Preparing the Heart
I have entitled this section “Preparing the Heart” with the expectation that this concept will help you to focus clearly on the four non-negotiable that will be discussed in this and in my book. Fundamental to this focus is our love for Jesus. My concern is that we may not all have an identical perception of love. So, to help us to move to the proverbial “same page,” let’s look at the conversation where Jesus asks Peter about his love for him (John 21:15-17). I have taken some literary license with the account to help capture the mood. You will see a little bit of difference in the verbiage from common translations because I have tried to interpret Jesus’ response in a contemporary fashion, keeping the intent of the original.Rather than just reading the story, let’s do some role playing to see if you can understand how your character feels. You play Peter1. The setting is on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, shortly after the resurrection. You have just enjoyed breakfast and Jesus initiates the conversation:
Jesus:................................ “Peter, do you love me?”
Peter:................................ “Of course I do, Jesus.”
Jesus:................................ “Peter. I mean, do you love me more than these?”
Peter (confidently):.......... “You know I do, Lord!”
Jesus (smiling):................. “Great! Watch over my little ones.”
After a pause, Jesus continues the questioning.
Jesus:................................ “Peter, do you really love me more than these?”
Peter (staring):.................. “Yes Lord, you know I love you!”
Jesus (lovingly):............... “Protect my friends.”
Jesus reaches down and stirs the fire. He looks up.
Jesus (disappointed):........ “Peter, do you even like me?”
Peter (frustrated):............. “Lord, you know everything! You know that I love you.”
Jesus:................................ “Please watch over my little one.”
This exchange between Jesus and Peter gives us the impression that both of them became somewhat frustrated over the conversation. However, there is something going on behind the scene that is not as obvious in the English version of this discussion. The original conversation was recorded in Greek. In English, we have only a single word, love, to translate two different words that were exchanged between Jesus and Peter. You see, the Greeks were very descriptive in their language. In this particular case, there is a level of intensity that is evident in the original. The words for love in this exchange are represented in the Greek by phileō and agapaō. You may recognize the first one. The word Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, comes from this; Phil(ia) = love, Adelphia = brother (brotherly). The word phileō represents a kind of affection that you would show to a close friend or family member. “Phileō is more naturally used for intimate affection (Jn. 11:3, 36; Rev. 3:19), and of liking to do things which are pleasant (Mt. 6:5).”2
The second word is much more intense. Occasionally, in classical Greek, it is used for the highest and noblest form of love which sees something infinitely precious in its object.3 Ninety-five percent of the time, this word was used in the Greek Old Testament to translate the Hebrew terms for love. It represented the love of God. This concept agrees with the classical concept of affection towards something “infinitely precious.”
Just by way of comparison, the Greeks had a third word that is associated with love. It is the term eros from which we have erotic. We understand the nature of this to be confined to the sexual. Hollywood has done an excellent job elevating this concept to the highest level of love. In our culture, it is hard to think of love without this connotation.
OK, back to Jesus and Peter. If you are familiar with John’s accounts of the trials of Jesus, then you probably remember that he is the only writer who included Peter denying his master three times (John 18:17, 25, 27). Is it coincidental that “he must now own him as his Lord, whom he loves?”4 This may not be a coincidence. In fact, this could be a public reinstatement. This is based on Jesus initial question to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” To what is Jesus comparing Peter’s love for him? What or who does he mean by these? Is he asking Peter if he loved him more than the other disciples? Possibly, Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him more than fishing. However, this seems to be directed more to the idea of measuring Peter’s love against the love of the other followers.5 After all, they hadn’t publicly denied Jesus. So Jesus is asking Peter to compare himself with those who did not deny Jesus.
Now maybe we haven’t denied Jesus publicly like Peter did but that doesn’t mean that this question is inappropriate for us. You see, both Jesus and Peter have understood the Old Testament background for the level of love that Jesus wanted. This love is embodied in the concept of covenant. After all, God had demanded that they love him with all their heart, soul, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5). This command was based directly as a response to God’s nature: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
What would motivate Peter to move from denial to public confession in the small group and then on to an open demonstration on the day of Pentecost? Ultimately dying for Jesus, what changed him? It was the resurrection; Jesus is now the conquering King. Allegiance to Jesus is now dominating Peter’s love.
Of course, we do not see that full allegiance yet. After all, in this conversation he reluctantly uses the word phileō rather than agapaō that Jesus had used. That is, Jesus used agapaō until the third question when he changed to Peter’s less intense word for love. Peter had to go through the same process that you and I must go through in regard to Jesus. We might connect it back to those feelings when we first realized that there was someone special in whom you are interested. First, you like them. But then like grows into something else — puppy love! It is at this level of love that the conversations increased and time spent together is used to get to know each other in a much deeper way. Finally, the big day arrives, and you say it: “I love you!”
Unfortunately for Peter and Jesus, they had a bit of a rough spot. Jesus was on trial and based on what he had already told his disciples, they knew it would end with his death (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33). Fearing the loss of Jesus caused Peter to doubt his impressions of who Jesus was.6 It was these impressions that had set the motives for his love. Now that Jesus had demonstrated that what he had said about his resurrection was a reality, Peter was reshaping his thinking.
As with Peter, we too must examine our motives for loving Jesus. How pure are the motives that drive our love for Jesus? You see, love as an emotion is not always free from impure motives. It is possible to love only for what you will receive from Jesus? I’m convinced that if I asked one hundred Christians why they love Jesus, the most common response would be, “because he saved me.” Think about it a minute. Could that border on narcissism? It would seem that this response makes our love for Jesus into love for what he has done for us. In other words, our love would be for the benefit we received and not for his sake alone! The biblical response is more appropriate: “We love because he first loved” (1 John 4:19). I am convinced that this is the only pure motive for loving Jesus.
Of course, the demonstration of that love is his death on the cross (Romans 5:8). However, as we shall see in the chapter on the Gospel, that this emphasis (salvation) is actually displaced by the effect of transferring us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the Beloved Son (Colossians 1:13). Just as a teaser, you will learn in the chapter on the Gospel why Jesus forgives our sins. You may be surprised. (Hint: heaven is not the primary reason!) Oops! I may have told you too much. No fair jumping ahead to that chapter. You just have to wait because there are some crucial issues we must discuss first.
1 If you’re reading this book by yourself you have to play both parts. However, if there happens to be someone nearby who will help you Jesus part, it may be more beneficial. Either way, try to read it with some expression as if you were “trying out for the part.” You see, in reality you need to have this conversation with Jesus.
2 F. H. Palmer, “Love, Beloved,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 701.
4 William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, vol. 2, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 486.
5 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 675–676.
6 Imperato will contend that the response of the apostles is driven by their understanding of the term “Christ.” This issue will be discussed more in the next chapter. (Robert Imperato, Portraits of Jesus: A Reading Guide (Lanham: University Press of America, 2008, 3)