There’s an exchange in the Bible between Jesus and the apostle Peter that really make the point. After breakfast on the beach, the resurrected Jesus asks Peter a simple but pointed question. He asks, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter replied “Yes Lord, you know I love you”. Jesus asks the question three times basically in what appears to be the same way. Peter, who was noted as getting a little upset at the continued questioning, answered affirmatively each time. As I’ve read this over the years, in English, I’ve thought this exchange to be a little odd. Why did Jesus continue to seemingly badger Peter about his love for him? Maybe Jesus didn’t believe Peter? Or, as I’ve read in some bible commentaries, maybe Jesus asked three times because Peter denied knowing Jesus after he was captured and executed, just as Jesus foretold? Either of those reasons could certainly be the case.
The most common words for love in Greek are agape, eros, philia and storge. Eros is the form of that would be sexual in nature. The root of the word “erotic” comes from eros. Philia was considered to be the love or friendship between people, or brotherly love. The city Philadelphia draws from this definition as its motto is the city of brotherly love. Storge was a little used term with its meaning to be a parental love felt for ones’ children. Kind of an empathetic love that means if they hurt, I hurt.
Agape is the kind of love that can’t be earned. It is the purest form of love. It is a love that would be considered unconditional. This is most commonly experienced in the love of a spouse of children, especially when they screw up. We love them anyway. It is also the love that God has for us. As for screw ups, we all resemble that remark. We have all fallen short and have denied, ignored and replaced God in our lives on a regular basis. Even though He created us and gave all that we have freely to us, we continue to mess up. So God, with the capacity to love that has no end, loves us anyway. Agape.
When Jesus asked Peter the question the first two times, he asks, “Peter, do you agape me?” Peter’s response is most curious. He answers Jesus, “Yes Lord, you know I phila you.” So you catch it now. Jesus is asking of Peter if Peter has a love for Jesus that is unconditional, knows no bounds, and is everlasting and sacrificial. Agape love. So it would seem that Peter is holding back a bit. He’s not yet at that place where he’s ready to love Jesus with reckless abandon. That’s what Jesus wants from Peter, and each of us. Remember, Peter may not yet be over the fact that he denied knowing Jesus during his capture, torture and execution. Perhaps he’s more than a little embarrassed, which may be putting it mildly.
Here’s the cool part. The third time Jesus asks the question, he exchanges the word agape for philia. “Peter”, Jesus asks, “do you philia me?” Why did Jesus do that? There’s no explanation in scripture for this so it leaves us to work that out for ourselves. I like the idea that Jesus requested of Peter exactly what he wants, agape love. After asking twice, Peter wasn’t ready to go there yet. If you know anything of Peter later in this life, he had a major part in spreading the Good News throughout the known world as a totally reckless missionary. Legend has it that Peter’s life ended through crucifixion just as did Jesus. In deference to Jesus, his Lord, he requested to be executed hanging upside down. He felt he wasn’t worthy of dying in the same manner as his Savior.
What I really love is the idea that the third time Jesus asked the question of Peter and swapped out the “love” word, is that he may have been coming to meet him right where Peter was at in the moment. Rather than asking of Peter why don’t you love me unconditionally? Remember all that I’ve done for you? Say, just a short time ago I hanged on a cross and died to pay the price for your sins, remember that. So, what’s your hang up, Peter? But Jesus didn’t do that. Rather, he came to where Peter was. Peter wasn’t yet ready to give up the apage-type love for Jesus. So Jesus response was more like, “That’s cool. You’re not ready to commit to agape yet. I understand. It’s ok. I’ll accept your philia love for now. Don’t worry about it, Peter. I know you’ll come to love me more and more with time. Then we’ll agape together.”
I think Jesus does that for us today, too. He doesn’t place conditions on his love and he accepts us for who we are and right where we are at. Does this mean we can go out and screw up intentionally because we know it doesn’t matter, we can always come back to him and he’ll accept us? Well, let’s just say that as we get to know Jesus better and the Holy Spirit begins to scrub out all the junk in us, our lives begin to change. We begin to little by little have our lives conform to how Jesus would have us live. However, our improved lives are still wildly flawed, wrecked with mistakes, screw ups, curse words, lusting glances, white lies and the list goes on. We’ll not be completely cleaned up on this side of heaven. Yet, Jesus continues to meet us right where we are. Unbroken, sinful, wretched yet redeemed and righteous only because of him. Agape love.