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Simon, Son of Jonas, Do You Love Me?

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Recently, a friend asked my thoughts on the significance of this question that our Lord Jesus posed to Simon Peter: “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?”

Let’s set up the scene: the apostles had just seen Jesus cruelly tortured to death days earlier. They had scattered in fear upon his arrest. On the third day after his crucifixion, the disciples were gathered in a room with the doors shut, because they were afraid of the Jews (John 20:19). Jesus appears in the room. Imagine their startled surprise! Just earlier that morning Peter and John had discovered Jesus’ tomb empty, seeing only the burial cloths left behind. If someone had stolen his body, why would they not have just taken his cold cadaver, leaving the burial cloths intact? (That would seem to be a bit less messy.)

On this same day, after finding Jesus’ body missing from the tomb, the disciples gather in the evening, huddled in fear, when the Lord appears to them for the first time. Upon appearing in the room, our Lord tells the disciples: “Peace be unto you: as my Father has sent me, even so send I you…” He breathes on them and says, “Receive you the Holy Spirit: Whosoever’s sins you remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever’s sins you retain, they are retained.” Imagine the thought! The first time that the disciples encounter the Lord after His resurrection from the dead, he gives them the Holy Spirit, and entrusts them with the authority to remit or retain sins. (John 20:19-23)

It seems that the only apostle not present at this first appearance was Thomas. When he hears what the others tell him, he says, “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25) Presumably for the benefit of Thomas, the Lord again appears to the apostles just eight days later, under similar circumstances: they are gathered in a room with the doors shut, when Jesus appears.

Now, we arrive at the scene where Jesus questions Peter about his love. John’s Gospel does not say how much time elapsed between the second appearance of Christ and this third appearance. Peter tells the others: “I am going fishing.” (John 21:3) Six other disciples join him on the boat, two of whom were the brothers James and John. (We must remember that Peter was formerly business partners with these two disciples before they abandoned their business to follow Jesus.) (Luke 5:10)

On this night, perhaps two weeks after Christ’s crucifixion, they toiled all through the night without catching a single fish. As the sun was rising, they saw someone standing on the shore. He asks, “Children, have you any fish?” (John 21:5) They give the disappointing answer… “No!” Then, this man on the shore tells them, “Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and you shall find.” They did this, and their nets were filled with so many fish that they were not even able to pull in the nets. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 21:7) tells Peter: “It is the Lord.” Why would John all of the sudden recognize the Lord Jesus in this moment? Probably because of the miraculous catch of fish; just a few years earlier, these same business partners had experienced a similar miraculous catch of fish, after catching nothing all night. This was, in fact, the experience that had convinced them to leave behind their business to follow Jesus. At that time, he had promised to make them “fishers of men”. Now, John recognizes the risen Lord by re-experiencing the same miracle that had inaugurated their discipleship.

Peter, upon hearing John tell him that the man on the shore is Jesus, throws on his clothes and jumps overboard. The other disciples come to shore in a little ship, dragging the net full of fish. They see that Jesus has started a fire of coals, already cooking some fish and bread. Jesus instructs them to bring some of the fish they have caught, so Peter goes and lends his muscles to pulling the fish onto the shore (153 fish to be exact – there’s an accountant in every group!) Jesus invites them to join him, and offers them all fish and bread to eat. In this moment, they all knew that they were encountering the risen Lord and dared not to ask him who he was! (John 21:7-13)

John’s Gospel tells us that this beach breakfast was the third time that our Lord appeared to the disciples after his Resurrection. (John 21:14) It is now that the curious scene unfolds. With their bellies full of breakfast, Jesus turns to Peter and asks, “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me more than these?” (My emphasis added in bold.) Peter replies, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15)

A second time, Jesus asks, “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?” Peter responds: “Yea, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus replies: “Feed my sheep.”

The third time, Jesus asks: “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?” The Gospel tells us that Peter was grieved when Jesus asked this same question the third time. Peter replies: “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus again responds: “Feed my sheep.”

What is the significance of Jesus’ interrogation of Peter during this third appearance to the apostolic band after his resurrection? I could get creative and present my own opinion. Instead, I will present the thoughts of those much more learned than me. The following come from the writings of some of the early Fathers of the Church, commenting on this scene:

Theophilus of Antioch (c. 184 AD)
So when they had dined, Jesus said to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me more than these? He said unto him, Yea, Lord; you know that I love you. He said unto him, Feed my lambs. – John 21:15

“The dinner being ended, He commits to Peter the superintendence over the sheep of the world, not to the others: So when they had dined, Jesus says to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, Do love you Me more than these do? Thence is taken the custom of threefold confession in baptism. There is a difference perhaps between lambs and sheep. The lambs are those just initiated, the sheep are the perfected.”

John Chrysostom (c. 407 AD)
So when they had dined, Jesus said to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me more than these? He said unto him, Yea, Lord; you know that I love you. He said unto him, Feed my lambs. – John 21:15

“That which most of all attracts the Divine love is care and love for our neighbor. Our Lord passing by the rest, addresses this command to Peter: he being the chief of the Apostles, the mouth of the disciples, and head of the college. Our Lord remembers no more his sin in denying Him, or brings that as a charge against him, but commits to him at once the superintendence over his brethren. If you love Me, have rule over your brethren, show forth that love which you have evidenced throughout, and that life which you said you would lay down for Me, lay down for the sheep. A third time He asks the same question, and gives the same command; to show of what importance He esteems the superintendence of His own sheep, and how He regards it as the greatest proof of love to Him. The question asked for the third time disturbed him: Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, Love you Me? He was afraid perhaps of receiving a reproof again for professing to love more than he did. So he appeals to Christ Himself: And he said to Him, Lord, you know all things, i.e. the secrets of the heart, present and to come.

There are indeed many other things which are able to give us boldness towards God, and to show us bright and approved, but that which most of all brings goodwill from on high, is tender care for our neighbor. Which therefore Christ requires of Peter. For when their eating was ended, Jesus says to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, do you love Me more than these? He says unto Him, Yea, Lord, You know that I love You. He says unto him, Feed My sheep. And why, having passed by the others, does He speak with Peter on these matters? He was the chosen one of the Apostles, the mouth of the disciples, the leader of the band; on this account also Paul went up upon a time to enquire of him rather than the others. And at the same time to show him that he must now be of good cheer, since the denial was done away, Jesus puts into his hands the chief authority among the brethren; and He brings not forward the denial, nor reproaches him with what had taken place, but says, If you love Me, preside over your brethren, and the warm love which you ever manifested, and in which you rejoiced, show thou now; and the life which you said you would lay down for Me, now give for My sheep. When then having been asked once and again, he called Him to witness who knows the secrets of the heart, and then was asked even a third time, he was troubled, fearing a repetition of what had happened before, (for then, having been strong in assertion, he was afterwards convicted,) and therefore he again betakes himself to Him.”

He said unto him the third time,Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Do you love me? And he said unto him, Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you. Jesus said unto him,Feed my sheep. – John 21:17

“You know all things, means, things present, and things to come. Do you see how he had become better and more sober, being no more self-willed, or contradicting? For on this account he was troubled, lest perchance I think that I love, and love not, as before when I thought and affirmed much, yet I was convicted at last. But Jesus asks him the third time, and the third time gives him the same injunction, to show at what a price He sets the care  of His own sheep, and that this especially is a sign of love towards Him. And having spoken to him concerning the love towards Himself, He foretells to him the martyrdom which he should undergo, showing that He said not to Him what he said as distrusting, but as greatly trusting him; wishing besides to point out a proof of love towards Him, and to instruct us in what manner especially we ought to love Him.”

This spoke he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he said unto him,Follow me. – John 21:19
But if it be asked, How then did James assume the see of Jerusalem? I answer, that our Lord enthroned Peter, not as Bishop of this see, but as Doctor of the whole world: Then Peter, turning about, sees the disciple whom Jesus loved following, which also leaned on his breast at supper. It is not without meaning that that circumstance of leaning on His breast is mentioned, but to show what confidence Peter had after his denial. For he who at the supper dared not ask himself, but gave his question to John to put, has the superintendence over his brethren committed to him, and whereas before he gave a question which concerned himself to another to put, he now asks questions himself of his Master concerning others. Our Lord then having foretold such great things of him, and committed the world to him, and prophesied his martyrdom, and made known his greater love, Peter wishing to have John admitted to a share of this calling, says, And what shall this man do? as if to say, Will he not go the same way with us? For Peter had great love for John, as appears from the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, which give many proofs of their close friendship. So Peter does John the same turn, that John had done him; thinking that he wanted to ask about himself, but was afraid, he puts the question for him. However, inasmuch as they were now going to have the care of the world committed to them, and could not remain together without injury to their charge, our Lord says, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to you? as ifto say, Attend to the work committed to thee, and do it: if I will that he abide here, what is that to you? .The Evangelist then corrects the opinion taken up by the disciples.

He said not, Should die, but, Should glorify God, that you may learn, that to suffer for Christ, is glory and honor to the sufferer.
And when He had spoken this, He says,  Follow Me.
Here again He alludes to his tender carefulness, and to his being very closely attached to Himself. And if any should say, How then did James receive the chair at Jerusalem? I would make this reply, that He appointed Peter  teacher, not of the chair, but of the world.

Augustine of Hippo (c. 430 AD)

So when they had dined, Jesus said to Simon Peter,Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me more than these?He said unto him, Yea, Lord; you know that I love you. He said unto him,Feed my lambs. – John 21:15
Our Lord asked this, knowing it: He knew that Peter not only loved Him, but loved Him more than all the rest.While our Lord was being condemned to death, he feared, and denied Him. But by His resurrection Christ implanted love in his heart, and drove away fear. Peter denied, because he feared to die: but when our Lord was risen from the dead, and by His death destroyed death, what should he fear? He says to Him, Yea, Lord; you know that I love You. On this confession of his love, our Lord commends His sheep to him: He says to him, Feed My lambs. As if there were no way of Peter’s showing his love for Him, but by being a faithful shepherd, under the chief Shepherd.He was grieved because he was asked so often by Him who knew what He asked, and gave the answer. He replies therefore from his inmost heart; you know that I love You.He says no more, He only replies what he knew himself; he knew he loved Him; whether any else loved Him he could not tell, as he could not see into another’s heart: Jesus says to him, Feed My sheep; as if to say, Be it the office of love to feed the Lord’s flock, as it was the resolution of fear to deny the Shepherd.They who feed Christ’s sheep, as if they were their own, not Christ’s, show plainly that they love themselves, not Christ; that they are moved by lust of glory, power, gain, not by the love of obeying, ministering, pleasing God. Let us love therefore, not ourselves, but Him, and in feeding His sheep, seek not our own, but the things which are His. For who so loves himself, not God, loves not himself: man that cannot live of himself, must die by loving himself; and he cannot love himself, who loves himself to his own destruction. Whereas when He by Whom we live is loved, we love ourselves the more, because we do not love ourselves; because we do not love ourselves in order that we may love Him by Whom we live.But unfaithful servants arose, who divided Christ’s flock, and handed down the division to their successors: and you hear them say, Those sheep are mine, what seek you with my sheep, I will not let you come to my sheep. If we call our sheep ours, as they call them theirs, Christ has lost His sheep.

Cyril of Alexandria (c. 444 AD)

So when they had dined, Jesus said to Simon Peter,Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me more than these?He said unto him, Yea, Lord; you know that I love you. He said unto him,Feed my lambs. – John 21:15
Peter started to reach Jesus before the rest, disdaining, as it appears, to go by boat, because of the incomparable fervour and admirable zeal of his love towards Christ. Therefore He comes first to land, and draws up the net; for he was always an impressionable man, easily excited to enthusiasm both in speech and action. Therefore, also, he first made confession of faith when the Saviour put to them the inquiry in the parts of Caesarea Philippi, saying: Who do men say that I the Son of Man am? And of the other disciples some said Elijah, and others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. But when Christ put the further question to them: But Who say ye that I am? Peter took the lead, and becoming spokesman for the rest, hastened to reply: Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. Moreover, when the band of soldiers came, together with the officers of the Jews, to take Jesus away to the rulers, the rest all left Him and fled, but Peter struck off Malchus’ ear with a sword. For he thought it right by every means in his power to defend his Master, though the attack that he made was in fact altogether displeasing to Him. As, therefore, he came more impetuously than the rest, Christ puts to him the question whether he loved Him more than they, and repeated it three times; and Peter answers in the affirmative, and confesses his love for Him, saying that Christ Himself was a witness to his state of mind. And, after each confession, he heard Christ telling him in different words to take thought of His sheep, as He calls mankind in the parable.
And I think (for I say that we ought to search out the hidden meaning that is here implied) that these words were not written without a purpose, but the saying is pregnant with meaning, and the sense of the passage contains something more than meets the eye. May not someone reasonably ask, Why is it that Christ only asks Simon, though the other disciples were present? And what is the meaning of the words, Feed My lambs, and the like? We reply, that the inspired Peter had indeed already been elected, together with the other disciples, to be an Apostle of God (for our Lord Jesus Christ Himself named them Apostles, according to the Scripture), but, when the events connected with the plot of the Jews against Him came to pass, his fall came betwixt; for the inspired Peter was seized with uncontrollable fear, and thrice denied the Lord. Christ succours His erring disciple, and elicits by divers questions his thrice-repeated confession, counterbalancing, as it were, his error thereby, and making his recovery as signal as his fall. For a transgression which was verbal, and only in mere words supplied ground of accusation against him, could surely be wiped out in the same fashion as it was committed. He requires him to say whether he loved Him more than the rest. For in truth, as he had enjoyed a greater measure of forgiveness, and received from a more bountiful Hand the remission of his transgression, surely he would be likely to feel greater love than the rest, and requite his Benefactor with the extremity of affection. For although all the holy disciples alike betook themselves to flight, the inhumanity of the Jews inspiring them with a terror that they could not overcome, and the ferocity of the soldiers threatening them with cruel death when they came to take Jesus, still Peter’s transgression by his thrice-repeated denial was special and peculiar to him.
Therefore, as he had received a greater measure of forgiveness than the rest, he is asked to tell Christ whether he loved Him more; for, as the Saviour Himself said, he to whom most is forgiven will also love much. Herein, also, is a type given to the. Churches, that they ought thrice to ask for a confession of Christ from those who have chosen to love Him by coming to Him in Holy Baptism. And, by dwelling on this passage, instructors in religion may arrive at the knowledge that they cannot please the Chief Shepherd, that is Christ, unless they take thought for the health of the sheep of His fold, and their continuance in well-being. Such was the inspired Paul, who shared the infirmities of his weak brethren, and called those who through him believed, and chose to gain repute by the glory of their deeds, the boast, and joy, and crown of his apostleship. For he knew that this was the visible fruit of love for Christ. And this, if he reason well and justly, any one may perceive. For if He died for us, surely He must esteem the salvation and life of us all as deserving of all care. And if they who sin against the brethren, and wound their conscience when it is weak, in truth sin against Christ; surely it is true to say, that they are doing the Lord Himself service who take, as it were, by the hand the mind of those who have been admitted to the faith, and who are expected to be called to perfection therein, and are eager to stablish them firmly in the faith, by every help that they can offer. Therefore, by his thrice-repeated confession the thrice-repeated denial of the blessed Peter was done away, and by the saying of our Lord, “Feed my lambs,” we must understand a renewal as it were of the apostleship, already given unto him, washing away the disgrace of his fall that came betwixt, and obliterating his faint-heartedness, that arose from human infirmity.

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