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I remember the first time someone broke their promise to me.
At eight years old, I learned the hard way that not everyone wants to be your friend, and not everyone who says they are your friend is. With shaking hands, a beating heart, and a racing mind, I began to understand that words carry weight. Promises hold truths and virtues of trust. And we cling tightly to them because we have confidence that their expressions are genuine and their commitments are reliable.
Perhaps that is why I try to be careful with the words I say and the promises I make. And in John 21, Jesus also knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of broken promises.
Just a few chapters earlier, Jesus had a conversation with Simon Peter. As a fisherman, Peter believed he was a real catch. He claimed to love Jesus more than all the others and told the Lord that He would do anything for Him, even be willing to die for Him.
Surprisingly to Peter, however, Jesus told him that he would not only deny three times that he knew Him, but his love certainly did not uphold the promise he claimed to have for Him. Devastated, Peter begged to differ, but we all know how the story goes.
Because when Jesus asked Peter, John, and James to pray in the Garden of Gethesmane the night before His betrayal, Peter was also found sleeping. He was not exempt from human error and temptation. And although he was the one to cut off Malchus’ ear the evening of Jesus’ treason, he was still the one to deny three times that he ever knew Him. Peter was not very good at keeping His promises.
In the Scriptures, Peter always boasted that he loved Jesus more than the others and would be willing to die for Him. Matthew 26:35 and John 13:37-38 both record these instances.
“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 26:35, New International Version).
“Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times” (John 13:37-38, English Standard Version).
Many of us are willing to do something for others until the time of willingness is given an opportunity. And like Peter, when faced with pressing times, we would deny that we even knew Jesus.
Because if I were Jesus, I would feel heartbroken, stabbed in the back, never to trust Peter again. My emotions would get the best of me, and I certainly would not invite him over again.
But Jesus, as fully God and fully man chose to reinstate Peter with His kind of love that humanity is incapable of apart from Himself. You and I cannot choose love in the face of broken promises and rejection without Him within us. God is love, but love is not God, as C.S. Lewis notes, and any love we do possess is not man-made, but Christ begot. And His kind of love is a love I am still learning to possess.
When Jesus reinstates Peter in John 21:15-25, He does not shame or mock him but gently reminds Peter of the past conversations. And similarly, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” not because He wants to know if Peter loves Him but to show how different their love for one another is.
“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” (John 21:15-17, New Living Translation).
When Jesus asks Peter, “Do you really love me?” He hints at a more profound message. Peter is upset that Jesus keeps asking about his love for him, but I suppose by the third time around, it finally hits him. Peter was asked three times if He was one of Jesus’ Disciples and rejected Him, but he was also asked three times if he loved Jesus and accepted Him. Christ is not rubbing this in Peter’s face, He is restoring, revealing, and refreshing His kind of love.
Jesus is not only willing to love Peter despite his broken promises, He is willing to love Peter by meeting him where he is.
In the Greek translation of John 21, Jesus changes the type of love He is asking from Peter in verses 15 and 16 (agapao) to phileo (verse 17). Agapao, means to love, value, esteem, feel or manifest generous concern for, be faithful towards, to delight in, or to set store upon. Phileo, however, is to mainfest some act or token of kindness (or affection, to kiss). Agapao is self-sacrifical love, while Phileo is friendship.
Peter was willing to love Jesus with all the phileo in the world. In an essence, when Jesus kept asking, “Do you agapao me?” Peter would say, “Of course I phileo you, Lord!” But it is not until Jesus says to Peter “Do you phileo me?” that we realize Jesus’ agapao love loves even when others cannot love Him the same way.
Jesus was able to love Peter the way that Peter loved Him, but Peter was not able to love Jesus the way Jesus loved him.
And is that not the beauty of the Christmas story we celebrate year after year? That Jesus meets us where we are, with how we can love Him? After all, God sent Jesus as (and became) a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger for a reason.
Agape (agapao) is the most powerful, robust type of love. It is sacrificial love not based on feelings or circumstance, but a commitment to a will. Philia (phlieo) is brotherly love in close friendship.
Peter was unable to love Jesus in the way Jesus loved him, yet Jesus still loved him the same. Today, we are so blessed to serve a God that meets us where we are and loves us in the highest, purest, holiest, and deepest way He knows how.
Although Jesus accepts Peters phileo, He is not shy to prophesy that one day, Peter will learn to agapao Him in true sacrificial martydom.
“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.” Peter turned around and saw behind them the disciple Jesus loved—the one who had leaned over to Jesus during supper and asked, “Lord, who will betray you?” Peter asked Jesus, “What about him, Lord?” Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” So the rumor spread among the community of believers that this disciple wouldn’t die. But that isn’t what Jesus said at all. He only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” (John 21:18-23, New Living Translation).
In the present, Peter was unable to agapao Jesus, yet Jesus foretold that someday, Peter would agapao him through sacrifice. Peter would be crucified on an upside down cross, unworthy to die the same way as Jesus. He would learn in his lifetime how to love Love, and I pray to do the same.
We may be incapable of agape now, but Jesus will meet us in phileo and show us the way to agape until we get there. And you know what, it does not matter if Jesus calls your best friend, spouse, or neighbor the same way.
Peter was concerned about John and how he would learn to love Jesus, but Jesus said, “what is that to you?”. Jesus was concerned about Peter’s love for him. He is still concerned about your love for Him and not someone else’s.
Today, each of us have different and divine callings on our lives. Some of us will be led where we do not want to go, while others may live lives that do not end in martydom. In a sense, we all die to Christ daily. We die to our selfish desires of the flesh.
But one thing is certain: Christ teaches us to love how He knows how so that we know how. And He laid down His life so that we would lay down our lives in love for others no matter how or what that looks like.
May you go in His kind of love today.