In John 21:15-19, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him three times and Peter responds three times that he does in fact love him. Three times Jesus tells Peter to take care of his sheep. Since the question, answer and commission is repeated three times with slightly different vocabulary, it is worth wondering whether John meant anything by varying his report of this conversation. This is an issue that is has been addressed ad nauseum in commentaries and blogs, yet there is still a great deal of confusion in popular preaching and teaching on this passage to merit yet another attempt to defuse this exegetical mistake. (Here is an excellent post on the topic from Gerald Manning’s now-dormant Eutychus blog.)
Frequently pastors will make a great deal of the difference between the two words for love in this passage, Jesus asks the question used the verb ἀγαπάω, Peter responds with the verb φιλέω. As it is usually taught, Jesus is using the verb which means “God’s self-sacrificial love” and Peter responds with the more mundane “I love you like I love ice cream” word. When Jesus asks the third time, he uses φιλέω, allegedly toning down his language so Peter can agree with him. (Here is a video on YouTube that makes too much of the difference, although they do not apply this distinction to John 21). I suppose that C. S. Lewis is ultimately to blame for this, since many people read his Four Loves and try to apply that sort of thing to John 21. One of my earliest memories of a sermon was a speaker who made this distinction and then challenged me to “agape” Jesus, not “phileo” him.
But if this distinction between the two types of love is really in the background of the conversation between Jesus and Peter, then I cannot imagine a more insulting way for Peter to respond to Jesus! Peter is sitting with the risen Lord Jesus Christ who asks him “do you love me,” and Peter responds “I am really quite fond of you.” Peter is in a sense saying that he is not willing to die for Jesus, despite the fact that Jesus is sitting next to him with scars from the nails which held him to the cross!
By way of analogy, imagine a married couple, and the wife asks the husband, “do you love me?” and he responds “you know I like you.” In English, “I love you” and “I like you” are quite different, and the wife would not miss the insult of the husband’s words. (In fact I cannot imagine a wife giving the husband another chance to respond!) Imagine that the husband says this in front of a number of friends, in a public place for all to hear. It is hard to imagine a more stinging insult that this.
The difference between the two verbs was minimal in the first century, to the point that they can be used interchangeably. For example, in John 3:19 people love the darkness, using ἀγαπάω, the verb allegedly reserved for God’s self-sacrificial love. This is also the case in John 12:43, where the Pharisees love glory from other men more than the glory which comes from God. On the other hand, John 5:20 uses φιλέω to describe God’s love for the Son, and in 16:27 the verb is used for the love God has for the disciples. The bottom line here is that there is little difference between the two verbs, John varies them to keep from repeating the same verb six times in a few lines.
In fact, this passage has a number of words which mean essentially the same thing but are varied. Peter says “you know” three times, in v. 15 and 16 he uses οιδα, in v. 17 he uses γινώσκω. Jesus tells Peter to “feed” his sheep, in v. 15 and 17 he uses βόσκω but in 16 he uses ποιμαίνω, usually translated “tend.” Even the words used for the flock vary; v. 15 has ἀρνίον, in v. 16 and 17 he uses πρόβατον. Earlier in the chapter there are two words used for the same boat (πλοιον in v. 3 and 6, and πλοιάριον in v. 8). Morris comments that there are not two boats, John simply loves to vary his vocabulary (John, 865, n. 20). The fact is that it is John’s style to vary similar vocabulary without any difference in meaning.
It is not that Jesus wants Peter to love him in a way he cannot (or will not), rather he is re-confirming Peter as a disciple. He is confirming his love for Peter even though Peter has failed him, and giving him the opportunity of to confess his love for Jesus in front of witnesses.