter: “Simon Peter said to [Jesus], “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward. Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” (13:36-38). Jesus tells Peter at the end of our text, “Follow me.” What Jesus tells Peter he cannot do earlier, he now tells him to do. Following Jesus — for Peter — means death. Peter’s response, “Yes, I love you,” involves the commitment of his entire life.”

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