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Exploring the Nuance in Jesus' Dialogue with Peter: A Study of Love in John 21:15–17

Context of the Dialogue


After Jesus' resurrection, He appeared to His disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. In a poignant exchange between Jesus and Peter, recorded in John 21:15-17, Jesus questions Peter three times about his love, each time using a slightly different term. This conversation is not only crucial for understanding their relationship but also illustrates the depth and complexity of the concept of love in the New Testament.


The Variance in Terms of Love


In this exchange, Jesus initially asks Peter if he loves Him more than these, using the Greek word "agapao," which refers to a selfless, sacrificial, and unconditional love. Peter responds, not with "agapao," but with "phileo," which denotes a brotherly, affectionate love. This pattern continues in the subsequent exchanges, with Jesus asking the second time using "agapao" and Peter again responding with "phileo." By the third time, Jesus switches to "phileo," which is the term Peter was comfortable using.


Scriptural Text Analysis


  • John 21:15: "So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs."

  • John 21:16: "He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Tend my sheep."

  • John 21:17: "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."


Linguistic and Emotional Implications


The shift from "agapao" to "phileo" by Jesus on the third query is significant. It could be seen as Jesus meeting Peter at his level of expression and assurance, acknowledging the sincerity of Peter's feelings even if they don't reach the ideal of "agapao." This adaptation by Jesus may also reflect His understanding of Peter’s remorse and restoration after his earlier denial of Christ.


Cultural and Theological Significance


This dialogue underscores a fundamental principle in Christian theology—Jesus accepts the level of love one can offer and works to elevate it by entrusting responsibilities like feeding and tending the flock. It symbolizes Peter’s restoration as an apostle and leader among the disciples, despite his previous failings.


Reflection on Peter's Restoration


The repeated questioning can be viewed as a symbolic reversal of Peter’s three denials. Each affirmation of love serves not only as an act of repentance but also reaffirms Peter’s role in the early Christian community. Through this, Jesus reinstates Peter, emphasizing the importance of love as the foundation of leadership in the faith community.


Implications for Christian Ministry


The nuances in this dialogue highlight the diversity of love that can be expressed among believers and the acceptance of varying degrees of spiritual maturity by Jesus. This teaches that in Christian ministry, leaders are called to recognize and nurture the different expressions of love and commitment in the community, just as Jesus did with Peter.


By exploring the subtle linguistic differences in this biblical passage, we gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics between Jesus and Peter, reflecting broader themes of love, redemption, and spiritual leadership in Christian doctrine.


About the Author

EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is the CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 220 books and is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).


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