The Expository Files

“Bitter Tears”

John 21:15-19



John 21:15-19, So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?" He said to Him, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love You." He said to him, "Tend My lambs." (16) He said to him again a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love Me?" He said to Him, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love You." He said to him, "Shepherd My sheep." (17) He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love Me?" Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, "Do you love Me?" And he said to Him, "Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You." Jesus said to him, "Tend My sheep. (18) "Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go." (19) Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, "Follow Me!"

Many look at this passage with wonderment. Why did Jesus ask Peter the same question over and over? Peter responded to each question, assuring the Lord of his love for Him. And, didn’t the Lord already know Peter’s heart? Why did He ask Peter these questions? Why was peter “grieved” when the Lord asked him the third time, “Do you love me?”

Peter’s “grief” was much more than just dismay or disappointment that the Lord asked him three times, “do you love Me.” Grieved (??pe´? - lupeo¯) is a word that literally means to be “distressed.” It also means to “be in heaviness; sorrowful; to be made sorry.”1 Lupeo is sometimes translated “exceeding sorry” or “very sorry” (Matt. 17:23; 18:21; 26:22); or being “in heaviness” (1 Pet. 1:6).

Why was Peter so “grieved?” We need to remember that Peter had denounced his friendship with Jesus with “cursing and swearing” (Matt. 26:74) shortly after he declared "Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You" (Matt. 26:35). In Matt. 26:74-75 we read, “Then he began to curse and swear, ‘I do not know the man!’ And immediately a rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, ‘Before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.”

Now with these things in mind, let’s look at the dialogue between Jesus and Peter in our text. We can only imagine how “out of place” Peter now felt being with Jesus. Where he had once been comfortable and self-assured as one of the chosen apostles; he now is before Jesus as one who had failed Him so miserably. Self confidence and faith had withered to self-doubt and a feeling of being an utter “failure.” How could he even bear to look into the face of the resurrected Son of God?

I know of no passage that fails to express the English meaning from the original language more than this one. In the Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, there are different words that are translated “love.” Agape is the kind of love that is perfect and pure; selfless and active. Agape is looking out for the interest of the one being loved, putting them ahead of self. (see John 13:35; 15:9-13; Rom. 5:8.) There is also a lesser kind of love that would describe the affection that we might have for a friend. That word is (phileo). It is described as “to be a friend to (fond of [an individual or an object]), that is, have affection for (denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling).”2

It is vital to the understanding of this passage to keep these two Greek words in mind while noting their meaning and usage in this passage.

Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) Me more than these?" He said to Him, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love (phileo) You." [How could Peter say, unequivocally, I love (agape) you, after he had so miserably failed him?] He said to him, "Tend My lambs." (16) He said to him again a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) Me?" He said to Him, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love (phileo) You." He said to him, "Shepherd My sheep." (17) He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love (phileo) Me?" [notice that the Lord changed the word from agape to phileo] Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, "Do you love (phileo) Me?" And he said to Him, "Lord, You know all things; You know that I love (phileo) You." Jesus said to him, "Tend My sheep. [Peter was “grieved” not because Jesus asked him a third time, but because Jesus lowered the standard.] We can only imagine the heartbreak Peter was feeling. Before fear and isolation enveloped Peter during the crucifixion he would have boldly said, “Lord, how could you ask such a thing? Of course I love (agape) you!” But his actions showed how miserably he failed to agape the Lord. He even denied friendship (phileo) with the Lord! Now he is truly “grieved” (lupeo) as he comes face-to-face with the Lord and what he has done.

The rest of this passage shows the compassion for, and continued confidence in, Peter that the Lord had. (18) "Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go." (19) Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.

He told Peter that he was going to die for the Lord. Was that a horrible thing to hear? Would it be for you if you were in Peter’s place? NO! What a wonderful piece of prophecy! Jesus was telling Peter that he was going to have faith great enough to be the kind of man he thought himself to be when he said, "Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You" (Matt. 26:35). He didn’t die WITH Jesus, but he knew now he was going to be allowed another chance; to LIVE FOR Him, and that he would eventually die FOR Jesus. We can only imagine the joy and relief that he felt!

And when He had spoken this, He said to him, "Follow Me!" And Peter did just that. He became one of the greatest apostles and servants of Christ that has ever lived. He was given the “keys to the kingdom” (Matt. 16:18-19) and allowed to preach the first gospel sermon to both the Jews (Acts 2) and the Gentiles (Acts 10).

What does this mean for you and me? It means that, even though we may have failed the Lord miserably, it is not too late. Isn’t that great news? We may have failed the Lord in the past, but with lupeo (Godly Sorrow that leads to repentance - 2 Cor. 7:11) we have another chance to prove to the Lord, and to ourselves, what kind of Christians we really are. After their repentance of the things mentioned in the first letter Paul said to the Corinthians, (2 Cor. 7:10-11) For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. (11) For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow [lupeo], has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter.

1. G3076-Strongs Greek & Hebrew Dictionaries

2. G5368-ibid
 
By David A. Beck
From Expository Files 11.5; May, 2004

 

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