“Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?”
That was the question that the risen Lord Jesus Christ put to Peter, the disciple who had so terribly denied Him.
And that is the question which each disciple of Jesus Christ must now face and answer before the Lord. It is a question which cuts through all externals and bores to the deepest part of your heart and exposes the deepest truth about you: whether or not there is in your heart, by a wonder of grace, love for Jesus Christ.
The Lord asked Peter (and you may put your name there) whether he had love for Him. The question is not whether or not there is in us love for His kingdom, His people, and His law, as important as that may be. But the Lord is asking whether we know that in the depth of our being there is love for Him, whether we know that God has put love for Jesus in our hearts. That is the question that He asks personally. The question is not: Does your church love Him? Does your father, does your brother, wife, or child love Him? But, do you? Do you love Him?
That is a very searching question. We may know much, do much, talk much, work much, and give much. But we may still be dead in all of our deeds of religion for want of love for Jesus Christ personally. Do we love Him? Without that, there is no life in us. Without that, we are only like a waxed figure in a museum. We may look real, do the right things, say the right words, but we are only a clanging cymbal. What about you, father, mother, elders, deacons, parents, children? The Lord is not asking us simply: Do we go to church, do we sing praises, do we pray? But He comes to each one of us and stands before us in His Word and touches us with His hand and speaks. After all is said and done, lovest thou Me?
Forget now that the question is being spoken by me. Hear it as being spoken by the same Jesus who has redeemed you from death and hell by His precious blood and resurrection. Lovest thou Me?
In all, there were ten appearances of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Those appearances served the purpose in general to give infallible proof of His resurrection. We read in Acts 1:3, “To whom (that is, to the disciples) also he (Jesus) shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” By those appearances the Lord Jesus Christ certified that He was risen. Yet those resurrection appearances were not mere repetitions. Each one demonstrates another aspect of the risen Lord. To the eleven disciples who are gathered in the upper room on the eve of the resurrection the Lord demonstrated the reality of His physical body. To the two travelers to Emmaus the Lord showed that His resurrection was the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. And to the disciples who, a week later, had gone fishing, the Lord came as the risen Lord to gather His church.
Now the Lord’s words to Peter also have an intended purpose. Their purpose is to bring Peter back as an undershepherd of the flock of Jesus Christ, to lead Peter to see that all of his strength and confidence in that work must be out of the knowledge of the love of Christ placed in his heart. Peter must be led to see and to know and to live out of one thing: love to Jesus Christ which Christ had placed in his heart.
And that is the question also for you and for me. The Lord addresses that question to you. Very really He fixes His gaze upon you and He asks: Lovest thou Me?
The Lord’s question to Peter which was repeated three times (see John 21:15-17) touched the heart of the matter that had to be settled between Jesus and His disciple who had so horribly denied Him three times. Settled, you understand, for Peter’s sake. Peter must be brought to see over against his shameful sin the amazing love of Christ and the amazing love which Christ had placed in his heart. Jesus does not ask these questions so persistently three times to gain information for Himself. The Lord knows if Peter loves Him. The Lord knows whether one loves Him or not because, you see, that love He must first place in our heart. But Peter must examine himself. Deep down he must be led to see the love for Christ which was given to Him. Peter, in the full light of his shameful sin and unworthiness, must be given to see that nevertheless the Lord who forgave him loved him, and had given him, in the depth of his soul, a love for Christ.
The Lord’s questions were very grievous to Peter. We read in verse 19: “Peter was grieved.” Not angry, but he was hurt. It pricked his heart because it brought back, every time the Lord would ask him the question, his sin. It brought Peter to see the nature of his sin, that he had violated the love relationship, he had sinned against the love of his Lord. Do you not feel that already in that question? Does that question produce anguish and grief and pain in you?
When the Lord asks us this question, are you not struck with shame as you look over your life? There are a dozen reasons why such a question should be asked of you. And in the light of your unfaithfulness and falling into sin and lusting after sin and this world, we hardly dare to say, “Yes, Lord, I love Thee.”
The Lord’s questions were asked three times. Three times, as a reminder to Peter that three times he had denied his Lord. Three times, with growing emphasis, with growing fierceness, Peter had denied that he knew Jesus, till at last he cursed and he swore an oath that he had no part with Jesus. Now the Lord, who knows Peter, must remind him of his own sin and bring Peter to see that sin for what it was, that he might experience a heartfelt repentance and be brought to one point: “Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee.”
Our sins, you see, show that of ourselves we do not love God. When you lust, when you are filled with anger against your brother, when you gossip, then the Lord indeed looks back at us over our lives and says, “Lovest thou Me?”
As I said, the Lord asked this question three times. The first time we read that He said, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me more that these?” Oh, that brought it all back. Peter had boasted of himself and, as is always the case, he did that by exalting himself above others. He had said, “Though all men shall be offended because of Thee, yet will I never be offended.” He claimed that his love and his faithfulness was more ardent, was stronger than that of all the rest of them. His love was greater, he was made of better stuff. They might forsake Jesus, but not Peter. The Lord is saying to him, Peter do you still think that way? The Lord pricks Peter’s conscience. Do you love me in such a way that you know yourself to be the least of all the saints? You find no comfort in imagining others are lower than you? You look at yourself now, Peter, and do you see the chief of sinners? Peter, you are not boasting about yourself anymore, are you?
The second time that the Lord asked the question, He put it this way: “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?” That went deeper. It is as if the Lord says, “All right, Simon, you answered My first question very humbly. You avow affection for Me. You will not boast that your love is greater than others. You have answered My first question by saying, Yes, Lord, I love Thee. You have refused now to lift yourself up above your fellows. That is good, Peter, very good. But I am not satisfied yet. What I want to know is, Peter, do you love Me? Do you love Me in your heart? Simon, by your silence with reference to others, you have indicated that you no longer believe that you love Me more than they do. Now, dropping all comparisons, do you really love Me with that one true love of God in your soul? Never mind Nathaniel. Do not think about Thomas. Do not bother yourself right not with the two sons of Zebedee with whom you always were competing. You do not say that you love Me more than they do, but do you love Me? Love Me?”
The Lord asks that right now. He is not asking us simply, Do you love My doctrines and My precepts? Is your life outwardly in conformity with My will? He is not asking us: Do you distinguish yourself in My service? But the Lord is asking us, Do you love Me? We cannot evade the question.
Then the third time the Lord asks the question this way: “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?” That was even deeper. Not only because it was the third time that the Lord asked the question. Each time Peter has been responding, “Yea, Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee.” But it was the deepest when He asked the third time because the Lord used a different word for love. In the Greek there are two words for love. The one is a very strong word. It is agapaoo. It refers to the love of God, to a deep and firm and sacrificial and unbreakable love, the love of God!
Then there is the word phileoo. That means to esteem, to respect, and to value. The Lord employed the stronger word for love in His first two questions. The first two times the Lord asked the question, He said to Peter, “Do you possess that true and ardent love of God in your soul for Me?” And Peter, in his answer to those first two questions, does not use that same word, but uses the weaker word. In effect, he is saying, “Lord, I have a deep affection for Thee.” Peter does not feel he can say anything more or higher within himself. He does not trust himself. Now the Lord, in His third question to Peter, condescends to that weaker word for love, “All right, Peter, in the first question you indicate that you no longer boast that your love is greater than others. In the second question you have answered that you do indeed have a deep affection for me. Very good. But now, Peter, I press it to you yet even more intensely. Is that even true? Can you avow to Me that there is real affection, no matter how small, no matter how ashamed you are, can you avow in your heart, as My disciple, that there is that affection for Me, Peter.”
You see, Simon Peter is being led step by step: Do you love Me more than these? Do you love Me? Is there, in your heart, the experience, the feeling of affection toward Me? And He is asking the disciple who is forgiven: Right now, as I look down into your heart, as I am your Savior and your Lord, do you possess love for Me?
Simon Peter answered and said, “Yea, Lord, Thou knowest I love Thee. Thou knowest all things.” That is the answer of every child of God. Where there is the grace of God, where Christ dwells in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, there will also be love for Christ. Oh, we add, with Peter, Not as it ought to be, never enough, always imperfect, always with sin, but yes, yes, Thou knowest that I love Thee. Yes, I love Thee, Lord, for in the depths of my heart I find that Thou hast given me to love Thee. Although I am so often ashamed at how little I show it (Peter, you see, is being very humble, we would almost say that he is being hesitant). And we can understand that. When you see yourself and you see your sins as Peter did, you hardly dare to say that you love the Lord. I can think of a number of times in this past week when, if the Lord had suddenly stood before me and said, “Do you love Me?” I would have hesitated to say, “Yes.”
Today many run around shouting their love for Jesus Christ – how great it is! They are often the ones who get very upset when the word “sin” is mentioned. They say, That’s a kill-joy. Beloved, love for Jesus Christ cannot be in us apart from knowing our sins. Love for Christ is the inward sense of having received from Him the pardon and the forgiveness of sins. Jesus said to a Pharisee named Simon, “Your love for Me is very little because very little has been forgiven you. You do not feel the weight of your sin; therefore you cannot feel the weight of love. To whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” The more we know what the Lord has done for us, the greater is that love for Him.
Look at Peter’s answer. He no longer appeals to his own faithfulness. But he appeals to the knowledge that Christ has of him. “Lord, Thou knowest all things. Thou knowest I love Thee.” Peter, at this moment, is not trying to make excuses for himself. He is not trying to evade the question. How easily Peter might have done that very thing. He might have said, “Lord, I was very tired that night. I was exhausted. It had been a long day. I was afraid. They took me by surprise. Give me another chance.” No, all of his boasting is gone. He does not trust himself even to know what is in his heart. He says, “Lord, in the light of the recent experience, I have no right at present to profess that I love Thee with that love. I don’t dare say I love Thee with the love that will never be offended in Thee. Nevertheless, Lord, I must humbly confess that even now I love Thee. Thou knowest. Thou knowest all things. Thou knowest that I love Thee. I don’t trust myself to know. I can’t base the assurance of my love for Thee on myself. Lord, Thou hast caused me to love Thee. I cannot find in myself the answer to that question. I feel that love for Thee present in me. But I feel that because Thou hast placed it there. I appeal to Thy knowledge. Thou knowest all things. The love that I have for Thee is not of myself. It is Thy gift. Therefore, Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee. Surely Thou knowest, Lord, because it was Thou who, by grace alone, worked it in me. Thou knowest that I love Thee. I know I love Thee because Thou hast placed that love within me and dost testify to me of it. And it is there especially that I know it because I see my own sin and I see what my sin is – that I deny Thee and that I sin against Thy love. Yea, Lord, Thou knowest all things. Thou knowest that I love Thee.”
There followed an urgent calling from the Lord: “Feed My sheep.”
Christ is saying, “Peter, out of that humble knowledge of undying gratitude and love for Me, now resume your calling. Now you are ready to be My apostle. Now you can stand in the only posture in which you are able to serve Me in My kingdom: Feed My sheep, feed My lambs. Serve My people. Remember that they are My sheep, entrusted to you. Watch over them. Feed them. Watch, protect, teach them. Remember that I love My sheep with an everlasting love. And tell them of My love for them.”
Once more the question comes to us today, Lovest thou Me? Oh, how wonderful to answer, “Yea, Lord, Thou knowest, Thou hast given me to know that I love Thee. And the wonder of that is only overshadowed by this: Thou hast loved me. How can it be? The greatness of Thy love towards me – Thou hast given Thyself for my sins! And loving me, Thou hast given me to love Thee.”
Then I have perfect rest in my heart. When I think of His love freely given to me, a love so amazing, so enduring that all the floods of our iniquity could not quench it, but all of our sins have been licked up in the flames of that love. Seeing that love of God toward me and the power of that love of God, are you ready to answer that question?
By grace, Lord, Thou knowest all things. Thou knowest that I love Thee.
May God write that answer on your heart.
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for Thy Word. And we pray that Thou wilt bless it unto our hearts that we may, oh Lord, ever live in the love of God given to us by our risen Savior, Amen.