I would like to share with you the challenge of the short dialogue between Jesus and Peter in John 21:15 -- 17. I have not got any clear application in my mind. All I know is that I am challenged by this passage and need to be.
The passage does two things. Firstly, it challenges us to enquire into the nature and depth of our love for Jesus. Secondly, it shows us from where the motive and reason for serving Jesus comes -- it comes from love for Jesus and the nature and depth of that love.
Our English translation of the original Greek of the New Testament fails completely to bring out what was being said between Jesus and Peter. The reason is that we only have one word for love in English, and in this passage two words are used in the Greek.
When Jesus asks the question of Peter the first two times, he uses the word 'agapao'. This word is a very strong one. The love expressed in this word is one of sacrifice. The well known prayer gives the idea -- the willingness to give and not to count the cost, to labour and not to heed the wounds, to give and not to ask for any reward except that we know we are doing the will of Jesus. It is more concerned with action rather than feeling. It is the reality of our feelings proved by the way we are willing to give and go on giving to the one loved. It is the love which Jesus showed to us when he was ready to die upon the cross in our place to save us from our sins.
The word Peter uses all three times is the word "phileo" which means something like affection and friendship. This word is much less strong and has not got the commitment of "agapao". "Phileo" is a much weaker love, which tends to give up if the cost is too great and the loving too difficult. "Phileo" usually needs some response or else it turns into dislike.
Peter had failed in love -- "agapao" -- when he deserted Jesus before Jesus died on the cross, having said he was ready to die for him. Now Jesus comes to Peter and asks him in verse 15, "do you love (agapao) me more than these". What Jesus was referring to by "more than these" we don't know. He could have been referring to the other disciples, or to the pleasures or things of the world, or even to life itself. More than likely he was referring to all these things. Jesus was asking Peter whether he was willing to surrender his whole life to him in love. Peter could not say now that he had such love, so he replies "Lord, you know I love (phileo) you". Jesus asks the question again and gets the same reply, but at the third time Jesus used the weaker word for love, the same word Peter had been using -- "Simon, do you love (phileo) me". This hurt Peter greatly. Jesus was even questioning his affection and friendship. Peter really felt he had affection for Jesus, yet Jesus seemed to be questioning even this level of love.
Jesus asks us the same questions and we are constrained by them to inquire how much we do love him. Jesus changes the question from the strong word to the weaker one to challenge us to be really honest with our answers to his questions.
The questions are very relevant because the level of our love will be the level of our caring for Jesus' sheep -- in other words the level of care and commitment we have too caring for fellow believers and caring for the lost.
The greater our love, the more we will be prepared for the cost of such caring. You see, we don't care for others first and foremost because we love them, but because we love Jesus. If our care for others depended on our love for them, our caring would not reach very far. It is only when we do it out of love for Jesus that we will persevere.
The level of our love for Jesus will determine how much we are able to put up with from others before we stop caring for them or turn away from them. The level of our love for Jesus will determine how much our own wishes and desires and conveniences we are willing to sacrifice to feeding the sheep of Jesus. The level of our love for Jesus will determine how much hurt, pain, misunderstanding, ungratefulness, criticism, etc., we are able and willing to accept from others in our service for Jesus. The level of our love for Jesus will determine the degree we put away sin, put to death our evil affections, and walk obediently in his will.
When I read this passage I have to progress from hearing the questions addressed to Peter and to hear them addressed to me also. When I hear Jesus speaking them personally to me and not to anyone else, then I am reading the passage as I ought. And how searching this is. I wonder sometimes whether I have any real love for Jesus at all. I can only do what Peter did and say "Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you at least in some small away". I am sure that Peter, when he said this, longed that he might love Jesus more, and that this is the desire of every true believer.
The comfort behind all the searching questions of Jesus is his assurance that even if our love is so weak and faint, his love is always and fully "agapao" for us, and his love will never cease or diminish for all eternity. He has redeemed us and he will never let us go.
Your servant for Christ's sake,