The ancient Greeks help us to define love through a variety of definitions – agape, phileo and eros. Eros love, driven by lust, needs no definition. We’ve all tripped over that one a time or two. So, we are left with agape love and phileo love, agape being the selfless kind, and phileo being the sentimental kind. Agape love demands action and involvement, as in God’s unconditional love for us through Christ Jesus. Phileo is select, targeted and can be withdrawn without notice.
Jesus tests our understanding of the word “love” in the 21st chapter of John, albeit within the difficulties of translation from the spoken Aramaic word to the written Greek.The chapter begins with these words, “After these things (referring to early post-Resurrection appearances),
Jesus appeared again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberius.” As impatient as Peter tended to be, he wasn’t inclined to wait around for pie-in-the-sky-by-and-bye. “Hey; we can sit around here and wait for the Second Coming, but our families need support! I’m going a-fishin!”. Six others decided to go with him. Peter is running away from a big load of guilt on his conscience for denying Jesus at His trial.
You know the story. Jesus appears on the beach. He doesn’t identify Himself by name, setting the stage for centuries of identifying Himself through the changed lives of His brothers and sisters. He begins by giving gifts that have nothing to do with His saving grace, in this case a boat full of fish. Jesus affirms their vocation – their physical needs, and He does it in a big way.
As soon as they recognize Him, Peter jumps out of the boat and runs through the water to greet Him. He needs to know that Jesus hadn’t rejected him.
The next gift Jesus gives them is breakfast. He gets a fire going and cooks some bread and fish. The 3rd gift was a gift to Peter – the gift of forgiveness. Jesus is moving beyond phileo-love theology to the simple practice of agape love for ours and Peter’s benefit.
Peter and Jesus need to talk. They can’t keep running around the elephant (or maybe camel?) in the living room. But first, Peter needs to know that Jesus has not rejected him. Jesus demonstrates that by affirming him, feeding him and accepting him. Now comes the hope part.
“Peter, do you truly agape me more than these (boats, nets, fish, food, family, friends)?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I phileo you.”
Peter cannot answer that he agape-loves Jesus because he has already demonstrated by his actions that he doesn’t. Jesus is his friend – phileo-style so far. That’s as far as Peter can go, right now, anyway. “I mean, we may love each other, Lord, but I have business to attend to.”
There is another piece to this first question: “Feed my lambs – my little ones.” Since Peter was not at the agape stage, that didn’t really apply to him. Or did it? Somehow, we are supposed to believe that if Peter were to feed Jesus’ lambs, he would be loving Jesus. We are reminded of Jesus’ statement at the Judgment, “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.” Strange concept, this agape love! We’re forgiven for failing to fall on our swords for Jesus but not so for the least of His brothers!
Jesus asks him again, “Do you truly agape me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I phileo you.” “Take care of my sheep – the older ones in my flock.” Jesus asks us the same question: Do you love me more than your family, your friends, your career, your toys? Do you love me more than these things and these people? “But, Lord, I have to go home to bury my father and to take care of business, and then I will follow you.” Jesus answers,
“Let the dead bury the dead! You, however, go and proclaim the kingdom of God!” (Luke 9:60).
Again, Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love me”?” This time, He uses phileo. “Peter, do you phileo me?” “Lord, you know all things. You know that I phileo you.” They are both on the same page now, it appears. Jesus has come to Peter! Does this mean that the sheep are off the table? Maybe Peter is hoping so, but Jesus tells him, “Feed my sheep” and then tells him that he will be able to live the agape love when he is martyred for the Lord.
There are no conditions on love of God for us. You may want only to be His casual friend, or you may want to go all the way.” Whether it is agape love or phileo love, God is not into splitting hairs. Love of God at any level, however, demands the same thing – “feed my lambs; feed my sheep, and follow me”.
Peter received a gift that day on the beach. Not only was Jesus not surprised by his weak, conditional love, he was given the promise that there would come a day in the not-too-distant future that his love of Christ would lead him willingly to a self-sacrificing cross. It was a love that steered him toward speaking the truth to unchecked power. It was a love that drew him to all God’s sheep – not just a select few of his own choosing.