I am thinking about “love” today and I realize it is a word that can have various meanings. Love can be expressed with different levels of emotions. I articulate different feelings when I say “I love you” to different people in different situations. “I love you” is a term of endearment that I profess to my husband with a romantic meaning I share with no one else. “I love you” are words with a unique connotation I say to my children and grandchildren reserved for them alone. I may even say that I love chocolate but that has an entirely different sentiment! “I love you” is a phrase that can be voiced either flippantly or sincerely. When I think about an example of “I love you” in the Bible, I am reminded of the conversation between Jesus and Peter after they had breakfast on the shore one morning shortly after Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus and Peter verbalized two different kinds of love.
In just two days it will be Valentine’s Day. My Reader, do you love the day or would you prefer there not be a day set aside to celebrate love? Are you secure enough in the love of those around you that you look forward to expressing your love to them and to have them verify their love for you? Do you need to ask a particular person in your life whether or not they love you? How do you think Peter felt when Jesus asked him three times if he loved Him?
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter,
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?”
He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
I have heard it said that Jesus did not have to ask Peter three times if he loved Him because Peter was hard of hearing but rather Jesus asked because He had something special to relay to Peter that He wanted him to remember. I like the humor in that statement along with the truth it reveals. Love is the topic of conversation between Jesus and Peter, but they are not talking about the same thing. Peter affirms his love for Jesus but the type of love he expresses is different from what Jesus asks the first two times this question is presented to Peter. Jesus uses the Greek word “agape” indicating an unconditional type of love that is not only affectionate but also a supreme and perfect love. Peter responds with the Greek word “phileo” signifying that he loves Jesus as a friend and has high regard for him. The third time Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him, He uses the term “phileo” that Peter used in both of his previous responses. In the English language I read one word but there are two entirely different meanings to what Jesus and Peter are talking about.
Another thing I notice when reading the love conversation between Jesus and Peter is that it does not conclude with just the issue of whether or not love exists between the two of them. Even though Peter does not answer the question with the depth of commitment indicated by Jesus, he still responds positively. Jesus accepts Peter’s answer and then challenges him to a future ministry among the sheep of God’s fold. Although Jesus would have preferred to share a deeper love relationship with Peter, He acknowledges Peter’s honesty and the third time Jesus acquiesces to Peter’s level of commitment. I wonder if there is the possibility that phileo love can be transformed into agape love over time. I wonder if Jesus’ intention was to encourage Peter to a deeper love that he might need in the future. For myself, I guess I need to be sensitive to what Jesus may be asking me today. Is He asking me if I love Him? What form of the word love is He using when he inquires about my love for Him? Is there a specific reason He wants to know about my commitment to Him? There is a lot to think about regarding this little four letter word “love”!
There is something else I notice in this question and answer exchange between Peter and Jesus. In John 21:15, Jesus not only asks Peter if he loves Him but He asks him, “Do you love Me more than these?” Commentators have different interpretations of what the pronoun “these” refers to. I guess I always thought “these” referred to the other disciples, but another interpretation has caught my attention. “These” may refer to the fish Jesus and Peter have just shared for breakfast. Looking back at the beginning of John 21, I remember the setting in which this conversation takes place. The night before was when Peter and several other disciples had gone fishing and had caught nothing until the morning when Jesus appeared on the shore and told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. Jesus prepared a breakfast of broiled fish and bread for them and it was after they had eaten that Jesus questioned Peter. Peter had gone back to his former occupation of fishing and I wonder if Jesus was asking Peter if he intended to revert to his old lifestyle of fishing rather than being willing to fulfill the ministry he had learned during the last three years in the presence of Jesus. It makes sense that Jesus was questioning whether Peter’s first priority and love was to catch fish or to feed Jesus’ lambs. This makes me ask myself, “What is ‘these’ in my life?” Is there something or someone I love and give priority to over my relationship with Jesus.
Although it is not used in the conversation between Peter and Jesus, there is third Greek word for love known as “eros” denoting an intimate and romantic love. It is the word from which the English word erotic is derived. Eros was the ancient Greek god of love, identified by the Romans with Cupid. This is the type of love that is commercialized on Valentine’s Day. Although there is a beautiful aspect of this type of love, it is also the type of love that can be degraded. Personally, I do not want to confuse agape, phileo, and eros love.
My Reader, what kind of love valentine are you going to receive and/or give this Valentine’s Day? Love those God has placed in your life, but never forsake your first love for the Lord. Do you hear Jesus saying to you (replace Simon Peter’s name with yours), “–————, Do you love Me?” How will you respond? If you say, “Lord, you know I love you,” what form of love will you be using? Please do not be like Peter and settle only for phileo love when agape love is available. If Jesus is asking you “Do you love me more than these?” to whom or what does the pronoun “these” refer in your life? Are you willing to adjust your priorities?
Let love surround you on Valentine’s Day and every day!