In this passage of Scripture, we have the Lord Jesus, risen after His crucifixion, speaking personally to the leader of His apostles. We have more stories about the interactions between Jesus and Peter than we have for any other apostle – indicating that Jesus took special care in the discipling and training of Peter.
Peter has had three years of close personal contact with Jesus: and as part of the trio with James and John, has had more revelation about who Jesus is than anyone else. With their own eyes they saw the transfiguration of Jesus, as well as the agony of Jesus after the Last Supper.
On the doorposts in Israel back then, and even today, there are bits of scroll inside black casing to remind the sons of Israel: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength....."
The kind of love expected of Israel is nothing less than agape love.
If God commands something, then it means it is possible to accomplish it.
With the resurrection of Jesus, there is absolutely no longer any doubt about His divinity.
So when Jesus says to Peter, ‘Do you love (agape) Me?’
the reasonable expectation is that Peter should return a, ‘Yes I love (apage) You Lord’.
Jesus became incarnate, lived among us, revealing the face and nature of God to us, and especially to the Apostles, to prove the utter depths of God’s love for us, and this special Apostle says, ‘Yes, I love (phileo) You, as a friend, a companion, a brother’.
That had to have been gut wrenching for Jesus.
His whole purpose in becoming incarnate, suffering and dying for us, was to bring us into an agape love relationship with Himself, and if He has failed with Peter, then what chance do the disciples and the crowds have?
Jesus asks the same question another time,
giving Peter the opportunity to upgrade his answer
but it doesn't happen.
In some ways this is worse than Peter denying Jesus at the high priest's place.
This is face to face with the crucified and risen Jesus.
When Jesus asks again, this time He reduces the response He is looking for.
‘Peter, do you love (phileo) Me?’
That Jesus would be prepared to ask less of Peter, must have been gut wrenching for Peter.
In effect, "If you don't love Me, do you still like Me?"
Peter is aware that he has failed Jesus. He is aware that he has failed Jesus' expectations of him, perhaps even damaged their relationship. But Peter is still unable to upgrade his answer from phileo love to agape love.
Yet despite all this, Jesus reveals His mercy.
Jesus gives Peter a prophecy indicating that agape love for Jesus is still possible for Peter.
With the 'follow Me' of Jesus, Peter can start again.
They are the same words Jesus spoke to Peter when he left his boat and nets.
What will make the difference
is the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Romans 5:5 says that the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
It is only the Holy Spirit that makes agape love for God possible.
And if we are not there yet,
then we need more of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
Dear God, we acknowledge how small our love for You is.
We are so sorry for failing to love You as You have loved us,
and for failing to love you to the extent that You have lovingly commanded us.
Please pour Your Holy Spirit into our hearts afresh.
Fill us with agape love for You, and for each other. Amen.