Traditionally, John 21:15-17 has been a rich source of what Bible scholars call “eisegesis” — reading into the text something the text itself does not contain.
Some faulty translations of this passage are based on the two different Greek verbs for “love” that the author, John, uses when recording a dialogue between the resurrected Jesus and Peter. Jesus asks Peter two times, “Do you love me,” using the verb agapao both times (vv. 15, 16). Peter responds, “I love you,” using phileo both times. The third time Jesus asks Peter the question, however, Jesus uses the verb phileo, as does Peter in his response (v. 17).
It is often argued that agapao signifies a higher form of love — divine, selfless, altruistic. However, the most Peter will claim for his love of Jesus is phileo love — friendship love. Such a reading of this passage probably accounts for the distinction the New International Version makes in its translation, rendering “truly love” for agapao, and “love” for phileo.
But this translation cannot be. In the first place, it is John’s writing style to use the verbs agapao and phileo interchangeably, without any distinction in meaning. Thus, the expression “the disciple whom Jesus kept on loving” can be based on either verb (John 19:26; 20:2). Again, when John states that the Father “loves the Son” both verbs are used (John 15:9; 5:20). Even in verse 17 of the exchange between Jesus and Peter, John uses two different Greek verbs for “know” without any difference in meaning — “Lord you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Second, Peter could hardly answer, “Yes, Lord, I love you” if, in fact, he actually meant “No, Lord, I only like you as a friend.”
Finally, it is clear that Peter got upset, not because Jesus changed his verb in the third question, but because Jesus asked him the same question three times — an obvious allusion to Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus.
If this passage is not about the two Greek words for “love,” then what does it teach? Two simple, but profound truths.
The first is this: What the Lord Jesus Christ is looking for in his disciples — in Peter, in John, and in us today — is our love above everything else. We may think we can impress with him with our knowledge, accomplishments, or bank accounts. But if the risen Lord were to do a heart examination on each one of us today, he would ask us one question: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” Hence the priority of love in the New Testament (see Gal. 5:22; 1 Cor. 13:13; Rev. 2:4).
But is it enough to say the words “I love you”? I’m sure the Lord enjoys hearing these words from his dear children, just as we do from ours. Yet it is all too easy to become enamored with words and fail to back them up with actions.
And that is the second great truth in our passage. Jesus is saying that the best way to prove that we love him is by taking care of his people. As he tells Peter, if you love me then “Feed my lambs” and “Take care of my sheep” (vv. 15, 16, 18).
This is the same “Love Triangle” that we see in another of John’s books, 1 John. There, John writes, “Whoever says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother is a liar. The one who doesn’t love the brother whom he has seen can’t love a God whom he hasn’t seen” (1 John 4:20).
And so Jesus tells Peter that his pronouncement is not enough. Peter must show how much he loves his Lord by humble service to others in his name.
Love God. Love others. This is the Great Commandment in a nutshell.
Farewell sloppy agape!