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When my boyfriend and I had been dating for a year and a half and still hadn’t said the words “I love you,” great strife arose in our relationship. While he claimed he wanted to make sure he truly meant those words, I didn’t understand why he wasn’t there yet.
After grueling conversations, tears shed, heart to hearts with Jesus, and emotions splintered, we arrived at those words long after I thought we would. When he finally uttered the big words, I was in shock. Suddenly, it was my turn to clinch up and not know how I felt.
As we think about God’s love, one thing that Jesus revealed to me during this hardship was that I didn’t need my boyfriend’s love even though I desired it. And while human love is admirable and necessary, eternal love and validation are what my soul desperately seeks daily.
Today, we tend to misconstrue God’s love with what human love is like because it’s the only comparison we have. This concept of a God who loves us more than life itself is uncanny and absurd. A God who is love Himself and seeks to give it all away in an immeasurable and never-ending fashion surpasses our human intellect.
In John chapter 21, Jesus and Peter have an “I Love You” conversation similar to the one with my boyfriend many years ago. Before this discussion, however, Peter professed his love for Jesus as one willing to die for him. Though Jesus knew and reminded him that betrayal and denial would be the outcome, Peter promised that his love would remain:
“Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered. But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same” (Matthew 26:31-35, NIV).
Shortly after Peter’s assured ability to love Jesus, he denied that he knew him three times. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, he comes to Peter and asks him three times, “Do you love me more than these?”
On the surface, Peter faithfully declared that, of course, he loved Jesus; he was a Disciple after all! Beneath the interaction, however, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” three times to emphasize the importance of Peter’s love and needed obedience to Christ as necessary for his future ministry. In the future, Peter would be responsible for spreading the Good News of Jesus to the sheep of His Pasture (the world), but for now, it was vital for him to see the human frailty of his love.
While Peter denied Jesus three times upon accusation, Jesus confirms His unfailing love for Peter in asking him to love a little deeper.
“After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.” “Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him. Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.” “Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said. A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep. “I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me” (John 21:15-19, NLT).
When Jesus asked Peter in verses 15-16, “Do you love me,” He was asking do you agape me? Do you love me with an unconditional love that’s willing to die for me as I have for you? Of course, Peter notes! “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” but Peter’s love was phileo. When Jesus asked do you love me unconditionally, Peter said I love you like a brother or best friend.
I don’t know about you, but if I told someone my love was willing to die for them, but their love was only ready to treat me like a brother, I wouldn’t be thrilled. When I get married, I want to love someone who will love me with agape love. Instead of getting irritated, though, Jesus asks again, “Do you love me?” This third time, something seems to stir in Peter that Jesus is asking him again.
With hurt feelings, I picture him shaking his head as glassy eyes look at Jesus and say, “You know I love you (phileo), Lord.” Jesus, love Himself, was not asking Peter to validate love but commit to the love He gave and encouraged others to give. He was trying to get Peter to realize that fulfilling his deeper calling down the road would require him to love with the unconditionally love Jesus loves him with effortlessly now.
In the same way that Jesus asked Peter his love for Him, I believe that God tests our love for Him in the sense of seeing how serious we are about dedicating our entire lives to His Lordship. Let me be clear that Jesus will always love us, and there is nothing we can ever do to separate ourselves from that love.
Romans 8:35-39 of the KJV tells us this: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39, KJV).
Although God will never remove His love from us, He may question us at times how much we are willing to die in love for Him. Countless stories in Scripture reveal this to us, such as the rich man unwilling to sell everything to enter Heaven (Matthew 19:16-22, ESV) or the Prophets reluctant to give up their gods to serve the one true God (Deuteronomy 12:1-3, ESV). I am not preaching a poverty Gospel as Timothy Mark Ministries or John Piper note, but I do beg the question, “Would you give it all up to follow Jesus and love Him with all of your heart, soul, and mind?”
Matthew 6:21 of the NIV writes, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21, NIV), because where our love is matters. Does God’s love encourage you to love others in that way? Do you have a love for sharing the Gospel and are willing to risk your life for its cause? Even amid suffering, do you love enough to look upon Heaven and say, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, NIV)?
From Old Testament to New, Scripture professes God’s faithful love to an unfaithful and rebellious people. Time and time again, He chases us down, extends grace and mercy, and nudges our hearts to turn to Him. Hesed is God’s love for us; a covenantal everlasting, merciful, kind, redemption love in action.
While it is incomprehensible, it can be known, and it’s learned through His interactions with us. God’s love for us never changes, and while He may ask, push, or nudge us to become more like Him and His kind of love, He will never take (or threaten in fear) His love away from those who partake in a personal relationship with Him and intimately seek Him (1 John 4:12,18-19; Psalm 136:1-3; 1 John 3:1; 2 Corinthians 5:14; John 15:13; Romans 5:8).