In recent posts, we’ve been exploring the conversation between Jesus and Peter as they walked along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus asked the same question of Peter three times: “Do you love me?”
More specifically, the first question was, “Do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15). It’s possible to take the question three ways: (1) Do you love me more than the other disciples do? or (2) Do you love me more than you love the other disciples? or even (3) Do you love me more than these things? — meaning, perhaps, all the things associated with the life of a fisherman. The first seems the most likely. But what matters more is that Peter is being given an opportunity to redress his failure of the past by committing to the future Jesus lays out for him.
Think back to the earlier conversation between Jesus and Peter in the Upper Room. Jesus had just washed his disciples’ feet, which resulted in a brash reaction from Peter — “What? No way are you washing my feet!” — and a word of correction from Jesus.
Shortly after, Peter objected to the idea that Jesus might go somewhere he couldn’t follow. Impulsively, he insisted that he was ready to die with his Master. And again, his brashness earned him a rebuke. Instead of praising Peter for his loyalty, Jesus replied, “Really, Peter? You would die for me? Because I’m telling you that before the night is over, you’re going to deny even knowing me. And you’re going to do it three times” (John 13:38).
That conversation echoes in the background of this one. Surely, as he walks and talks with Jesus, Peter remembers his earlier overconfidence and failure. “Lord, you know I love you,” he says in response to Jesus’ questions. Grieved to be asked the same thing yet a third time, Peter adds, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you” (John 21:17, CEB).
I don’t take that as a sign that Peter’s hasty overconfidence is asserting itself again. Though it hurts to be reminded of his failure, Peter believes what he is saying, and is laying his heart bare. Lord, he seems to be saying, I know I was wrong about myself before. You, of course, knew how I would fail you even when I thought I wouldn’t. You know me better than I know myself. Indeed, you know everything! So you also know that what I’m telling you is true. I love you, really I do.
There is nothing in Jesus’ words that needs to be taken as skepticism. He asks his question three times to mirror Peter’s three denials, not because he needs to be convinced of Peter’s sincerity. And if Peter missed the opportunity to die for Jesus in the past, he will have that opportunity again in the future: Jesus predicts Peter’s own crucifixion, a death by which Peter would glorify God (John 21:18-19) as Jesus had.
If that’s not a demonstration of love, nothing is.
But Jesus, of course, isn’t simply commissioning Peter to die. As we’ll see, he’s commissioning Peter to follow in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd himself.