In verse fifteen of John chapter twenty-one, we’re told of a leadership-initiation event whereby the Apostle Peter was commissioned through the formative process of confession. In other words, in order for Jesus to shape Peter as a leader, Jesus wanted Peter to discover and admit his brokenness. So, we’re told that Jesus pulled Peter aside to ask him a question. Just like God asked Adam and Eve where they were in the Garden, Jesus wanted to walk around and ask Peter where he was. It’s not that Jesus didn’t already know the condition of the hider’s soul. Jesus came asking and knocking and seeking in order help Peter recognize and admit his own condition too. For when a person confesses the location of their heart and actions, then God can start moving him or her to where he wants them to go.
So Jesus twice asked Peter the greatest spiritual leadership question of all- a question that must have felt like a stitch through his ear: “Simon, Peter, son of John, do you love me?” Literally, Jesus asked Peter whether Peter had an agape love for him. Jesus was probing to expose the depth (or shallowness) of Peter’s commitment and devotion. Jesus wanted Peter to declare whether his love for the Lord was selfless, faithful, and life-laying-downward-path stuff.
Both times Peter’s response was like a religious automatism. “Yes Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.” In effect, Peter tried to dismiss the question with a wave of his tongue. It’s as if Peter had told the Lord it was a silly question. After all, in Peter’s mind, he had just gotten all dressed up and was the first one to arrive that morning. It appears that Peter, like many followers of Jesus, had become quite good at pretending to still be intently involved in a relationship with Jesus. Peter was trying to eke by according to his projected persona of the “rock” rather than according to his personal intimacy with the Lord. Though Jesus asked Peter about agape, Peter somewhat deceptively indicated that he cared (phileo) for Jesus like a brother or a friend. So, while Jesus looked for the broken heart of a shepherd, Peter gave him the steel-heart of a weathered fisherman.
But Jesus is not dissuaded from surgery. He sees through any camouflaged religious rites and pompous prayers. He knew Peter’s ripped condition and so pressed on with an unexpected leadership challenge. This man whom Jesus had initially commissioned as a fisher of men, was now ordered by Jesus to “feed my lambs” and “take care of my sheep.” In other words, Peter was to love Jesus extremely (agape-style, much more than phileo-style) and Peter was to act upon that agape-love by serving the ones he had agape-loved.
A true spiritual leader is asked to love Jesus so deeply that he or she learns to love others as Jesus loved them. For Peter this must have been a challenging proposition. Peter was drawn to be a leader who caught people, not tended to them. He liked the idea of being a net-worker who hooked others and cut them open over a fire! He wanted Jesus to usher in the kingdom with power and while he stood alongside and basked in the glory. Ever since he was first asked to follow Jesus, however, this strange leadership language of shepherding arose again and again. Jesus shared that a Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep? What kind of leadership is that? The world’s idea of leadership much better fits the model of a fisherman, who is fed by those who are caught. The idea of a leader laying his life down for others is repulsively awful… and fearfully awe-full.
Probing, asking, knocking, seeking- Jesus asks Peter a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” This third time, the seeker found the hider. This third time, Peter and his persona were exposed. This time, instead of asking about an agape-love, Jesus met Peter where he was, and asked him if he cared for him with a lesser devoted phileo-love.
John tells us that Peter was grieved that Jesus asked the question a third time. Peter wasn’t annoyed at Jesus’ persistence as much as he was filled with sorrow. Peter was pressed to the point of confession regarding the state of his soul, just like Adam once had been in the Garden. This third time, Peter finally began to understand that to be a true leader he had to more truly follow Jesus. And so to Jesus he had to now admit his nakedness and brokenness. The time had come to stop pretending.
Jesus’ three-fold questioning recalled a monumental moment of weakness in Peter’s life; a moment where Peter’s leadership had been exposed as shallow. In front of the disciples several weeks prior, Peter had declared his bold commitment to the Lord- that he would follow Jesus anywhere… even to death. Nothing could deter the example of faith he would be set. In essence, with great bravado, Peter proclaimed that he loved the Lord more than anyone. But then that night, when Jesus was arrested, Peter metaphorically bit forbidden fruit. Three times he was asked if he was with Jesus:
Once: “Aren’t you one of Jesus’ disciples?”
“No,” Peter said, “I am not.”
Twice: “Aren’t you one of his disciples?”
“I am not,” he said.
Three times: “Didn’t I see you with Jesus?”
“No!” Peter said.
Then the rooster crowed.