Jesus Christ poses two great questions to every believer. They are yours alone to answer. These two questions are not designed to stump us, but to promote growth in Christ's calling to "Follow Me."
Both inquiries were initially asked by Christ and answered by His disciple Peter. One answer would open a door to blessed opportunity, and the other would provide a window to view responsibility. Let's put these two questions side by side to prepare you for giving your own answers.
"Who do you say that I am?"
We find the first question in Matthew 16:13-17. Jesus asked His disciples, "Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?" The disciples blurted out a list of names including John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah and other prophets—i.e., men like them!
But then Jesus narrowed the focus with no allowable wiggle room: "But who do you say that I am?"
Peter, so often quick on the draw, proclaimed, "You are the Christ [i.e., the Messiah—the promised King of the line of David], the Son of the living God." Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven."
Peter hit the proverbial nail right on the head, and was blessed.
But this was only the start of his spiritual education. The Jesus he saw was the Lord of the Bible, the personification of prophecy, but not yet fully understood or embraced as the complete Lord of his life. Perhaps that's where you might be right now. You're stuck and you don't know it. You know who Jesus is but haven't completely surrendered your life into His hands.
Let me be plain: There is a world of difference between knowing who Jesus is and allowing Him to direct your steps. Class was momentarily over for Peter, but there would be another day, another session and another question.
"Do you love Me more than these?"
The second question was asked at the end of Jesus' earthly ministry in John 21. We here find Jesus and Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. A lot has occurred since they first met—years of travel together, miracles, visions of the Master's transfiguration, and Jesus' arrest, death and resurrection.
Now Christ comes to Peter with unfinished business. He asks the second and greater question: "Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?" (John 21:15).
Here the Greek word translated "love" is agapao, meaning a selfless, outgoing love. It seems likely that by "these," Jesus was referring to the other disciples. Thus: "Do you love me more than these others do?" (Good News Translation). This would have reminded Peter of his own words and actions found in Matthew 26:33: "Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble." In his characteristic bravado, Peter had said he would always be there and love Christ when others would not!
And yet, on the evening of Jesus' betrayal, when needed most, Peter denied Him three times. First Peter denied ever personally knowing Jesus (Luke 22:57). Then he not only denied Christ, but all his companions (Luke 22:58). And finally and ultimately, he denied his entire experience with Christ, including his Galilee background (Luke 22:59-60).
It's only after the third denial that the eyes of Peter and Jesus met (Luke 22:61), and he knew that Christ knew he had denied Him three times just as Jesus had foretold. Understood in this light, Jesus' words would be crafted so as not to leave Peter frozen in time dangling as a coward—but rather giving him opportunity to be fully restored as a true follower.
The questioning intensifies
Peter, perhaps taken by surprise by Christ's question, responds with, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." However, in this response Peter did not use the word for love that Jesus did. Instead the word here is phileo, meaning "brotherly affection." Peter was stressing that his was not just a general godly love for Christ as we are to have for all people. Rather, his love for Christ was personal and brotherly. Yet note that he did not exalt himself above the others in his response.
Jesus then tells Peter to channel his stated devotion into serving Him: "Feed My lambs"—His followers (John 21:15). In effect, Peter would demonstrate his stated devotion through His obedience to Christ and love for others.
Yet Jesus goes on to intensify the questioning by asking again, "Do you love Me?" (again the more general term agapao is used). We can imagine a bewildered Peter emotionally retorting, "C'mon, You know that I love you even as a brother" (once again the word phileo is used here instead of agapao).
But Christ has every right to question Peter's motives. After all, his life up to his recent denial justified such concerns!
Peter's religion, like that of so many, has been one of emotion and motion, not surrender and conviction. This kind appears dynamic and can make others appear lacking. But the flame that burns the hottest burns out faster, and Christ was guiding Peter to a spiritual depth and conviction that would have to endure beyond emotion alone. So He had to "turn up the heat" to mold Peter to clearly see himself.
He now tells Peter to shepherd His sheep—to properly care for and lead them—a tremendous responsibility. Was he really up to it?
Then the third probing question (John 21:17) is perhaps the deepest incision and yet the most meaningful, because now Peter is led to the full gravity of Jesus' inquiry. Jesus asks three probing questions for Peter's three previous denials.
Again Christ doesn't settle for superficial answers. He now uses the same term Peter had been using (phileo) in these verses. Essentially He asks Peter, "Are you truly personally devoted to Me as you say?"
Restored to keep following
Peter then appeals to Jesus' judgment, stating: "Lord, You know all things." Peter well understood that his former boasting had been in vain. But now, with his heart opened to Christ's examination, Peter recognizes that he is being given the opportunity to turn things around—to remain faithful.
He then attests again that He does indeed love Christ with brotherly devotion. In contrast to his threefold denial of his relationship with Christ, Jesus has led him to a threefold affirmation of his relationship—one Peter will now be able to show in his service to Christ and Christ's other followers.
Jesus is hereby fulfilling His prophetic promise of restoration given to Peter on the night of His betrayal. He had directly told Peter then: "Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren" (Luke 22:31-32).
And now Peter has returned to Christ with a threefold affirmation of devotion. And Jesus encouragingly tells him, "Feed My sheep"—committing to him both a position of trust and the opportunity to prove himself in it. Thus, in His wisdom Christ has completely removed the cloud of Peter's denial and guilt—as if the scene in the courtyard of Jerusalem had never occurred.
Moreover, Jesus then declares confidence in Peter's faithfulness even to the end of his life, offering a startling and sobering picture of how he would eventually face death: "When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish"—an allusion to Peter's own crucifixion (John 21:18).
The day would come when Peter could not take matters into his own hands as he had long been used to doing. He would be given the honor of dying as his Master.
Then Jesus gave Peter another command: "Follow Me" (John 21:19). In other words, "No matter what, you stay true to the course right behind Me."
Peter was willing, but sobered, and asked in John 21:21, "But Lord, what about this man?"—referring to the disciple John. Jesus replied, "If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me." Jesus put it clearly and bluntly: "Keep your eyes on Me and not others."
What does loving God bring?
As we leave the shores of the Sea of Galilee and face our own lives, let's ask a basic question: What does loving God bring? After all, that is His desire to all whom He bids to "Follow Me," and the response comes solely from each of us.
First, let's appreciate that when we commit our love to God, He will give us an assignment just as He did Peter. He essentially told Peter, "If you love Me, then you will show that love by loving those I will bring into your life."
Jesus earlier declared, "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). Talk is cheap. You may have told God you know and love Him, but how are you working on the assignment end of the relationship?
The spiritual GPS to get from point A to point B in Christianity has one set of guiding principles: "This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you" (John 15:12-15).
Expressing love to God the Father and Jesus Christ is an incredible one-on-one privilege, but it bears with it the responsibility to care for others.
Second, it brings forth sacrifice—ours! Love will always demand responsibility followed by sacrifice. The path of Christianity will always have a cross set before us—perhaps not quite like the martyrdom that awaited Peter, but laying down our lives nonetheless. Before we bear a crown from above, we must bear a cross here below. It will not be a cross of our choosing or timing, but, like the apostle Paul stated, we must be willing to "die daily" (1 Corinthians 15:31).
Third, truly loving God brings acceptance and incredible peace of mind that frees us from worry and envy. Remember Peter's question of "What about John?" Christ basically answered: "Never mind the task I have given another. You stay focused on your personal journey with Me."
When all was said and done, Peter would never be a lofty thinker like John or a cosmopolitan adventurer for the gospel like the apostle Paul, but he would preach what he knew to keep others from falling as he had fallen. He would speak to people as one who had made huge mistakes, one who had even denied his Savior, but one who could be fully restored and put into action on Christ's behalf.
And now as we put this article down and go on with the remainder of our lives, two questions yet face us:
"Who do you say that I am?"
"Do you love Me?"
Don't be surprised when Christ issues to you the same penetrating challenge He gave Peter. Your thoughts, words and deeds will reveal your answers as to whether you remain steadfast in His priceless invitation of "Follow Me."