Focus on Jesus Series
Notes on John 21:1-25
by Ed Vasicek
When Jesus confronted Peter with the question, "Do you love me?" three times, the obvious implication is that Jesus is undoing Peter's triple denial of Jesus during the wee hours of Good Friday morning. The greatly respected Bible scholar, Leon Morris, writes:
In a most instructive incident, Jesus talks with Peter by the lake, asking three times whether that disciple loves him.... Discussions often center on the fact that twice Jesus uses the verb agapao (αγαπαο) in his question, to be met each time by Peter's use of phileo (φιλεο) in his answer. Then in the third question Jesus uses Peter's word and the apostle retains it in his reply. But the significant thing is surely not so much the variation in the verb, but the fact that Jesus is speaking about love at all. Peter's position in the apostolic band must have been at least dubious in light of his threefold denial of Jesus. This incident, in which Peter three times affirms his love for his Lord in the presence of the other apostles, must be seen as a reinstatement...." (Testaments of Love, Eerdmans, 1981, pp. 180-181)
Jesus asks Peter two times, "Do you 'agapao' me? and Peter answers, "Yes, I 'phileo' you," until, on the third time, Jesus asks, "Do you 'phileo' me?" and Peter responds the same way as the other two times, "Yes, I 'phileo' you."
I agree with Morris that the main concept is reinstatement, not the Greek words. But the fact that the words vary as they do is significant. Was Peter being stubborn? What was happening here?
What no one seems to take into account is that Jesus and Peter never spoke in Greek. They never actually used the words "phileo" or "agapao." We must remember that, though the authors of Scripture were inspired, they were translating the word of Jesus from Hebrew/Aramaic into Greek (unlike the epistles, Acts, and Revelation, which were in Greek to begin with). The detective work begins when we try to go from Greek back into Hebrew.
Despite all the claims to the contrary, the Greek word "agapao" (or the noun form "agape") was a commonly used word for love, especially the verb form. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament book of Genesis, Jacob is said to "agapao" Esau's stew. Much like our English word for love, agape love can refer to anything on the spectrum between the idea of really liking someone or something all the way to sacrificial selfless love.
The Hebrew word Jesus could have used was "ahebh." Some think that this is the word from which the Greek word "agape" originated. Generally speaking, this word can be used for all kinds of love.
Although we cannot be sure, Peter may have answered with the Hebrew word "Hesedh," which means a steadfast love, a deep, lasting affection that is based on relationship. This word is often used of God's faithful love for those under His covenant, but can also mean mercy or goodwill.
If my theory is correct, Jesus may have been asking, "Peter, do you love me?" and Peter responded, "Yes, Lord. I love you steadfastly, based on our relationship." This would be especially meaningful since Peter had not been steadfast during his time of denial. When Jesus finally uses Peter's word, He was acknowledging that Peter was restored.
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