After He rose from the dead, Yeshua asked Peter three times if he loved him. Three times, Peter replied that He knew everything; He knew he loved Him. Yeshua replied after the first time, "Feed my lambs," and then twice He said, "Feed my sheep."
Without knowing the original Greek, one wonders what Yeshua was getting at when He asked Peter this question three times. On the surface, it looks like Yeshua is reminding Peter of how he denied Him the night He was arrested, and is asking him, "Do you really love me?" That, however, is not at all what this conversation is about. Peter repented of that prior to this encounter, Yeshua forgave him, and they have both moved on.
The answer to what this is about hinges on the words that Yeshua used for love. Greek is more precise than English in this matter. It employs at least four different words for love. I was taught that they are as follows:
- agape – the highest form of love, which is God's love
- phileo – brotherly love, such as one has for a friend
- storge – love for one's kinsmen
- eros – erotic love, such as one has for their spouse
I would venture to say that sexual love or lust is what eros means, whether one is married to the sexual partner or not. Pastors and teachers held forth on how inaccurate English is when we use the word "love" to say that we love our wife or husband, we love our parents, and we love our friends, though we love all those people in different ways, and it is especially differs in meaning when we say we love fish and chips, or we love blue, or we love to ski. Of course, we love our family more than we love to go skiing, or to eat fish and chips. It would be more accurate to say that we enjoy skiing and that we appreciate fish and chips and that blue is a favourite colour.
The ministers who taught on this subject went on to say that the word that Yeshua used for love was agape, which they said means the awesome love of God that loves us in our unloveliness, and compelled Him to give His life for us on the cross to win our redemption. But Peter, bonehead that he was, kept replying to Yeshua that he loved him with phileo, the love of a friend, a love that is dependant on feelings. The third time Yeshua asked the question, He used the word phileo, apparently because Peter could not comprehend agape, or because phileo was all that he was capable of at that time. Agape was lifted up as a higher form of love.
Those teachers got it all wrong, but I did not realize this until I recently looked up the words myself to check their meaning. In the first place, the word Yeshua used was agapao, not agape. The Strong's Concordance definition of agapao is, " … to love (in a social or moral sense)."
In regards to phileo, it says, "… to be a friend to (fond of [an individual or an object]), that is, have affection for (denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling; while (agape) is wider, embracing especially the judgment and the deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety: the two thus stand related very much as G2309 and G1014 (references for phileo), or as G2372 and G3563 (references for agape) respectively; the former being chiefly of the heart and the latter of the head); specifically to kiss (as a mark of tenderness): - kiss, love."
Yeshua probably did not use these words when He spoke to Peter; He likely spoke to him in either Hebrew or Aramaic, but the person who translated this account into Greek understood what kind of love Yeshua was speaking of. He also understood what Yeshua was asking, unlike the expositors who taught on this in the churches I attended in my younger days. Yeshua was not asking Peter so much if he loved Him, but how He loved Him.
Peter understood the question, which is why he kept answering Yeshua that he had a phileo love for Him. When the preachers spoke about agape love, they elaborated on what a wonderful thing it was, far superior to sentimental phileo love, which depends on feelings. Agape love loves the unlovely. They had some good points, but they missed the main point.
I suppose this was because they went off on a tangent about agape, thinking of how we were all so unworthy that Yeshua died for us. Yes indeed, God commends His love to us, in that, while we were yet sinners, the Anointed died for us. The word used in that verse in Romans 5:8 relates to agape, which Strong's Concordance describes the meaning as, " From (agapao); love, that is, affection or benevolence; specifically (plural) a love feast: - (feast of) charity ([-ably]), dear, love." There seems to be a bit more oomph in this word agape than what there is in the word agapao.
Agapao was the word that Yeshua used when He asked Peter if he loved Him. He was asking him, "Do you love me out of duty? Do you love me because I am God, and it is your duty to love me and to serve me?" Peter was replying, "No, I love You because I like You. I love You because I trust You." Isn't that why we love our friends? They are our friends because we like them and we trust them.
Peter was telling God that he was not motivated by religious duty towards Him. God was no longer a distant deity to him. Peter had gotten to know Him, through Yeshua, and he had fallen in love with Yeshua's lovely character. Yeshua then said, in effect, " Well, if you feel that way about me, then take care of my little lambs, the immature ones who believe in me that can absorb only the milk of the Word, and teach the more mature ones the deeper things of the Spirit."
Back to this business, though, of agapao and phileo. How do you, the reader, prefer to be loved and served? Which turns your crank more; when people do things for you because they think it is their duty, or because they genuinely like you? Do you prefer to have your siblings visit you because they figure that they ought to stay in touch with you, because you are their brother or sister, or because they like you? Which motivation do you think would make the visit more fun?
If you were old and infirm and needed a place to stay, would you prefer it if your child let you stay with them because they considered it their duty, or because they thought you were a terrific person and they love to have you around? Would you prefer to have your children arguing with each other about who has to look after you, or arguing with each other about who gets to look after you?
I have been loved and served out of duty, and I have been loved and served out of affection. I will take duty if I can't get affection, but I sure prefer it when people actually like me, rather than when they do things for me just because they feel it is their duty.
One of my problems when I was younger was that I did not feel that I was loved. My father had a duty to love me, but he neglected it entirely. My father sometimes felt sentimental towards me, which perhaps was a phileo love, but in a very small proportion. When his needs were weighed against his children's, his mattered more to him. I suppose that could be an argument for how agapao is superior to phileo, and I certainly would have appreciated some agapao, if I could not get the phileo. I forgive him, though. I witnessed to him and prayed for his salvation, and I have good reason to believe that he received Yeshua as his Saviour before he died.
My mother had the agapao type of love. I grew up hearing over and over how she sacrificed to feed me when I was a baby. I was being trained that I had a duty towards to my mother. She did a lot of things for her children, but she also did a lot of griping, ranting that we did not appreciate what she did for us.
What was the result of this type of upbringing? I knew I was obligated to my mother, but I did not care. For a while, I did not even feel any affection towards her. I just wanted to get away from her. I think this is why a lot of people run away from God. They do not feel that He likes them or sees anything lovable about them.
Oddly, though, this was not how sinners who had actual contact with Yeshua felt about Him. Yeshua was frequently criticized by the religious leaders of His day because He let sinners hang out around Him and He even visited them in their homes. He went and had dinner with a tax collector and the tax collector's outcast friends. He not only spoke to women in public (Jewish men generally thought it was beneath their dignity to speak to even their own wife, daughter, or sister in public), but He spoke to women who were prostitutes or had formerly been prostitutes. Sometimes He even let them touch Him!
I have no doubt that some of the people who followed Yeshua about like longing, little puppies were pimps and homosexuals because, though He taught that whoremongering and homosexuality are abominable sins, these people felt that He liked them in spite of their flaws. There were probably even child molesters who followed Him around, thirsty to receive a tender smile of compassion, as well as of appreciation for their good qualities. It probably made them feel like they didn't want to do bad things anymore. The Pharisees and other religious leaders were always going to hold their past against them, but they sensed that Yeshua was willing to forgive them, if they were willing to turn away from their sins, and that He was able to set them free.
When I was eighteen, I was so depressed about how I was being treated by a guy whom I was obsessed with that I thought about committing suicide. I phoned a Christian friend and he said, "Think of the people it would hurt if you were to do that; think of your mother." I could not relate to that example. I knew my mother loved me, but felt she did so only because it was her duty. I thought, though, of my friend Bonnie. Bonnie had done things for me that she was not obligated to do. I felt that she truly loved me. For her sake, because I knew she would feel disappointed and sad over my death, I gave up the idea of committing suicide.
In retrospect, it could be that Bonnie helped me because she considered it her Christian duty, but that was good enough for me at the time. She was not my blood relative, owed me nothing, and was not obligated to do anything for me. It was not enough to get me to stop hitchhiking, though. Bonnie said to me, "Lanny, there is no reason why you should have to hitchhike." She was telling me that I should feel free to ask other Christians to give me a ride to church. She considered it the duty of people who had cars to provide safe rides to church for their brothers and sisters in Christ, and particularly the sisters, who were more vulnerable to being assaulted.
Generally, after that, I did ask people to pick me up on their way to church. Sometimes, I even asked people to go out of their way to give me a ride. But I did not stop the dangerous practice of hitchhiking to get to work until a few months after I started dating the man I married. For the first time in my life, someone was in love with me. He liked to spend time with me and we saw each other every day, even if ten minutes was all we could fit in because of the shifts we were working. I realized that he would be devastated if I was raped or killed while hitchhiking, so I stopped doing it. He was quite willing to give me a ride to work or anywhere else at any time, not only to keep me safe, but also so that he could spend time with me. He liked me!
It is too bad that it didn't last, and in the absence of his affection, I would have settled for him fulfilling his obligations out of duty. I would have been grateful for that, but it would not have turned my crank nearly as much as when he did kind things for me because he thought I was terrific, rather than because he had made vows and was therefore obligated to keep them.
I know that God appreciates it when we do our duty towards Him, but I think it makes Him even happier when we do as He wishes because we actually like Him. People like it better when we are kind to them because we actually like them, rather than out of a sense of Christian duty. Anybody would feel insulted if someone said to them, "I love you because I am obliged to love you." Even worse, "God has given me the ability to love you." In most cases, those words imply that we are repugnant, and it takes a miracle for them to love us.
In one church I attended, we were taught a song where we faced another brother or sister and sang, "I love you with the love of the Lord." There was another one with hand actions that said, "Jesus in me loves you." The way I took those songs was that we could love others who we did not know very well on a personal level, simply because they were a brother or sister in Christ. Some took it to mean, though, that this love helped them love others whom they actually detested on a personal level.
Yeshua's disciples genuinely liked Him. They were initially drawn to Him because He was the Truth that they had hungered for and they wanted to listen to His teaching. Then they saw Him display His power, so they also hung out with Him because they wanted to ride His coattails to fame and fortune and power. But Yeshua kept making it known that He was going to be rejected by the religious leaders and they were going to kill Him.
After He was resurrected, the disciples wondered if He would now restore Israel as a sovereign nation and set up His rule in the Earth, but when He told them it was none of their business, they finally let the matter drop. They had learned by now that Yeshua does not operate the way the flesh desires Him to, but they knew His character well enough that it was no longer important to them to achieve worldly position and power. Even if it brought them persecution to follow Yeshua, they loved His character and were willing to follow Him just because they liked Him. They knew He was God and, as such, it was their duty to obey Him, but the reason they wanted to obey Him was because they liked Him.
This is what Yeshua wanted to bring out when He asked Peter if he loved Him. He was asking him, "Why do you love me? Do you feel that you are obliged to love me because I am God and can send you to Hell if you reject me? Do you feel you owe it to love me because of what I did for you on the cross? Or do you love me because you like me and know I can be trusted?"
It is smart of us to keep in mind that if we reject Yeshua, we will go to Hell, and appreciating what He did on the cross for us is the decent thing to do, but in the end, Yeshua longs for us to know Him intimately and to like Him because we understand, through close fellowship with Him, that He is gentle, generous, compassionate, kind, dependable, wholesome, thoroughly wise, and everything that is beautiful in character.
When He established with Peter that Peter really did feel this way about Him, He said (in effect), "If you truly love me like that, then care about what I care about. Feed my little ones and my more mature ones. Teach them my ways."
Implied in that is also a command for us to be a good example of what we teach because then people take what we say more seriously. Also, it is an instruction to give first priority to teaching the basics to babes in Christ and children, but to spend twice as much time teaching the deeper things of the Lord to the more mature.
Is our relationship with God one of religious duty, or is it a friendship, a phileo love? God wants us to both agapao and phileo Him, but it is the phileo that really, really turns His crank, if that phileo is not a superficial, temporary condition of our heart, but a deep and everlasting friendship that considers nothing too much for Him to ask of us. Why not? He loves us passionately, even in spite of our faults, He likes us, in spite of our faults, and He is committed to helping us be the best person that we can be. He is a faithful Friend, the one Friend we can ALWAYS count on.
Your word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against you.