In my sermon last Sunday, I spent a lot of time talking about the ambiguity of Jesus’ first question to Peter in John 21:15: ““Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Who or what does these refer to?
All the commentators I read agreed that it could mean one of three things: “Do you love me more than you love these other disciples who are with you?” Or “Do you love me more than you love your boat, your nets, and your occupation?” Or “Do you love me more than these other disciples love me?”
The consensus among scholars I read is that the third interpretation is best (although there’s a sense in which all three meanings are relevant and true). If Peter heard the question in this third sense he wisely chose not to compare his love for Jesus to the others. After all, isn’t that kind of hubris what got him in trouble in the first place? “Even though they all fall away, I will not” (Mark 14:29). Instead, Peter affirmed only that he loved Jesus.
In my sermon, I shared this insight from R.C. Sproul about why he believes Jesus meant the question in the third sense:
My educated guess is that He was asking Peter, “Do you love Me more than the rest of the disciples love Me?” This is why I think that: Jesus taught that “to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little (Luke 7:47b). The corollary is true: he who is forgiven much, loves much. There is a sense in which the depth of our affection for Christ is inseparably related to the depth of our understanding of that which we have been forgiven. Peter understood that of all those surviving he had betrayed Christ more deeply than the rest. Therefore, in being forgiven, restored, and invited back, not only into the fellowship of Christ, but into the ministry of Christ—rather than being dismissed from ministry for the rest of his life for his scandalous transgression—he saw the grace of God more fully than the rest. I believe that was what Jesus was driving at with His question.
1. R.C. Sproul, John (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust, 2009), 405.