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.” 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.” 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.” John 21:15-17 ESV
Jesus asked of Peter, not once, not twice, but three times, “Do you love me?” This is the question that tends to make us feel a bit sorry for Peter. Yes, he denied Jesus three times before the crucifixion, but isn’t Jesus rubbing salt in the wound to ask him three times if he loves Him? Three times. Why three? Wouldn’t one time have been sufficient? Did Peter really need three reminders?
I have a hard time believing that Peter needed any reminder with the resurrected Jesus standing in front of him. I suspect Peter’s guilt and shame consumed him. I suspect that Peter remembered every detail of each and every time he denied His Lord. I know I would have. I also wonder if Peter felt unworthy to be used by Jesus. When Jesus first called Peter and his brother He said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). But how could God use a man who had denied him three times?
Their exchange assured Peter, and us, that Jesus could, and would, use a follower who denied Him, but first, He had a gift for him.
Let’s look further: in response, Peter was able to declare, not once, not twice, but three times, that he loved Jesus. And after each response, Jesus affirmed Peter’s mission. First, He replied, “feed my lambs,” then, “tend my sheep,” and finally, “feed my sheep.” With each “Do you love me,” yes, Peter was reminded of his denials, and yes, it was painful, but he was also reminded that not once, not twice, but three times, Jesus had forgiven him. Each sin, each denial, was wiped away, and Peter could be fully restored and freed to be used for God. Jesus concluded the above exchange by echoing the very first words he said to Peter: “Follow me.” (John 21:19) In other words, Jesus gave Peter the gift of a total reset.
Do I love Jesus?
Like Peter, we would benefit from answering this question to our Lord. When I remember how great His gift of forgiveness is—He forgives me not once, not twice, not three times, but over and over again, I am overcome with love for Him. And my love is all that Jesus wants in order to use me to “feed His lambs.”