The scene in John 21 of Jesus asking Peter three times, “Do you love me?” is a powerful picture of forgiveness, redemption and restoration.
After Peter had bragged in front of the other disciples that he would never betray Jesus and would even die for him (you can read the story in John 13:31-38), just a few short hours later he publically denied that he even knew Jesus. And not once, but three times! (read it in John 18:15-27).
So the scene on the beach at Galilee around a “charcoal fire” (notice this eyewitness detail that John recalls from the Jn 18:18 account) was poignant and deeply personal as Jesus confronted Peter gently and persistently, publically inviting the recommitment of his love and devotion.
Some who can read the Greek of John 21 have noted that Jesus and John use different words for the word “love.” Specifically, in Greek there are three different words that seem to make distinctions that our single English word “love” wraps all together.
Some have said that phileo (pronounce it “fil-eh’-o”) stands for the love of one brother for another. That’s where we get the name of the city Philadelphia from, “The city of brotherly love.”
And they say that another Greek word, eros, stands for the kind of erotic love of sexual passion. The third Greek word that is translated “love” in our English bibles is agapao (say ag-ap-ah’-o). And some (Wescott, Plummer, Temple) say that agapao stands for a higher kind of love, the kind of unconditional love that God has for us.
So in Jn 21:15 where Jesus asks, Peter do you agapao me?” and Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, I phileo you,” some (Hendricksen) see Peter avoiding the question and responding with less than ideal, less than complete love and devotion. The same thing happens in verse 16.
But then in verse 17, Jesus drops the use of agapao and instead uses phileo–implying that he lowered the standard of love and met Peter where Peter could be.
Actually, all of this word play is overstated. Most scholars (with Morris, Carson, Marshall) realize that first, John frequently interchanged words quite freely in his account of the life and ministry of Jesus, apparently for the sake of variety without regard to nuances of distinction. “But it does not follow that a writer who elsewhere shows himself prone to slight variations, including the use of synonyms, without appreciable difference in meaning (see Jn 3:5 where John uses “sprit” and “water” to mean the same thing: spiritual birth) does intend a difference in this passage” (Morris, 769).
Second, scholars also note that agapao and phileo are frequently interchanged in Greek literature and elsewhere in the Bible. For example, take a look at John 16:27 – “No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” The Greek word behind our English word “love” in this verse is … phileo, not agapao as one might suppose.
I think the point of the touching story in John 21 is not to demonstrate supposed intricate word games but to show us once again Jesus’ commitment to deeply caring for us, even to reconciling our broken relationship with him, restoring us to respectability before our friends, and then using even the most broken of us as the personal caretakers of the sheep whom he loves.
My Jesus is incredible!
Resting in Him,