Peter's love for Jesus - Peter do you love me? (John 21:15-19)

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After Jesus meets fishing disciples in Galilee, a short story follows narrating a dialog between Peter and Jesus. This is the third encounter of Jesus with his disciples after the resurrection.

The story begins with arranging the event after finishing their meal (ἠρίστησαν [éristésan]). Jesus then opens his three-question speech to Peter (John 21:15a). The three questions-answers is patterned by “question: do you love me - answer: I love you - commission: herd my sheep” structure. Using this pattern, the text can be extracted in the following table of statements:

  question answer commission
15 Σίμων Ἰωάννου, ἀγαπᾷς με πλέον τούτων ναὶ κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε βόσκε τὰ ἀρνία μου
16 Σίμων Ἰωάννου, ἀγαπᾷς με ναὶ κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε ποίμαινε τὰ πρόβατά μου
17 Σίμων Ἰωάννου, φιλεῖς με κύριε, πάντα σὺ οἶδας, σὺ γινώσκεις ὅτι φιλῶ σε βόσκε τὰ πρόβατά μου

In between these statements, small narrative signals are pointing to some interesting ideas. One of the ideas is the counting since the questions are counted as the “second time (δεύτερον [deuteron])” and the “third time (τὸ τρίτον [to triton]).” This points back to Peter’s threefold denial as is developed in John 13:37-38; 18:17-18; 18:25-27. This is also the third time Jesus sees his disciples after the resurrection.

After the third question, before Peter is about to answer it, the narrator speaks about Peter’s feelings. It is said that “he was distressed (ἐλυπήθη [elypéthé])” and the reason (ὅτι [hoti]) for that is that Jesus asked him for the third time. This development is important to notice and see the connection with Peter’s threefold denial. In effect, Peter’s answer is charged with the stress of Jesus’s knowledge of Peter’s affections for Jesus. The emphasis is highlighted by using the two words for knowledge: οἶδα [oida] and γινώσκω [ginóskó], and quantification of that knowledge using the word all (πάντα [panta]). Therefore the primary point that the text is trying to communicate to us is Peter’s denial.

The table above also shows variation in the style which is typical for John. In the text, John is varying these pairs of synonyms: ἀγαπάω - φιλέω (love), βόσκω - ποιμαίνω (herd), ἀρνίον - πρόβατον (sheep). All of the word pairs have the same semantic meaning. John is employing this feature probably to avoid monotone text and sound or rhythm of the sentence in general. 

Probably the most debated issue concerning this passage is the degree of quality of love designated by the verbs ἀγαπάω and φιλέω, which are translated by the same word “love” for each. In this sense, it is believed, ἀγαπάω should point to a higher kind of love then φιλέω that Peter is unable to express in his answers. However, it is difficult to draw this interpretation from the sense of the text itself. In general observation of the biblical text, ἀγαπάω and its cognates are used as a general expression for love, in both negative and positive sense. First, this is attested in regard of John’s Gospel as a whole since these words are not exclusively contrasted and in some instances, they are even used interchangeably (such as John 11:3, 5, 36; John 19:26 and John 20:2). Second, the Septuagint (LXX) uses these words without a difference in meaning as synonyms (such as Gen 37:3.4). Third, the New Testament also has a negative expression of ἀγαπάω (see 2 Tim 4:10). Fourth, the Classical Greek does not know of any qualitative difference between the words and are rather used as synonyms. Fifth, and most importantly, this is not how semantics and language work (see the problem of semantic range and meaning in a sentence, social aspects, and narrative-rhetoric aspects).

Based on these issues, it is difficult to import an universal meaning for these words into this passage. Another thing is that it should be the passage itself what should provide the information about the contrast in the quality of the words towards a reader. Or at least it should establish the meaning in some manner (syntax, narration) to avoid both polysemy and assure the reader of what is the intended meaning in view. We find nothing of that in the text. Reading the passage in the optic of the qualitative contrast, we rather make the final meaning highly dependent on the interpreter's preunderstanding.

Let us go back to the flow of the story. The good news is, in the story, that while Peter denied Jesus three times, it is forgiven and Peter is commissioned to take care of the ministry of Jesus’ followers as is expressed in “herd my sheep (βόσκε τὰ πρόβατά μου [boske ta probata mú])” (John 21:17). It is also iterated three times working as an override of the three denials.

What follows next, in the last two verses, is a prediction of Peter’s future ministry which will end in sacrificing his life and “you will glorify God (δοξάσει τὸν θεόν [doksasei ton theon])” (John 21:19). This is well in connection of what Peter promised to Jesus, that “I will lay my soul for you (τὴν ψυχήν μου ὑπὲρ σοῦ θήσω [tén psychén mú hyper sú thésó])” (John 13:37). Now Jesus is getting back to this claim. The first time, when Peter raised it, Jesus told him that he is not prepared to do that and that he will rather deny him: “before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times (οὐ μὴ ἀλέκτωρ φωνήσῃ ἕως οὗ ἀρνήσῃ με τρίς [ú mé alektór fńésé heós hú arnésé me tris])” (John 13:38). However, things are different now, and Peter is prepared to fulfill the claim he made before the crucifixion of Jesus. In this way, when Jesus says to Peter “follow me (ἀκολούθει μοι [akolúthei moi])” makes an even greater sense since it joins Peter’s future with the events which Jesus himself endured.





Word Meaning
λέγω say
ὁ, ἡ, τό the
αὐτός, ή, ὁ he; self
σύ you, your
ἐγώ I
φιλέω love
καί and
Σίμων, ωνος, ὁ Simon
ὅτι that
Ἰωάννης, ου, ὁ John
οὗτος, αὕτη, τοῦτο this
κύριος, ου, ὁ Lord
οἶδα know
εἶπον I said (aor. of λέγω)
ὅτε when; while