To be sure, this question has been asked by multitudes throughout history. Wives have asked husbands and husbands have asked wives, “Do you love me?” Mothers, disappointed with embarrassing behavior, have asked their rebellious children. Children, fearful of rejection, have asked parents, teachers, friends. This question has probably been asked in more contexts than I can imagine.
Perhaps one of the most poignant occurrences of this query was when the Resurrected Lord asked Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15).* Most commentators believe that Jesus was asking Peter if he loved Him more than the other disciples did; after all, Peter had proclaimed very publicly that while all the others might be offended by Him, he was willing to die for and with Jesus. “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (Matthew 26:33). And yet, true to the prophecy of Jesus, Peter had denied the Lord three times in public.
The same Being who shook the earth when He spoke from Mount Sinai, who patiently taught the disciples, who compassionately preached to the crowds, is now asking a fallen disciple, “Do you love me more than these, Peter?”
Jesus clearly demonstrated in both word and actions what God had been trying to teach through the centuries in the writings of the prophets. When an expert in the law tried to test Jesus by asking which was the greatest commandment, He answered by quoting the ancient law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Then He added, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Simple, right? All that the God of heaven asks is that we love Him and love humanity.
And yet, we may understand love in the abstract, but love in the practical—that is another thing altogether.
It is complicated by the fact that there are different kinds of love. What kind of love is required of us? The Bible uses different words to describe love in its various aspects. In English the word love is rather generic and doesn’t really make a distinction as to the type or variety of love.
The Koine Greek language had specific words for different types of love. Storge is the love of parents for their offspring. Phileo is the love between friends and describes the tight bond between BFFs. Agape is, as one of my professors described it years ago, the mountaintop love—standing above all others as Mount Everest stands out among all the mountains in the world. Thomas Aquinas explained it by saying agape meant “to will the good of another.”
Agape is the self-sacrificing, principled love that goes beyond the family or the BFF. This is what Jesus asked Peter about. Jesus is putting Peter on the spot by asking, in the presence of the other disciples, if he loved Him with agape love. Furthermore, He asked him this question not once but three times.
Some biblical scholars believe that Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him, in front of the other disciples, to specifically counterbalance Peter’s three public denials. In order for Peter to be restored, he had to be confronted with his rejection of Jesus.
Jesus is exercising godly accountability over Peter by asking him if he loved Him sacrificially, more than the other disciples did, as he had claimed.
Interestingly enough, the first two times Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him agape, Peter responded that he loved Him phileo, as a best friend. It was as though Peter could only conceive of loving Jesus as a friend, not as someone for whom he would sacrificially give his life.
With the third repetition of the question, Jesus, recognizing the limits of Peter’s love, asked him if he truly loved Him as a best friend, or phileo, to which Peter said yes. At that time, he was unable to love Jesus sacrificially. However, tradition tells us that when Peter was martyred for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, he requested that he be crucified upside down, not counting himself worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord.
Peter’s love did grow for Jesus beyond the phileo variety. Jesus knew of Peter’s enormous potential, so after each question, after each of Peter’s protestations of love, Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus pointed Peter to the future, asking him to take care of the flock, the fledgling church—indicating not only forgiveness but restoration as the leader of the disciples.
Peter’s denial of his Lord had been in shameful contrast to his former professions of loyalty. He had dishonored Christ and had incurred the distrust of his brethren. They thought he would not be allowed to take his former position among them, and he himself felt that he had forfeited his trust. Before being called to take up again his apostolic work, he must before them all give evidence of his repentance. Without this, his sin, though repented of, might have destroyed his influence as a minister of Christ. The Savior gave him opportunity to regain the confidence of his brethren, and, so far as possible, to remove the reproach he had brought upon the gospel (Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 811).
I have heard the suggestion that when we read the Bible, especially the Gospels, we should imaginatively insert ourselves in the story, identifying with one of the characters being referenced. In this story, I must admit, I identify with Peter.
As a sinner saved by grace, I have missed the mark of loving all people, all the time. We are all a “work in progress,” a work that is being conducted by God.
A story is told of a pastor who came to a new assignment. In his inaugural sermon, he preached about love; in fact, he preached three successive sermons on the subject.
After the third sermon, some of the elders approached him and dialogued with him. While they stated appreciation for each of his first three presentations, they asked him if he had anything else to preach.
Allegedly, the pastor responded by saying, “You haven’t learned that one yet.” Evidently, he had observed that the members of his new congregation had not yet reached the mature demonstration of unselfish love.
The story may be apocryphal, but the point is clear: in spite of the many times we have heard or read about the awesome, amazing, continual love God for us, we have failed to consistently demonstrate it.
The Bible is clear: sacrificial love is the premier sign of discipleship. It certifies our true allegiance to God and is the litmus test by which we are all measured. Loving God and loving each other agape constrains us; it limits us and also propels us forward into action. As I saw on the wall of the Market Street church a few years ago, “Love is an action word.”
We have received the love of God in His mercy and grace. In my opinion, our redemption and salvation are but tokens of His love for fallen humanity—based upon the sacrifice of Jesus and our faithful acceptance of Him. There’s more: God gives loving tokens all the time.
The fact that we can read the Bible is a sign of God’s love. The sun, the rain, the bounties of nature declare His love. The ability to learn a skill and then to go out and practice a profession is based on the love and the power that God gives us.
Paul wrote of agape in 1 Corinthians 13, exhorting that if we do not have love, we have nothing. He comes to the assessment that the most powerful gift of God to be sought after and deployed in Christian life, internally and externally, is the gift of love. “The greatest of these is love,” he proclaims in verse 13.
While I was attending the seminary at Andrews University, Elder T. Marshall Kelly gave a message during a chapel service. The essence of his message was that we should “do the loving thing.” I’ve never forgotten this charge, and it is my daily prayer. It is my belief that God is willing to reproduce this in every heart in the Pacific Union as we, like Peter, progressively yield our hearts to Him.
*All texts are taken from the New International Version of the Bible.
Ricardo Graham is the president of the Pacific Union Conference.