Jesus was having breakfast with the disciples when he asked Peter, “do you (agape) love Me more than these?” (John 21:15). Peter told the Lord, “Yes, Lord; You know that I (phileo) love You.” (John 21:15). Now Jesus did this a total of three times with Peter, the same amount of times that Peter had denied knowing Christ.
So what is this significance? As English readers we do not get the full explanation by simply reading the text in our language. As we go to a commentary or a Greek text we can discover the amazing truth that is revealed in this discussion between Peter and Jesus. When Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him, He used the Greek word, “Agape.”
The Greek language uses different words to describe love. This agape love is the God kind of love. It is self-sacrificing. Phileo is a different kind of love; it means brotherly love.
He wanted to show him that we cannot rely on our own will power. Peter’s idea of himself and his love for God was so high that even at the last supper Peter explained, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” (Mark 14:31). His focus was on his love for the Lord instead of the Lord’s love for him. On the final time Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Jesus used the word phileo. Peter responded with with the word phileo. He was in essence saying, “You know I just love you like a brother.” Peter was finally honest with the Lord.
Although Peter did not have perfect love, Jesus told him, “Tend My sheep” (John 21:17). He still believed in him. He still had a plan for Peter. Remember God’s love for us is not dependent on how great we are, it is unconditional. 2,000 years ago on the cross, Christ showed us what real “agape” love is all about. Peter’s love shifted like the sand, Christ’s love for him and us is steady and secure.