One thing that’s always intrigued me about John 21 was what Jesus meant by His question to Peter: “Do you truly love me more than these?” (verse 15).
The most common interpretation is that Jesus was asking: “Do you love Me more than the disciples do?”—given that Peter had once boasted of his love for Jesus. But there are difficulties with this interpretation. First, when Peter said he would never disown Jesus, all the other disciples said the same thing; not just Peter. Second, Peter answers, “Yes.” It seems unlikely at this point that Peter would answer “Yes” if Jesus was asking, “Do you love Me more than the other disciples do?”
Another suggested interpretation is that Jesus was asking Peter if he loved Him more than “these things”—perhaps the fishing gear and the greater life of fishing. Fishing, after all, had been Peter’s longtime ambition and identity; and he seemed to have a hard time letting go of his former life and all that it entailed. For the first year or two he had been with Jesus, Peter had been only a part-time disciple. He continued to work at what appeared to be a successful fishing business.
In fact, it was while Peter was at work one morning that his new rabbi acquaintance finally seemed to get his full attention. As Peter was rowing in from a long night of fishing, Jesus stood teaching on the lakeshore. Jesus told Peter to row back out into the lake—to “put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4). Peter obliged, and when his nets began to break with fish, he reacted in an interesting way: “He fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’” (verse 8). Peter’s guilt-filled response may have meant that he had drifted in his young relationship with Jesus, even to the point of apostasy. After all, why was he still out fishing all night—and probably sleeping all day—when he could have been ministering with Jesus?
Indeed, this may have been the larger story of Peter’s life. Given the close proximity of the traditional site of Peter’s house to the local synagogue, it’s possible that Peter was born to be a spiritual leader but had rejected this calling; perhaps to pursue his own ambitions.
The driving issue in Peter’s life wasn’t how he stacked up against the other disciples. The issue was how his plans stacked up against Jesus’ plans. This was his biggest point of weakness. Jesus knew this, and it’s why He told Peter at the Passover meal: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31, 32).
The third time Peter denied that he was a disciple of Jesus, Jesus Himself “turned and looked straight at Peter” (Luke 22:61). The Greek word for “looked straight at” is emblepo. This same word is used to describe the way Jesus looked at Peter when they first met at Galilee. It means to see with the mind, to understand. And what Jesus saw in Peter—blended with all the chaff of pride, selfishness, and personal ambition—was the grain of faith.
Again at Galilee when Jesus asked, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” (John 21:15), I believe He was specifically asking: “Do you truly love Me more than you love these fish?” The strongest evidence for this comes from the text itself. Just before Jesus says, “Do you truly love me more than these?” He says, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught” (verse 10). When Jesus said “these,” He was likely referring to the fish He had just asked the disciples to bring to Him. He wanted to ask Peter about them. Given the location and Peter’s background, this makes perfect sense.
Here, on Peter’s home turf, Jesus wanted to give him a chance to demonstrate his growth. And what better way than to give to the self-declared former disciple what had once been his dream: a net teeming with fish? Jesus wanted to ask Peter about fish and everything they represented.
“Simon son of John,” Jesus says, “do you truly love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he says, “you know that I love you.”
Simon finally got it. And he departed the shore as Peter.
Andy Nash is a journalist and lay pastor. This piece is excerpted from his new book, Paper God: Stumbling Through Failure to a Deeper Faith. This article was published October 14, 2010.