John 21:15-19 – “Peter, Do You Love Me?” (Check yes or no)

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.

10 thoughts on “John 21:15-19 – “Peter, Do You Love Me?” (Check yes or no)

  1. People (and unfortunately some pastors) so often want to put the emphasis of this passage on the different uses of the “love” verbs, and the potential meaning behind it. In so doing they miss what is in my opinion the most important part: that of the the parallel of Peter’s three denials with Peter’s subsequent three affirmations of his love for Christ… Great post Phil.

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  2. Another helpful and corrective post on this issue. I wrote about this a few months ago on my blog and included Carson’s commentary on the four loves from his Exegetical Fallacies book. It is hard to reason with pastors about this because: 1. Tradition, 2. It preaches so well!

    Thanks for posting this!

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  3. Phil, this helps a lot, after hearing so many sermons over working these words, as you explain. Preachers beat these words to death, and miss the huge outpouring of grace that is going on here. In fact right now I’m listening to an excellent song by Aaron Keyes that is made for Peter (and me!) … “Not Guilty Anymore” Thanks!

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  4. Phil,

    Thanks. I regularly bring this topic up with my Greek students. Sometimes you will here people say that agape is the “God kind of love”. I then point them to John 3:19 that says “people loved darkness more than light.” The word there is agape, which means they have the “God kind of Love” for sin? LOL

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  5. I’m one of those pastors who thinks and teaches that two different words for love are being used here. Now I don’t flog it as alleged in your post but I believe is certainly for a reason.
    I’m not a Greek scholar by any stretch, but I know people like Peter — in fact I’m impetuous and impulsive like Peter and I say the wrong things sometimes. I have had a regular diet of foot in my life.
    Here’s my thought: Jesus asks if Peter loves him (with the self-sacrificing love that agape implies) but Peter, having screwed up back when he insisted that he would NEVER deny Jesus, is cautious in his response — “Lord, you know I’m fond of you.”
    I think it’s pretty clear, Peter isn’t being insulting — he’s being careful. He remembers the look Jesus gave him in those terrifying morning hours. He had left his Lord down once before with his gushy words, and so, for once, he’s going to think a bit before he blurts out what might or might not be true this time. He wept bitter tears the first time, the remorse will prevent him from overdoing it this time. These words are here for good reason.

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    • Thanks Keith, I think that much of what you say here is good (go and preach this!) I will point out, however, that over-emphasizing the difference in vocabulary sometimes misses the point of Peter’s restoration, three denials, three restorations.

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      • I completely agree. The restoration and the beautiful way Jesus does it is the point.

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  6. This text is clearly about the restoration of Peter. But the words used are very important. Context analysis and Content analysis is important here to see the point. It is no accident that Jesus used agape love the first two times and philo love the third. John MacAuthor has a wonderful sermon on this text. He discusses both, the restoration of Peter and the use of the agape and philo words in the text. It is entitled “Peter, Do you love me.” Great message, worth your time.

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  7. We can all agree that God’s complexity and depth, are far beyond our complete understanding; and will remain a mystery. Perhaps the verses are a restoration of Peter, in the parallelism of iterations. Possibly they are a call to not only feed, but also to tend the flock. And maybe, just maybe, it is Peter’s confessional of his inability to love divinely – to which Jesus reassures him that he can – with “follow me”.

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