The Pressing Question
To close out our “Uncomfortable” theme for this month, I want to take a look at a scene from the end of the Gospel of John.
Christ has already been crucified and resurrected, and He’s revealed Himself to His disciples on more than one occasion. On this morning, He appears on the shore as some of the disciples are fishing. They recognize Jesus, and Peter is so excited to see Him that he leaps out of the boat to swim ashore.They all have breakfast together, and after they eat Jesus has the following conversation with Peter:
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my sheep.” He said to him a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to Him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” John 21:15-17
Just out of curiosity, how many times has the thought of being in someone’s presence prompted you to jump fully clothed out of a boat and swim to them? Peter’s thinking had to be something like, “No way am I waiting a few extra minutes for us to pull into shore, I’ve got to be with Him now!” No thought of how cold the water might be, for how long his clothes would be wet, or how far the swim was – all he knew was that he simply could not wait to get to Jesus.
Peter was probably still damp when Christ asked for a confirmation of his love. Wouldn’t it have been strange to watch this happen? I mean, as far as what Scripture tells us, Peter was the only one that jumped out of the boat. So to be another disciple sitting around the breakfast fire here, surely we’d be a little shocked at who Jesus leveled this question at. “C’mon, this guy is still water-logged from his 500m freestyle – of course he loves you, Jesus!” If anything, Christ could’ve asked, “I didn’t see any of the rest of you abandoning ship like Peter did; do you love me?” But he didn’t.
Peter replies, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” You can almost hear his thoughts: Isn’t it obvious? What kind of question is that, anyway? Christ doesn’t remark on Peter’s insistence on him already knowing the answer to his question, instead instructing Peter, “Feed my lambs.”
The way the text reads, it would appear there was no pause or hesitation before Jesus again asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Scripture doesn’t specify how much time passed between Jesus’ first and second question, but you could imagine the possibilities. There could have easily been a long silence or a tense pause, and no matter how you reenact this scene it would had to have been awkward. The passage doesn’t state that the conversation between Jesus and Peter was a private one, either. Imagine being confronted this way by Christ in front of your brothers or your peers. Wouldn’t be a very pleasant spot to be in, would it?
I’d love to know what went through Peter’s mind when Christ asked the second time. Did he not hear me? Is this deja vu? Did I imagine the first question? There had to be a real sense of confusion, a total “huh?” moment. It’s tempting to imagine Peter repeating himself a little slower and a little louder, maybe even a little annoyed at this point, thinking Why are you doing this, Jesus? It’s embarrassing! Peter again tries to emphasize that Christ already knows the answer.
I really don’t know what Peter was expecting. Did he think Jesus was just going to be like, “Oh, you’re right, I do know that already. Silly me, I don’t know why I asked.”? It seems like that’s what Peter is implying when he keeps saying “You know that I love you,” as if Christ needed to be reminded.
Again Christ says, “Feed my sheep.” But he still wasn’t finished with Peter.
When he asks him the third time, “Peter, do you love me?”, we’re finally given a reaction from Peter. It says he was grieved. That word “grieved” is the Greek lypeo, meaning “distressed, pained, sorrowful.” So what we see here is that Peter’s reaction to Christ’s question was emotional pain. He hurt. Christ asking the third time was heart-breaking, gut-wrenching for Peter. It’s easy to imagine him blinking back tears.
So there’s the picture: Peter, with an unabashed affection, leaping into the water in total determination to get to Jesus as fast as possible, juxtaposed with Jesus asking Peter “Do you love me?” repeatedly, to the point of Peter’s grief.
So my question is, why was Christ so hard on Peter? He was! He didn’t mince his words, he didn’t pull his punches, he didn’t take Peter off to the side and pat him on the back and say “Hey buddy, it’s okay that you denied me before, we’ll just forget about all that now.” Christ loved Peter completely, yet in this passage he was anything but easy on Peter.
If we believe that Christ is who he says he is, the answer to that question has to be that Christ knew exactly what Peter needed, and by bringing him to that point of distress, he was providing for his needs with absolute perfection. Christ knew what Peter had done, and what Peter would be up to in the future. Look at what Peter says at the beginning of 1 Peter:
“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 1:6-7
See that “grieved” in there? That’s lypeo again. Peter knew all about lypeo, didn’t he? From what he says here, you can see that he understands it now. He gets the purpose of that emotional pain, and he’s able to share that understanding with other believers. He experienced it himself, and he’s telling these folks “Hey, when this stuff happens, rejoice! It’s a good thing!”
I think we tend to mistake all the “rejoicing” that’s so often spoken of in the New Testament with “happiness”. But just look at how often the command to “rejoice” is butted up against trials or troubles or suffering. The deal is that those times when we’re grieved are something worth celebrating, because we understand that God is using these circumstances – maybe even causing these circumstances, as Christ did with Peter – so that we can be brought more in tune with Him and His purpose.
If I were Peter, I would’ve heard the echoes of Christ’s questions for the rest of my life. Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Do you love me? Feed my sheep. For lack of a better word, I think that moment would haunt me, and that memory could never be a pleasant one.
Which leads me to wonder: what would my life look like if I constantly heard that memory of Jesus asking me, “Do you love me? Do you love me?” It’s so easy to go, “Sure, I love Jesus,” and then just carry on with my day thinking nothing else of it. But then I should be thinking of it, shouldn’t I?
Real love isn’t something that you just choose once and then never have to worry about again. A question of loving is one that must be continuously answered every day, if not every minute of every day. There are few, if any, decisions we make as Christians that shouldn’t be heavily tainted by our love for Christ.
I think the thing we should understand here is that by constantly hearing Christ ask, “Do you love me?”, it means there are going to be many times where we are grieved by own realizations of ourselves and our sin. Often, we’re going to look at our behaviors or our thoughts or our desires and see that there is scant evidence of loving Christ anywhere in them. That’s going to be unpleasant. Uncomfortable at the very least, and utterly heart-breaking if seen from the perspective of the intense love Christ has for us.
With Peter – and with us – Christ provided the answer to the love test:
Feed my sheep.
Notice that the answer wasn’t jump out of the boat, but rather, feed my sheep. I think this is a trap we fall into – that looking like we love Jesus is equal to actually loving Jesus. We can wear our T-shirt from LifeWay, crank our K-Love while we’re rolling down the highway, put fish stickers on our cars, carry our Bible everywhere…heck, we can even go stand on the street corner and scream “I love Jesus!” until we’re blue in the face.
This stuff is all fine, but what sheep are we feeding when we do these things? Maybe I’m a bit harsh, but I think when we display all these sorts of outward appearances, it’s really more about us than it is about Christ. We might not admit it, but I think our pride wants us to say “See what big splashes I’m making for Jesus?” At best we might just be misguided, but at worst we’re actively using His name to say “Look at me!” No one is getting fed but us.
Jesus says, “Feed my sheep,” not “feed yourself.”
So let’s fight that mentality by having that question bother us often: Do you love me? Do you love me?
And let’s be honest when we answer. If the answer is one that doesn’t feel good – rejoice. It’s a miracle of grace that we can recognize our faults, and despite our repeated failures Christ will still work in us to make us new. Sanctification was never promised to be a painless process.
But no matter what our answer is, His response remains the same: Feed my sheep.