You’ve probably heard the story. It may be nothing more than urban legend. But even if the truth has been stretched a bit, the story rings true.
A wife was dissatisfied with her marriage. Her husband wasn’t as affectionate as she wanted him to be — indeed, he wasn’t even as attentive as he was when they were first dating. She put up with it for what felt like a good, long time. But at some point, she had to ask: “Do you love me?”
Without blinking an eye, and with some annoyance, he announced, “My dear, I told you on the day we were married that I love you. And that remains the case until I tell you otherwise.”
Some people find the story funny.
Me? It makes me cringe.
Love isn’t simply something you declare or decide, it’s something you demonstrate or do. Yes, love involves private thoughts and feelings. But it’s not complete unless it’s expressed outwardly in loving behavior. It’s nice if you say it, but in the long run, it only counts if you show it.
This, I think, is the gist of the exchange between Jesus and Peter on the beach. Three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Peter insists that he does — but he will need to demonstrate that love in how he subsequently lives out his pastoral vocation.
Much has been made of the way John words Jesus’ questions and Peter’s responses in Greek. The argument turns on the supposed distinction between two Greek verbs, both translated as “love” in English: agape, generally taken to mean a divine or self-giving kind of love, and phileo, suggesting fondness or loving friendship.
Jesus’ first two questions to Peter are, “Do you agape me?” Both times, Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I phileo you.” Finally, the third time, Jesus changes the question to, “Do you phileo me?” Peter, of course, responds in his usual way; he never claims to agape Jesus.
Thus, interpreters sometimes conclude that Jesus was asking for a full commitment of love from Peter. The first two times, he received what seemed like a half-hearted reply. So the third time, he backed off, and asked only for what Peter seemed willing to give: friendship rather than sacrifice.
But there are good reasons why we shouldn’t read it that way.
First, the idea that the different Greek words for “love” mean distinctly different things has been soundly debunked. Indeed, the evidence suggests that at the time the Bible was written, the word agape did not mean some special kind of Christian love, but was the “normal” word people used for love (with all the ambiguity of our use of the word in English).
Second, the fact that John varies the wording may be a matter of style. Whatever Jesus said to Peter, after all, it was in Aramaic, and John had to decide how to render that into Greek. He varies his wording elsewhere in the gospel, so why not here? If we insist that Jesus is saying something distinctly different in his third question, then shouldn’t we also insist that “Feed my sheep” means something distinctly different from “Feed my lambs”?
Third, if we don’t insist that “Feed my sheep” means something different from “Feed my lambs,” then we have to deal with the fact that Jesus gave essentially the same response to Peter each time. That makes less sense if the prior question was meant to be substantially different. (We would also have to ask why John says that Jesus asked Peter “a second time” and “a third time” if the questions weren’t the same.)
What’s significant about the conversation, then, is not the difference between the questions, or between the questions and the answers, but the threefold repetition, where the same question is asked and the same answer given three times. “Do you love me?” “Yes, I love you.” “Then do this to show it.”
The conversation thus brings closure to Peter’s failure of love in the past and moves redemptively into his demonstration of love in the future, a demonstration that will in fact require great sacrifice. We’ll explore these themes in more detail in upcoming posts.