The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.
It began to dawn on the apostles after the resurrection that the center pieces of Christ’s work on earth were the cross and the resurrection. In the early days of Jesus’ public ministry John the Baptist had said of Christ, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Christ also often taught them these things. But it took three years, the cross and the resurrection, before they began to grasp the central theme of the ministry of Christ was to die for the sins of the world and to be raised by the power of God, as He had said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
It must have torn at their hearts that at the critical moment of His ministry they had deserted Him. They were there when He taught and fed the multitudes. They were there when He calmed the waters. They had been there when He healed the sick and when He raised Lazarus from the grave. He had sent them out on missions and even the demons had been subject to the disciples. And though they had failed to cast the demon out of a young boy, they had at least been present trying to do so. But at the cross they had deserted Him and, despite His teaching them, they failed to believe in the resurrection at first.
It must have torn at all of their hearts but none more so than Peter’s. Three times Peter had denied Christ, denied that he knew Him, denied that he was a follower, the last time calling down curses on Himself. So the fact that He had been unfaithful and the way that He had been unfaithful in Christ’s most important hour of ministry haunted him.
Christ, of course, knew this. When God confronts us with our sin He does so that we might be assured of His forgiveness, and that is what He did with Peter. Peter needed to be dealt with lovingly but firmly, so Jesus asked him three times if he loved Him “more than these.” The phrase “more than these” is as curious in the Greek as it is in any other language. But the most likely meaning was whether Peter’s love was superior to the love of the other apostles, whether Peter loved Jesus more than the other disciples loved Jesus. Remember on the night of Christ’s betrayal Peter had pledged “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (Matthew 26:33). And in light of his betrayal of Christ he realized that his love was not spectacularly greater than the others.
It is hard to translate the words from Greek to any other language – the conversation almost certainly occurred in Aramaic, not Greek, but all we have is the Greek translation of this encounter. We are tempted to make too much of them or too little of them – but let us take the simplest idea included in the passage, that Jesus spoke of a higher love than did Peter. Peter was honest with his short comings, with his weaknesses, even with His love – Christ’s love for Peter was purer and higher than his for Christ. Peter was a man who, like all men, was best when he admitted his weaknesses. The more we brag and boast about what we will do for God, or about our giftedness, the further we are from becoming that person or achieving those things. It is a rule of faith that the people God uses must be broken people – no other type of human will do. The proud, rash Peter had been tamed, humbled, even humiliated – and made so by his own failures.
So Christ gently, but straight forwardly asked this question three times, to mirror the three denials that Peter had made. God searches us to expose us to ourselves, in order to restore us to Him self and to ourselves. Sin blinds us to realities. It makes us proud when we should be humble. It makes us arrogant and critical of others when we should be honest and self-effacing. Peter could not stand for Christ for even one night in his own will power and neither can you nor can I.
How many times in our own lives at the critical moment we failed? Christ points these things out in our lives by His Holy Spirit that we might have the forgiveness that He wants us to have and that we need to have. Spiritual cleansing by the Holy Spirit can be painful, but the process leads us from the muddy waters of failure into the clear waters of grace. The Lord disciplines those He loves (Hebrews 12:6), so He points these things out that we might be forgiven.
We stand in grace and this is the only way we can stand for Christ. It is childish desperation to promise to do better next time, when we know how often we have failed. We do so because we have not yet learned another way. But the way of God is the way of grace, and if we will follow Christ we can only do so as broken people who must stand in the power of another, in the power of God, by His grace and in His Spirit.
In this sense it is a very true statement that the way up in the Christian life is first down. God delights to exalt the truly humble. By His grace He assures us of forgiveness and leads us forward to serve Him.
Lord, we have each failed You are critical times, and we confess and forsake our sins. We come to You, broken and weak, to be made new by Your grace and through Your Spirit. Amen.