Peter Was Grieved

In John 21:17 we read, "He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep."

Many years ago I wrote an article entitled, "I Love You, but I Don't Like You." At that time I had never seen an article that dealt with the difference in the words translated "love" in this passage. I feel sure that most of my readers now know that Jesus asked, "Lovest thou me (agapas me) more than these?" Peter answered, "Thou knowest that I love thee (philo se)." So Peter did not answer the question Jesus asked. To phrase the question and answer in a reasonably fair English rendition, it would be, "Peter, do you love me in a way that would allow you to give of all that you are and have for my welfare or pleasure?" Peter replied, "Lord, you know that I have a great deal of affection for you."

There are some scholars who take the position that the words "agapao" and "phileo" are synonyms, for they sometimes are apparently used interchangeably, but they are not synonyms. I may say to my wife, "I love (agapao) you" or "I like (phileo) you and have a tender affection for you" and one may assume that because I may use one or both expressions about or to the same person, or in the same context that they are therefore synonyms, but that is not the case.

But my point in this article is to raise a question about why Peter was grieved? Most of my early life when I knew less about either English or Greek than I do now, I assumed he was grieved because Jesus asked him the same question three times. That is not the case, although in English it may seem to be. In John 21:17, quoted above, it says, "He said unto him the third time," so it might seem that he asked him the same question three times. However, "the third time" simply refers to the third time he asked a question, not the third time he asked the same specific question.

My conclusion is that Peter was not grieved simply because Jesus asked him something three times. My opinion is that he was grieved because when Jesus asked him the third time, it was as if he was saying, "Peter, I have asked you twice if you had a sacrificial love for me, and you refused to answer, saying that you had a real affection for me. Do you really have the proper feeling of affection for me? If so, why did you not answer my question?" Peter had previously avowed his sacrificial love for Christ in Mt. 26:35, and demonstrated it when he drew his sword and struck off the ear of a man. He had then failed to demonstrate it when he denied that he even knew Christ. So he seemed unwilling to "go out on the limb" again and affirm his "agape," but was willing to affirm his "philos." However, Jesus questioned that in John 21:17, and that grieved Peter.

Part of my point in this article is to emphasize that Jesus on no occasion told his disciples that they should have "philos" toward him or toward God. We may have a great feeling of affection for persons, but not be willing to sacrifice of what we are and have for their will, or lay down our lives for them. This is what God demands, and we have too few preachers who are emphasizing that. We often make it sound as if about all you need to do is come to the front, confess something and be baptized. The real reason we are not retaining more of our "converts" is that they were never properly motivated to love (agape) the Lord with all the heart, soul, strength and mind. They were motivated to "obey the gospel" or go through the steps of what we call the conversion process in order to get their sins removed and have some hope of eternal life. But we have miserably failed in many cases to so present Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2) that those who heard were constrained by his love for us to love him and surrender their lives to him as Lord. Paul said in 2 Cor. 5:14, "For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead." If you will examine much of the preaching you have done or heard, you will discover that it dealt primarily with what was wrong with some doctrine or person, or even how to worship God properly. We need to know that, but one of the first things an alien sinner needs to know is that Christ loves him and died for him, and only as he responds in love to that love can he be saved by grace, through faith. Until and unless we focus on that, we will continue to have many who come to hear a sermon (or at least to occupy a pew), and who refuse to stay for Bible study or come back Sunday night or Wednesday night. Fussing at them and criticizing them for their lack of faith will solve very little. If they are not somehow motivated to love Christ with an agape-love, they will never function adequately as Christians. Also, if they never find out the difference in a mere feeling of affection for Christ, and the kind of love that Christ wanted from Peter, they will never be what they should be. It may never have occurred to you, but one of the fatal mistakes of the denominational world (and many connected to the Lord's church) is that they can get all stirred up emotionally and feel good about Christ without loving him enough to live or die for him. To take him as Lord is more than feeling an affection for him. He died for you? Will you live for him?

T. Pierce Brown

Published in The Old Paths Archive