Do you love me (more than these)?
Here at Matthias Media we frequently bang the drum of the Great Commission in Matthew 28. And with good reason.
But a little while ago I was reminded of the fascinating post-resurrection commission Jesus gives to his disciples at the end of John’s Gospel—and Jesus’ commission to Simon Peter in particular.1 As Jesus’ more recent disciples two millenia later, it presents us with a very helpful challenge. Let me take you through it.
In John 20:19-23, the resurrected Jesus turns up in the room with the disciples (despite the locked doors) and says to them:
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
He then breathes on them and says:
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
They are being sent to do what Jesus was sent to do: facilitate people having “life in his name” (v. 31) and the forgiveness of sins by the Spirit-empowered proclamation of the good news (v. 23).
Then we come to chapter 21. It’s some unspecified time later and there are a bunch of disciples gathered together by the lake. They haven’t seen Jesus for a while. What do they do now? Peter makes a call: “I am going fishing” (v. 3).
Now, he wasn’t talking about recreational fishing. It wasn’t the “hang your line in the ocean and chill out” sort of thing an avid angler might do today. It was going back to his trade, his profession, his livelihood. And the other disciples follow his lead and go with him.
They catch nothing. Not a single fish. It’s as if God is saying “That’s not the job I want you to do!” Is God showing them he’s not going to bless that action of going back to the old way of life?
But then Jesus intervenes and tells them to try the other side of the boat. They do, and haul in 153 fish—a catch so large that it was likely to tear the net (but didn’t: v. 11). At this point Peter realizes it’s Jesus and, in a typically impulsive Peter way, dives into the water, abandoning the impressive catch of fish to head straight to Jesus on the beach. There Jesus offers him a cooked breakfast.
After breakfast, Jesus asks Peter three questions:
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Three questions, quite clearly patterned on Peter’s three denials of Jesus (also around a charcoal fire: John 18:18). And after Peter’s positive affirmation to each question came Jesus’ commission to Peter:
“Feed my lambs.”
“Tend my sheep.”
“Feed my sheep.”
After warning Peter of the suffering he would face in pursuing this commission, Jesus simply says to him: “Follow me” (v. 19).
So let me summarize:
- Peter is called to follow Jesus at the start of Jesus’ ministry.
- He follows Jesus, but stumbles three times just before the crucifixion.
- He meets the resurrected Jesus and he and the other disciples are commissioned.
- Peter then flirts with going back to his old life of fishing and is shown one of the biggest paydays it could offer.
- Jesus gives Peter the chance to affirm his love for Jesus three times and recommissions him to engage in the mission for which Jesus was sent.
Peter has a job to do for his Lord. Having met Jesus and received his commission, there is no going back to the old life. That is most likely, in context, what Jesus means by “Do you love me more than these?” I think he means: “Do you love me more than these fish, these boats, these nets?”2
“Are you prepared to take up this commission, even though fishing would be the easier life? You might make a good living catching hauls of fish like that one over there. Or you can follow me and give up your life, like I did. What’s it going to be, Peter? Do you love me?”
Same question for us.
Do you love him?
1. I am indebted to Carl Matthei for the Bible talk he gave at an MTS conference that first pointed out most of these insights. But don’t blame Carl if what I say isn’t right—it was quite a few years ago and my memory is not that great.↩
2. This seems a much more likely meaning than “Do you love me more than these other disciples do?” Asking one disciple to compare himself to another and boast that they love Jesus more seems out of step with other episodes in the Gospels, and doesn’t make as much sense of the events that have just occurred.↩