WHAT IT MEANS TO LOVE JESUS
Topic: Sunday Morning Messages Passage: John 21:15–21:25
“WHAT IT MEANS TO LOVE JESUS”
We come this morning to the closing verses of the Gospel of John. Consistent in purpose with the other three accounts of Jesus’ earthly ministry as recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John is nevertheless unique in the material he has chosen to include in His record.
For example, of the many miracles of our Lord, John has carefully selected seven in order to demonstrate that Jesus was God incarnate—the eternal Word come to earth and veiled in human flesh. He has also recorded seven “I AM” statements of Jesus, which supported His claim to being the One sent to reveal God, to expose sin, and to call all to repentance and faith.
Surrounding these seven “signs” and seven “sayings” are a number of private interviews where Jesus challenges the false religious assumptions of others and in which He claims to be the one and only way to the Father. As one might expect, such assertions created much controversy and opposition among those in positions of authority, especially those who were among the religious elite. In fact, so deep was their hatred for Him that they conspired to put Him to death. They would see to it that His ministry would be short-lived.
What they were unable to realize is that they were playing right into God’s hands, because this Jesus was none other than “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He was born to die in fulfillment of God’s glorious plan to redeem a people for the sake of His name...a people who would worship and serve Him and sing His praises forever.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ stands at the pinnacle of human history. No event is more significant. The truly sad thing is that most people miss it. In the final verse of chapter 20(:31), John tells us that he wrote about Jesus so that we “may have life in his name.” Of a truth, there is no “life” apart from Jesus. To know Jesus—to really know Him—is to love Him. Loving Jesus is a gauge of our faith, and it is also an indication of whether we truly possess eternal life.
But what does it mean to love Jesus? What does it look like? I believe that these final verses of John’s Gospel provide some answers for us to consider.
You recall that Jesus had surprised seven of His disciples by unexpectedly showing up one day at sunrise along a beach. They had been out on the Sea of Galilee fishing all night and had caught nothing. Not quite able to recognize that the One calling to them from shore was Jesus, they heed His fishing advice to cast their net of the other side of the boat. To their utter amazement the net was filled with fish in a matter of minutes. It was then that John realized that the unrecognizable Stranger was Jesus.
Peter was the first out of the boat, followed by the others who rode their way to shore. There on the beach Jesus had begun preparing breakfast for them. We resume the story in John 21:15. Please follow along in your copy of the Scriptures as I read:
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 23 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
24 This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.
25 Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
The discussion which takes place between Jesus and Peter in the first several verses of this passage establishes the theme for the rest of the chapter. Three times Jesus asks Peter the soul-searching question, “Do you love me?” May I propose that it is the question that He asks of us all. But how are we to respond? Based upon this text, I suggest to you, first of all, that...
Loving Jesus means responding to His call (21:15-19).
Much has been made of the fact that there are two different words for “love” in this passage, which has led to a number of interesting interpretations. What often goes unnoticed are the other plays on words that are found in verses 15 through 17.
For example, there are distinctions between other pairs of words such as “feed” and “tend,” or “lambs” and “sheep.” And as with “love,” there are also two different words for “know” in this passage. Admittedly, there may be some meaningful significance in the variations, but rather than speculating over uncertain nuances or attempting to read the minds of the speakers, you and I should simply let the text speak for itself. As has been said many times in the science of biblical hermeneutics, “When the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense or you’ll have nonsense.”
Breakfast has now ended and Jesus appears to have pulled Peter aside for a stroll along the beach. As they walk together, our Lord asks him a direct and personal question: “Simon Peter, do you love me more than these?” HisThe question hinges on the word “these.” There are at least three possible ways that Jesus’ question may have meant for His question to have been understood. The first is, “Peter, do you love Me more than you love these reminders of your former life (i.e., the sea, your fishing business, etc.)?” A second is, “Do you love Me more than you love these other men?” (i.e., your friends and fishing partners). And the third, which is preferable to the other two is, “Do you love Me more than these other men love Me?” (i.e., is your devotion to me greater than theirs?).
It may seem like a strange question for Jesus to have asked, but He didn’t just pull it out of thin air. It is actually born out of something that Peter had said a few weeks earlier when Jesus had announced to the Twelve that they would soon abandon Him and that He would be taken from them in death. You recall on that occasion that Peter had vowed his loyalty to the Lord, saying, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (cf. Matthew 26:33). Within a matter of hours, rather than demonstrating a love he thought greater than what he believed to be true of the other disciples, Peter would have to eat His words when he denied Jesus not once or twice, but three times. Neither his self-reliance nor His best intentions were sufficient for the challenge he faced.
Now as they walked the beach in the early morning of a new day, Jesus would ask of Peter three times. “Do you really love Me to the extent that you thought you did? Are you truly devoted to Me more than these other men are?”
With each of his responses, Peter answered in the affirmative. Granted, the Greek text employs two different words for love in Jesus’ question (“αγαπαω”) and Peter’s answer (“φιλεω”), but we should remember that the original conversation likely took place in Aramaic, where (as in English) the distinctiveness of meaning is not all that clear. The point of the passage is not with the change of verbs, but with the number of times Jesus posed the same question...as if to say, “Peter, are you sure that you love Me?”
In response to Peter’s threefold denial, Jesus asks His question three times with the intention of thoughtfully drawing out from this impulsive disciple three affirmations of faith. “Peter, do you love Me?” “Peter, do you love Me?” Peter, do you love Me?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” With each of Peter’s replies, Jesus issues a command that carries a metaphor we wouldn’t expect. When they first met and the Lord called Peter and the other fishermen, He had said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (cf. Matthew 4:19). It was a figure of speech with which they would have well been familiar. But here the word-picture shifts from “fishing” to “shepherding.” “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus’ commands to Peter should not be construed as “penance,” He is not saying, “You let me down three times, Peter, so now here are three things I want you to do to make up for it.” Instead, the Lord is breaking Peter down and showing Him the impotence of the flesh when it comes to denying self and obeying and serving God. No matter how strong our willpower, we stand in need of God’s gracious enabling.
What did Peter know about caring for sheep? Nothing! And yet this is the charge that Jesus gives him. Clearly, the Lord was giving this disciple a new purpose as well as a new identity. In John 10(:11) Jesus had identified Himself as “the good shepherd...(who) lays down his life for the sheep.” The task to which He was now calling this disciple would be one that would follow the example Jesus Himself had set and to complete the work He had been sent to do.
Jesus explains the difficulty of that assignment in verses 18 and 19, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out you hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” By the time John recalled and recorded Jesus’ words, Peter had been dead for at least fifty years, so his parenthetical insertion here is to inform us that the disciple’s martyrdom came as no surprise. Jesus had predicted it...and Peter’s acceptance of Jesus’ call was like signing his own death warrant. He understood that every day of his life from this point forward he must “bear his...cross” (cf. Luke 19:27).
The command to “Follow me” was also a reminder of Jesus’ original call. By reissuing it, Jesus was reassuring Peter that their relationship had not been severed. Instead, it had been confirmed, and from now on it would be understood with greater clarity.
Years later, a seasoned Peter would extend a similar charge to the next generation of spiritual shepherds with these words: “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness o the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed; shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:1-4).
To every believer from then until now, Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” It is a question that will come to us repeatedly so that you and I will arrive at the place where Peter had to be. At times, like Peter, we will “grieve” over our Lord’s persistence in having us examine and evaluate the depths of our devotion to Him. May we, however, view His probing as a means by which to spur us forward to a greater recognition of our dependence upon Him as we seek to maintain a faithful life of commitment and service.
Loving Jesus means responding to His call, but as we see further in verses 20 through 23...
Loving Jesus means submitting His will (21:20-23).
Committing oneself to Jesus is more than a passive decision. To “follow” Him requires an active pursuit of His will. As their walk and conversation continued, Peter noticed that John was following and was within earshot of them. Peter and John are seen together frequently in John’s Gospel. No doubt they were close friends. Peter had received his “marching orders” from the Lord, so now he is curious about his friend. “Lord, what about this man?” he asks.
Jesus’ reply is abrupt and to the point. “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” And then He repeats, “You follow me!” John offers his own explanation in verse 23 when he writes, “So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple (that is, John) was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’”
The emphasis is pretty clear. Jesus is telling Peter—just as He says to each of us—that one’s obligation is with his own spiritual life and progress, and not with someone else’s. No one rides on the “coattails” of another in terms of spiritual matters. We are each responsible and accountable for ourselves...our own obedience, our own commitment to the will of Christ.
It is believed that John may have written this section in order to correct an error that had circulated throughout the 1st-century church that as long as he lived Jesus’ return remained imminent. Our Lord’s response to Peter seems instead to suggest that John would not die the same kind of death that Peter would. Tradition says that Peter died by crucifixion (some believe upside down) in the mid-60s AD, whereas John lived to a ripe old age and, according to John Fox’s Book of Martyrs, “was the only apostle to escape a violent death.” It is believed that he lived well into the 90s and in his latter years wrote all five of the New Testament books that are attributed to him.
The only reason that John’s ministry would extend another thirty years beyond Peter’s was because the Lord willed it to be so. Each of us comes into this life with a providentially-set countdown clock placed within us. Throughout our lives we are aware of the date of our birth, but none can predict the date of his or her death. We will not die one day sooner and live one minute longer than what God has ordained for it to be. Our lone responsibility in this regard is to be ready.
That is true for Christians and non-Christians alike. The Scriptures reveal that “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (cf. Hebrews 9:27). Our only safeguard in this life and in the life to come is yield to the will of the Lord, which means regularly repenting of sin and continually trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Toward the end of his life, in anticipation of Jesus’ return, Peter wrote that “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (cf. 2 Peter 3:9).
Loving Jesus means responding to His call, and it also means submitting to His will. There is one further thing that comes out of this passage to which we must pay careful attention. Verses 24 and 25 remind us that...
Loving Jesus means testifying to His Word (21:24-25).
It is the opinion of some that these final two verses were not the work of John, but were added by someone else...perhaps by an elder or group of elders from the church of Ephesus where John served as pastor in his latter years. The manner in which verse 24 is stated could argue for that theory, but John often speaks of himself in the third-person elsewhere in this book. In fact we see that in verse 20 of this passage. Personally, I believe that John did write and leave for us these last two verses. They are his testimony to the trustworthiness of the living Word, Jesus Christ, and the written Word to which he bears witness.
Regardless of who wrote these verses, the implication is straightforward...and that is, the testimony of this Gospel is true and credible. John was an eyewitness to the events of which he wrote and he assures us that his record is an accurate one. Indeed, to question his account would be to call the entire doctrine of inspiration into question (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16). It was the same Peter, the subject of much of this passage, who later wrote, “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (cf. 2 Peter 1:20-21). John’s conclusion is true and trustworthy. You and I can and should believe it.
John did not set out to write a life of Christ, but rather a reliable record of Jesus’ words and works. In his first epistle near the end of the Bible, he began by telling us why his account is a credible one. “That which was from the beginning,” he wrote, “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-3).
But even then, as we read here in verse 25, John’s record was a selective one. “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
We may be tempted to think that John is exaggerating, but let us not be so quick to assume that. If our entire planet were a library encircled with bookshelves that reached to the heavens, it would be unable to house the volumes of material that could be written about our glorious Lord. Not even the Internet contains everything there is to be known about God. After listening in on thirty-five chapters of uninformed theological debate between Job and his friends, the Lord breaks in and asks simply, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4). To which Job replies, “Behold, I am of small account: what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth” (cf. Job 40:4).”
“No one has ever seen God,” John wrote in his prologue to this book, but Jesus Christ “has made him known” (cf. John 1:18). “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Some time after writing his Gospel record, John penned three small letters that are found near the end of the New Testament. In one of them, he left for us these deeply probing and highly applicable thoughts: “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in his love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother who he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:16-21).
Earlier, Jesus had taught His disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (cf. John 15:13). And then He did just that.
Now He asking His Church, “Do you love me?” With sheer honesty, what is our response to Him? “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” We earnestly want to believe that is true, don’t we? But consider this: if Jesus is Lord, then we will be responding to His call, submitting to His will, and testifying to His Word.
So let me ask you individually...
- • Have you responded to His call? As the “Good Shepherd,” Jesus “calls his own sheep by name...(and) the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (cf. John 10:3-4). Have you heard the voice of Jesus calling out to you to repent of your sin and turn to Him in faith? If not, do not say that you love Jesus.
- • Are you submitted to His will? Have you gathered up all of your personal desires and pleasures and laid them at the foot of the cross? Have you surrendered your future plans to His? Are you willing to “follow” Him even if it were to mean the cost of your own life?
- • Are you testifying to His Word? As His Church, we have been charged with the commission of making Him known. Jesus will soon be returning to gather His own unto Himself. It is entirely possible that death may claim us first. If that should happen, are you prepared to face Him? Will you be glad to see His face or will you cower, knowing that you have not been a faithful witness to the Gospel for which He gave His life?
Should you feel convicted by any of these questions, then listen again to what is undoubtedly the most familiar portion of John’s Gospel. Some of you may need to hear it well for the first time: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:16-18).
This is the expression of God’s love for us. Your response is the expression of your love for Him. It is seen in your response to His call, your submission to His will, and your testimony to His Word.
As John concludes his Gospel, he does so by reminding us of Jesus’ final command: “You follow me!” May we allow our Savior’s words to find lodging in our hearts as we prepare to take our next step.