“He who is forgiven much, loves much”

sproulIn 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]

1. R.C. Sproul, John (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust, 2009), 405.

9 thoughts on ““He who is forgiven much, loves much””

  1. Very interesting. I don’t know that I have ever focused on that question in that sense. From Sproul’s perspective, I guess what Jesus was getting at was, “Do you realize that you have been forgiven of something more heinous than these other disciples have been?”

    One other possibility strikes me, which goes to your note that “he wisely chose not to compare his love for Jesus to the others.” Maybe Jesus was testing him in that very sense–“Do you think you love me [read, are devoted to me] more than these others?” In other words, maybe Jesus was checking to see if Peter had learned some HUMILITY from what he had done. If so, then Peter certainly was “wise” in his answer, just affirming that he loved Jesus, and not attempting to compare himself to the others, as he once had.

  2. I too vote for the third reason. I think that Jesus was making sure that Peter had learned from his “sifting”. Jesus had chosen Peter as the Rock upon which he would build his Church. Peter had been groomed for a leadership role. He wanted for Peter to realize the trust that he was placing in him, and the leadership he expected from him.

    1. Dr. Greenlee is a contrarian. None of the five or six evangelical scholars I read before this article believed that Jesus was talking about “things.” Nevertheless, if it’s true that this fishing expedition represented a harmful distraction from the task of disciple-making (as many scholars believe, or used to believe), then that interpretation makes perfect sense. Regardless, it’s certainly true: We need to put Jesus above anyone or anything else.

      I said in my sermon (which I’ll post later) that I believe Jesus (and the Holy Spirit who guided John’s writing) wanted the question to be ambiguous: because, in a sense, all three things could be true.

      Who knows? But it’s an intriguing question.

      1. Not knowing any Greek (or Aramaic), I seem to recall that Jesus changed the word “love” from “agape” in the first two instances to “brotherly love” (don’t know the spelling) in the third. If that is correct, then I think the meaning of “these fishing things” is a less likely construction. (Please feel free to correct me on this.) I think the “more than these other disciples love me” is more logical (even if somewhat problematic).

      2. That’s true: He used the Greek agapeo in the first two instances and phileo in the final one. But, as I learned in my reading last week, Jesus uses agapeo and phileo interchangeably throughout John’s gospel, even when describing Jesus’ love for the Father or vice versa. I don’t think we can read much into that.

        The five or six commentaries I read agreed that “these things” was a possible interpretation.

        But I went to the Candler School of Theology, so I don’t know Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew, either. 🙄

  3. Another crazy discussion is the one on Mark 16: 9-20. For the manuscripts that ended at 16:8, what a question(s) must the readers have had. I’m certainly glad that someone added those verses, too. 🙂

    1. N.T. Wright argues that the manuscript didn’t end at verse 8 originally, that the missing ending was likely destroyed (coming, as it did, at the end of a scroll), but that its ending was very similar to the one in vv. 9-20.

  4. I saw that explanation; that the last page had been destroyed and then reconstructed, but it still makes for another interesting thing to look at when discussing the canon. There is little doubt that it was a “reconstruction” by another hand, and not the hand of St. Mark.

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