Jesus Asks Peter If He Loves Him


‘When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’ Again, Jesus said, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’ The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.’ John 21:15-17

The question, ‘do you love me more than these?’ has a few possible explanations.

1. It could refer to the boat, nets, fish etc., ‘more than these things’.

If so, it would refer to his work as a fisherman. As if Jesus said, ‘are you really willing to give up all this to follow me?’ Was Peter feeling the pull to return to his former life? There would be much in favour of this if it could be proved that Peter had decided to return to fishing as a profession.

2. It could refer to the other apostles, ‘more than these others do?’

Peter had said, ‘Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away’, Matthew 26:33 / Mark 14:29 / John 13:37.

In this case, the Lord is deliberately reminding him of this, He wants Peter to learn humility. A threefold question and affirmation, Peter had denied his Lord three times. Just a short time ago in the presence of the enemy, he denied all connection with the Lord, so now in the presence of his friends, he affirms three times over that he loves the Lord.

Perhaps relations between Peter and the others were difficult, perhaps it was hard for them to forget what Peter had done. He is now restored to full fellowship with his Lord and with his brethren.

The use of the words, ‘agapao’ and ‘phileo’

In his first and second questions, John 21:15-16, Jesus uses the verb ‘agapao’, which means high and devoted love. Peter, every time he replies, uses the verb ‘phileo’ which means loving as a friend.

In His third question, Jesus uses the same word that Peter has used. Commentators are divided into two groups, those who see the profound significance in the change of verb, and those who don’t.

Jesus says, ‘do you love me’, ‘agapao’, ‘love me’. Peter replies, ‘you know that I love you’, ‘oidas phileo’, ‘know I love’. Jesus says, ‘feed my lambs’, ‘feed my sheep’, the word ‘feed’, John 21:15 / John 21:17 is from the verb ‘bosko’, which means to supply with food, to nourish.

The word, ‘lambs’ is ‘arnia’, and is symbolic of young converts. The word, ‘tend’ is from the verb ‘poimaino’, and means to act as a shepherd, a ‘poimen’ is a shepherd, it’s the same word used in Acts 20:28 / 1 Peter 5:2.

This continues with Jesus next telling Peter to tend the little sheep, ‘look after my little sheep.’

In John 21:17 Peter claims that Jesus you know by experience, and you have learned that I love you Jesus responds, ‘feed my little sheep’.

Notice when Jesus spoke to Peter it would probably have been in Aramaic, but there must have been something implied for John to record it this way. There could be a distinction in these words to do with love according to the will and love according to the emotion, this would be similar to what Paul expresses in Romans 7.

‘Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.’ John 21:18-19

Jesus then gives a prophecy to Peter regarding his life and the method and situation surrounding his death. Earlier, Peter had been very much a free type of man, he had few problems and was able to move and think freely.

The time would come though when Peter would be restricted in his movement and be forced in a direction he wasn’t willing to go. He would no longer be able to expose the free spirit that always caused him to be the first to put his foot in his mouth and the first to speak, the impetuous Peter would be no more.

Soon after New Testament times the phrase ‘to glorify God’ became a common term for martyrdom. The tradition is that Peter died by crucifixion. Eusebius quotes Origen for the story that he asked to be crucified downwards.

By the time, John wrote this, he knew of the death of Peter and how he had died, so he was able to draw the parallel himself. In the last call to ‘follow me’ we see that Peter evidently understood the words literally, and immediately began to walk after Jesus, notice John 21:20, ‘he turned and saw’, John is following. But the command was probably meant figuratively, ‘go on following me faithfully’, John 1:43 / Matthew 8:22 / John 9:9 / John 19:21.

Despite his previous boasting, Peter had failed, he was now called to follow faithfully, even to martyrdom, John 13:36-37. A call of encouragement to discipleship and t the rigours of the apostolic office.

‘Then he said to him, ‘Follow me!’ Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is going to betray you?’)When Peter saw him, he asked, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.’ John 21:20-22

Here we see the beloved disciple. Peter saw his great friend standing near and asked, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ He had been told about his own future, what about John? Jesus’ answer is a rebuke, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.’

‘You must follow me’ impresses upon Peter that his responsibility is for his own faithfulness, Jesus is simply saying, don’t let your doubts and perplexities about others hinder your own service.’

Our duty is to obey without waiting to know what orders or promises may be given to others.

‘Because of this, the rumour spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?’ John 21:23

What was to become of John?

The reply was misconstrued to become the rumour that John would never die, that the Lord would return before his death. This idea must have grown stronger and stronger as John grew older and he needed to squash the entire story, he does so here quite effectively.

The Mormons

The Mormons believe that John was translated into a deathless state, not quite resurrected, and is still alive today. John simply wanted to correct any misunderstanding concerning his own death.

The rumour was already up and running that John would never die, this simply wants true and Jesus never actually said it.

Jesus didn’t mean that John would remain alive until His final coming but was referring to His coming judgement upon Jerusalem in A.D. 70. He was rebuking Peter’s curiosity, not affirming that John would live on till the Master returned.


It’s interesting from the time Peter denied knowing Christ three times, John 18:15-27, things seem to happen in threes for Peter from that point on, John 21:15-17 / Acts 10:9-16 / Acts 10:17-19.

He had to learn that it takes humility to follow Jesus and this is a question we too must ask ourselves, are we willing to follow Jesus, no matter what?

If we truly love Him, we will do everything He commanded us to do.

‘If you love me, keep my commands.’ John 14:15