Why did Apostle Peter feel sad after hearing the Savior ask him “Do you love me?” for the third time? Why does the Greek original text change one word, which means “love”, to another one? Why does the Lord ask Apostle Peter three times? What does this story from the Gospel teach us?
Orthodox fasting seasons are periods when we focus on repentance. The Church creates conditions that are the most beneficial for our purification and improvement. The fasting season that precedes the Day of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul is no exception. Both apostles set an example of repentance for us. Apostle Paul had persecuted Christians prior to his conversion. Later, when he was called upon by God to become an apostle, he considered himself to be the worst of all sinners (cf. 1 Tim. 1:15). Apostle Peter denied Jesus three times, but then he repented. Throughout his entire life, he would burst into tears every time he heard a rooster because it reminded him of his downfall.
Let’s see what we can learn from Peter’s repentance.
Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian who was the Lord’s favorite disciple recounts how the Risen Lord Jesus Christ restores Peter into his apostolic status by asking him whether he loves him or not three times. The Holy Fathers usually explain that the Lord hereby forgives Peter’s threefold denial of Christ.
This passage mentions that “Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me?” (John 21:17) If you read most English translations of the Bible, you may think that the reason for the grief of the apostle who had denied Jesus was that the same question was repeated three times (with slight variations). Russian and Slavonic translations point to the same conclusion. However, if you read the Greek original, you will see this event in a quite different light. This is because there are several words for love in Greek. Here in this passage the Lord uses the word ‘ἀγαπᾷς’ in the first two questions(John 21:15–16), and then ‘φιλεῖς’ in his third question (John 21:17). To cut it short, we can say that the first of these verbs is normally used when they talk about spiritual love, whereas the second one is used to talk about love as friendly affection. That is, the Lord literally asks Peter in his last question, “Do you love me in any way?” Almost like, “Well, do you at least like me?”
This is why even in English this passage implicitly says that the reason for Peter’s grief was not the fact that the Lord asked him “Lovest thou me?” three times but that he used a different verb in this case. The Greek text makes it even clearer because it is written that Peter was upset when he heard ‘φιλεῖς με’, not ‘ἀγαπᾷς με’ as in the first two cases. Bishop Cassian (Bezobrazov) addresses this fact in detail when he points out, “There can be no doubt that the three questions follow each other in a descending order.” First, the Lord asks Peter, “Do you love me more than they do?” Secondly, He simply asks, “Do you love me?” Finally, Peter hears a question about the kind of love that is called φιλία, which makes him desperate.
What is the key to this descending order of the Lord’s questions? There is nothing accidental in the Gospel. The answer lies in the Gospel itself. As we read in the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus, his three denials were different from each other. His first denial is almost like he didn’t mean it. It looks like the apostle is in the state of shock, as we say it nowadays. He wants to be alone, to hide, to remain invisible, in order to comprehend the event, to absorb it, to agree with the fact that it is real and not a nightmare, to figure out its secret meaning and the ways out that it opens, so as to be able to go on living in this new distorted reality. “I know not, neither understand I what thou sayest,” he replied to the maid of the high priest (Mark 14:68). The echo of his own words “Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended” (Matthew 26:33) might still have been ringing in his ears. The question of the Savior, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” (John 21:15) – “Σίμων ᾿Ιωνᾶ, ἀγαπᾷς με πλεῖον τούτων?” — reminds him of his boastful assertion.
The second denial leaves no place for alternative interpretation. He confirms it with an oath, “And again he denied with an oath, I do not know the man.” (Matthew 26:72). This is why the second question of the Lord is shorter than the first one and apparently somewhat hesitant: “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?” – «Σίμων ᾿Ιωνᾶ, ἀγαπᾷς με?» (John 21:16).
During his third denial, Peter added curses to the oaths, thus completing his rejection of Jesus, “Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man” (Matthew 26:74). That is why the last question of the Son of God sounds like a verdict that made the First Apostle so upset, “Σίμων ᾿Ιωνᾶ, φιλεῖς με?” (John 21:17).
According to the Holy Fathers, one’s repentance must correspond to the measure of his sins. If one returns to sinning, it proves that his repentance wasn’t complete. We see in this passage how the Lord helps the fallen apostle to finally get rid of the weakness that had led him to the denial of God. The questions that the Savior asks make Peter sorry and heal his soul essentially by going over the steps of his denial.
We can add that the Lord does not ask Peter if he loves him one-on-one. He does it in public so as to make Peter respond publicly. The Holy Fathers pointed out the fact that repentance must correspond not only to the measure but also to the way of sinning. If we insult someone with words, our repentance must include verbal apology to the person whom we insulted. If we caused someone financial loss, our repentance will be incomplete if we don’t make up for the losses. If we think bad of someone, we must repent in our thoughts, too (except the Sacrament of Confession, naturally). Apostle Peter denied Christ publicly, so his profession of love to the Lord had to be in the presence of other people.
Our exegesis of this passage did not touch on Peter’s answers nor on the Lord’s request nor on a lot of other things but I believe that even the aspects of this passage that we have mentioned may be useful for us. As far as other points that we haven’t made are concerned, we’ll try to justify ourselves with the words of Evangelist John himself, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” (John 21:25).