Jesus asked Peter "Do you love me?" three time as recorded in the gospel of John 21:15-17. While Jesus was undergoing trial, Peter was nervously waiting in the courtyard of the high priest (John 18:15-16). Despite the disciple’s impulsivity and appeals to steadfast loyalty, he denied the Lord Jesus three times (John 18:17-18,25-27).
Being afraid that he would be recognized as one of Jesus’ disciples, he vehemently and repeatedly denied knowing Jesus (Matthew 26:74). Only after the rooster crowed a second time as the morning dawn approached did Peter realize what he had done.
Christ had already warned Peter about the denial: “‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus answered, ‘this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times’” (Matthew 26:34, NIV). After remembering Jesus’ words, Peter experienced extreme guilt and broke down in tears (Mark 14:72). He had denied and disowned his Lord, the very person he claimed he would die for (Matthew 26:35).
Jesus’ Reinstatement of Peter
After they had finished eating, Jesus asked Peter three questions containing "Peter, do you love me?". Each question was about whether Peter loved Jesus and was posed beside a fire (John 21:9). This is the same setting Peter had denied Jesus: beside a burning fire (Mark 15:54; John 18:18).
Although Jesus’ questions may seem redundant, the fact that Jesus asked three times is quite significant. Just as Peter denied Jesus three times, the Lord asked Peter three times if he loved Him. This was a part of Peter’s reinstatement and commissioning by Christ.
Instead of referring to the disciple by the name “Peter,” Jesus called him by the name “Simon son of John” just as He had when first calling the disciple (John 1:42). This indicates that Jesus was reinstating “Simon” as the Apostle “Peter.” The first time Jesus posed His question, He asked, “do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15).
Probably, the “these” that Jesus is referring to is the disciple’s familiar life including fishing. The next two times, Jesus repeats His question, asking if Peter loved Him (John 21:16-17). Each time, Peter answered “yes,” and appealed to Jesus’ omniscience, in that Christ already knew his deepest feelings (John 21:16-17).
Interestingly, Jesus used the Greek word “agapas,” which is the greatest form of love, for the first two questions and then “phileo” for the last question, which is the love between friends (Strong’s Greek: 25 and 5368).
Some commentators have discussed whether this choice of words in Greek is significant given Peter’s continual use of “phileo” when stating his love for Jesus. Whether Jesus was meeting Peter at his level of understanding of love or not, the focus was on Peter’s reinstatement.
Peter affirms his love for Christ but is hurt since Jesus asked him three times (John 21:17). This was necessary, however, because the disciple had denied the Lord three times. With each affirmation of love, Jesus tells Peter to “feed my lambs,” “take care of my sheep,” and “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).
Instead of returning to a life of fishing, Jesus was reminding Peter that he was a “fisher of men” (Matthew 4:19) and would have the job of shepherding His flock: the church. The fearful disciple who denied knowing the Lord was thus reinstated as a shepherding leader for the upcoming church. Later, in his epistle to the churches, Peter compared the task of an elder to shepherding, just as the Good Shepherd, Jesus, had taught him (1 Peter 5:1-4).
Wonderful Grace and Forgiveness
Conflict is difficult, especially when loved ones are involved. Hurtful words can be thoughtlessly spoken or deliberately said to wound others. When all is said and done, however, the guilt sets in, and, as humans, forgiveness, and reconciliation is sought.
Sadly, the fickle and shallow love that is so common in this fallen world can lead to bitterness and unforgiveness. The longing in human hearts is for a love that endures wrongs and willingly forgives. Only God provides such a love: a sacrificial and never-ending love.
Peter encountered such love after Jesus’ resurrection. Despite all of Peter’s failures and sin, Jesus still loved and forgave him anyway. The reason Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him was not only to reinstate the disciple but also to affirm the love that only He could give. This post-resurrection event reveals the amazing truth that God loves and forgives His children despite past failings.
Like Peter, believers today can receive forgiveness from the Lord even when they fail and sin if they repent (1 John 1:9). Unlike humans, God’s love is unconditional.
This surprising grace and love caused the Apostle Paul to pray: “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:17-18, NIV). God’s love is not dependent on what His children may or may not do, but rather on what Christ has already done.
Not only is God loving and forgiving, but He is also steadfast. As Paul states in his second letter to Timothy, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Timothy 2:13, NIV). Peter experienced such steadfastness from the Lord when he was graciously forgiven despite his failure.
Messing up and failing is inevitable due to the warring of the sin nature against the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:17). However, this does not mean that the Lord will forsake His own.
Because Peter was so uncertain about the future, he drifted back to what was familiar in life. This past fisherman returned to what he knew and found normal: fishing. Peter and six other disciples fished all night on the Sea of Galilee without a catch (John 21:2-3).
Only when Jesus called out for the disciples to let down their nets did they pull in a large catch of fish (John 21:6). Finally, at that moment, the disciples realized the man as the risen Lord and pulled to shore to have breakfast with Him (John 21:7-14).
Just as Jesus gently, yet sufficiently, asked "Peter, do you love me?" and dealt with Peter’s failings, he will do likewise with His followers today.
Transforming Denial into Love
Although Peter had failed in staying loyal to Christ when asked by Jesus "Peter, do you love me", the Savior showed unconditional love to the erring disciple.
The Lord did not have to show such mercy since Peter had denied knowing Him and had disassociated himself from Christ. Jesus could have harshly rebuked the disciple with strong words that left Peter in tears on his knees.
However, Christ did not do this. Peter had already wept bitterly when he realized his fault, revealing his genuine guilt over his sin. Instead, the Lord gently asked Peter if he loved Him, changing his three denials into three strong statements of love. On that day, Peter was both reinstated as a disciple and was lovingly forgiven.
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Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. She holds a BA in Ministry, a MA in Ministry, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing to develop her writing craft. As someone who is passionate about the Bible and faith in Jesus, her mission is to help others learn about Christ and glorify Him in her writing. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.