Can you imagine asking a friend, ‘While I’m gone will you mow my lawn, water my plants, feed my dog, get my mail?’ and they responded, ‘Not all that, but I’ll get the mail for you!’.
That would be disappointing wouldn’t it? Jesus and Peter had a similarly disappointing exchange.
Two kinds of love
In John 21:15-19 Jesus twice asks Peter if he loves Him, using the Greek word apape’ both times. Agape’ is unconditional, lay-down-your-life-for-others love. But Peter responds both times using the Greek word ‘phileo’ love – a lower form of the word love, the love of best friends, tender affection love.
Not all that Lord, but I’ll get your mail!
Jesus is again cutting to the core issue of the heart, testing, probing, proving - as if slicing into Peter’s heart in preparation for Pentecost a month or less future, and a life of sacrifice. “Do you love me unconditionally Peter?” Jesus asks 2 times. But 2 times He gets the response, ‘I love you like a best friend’.
This is NOT up to the level of love Jesus is looking for. Yet He still gives Peter the commands after each response to ‘Tend my sheep’. How interesting that even though Peter doesn’t seem up to the level of love required for the call on his life, Jesus still issues the call – aren’t we exactly the same? YES!
If you can do what He has called you to, its proof you invented the call, for He only calls us to that which is impossible with man, that the glory might be of God and not of us.
We are Peter
Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever – He still asks us about our love for Him - as this series has covered, He asks in different ways, leading us and inviting us to examine our hearts, our motives, but it boils down to the question: What is most important to you; Me and heaven, or going with the crowd off the cliff?
The story is told of a meeting of Christians in a home church in the USSR, when soldiers burst through the door with rifles leveled. “Anyone who is not a Christian may leave!” Most quickly left, but a few stayed, in great fear about what was to come next. As the soldiers shouldered their weapons after the others were gone the leader said: “Finally, we’ve found some real Christians!” and they joined the time of worship, Bible study, and discussion. Would you be in the group of Christians that left, or the ones that stayed?
Peter and Jesus had known each other about 3 1/2 years, and His question comes after the resurrection, so Jesus feels comfortable asking Peter if now, after all we’ve been through, after all you’ve seen and heard and done, do you love me unconditionally in that ‘lay down your life for Me’, agape’ love?
We know that Peter is honest and transparent - what you see is what you get with him – so he answers honestly, ‘I don’t love you unconditionally, I love you (phileo) as a friend’.
Agape’ and phileo
Agape’ is the love that describes the Father’s love of His Son in John 17:26, and how the Father ‘So loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son’ of John 3:16. It is unconditional love, dependent completely on the giver of that love; Therefore the receiver of agape’ cannot do anything to change, modify, or affect the love they are loved with.
Phileo love on the other hand means ‘tender affection’ and is used of the ‘tender affection’ between the apostle John and Jesus as friends – remember John leaned on Jesus during dinner in John 13:23 – the love of best friends.
Twice Jesus asked Peter if he held that deepest love for Him, and twice Peter said no.
If he isn’t ready to come up to my level, I’ll come down to his level
The third time Jesus comes down to meet Peter where he is; “Do you phileo me, love me as a friend?” Peter was distressed at being asked a third time about if he loves the Lord, but responds as he did before – I told you I love you as a friend! - thinking he finally got his point across to the Lord.
That is why Jesus immediately prophesies how Peter will die – making a subtle but powerful statement that Peter will eventually come up to agape’ love for Him when he is old; He will be crucified just as the Lord was.
I am amazed at the Lord’s grace. Right then, somewhere around 32 AD, Peter doesn’t yet love the Lord with agape’ love. Yet Jesus tells him when he is older he will – Peter died around the year 66 AD, 34 years future – and the Lord was content to tell him 34 years from now you have come up to agape’ for Me even if you don’t hold that love for Me now. Amazing love!
Another view of this exchange is that Peter thought loving the Lord as his friend was higher than agape’. I love you as my best friend! To think phileo is higher than the agape’ isn’t correct, but it may have been what he was trying to say – I love you tenderly as my best friend!
But that would mean he really, really missed Jesus’ point which would be consistent with his history in the gospels. So Jesus met him where he was at, the third time asking if he loved Him as a friend.
And that is how we are today – the Lord either goes right to our heart asking what kind of love do we have for Him, or we totally miss what He is trying to do in us. How many times have we asked Him to deal with someone who has hurt us, but He seems to ignore that request and instead zero in on our heart asking us to forgive and do good to them! Argh! Just teach them a lesson Lord and don’t ask me to deal with my heart! lol
When I moved into the fraternity at Indiana University in 1976 I met several other Christians. I thought how wonderful all these guys are serious about the Lord in such a party University in the ever ready to party world of fraternities and sororities. Some of us were there to study and in my case, also because my dad had been in that fraternity, so I was thrilled to find what I thought were solid believers.
My world was shaken when I saw one of them stumble down the hall drunk during the first of the school year weekly Thursday night beer party with a sorority. Then another described the next day how one of the sorority sisters came into his room and stripped, and he asked us ‘What was I supposed to do?’ (Not what he ended up doing that night, that’s for sure)
Of the 8 or so Christians in the house, only 2 of us consistently walked the walk in our lives. The temptation was there to jump off the cliff with my Christian fraternity brothers, but I never did. Barb was a year behind me in school so she was back home finishing her senior year of high school, and I think that helped keep me focused.
We wrote letters back and forth (this was before the days of emails and texting), and when we felt like all the other lemmings were jumping off the cliff we consoled ourselves, correct or incorrect, as lone believers refusing to follow the herd. But we were able to stand strong because we loved the Lord and heaven’s opinion more than we loved earth and man’s opinion.
Over this series we’ve seen a common thread in the Lord’s probing and proving men’s hearts, and that thread is about valuing heaven above earth.
He is the same today, asking us about our core values, about who He is to us. But who He is to each of us has changed over the years. None of us started our walk with the Lord by being in agape’ love with Him. We got saved because we sought Truth, or were in a tragic situation only God could change, or some other reason. We progressed from not knowing Him to barely knowing Him to loving Him like a friend, and many have moved on to the love Jesus asked of Peter: Agape’ love.
This is a life-long process, for every time we choose to do the right thing, we lay down our lives a little bit more for Him, proving we value heaven’s treasures, proving we value heaven’s thinking above our own.
Don’t jump off the cliff with the rest of the crowd, establish your core beliefs and values and allow them to form a line you will never cross even if all your friends jump off the cliff. New series next week, ‘The Big Picture’.