Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Do You Love Me? (John 21:15-17)

(Due to a technical difficulty, the recording begins after the reading of the Scripture and the beginning of the introduction)

Today is Mothers Day, and for some of us, that will mean that we do special things for our mothers or those who have been like mothers to us. Others perhaps will be on the receiving end of that, as children (young or adult) show appreciation and affection. Imagine for a moment how those conversations or gatherings might feel if, at some point, a mother says to her child, or the child to the mother, “Do you love me?” The other may say, “Of course I love you! That is why I’ve made time for you today!” And then a moment later, suppose the question arises again: “Yes, and I’m grateful for this time together, but what I want to know is, do you love me?” And again the response may come, “You know that I love you, don’t you?” And a third time the question comes: “Listen, what I really need to know from you right now is this: do you love me?” It would be troubling, would it not? It would cause us to wonder if something had happened, or not happened, to cause a problem in the relationship, and what could be done to remedy it.

However unsettling that uncomfortable interaction might be, it was infinitely moreso for Peter here on the shore of the Sea of Galilee on that morning so long ago. The One who asks him, not once or twice, but three times, “Do you love Me?” is none other but the Lord Jesus Christ. And in Peter’s case, he did not need to wonder what had happened to cause the question to arise. It had not been many days before this that Peter had found himself hovered over a charcoal fire, warming himself in the courtyard of the High Priest, when three times he was asked about his relationship with Jesus Christ, and three times he denied that he even knew the Lord. Now, here in the early morning, with the familiar smell of a charcoal fire in the air, he is asked three times again about his relationship with Jesus – this time by Jesus Himself.

Though Peter had three times denied the Lord, and here in the immediate context seems to have defected from the Lord’s service by returning to his career as a fisherman, the Lord had not given up on Peter. He sought him out, He calls him by name, and rather than condemning him for his failures or questioning him about his reasons for denying Him, Jesus asks the same question three times: “Do you love Me?”

Love is one of, if not the primary, motivating factor of our lives. If we were to set out to compile a list of songs, books, movies, and other works of art that have love as their theme, we would find it easier to list the ones which are not anchored in love. It is love that makes us do what we do, and love that makes us refrain from doing the things we do not do. In the thrice repeated question to Peter, we discover that love is the key to both our failures and our successes in life. There are three of these discoveries that we want to examine here from our text.

I. Misdirected loves can lead to spiritual failure (v15).

In order to understand the first question that Jesus asks Peter in our text, we need to remember what happened prior to this moment. On the evening that Jesus was betrayed, when the disciples were gathered together for the last supper, Jesus told them, “You will all fall away because of Me this night.” And Peter boldly proclaimed, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away.” Jesus said, “Truly I say to you that this very night, before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” To this Peter said, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You” (Mt 26:31-35). Of course we know what happened. Just as Jesus predicted, Peter did deny the Lord three times.

Following the resurrection of Jesus, Peter had investigated the empty tomb personally, and had seen the Risen Jesus in the company of his fellow disciples on more than one occasion. He had perhaps even had a private encounter with the Risen Jesus, as some New Testament passages seem to imply. But there was another encounter that had been promised. Jesus had told them, “After I have been raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee” (Mk 14:28). When the women came to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday, they were met by angels who told them, “Go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you” (Mk 16:7). Peter knew that he had an appointment with the Risen Lord awaiting him in Galilee. Perhaps he feared that encounter in which he would surely have to give account for his three-fold failure in the High Priest’s courtyard. For reasons unknown to us, as the disciples waited in Galilee, Peter made the announcement that he was going fishing (Jn 21:3). By this, it seems not that he just wished to bide the time as he waited for the Lord, but rather that he was abandoning the mission to which Christ had called him, to be a fisher of men (Mt 4:19), and was returning to his former career as a fisherman.

These things all preceded the encounter that we find here in our text. After coming ashore and having breakfast with the Christ whom he had denied, Peter finds himself in a private conversation with Jesus. The first question Jesus asks is, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” Now, biblical scholars are divided as to what the word “these” refers to here. There are many who believe that Jesus is asking, in light of Peter’s bold claims at the last supper, “Peter, do you really think you love Me more than the rest of these guys do, now that you have failed by denying Me repeatedly?” That is certainly a strong possibility. However, it is just as likely that “these” refers to the immediate surroundings – all the trappings of fishing, including the 153 large fish that Jesus miraculously provided for Peter and the others. So, the question would be, “Peter, do you love Me more than you love fishing, more than you love boats and nets, more than you love these smelly fish or the money that they will bring you in the market?” I tend to think that the argument is stronger for the latter interpretation, given the immediate context. However, in either case, the point is somewhat the same. On the first interpretation, what is in view is Peter’s denials. On the second, what is in view is His defection. Either way, it comes down to an issue of misdirected love.

When it came time for Peter to boldly declare his faith in the Lord Jesus in the High Priest’s courtyard, he was prevented from doing so by a misdirected love. In that instance, it seems that he loved his own life more than he loved Jesus. It was for fear of what danger may befall him that Peter denied knowing the Lord. He boasted of being willing to die for Jesus, but when the screws were tightened in the moment of opportunity, he chose to live for himself rather than risk dying for Jesus. Remember that Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:35). He calls us to love Him first and foremost with a depth of affection so great that it makes all other loves in life appear as hatred in comparison. He said, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:26). In the book of Revelation, the faithful martyrs are said to be those who overcame by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death (Rev 12:11). But Peter’s failure in his denials was that he loved his own life, rather than loving the Lord Jesus, when faced with danger and potential death.

Then, knowing that the Risen Lord was intent on a private encounter with him in Galilee, Peter opted rather to retreat to his former line of work as a fisherman. It hadn’t turned out well. First day of business, and the nets were empty after a night of fishing. Had the Lord Jesus not showed up and provided a miraculous catch, the entire enterprise would have failed immediately. Jesus was reminding Peter by that provision of His words in John 15:5 – “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” But Peter’s love for fishing and love for the worldly comforts that fishing afforded him threatened to usurp his love for Jesus. That misdirected love led to his failure in the defection from the Lord’s mission.

We will find the same thing to be true in our own lives. When we love our own lives, or any other thing in life, more than we love the Lord Jesus, it will lead to spiritual failure every time. And in those moments, Christ in His grace, will confront us with the hard question. Whatever “these” are in our lives, He will ask us, “Do you love Me more than these?” And if the answer is an honest, “No,” then we have fallen into idolatry and spiritual failure is inevitable.

II. Love for Christ is the qualification for spiritual service (vv15-17)

Imagine all the things that could have been said or asked in this encounter between Jesus and Peter. “Peter, why did you deny Me? Peter, I told you that you would do this, and you didn’t listen to Me. Peter, why did you feel the need to walk away from serving Me, and return to fishing? Peter, you let Me down.” I hope you noticed that none of these things were said. Instead, just as Peter had three times denied the Lord, so the Lord Jesus three times asks him to reaffirm the relationship that he had denied. Three times the question comes, “Do you love Me?”

Often we hear much made of a nuance here in the Greek text in the exchange between Peter and Jesus. As many of you will know, there are four Greek words that can be translated as “love,” three of which occur in the New Testament. Two of them occur here in this text. When Jesus asks Peter the first and second time, “Do you love Me?”, the word He uses is agape, which is often described as the highest form of love, unconditional love, a divine love that has its source in God. In response to these questions, Peter’s response is, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You,” and the word that Peter uses here is phileo. That word has the sense of the love between friends, or brotherly love. Hence the city of Philadelphia is called the “City of Brotherly Love.” It comes from this word phileo. So, the observation is often made that Jesus is asking Peter, “Do you love Me in the highest and truest sense?” And Peter’s response is said to be something of a reluctant confession, like, “Well, Lord, you know I really like you; I mean we are friends and all.” It is like an adolescent boy who pours his heart out to the girl of his dreams, only to hear back from her, “I like you, but not in that way; I think I’d rather us just be friends.” And so, then the third time that Jesus asks, He uses the same word, phileo, and it is said the He intends to say, “Peter, do you really love me like a friend and a brother?” And to this, Peter again responds with phileo, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love you like a friend or a brother.” I can’t tell you how many sermons and Bible lessons I have heard that make much of this sort of exegetical ping-pong between Peter and Jesus.

I’m going to suggest to you that this is not what is going on here in the text. It is accurate enough to observe that these alternating words are used, and to point out there can be subtle differences in the kind of love that they describe. But, I think the point is pressed further than the text allows. In fact, what we find in study of the New Testament and other Greek literature is that these words are often used interchangeably. John seems to have something of a penchant for using a variety of words. In this text alone, he uses two different words for sheep or lambs; two different words for tending or shepherding; two different words for knowing. If the point of the two different words for love is accurate, then we should also press the meaning of these other pairs of words, but we don’t because we know it is drawing more from the text than is really there. We recognize that the words used are synonyms in these other cases, but the sermons and lessons come out better when we overlook that in the “love” words. Furthermore, notice that when Jesus asks Peter if he agape-loves Him, Peter’s response is not, “No,” but, “Yes.” It seems that Peter is saying phileo almost as a descriptor of his agape-love for Jesus. “Peter, do you agape-love Me?” And the response is, “Of course, Lord! You are like my brother and my best friend. You know that I love You!” Finally, it would be rather out-of-character for Jesus to lower the bar of His expectations to say, “Well, Peter, I guess if I can’t get agape-love from you, I will settle for phileo-love instead.” No, friends, Jesus never lowers the bar.

So, having ruined a good many sermons and Sunday School lessons, some of which I have preached and taught, what exactly is going on here? It is simply this: If Peter is to be restored from his three-fold failure in his denials of the Lord, there must be a reaffirmation of his undeniable love for Christ. If Peter is going to be of any use to Jesus in the furtherance of His Kingdom, then the first criteria and qualification for service is that he must love the Lord Jesus above all else. As Gaebelein put it so well long ago, “He says not to Peter, ‘Art thou wise? Or learned? Or eloquent?’ but, ‘Lovest thou Me?’” In spite of all of Peter’s faults and failures, there is room for Him in the service of King Jesus if only this criteria can be found in Him.

There is not a different criteria for any of us. What qualifies a man to be a pastor? Is it a seminary education or mastery of certain academic disciplines? What qualifies a person to be a deacon, a Sunday School teacher, a member of a committee? What qualifies one to be a witness for Christ, a volunteer on a mission trip or a ministry project? Is it reading the right books, going to the right conferences, or achieving certain accomplishments? Friends, it is possible to do all of that – read the right books, go to the right conferences, get the right degrees, and so on, and not even be saved! So, while certain ministry tasks may require varying skills or competencies, there is no substitute for this baseline qualification of loving the Lord Jesus first and foremost.  

Whether you are a new believer, a lifelong follower of Jesus, or one who is recovering from a spiritual failure, if you want to serve the Lord, there is one question on the entrance exam: “Do you love Me?” I must be honest with you. There are days when it is hard to love ministry. Hard as it is to believe, I’m sure, there are actually days when people hurt you and disappoint you, and it is hard to love them. So, if our service to the Lord depended on our love for the task or our love for others, more often than not perhaps, we would walk away from the opportunity. But service to Jesus is not anchored in the love of service, though that is important. Neither is it anchored in love for others, though that is necessary as well. But those things are secondary, and can only flow out of love for Christ. Before asking any other question to qualify someone for service to Christ’s Kingdom, the first question has to be, “Do you love Jesus?” If the answer to that question is “NO,” then nothing else matters. And this brings us to the third discovery in our text.

III. Love for Christ is manifested in concern for His people (vv15-17).

Three times Peter denied the Lord. Three times, Jesus gave him the opportunity to reaffirm his love. And three times, the Lord Jesus recommissioned Peter to serve Him. That service is described with verbs, not nouns. And they are active verbs, not passive verbs or verbs of being. If you love Christ, there is something to be done from the overflow of that love. And the service that Peter is called to do is to give care to the Lord’s people. In verse 15, the Lord Jesus says, “Tend My lambs.” In verse 16, He says, “Shepherd My sheep.” In verse 17, “Tend My sheep.” The word translated by the NASB as “tend” is a word that means to feed, as a shepherd feeds his sheep. Feed them, tend to them, lead them, care for them. If we say we love the Lord, this is how He expects us to show that love.

In this commission, we are reminded of how the Lord views His people. They are a flock of sheep, of little lambs that He loves and for whom He promises to care. And they belong to Him. Jesus calls those who follow Him by faith, “My sheep,” and “My lambs.” He said of Himself in John 10, “I am the Good Shepherd; the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. … I am the Good Shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me. … My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me, and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (10:11, 14, 27-29). Those words help fill these words to Peter with great significance and meaning. He is saying, “Peter, carry on My work, and allow Me to do My work through you. I have died for this flock, and I entrust them now to you. I will preserve them for all eternity, and I will use you in that work. Feed them, but remember that they do not belong to you. They belong to Me. They are not yours to do with whatsoever you choose. They are mine, and you are to do for them only what I will for them. They hear My voice, so when you feed them, ensure that you are feeding them My words, because these are the words that they are to follow.”

I heard the late Howard Hendricks of Dallas Seminary say on one occasion, “There are only two things on this planet that will last forever: the souls of men and the word of God. So why would you invest your life in anything else but the nurture of souls on the Word of God?” That is what the Lord calls Peter to do here, and it is what He calls us all to do as well. Care for those for whom He cares. Tend to His own sheep out of love for Him and in His love that flows through us. And how shall we tend to them? By nurturing their souls on His Word. We are not all preachers, and we are not all teachers, but we are all fed by His Word, and thereby we feed others on this same Word. It is the most caring thing we can do for another Christian when we come alongside of them and direct their hearts and hopes to the Word of God. In good times, we rejoice with one another and share together in the promise that He has brought these good circumstances to pass by His kind providence and unfailing love. In bad times, we weep with one another and comfort one another by the promises of His faithfulness to us and His sovereign control over all that transpires in our lives. That is something all of us can, and must do for one another. Love for Him fuels us in the task. The sheep belong to Him. We are called to feed them because we love Him. And because He loves us, He calls others to come alongside of us to nurture our souls on the satisfying food of His Word as they care for us in His name.

Are you a new Christian with a burning desire to serve the Lord? Have you been walking with the Lord a long time, and want to spend your days doing something that will matter for eternity? Maybe you’ve failed the Lord significantly – we all have, and we all will. Thinking we may have become useless to Him, maybe we have gone off mission and retreated to our own agenda, as Peter did with his fishing. Friends, in whatever you state you find yourself as a follower of Jesus today – fledgling, faithful, failure – He comes to you where you are with a singular question: Do you love Me? If the answer to that question is yes, then there is no limit to how He might use you to serve Him by giving care to others in His name.

Do you love Him? Maybe the answer is no. Maybe you have yet to come to know Him. We began this service today with a reading from Isaiah 40 – “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.” This He will do for you, and more, if you turn to Him as your Shepherd, the Good Shepherd who laid down His life in death for you that He might save you from sin and reconcile you to the God who made you, who knows you better than you know yourself, and loves you anyway. You might ask, “Does He love me?” The Bible says that God demonstrated His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). He has already proven His love to you, and longs for you to live in that love in a relationship with Him, and to show His love to others as you come to know Him, to love Him, and serve Him.

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