The story of how the resurrected Jesus reinstated and recommissioned the apostle Peter after his earlier denials of his master is frequently told, but we do not always notice its significance for us:
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).
It is frequently pointed out that while, in his first two questions, Jesus uses a form of the word agapé – godly, unconditional love – Peter replies with a form of the word phileó – meaning only brotherly love or affection. To paraphrase the question and answer: “Do you have love for me?” “Yes, I have affection for you.” In his final question (verse 17) Jesus lowers the level of love to ask “Do you have affection for me?” to which Peter again replies “…you know I have affection for you.”
It is possible that by repeating his question three times Jesus is subtly reminding Peter of his disciple’s three denials, but it is clear that Peter, in his shame, could not bring himself to say he loved Jesus to such a high level as unconditional godly love, only to a lesser, human degree – to which Jesus finally lowered his question. But while the element of shame may have affected Peter’s answers at that moment in time, we certainly need not “lower our sights” as to the level of love it is possible to develop and to direct to God and to others.
A great many scriptures in the New Testament show that it is the highest unconditional agapé love that we are to have toward God and others. In two extremely poignant scriptures, Peter himself tells us that we must move beyond human love:
“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love [phileó] of the brethren, love [agapé] one another earnestly from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).
“add ... to godliness, mutual affection [phileó]; and to mutual affection, love [agapé]” (2 Peter 1:7).
It is perhaps significant that Peter included this thought in both his epistles: we must move beyond human love to a godly love that is both deeper and higher than human affection. Peter had learned the hard way that human love – even the love of closest friends – is not enough to fulfill God’s law of love. It is a lesson that Peter had clearly grasped, and one that we must also learn.