‘Do You Love Me?’

My Dear Shepherds,

For Peter especially, a cloud hung over Jesus’ resurrection. Peter didn’t know where he stood; where he belonged. Then he found himself back where it had all started, out in a boat drawing empty nets through the dark waters all night. Now what?

Then, déjà vu, the command across the water, nets bursting with fish, and the reunion on the beach. According to John, the disciples didn’t actually recognize Jesus, but they had no doubt it was him, especially when he gave them the bread and fish. But Peter waited in an unsettling limbo. Then …

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15)

I’m persuaded that Jesus meant, “Do you think you love me more than these other disciples love me?”[i] I suspect that Peter had been in the thick of those arguments about who was the greatest among them. He had vowed that even if all the other disciples forsook Jesus, he never would. But then his denials devastated him. And now, with the others listening, Jesus pointedly asked his questions.

“More than these.” Comparisons plague pastors. We’re not supposed to do it, of course, except for edification purposes, but who hasn’t? When we stand knee-deep in the sludge of greater-than, more-committed-than, and more-strategic-than, Jesus’ question will call us out, “Yes, but do you love me more than these?” We blush, clear our throat, and stammer, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” If we have any sense at all—any recollection of our failures—we do not reply, “You know I love you more than they do.”

I don’t usually overestimate my love for Christ. On the contrary, I’m often intimidated by other believers whose love for Jesus seems more fervent than mine. When friends talk about rising early every morning for devotions I say not a word. When others turn their faces and hands heavenward in rapturous worship, I stand like a stone. I’m embarrassed by how many prayer requests I forget. You get the idea. And over it all is this: I’m the pastor!

Surprisingly, Jesus’ question doesn’t condemn or crush us, but it certainly serves to humble and heal pride-diseased disciples. In Gethsemane, Jesus told Peter,

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)

Simon’s faith, like ours perhaps, had been infected with hubris. Then he’d been broken and bloodied from his denials. Now Jesus’ questions carried the antibiotic. Jesus asked his question, “Do you love me?” three times but only added “more than these,” the first time. I suspect that’s all it took for him to surgically excise Peter’s cancerous self-confidence once and for all.

Later Peter wrote, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another. …. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Pet 5:5-6). Lesson learned.

Peter’s mad dash through the water to Jesus demonstrated his love even before he spoke it. Jesus knew Peter loved him. He knows our love, too. But his healing questions, asked again and again and again, wait for answers that restore our souls and make space for grace. Then we can turn back to our shepherding work free of comparisons.

Right now, would you answer the Lord’s question: “Do you love me?”

Be ye glad!

[i] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John: Pillar New Testament Commentary (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991) 676.

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