“Do You Love Me?” 10th April 2016
Readings: Acts 9:1-6
I may have mentioned before but if not, I’m saying now what a wonderful privilege it is for me, or anyone else for that matter, to be standing here doing what we hope is God’s work. Paul said “I have no right to boast just because I preach the gospel. After all, I am under orders to do so. And how terrible it would be for me if I did not preach the gospel! 17 If I did my work as a matter of free choice, then I could expect to be paid; but I do it as a matter of duty, because God has entrusted me with this task. 18 What pay do I get, then? It is the privilege of preaching the Good News without charging for it” (1 Corinthians 9:16-18 GNB).
Of course most, if not all, of God’s people are performing tasks to His pleasure and, accordingly, they will reap their reward in the next life. In Revelation Jesus told John “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.” (Revelation 22:12). But of course that’s not why any of us do the things we do. We do it for the pure joy of working for God.
In the story we’ve just heard, imagine the shock for Peter of seeing Jesus again in the flesh. Peter would have remembered with great sorrow, how he’d taken the coward’s way out and, before his Master’s crucifixion, denied three times that he even knew Him, which of course Jesus had predicted. In our Gospel reading, it was obviously distressing that Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him. Most people probably believe the reason for that was, because Peter denied Jesus three times, He was getting Peter to make up for that by avowing his love for Him three times. And there is nothing wrong with that explanation. But there might be others.
Throughout our modern world, the most commonly understood language is English. That wasn’t the case in the time of Jesus. Then the most commonly used language was Greek. Not being a Greek scholar, I always read that Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him and Peter replied three times that he did. In all six of these instances the English word “love” was used. But the original Gospels were not written in English but in Greek. In that language, in these six instances the same word wasn’t used
Remember the last time I spoke about sexual attraction giving us an all-over tingly feeling that was just common sense leaving the body. Well the conversation between Jesus and Peter wasn’t about that kind of love. I also spoke about us needing to love others who did things we found abhorrent. The way we naturally feel about a person like that has nothing to do with God commanding us to love them. We might feel disgust; struggle to comprehend such behaviour; or even feel hatred for the individual. God doesn’t want us to demonstrate any of those.
When Jean and I became Christians we were so very fortunate in having excellent mentors. Perhaps that’s the reason that early in our learning we came across the term “agape” love. This is a unique kind of love that’s different from any other. A song we heard way back then was “Love is not a feeling but an act of the will.” That about sums it up! So the kind of love God wants us to have for others has, like the song, nothing to do with our feelings.
Agape love is based on action and not feelings. Remember last time I also spoke about loving our enemies. It didn’t mean that we should feel loving towards them as we might a family member or a good friend. An example in the Old Testament was that if anyone saw an ox or donkey wandering off that belonged to an enemy, they should take it back, even though the owner was their enemy (Exodus 23:4, 5). They didn’t have to feel good about them but they had to obey God in how they dealt with them. In the New Testament, they were even told “… love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Luke 6:35 NIV).
So agape love isn’t based on feelings but on obedience. God gave His Son’s life to save us (John 3:16). He didn't feel good about that, He did it because of His agape love for us. John wrote that Jesus laid down His life for us through obedience to God (1 John 3:16). Again, this was agape love. In Greek, there are several words for different kinds of love. One of them is Phileo. This kind of love is like you might have between close friends or relatives. Don’t worry too much about the pronunciation of these as, if you go on the Internet, you’ll hear different ones from different people. Walter A. Elwell wrote about these differences thus:
PHILEO: This Greek word for love signifies, “…spontaneous, natural affection, with more feeling than reason” (Elwell, p. 1357). Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance defines phileo as, “to be a friend to…fond of an individual or object; having affection for (as denoting attachment); a matter of sentiment or feeling”.
AGAPE: This Greek word for love is by far the one that appears most frequently in the New Testament. It is, “…generally assumed to mean moral goodwill, which proceeds from esteem, principle, or duty, rather than attraction or charm… [it] means to love the undeserving, despite disappointment and rejection…Though agape has more to do with moral principle than with inclination or liking, it never means the cold religious kindness shown from duty alone, as scriptural examples abundantly prove” (Elwell, p. 1357). Baker Encyclopaedia of the Bible. Walter A. Elwell, ed. Baker Book House, 1988.I think the last bit means that we don’t only do what God commands because it’s our duty, but because we love to do it and it’s our desire to do it.
9.00 only: At the 10.30 service we’ll be singing a song you may well know called “Amazing Love”. I think that’s a perfect example of agape love because such love really is amazing. The Son of God gave His life so that we might live.
10.30 only: So I think that a perfect example of agape love is the song we sang earlier — Amazing Love. Because that’s what it is — amazing. The Son of God gave His life so that we might live.
Agape love goes against all of our natural, human-based emotions. One of the strongest, if not the strongest, natural response to a situation, in which human beings might find themselves, is self-preservation. Other things like, food, shelter and protection all come under this umbrella of preserving our own lives. But Jesus, in His agape love for us, didn’t think of any of these. Jesus was agape love personified.
So, to get back to our Gospel reading. let’s have another look at the six times the word love was used between the Lord and Peter. The first twice Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him, He was speaking of agape love, wanting Peter’s unconditional, dutiful love. To both of these questions, Peter replied speaking of phileo love, meaning he loved Jesus as a brother or close friend, not a Saviour and Master. The third time Jesus asked using the word philos. This was the reason that Peter was so upset. He realised his mistake and answered using agape - unconditional love or obedience. Although Jesus had called the disciples His friends, He was still their Master. After He’d told them He’d be leaving them He’d said, “Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also” (John 15:20 NIV).
Is it possible to have both kinds of love at the same time? Yes it is. As I said, Jesus called His disciples His friends, they called Him Master. I feel agape love for Jean because she’s my wife and I must, in obedience to God but she’s also my best friend and confidante and so I also have phileo love for her. There are other kinds of love in Greek but I won’t go there.
Is there anyone else to whom we should show agape love? What about foreigners. God said “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt”. (Leviticus 19:34 NIV). We’re well aware of the kinds of problems this can cause a nation but God made one very important stipulation. He said “The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the foreigner residing among you” (Numbers 15:16 NIV). Unfortunately, the former has been enforced here but the latter ignored. This has caused some resentment and concern.
Another contentious thing about the Lord’s conversation with Peter is to what was Jesus referring when He said, “Do you love me more than these others do?” (v 15) That translation in our Good News Bible is one way of looking at this. But in the Greek, Jesus only asked, “Do you love me more than these?” as in the NIV. He could have used a very specific word for these, which would have made things clear, but He didn’t.The Greek word He used for “these” wasn’t specific and so could have had at least three different meanings.
It could have meant, as the Good News Bible reads, “Do you love Me more than these do?” meaning the other disciples. But how could Peter have known the answer to that. That’s why he said “Lord you know everything” In other words, only You know the answer to that. I suppose a possible pointer to this explanation is if Jesus was referring to the fact that none of the other disciples had denied Him. That would have upset Peter.
Or perhaps He was asking Peter if he loved the other disciples more that he loved Jesus, perhaps gesturing toward them? Unlikely because the whole Gospel speaks of the love all of them had for Jesus. How could they have loved anyone more than Him?
Or what about if He said, “Do you love me more than these”, perhaps pointing to the boats and nets? In which case, he wouldn’t have needed to use a specific word for “these”. A clue to this is that Jesus addressed Peter not with the name He’d given him but the name he’d had before he met with Jesus – Simon, son of John. Impatient at Jesus’ delay in meeting the disciples and dismayed by his own failures, Peter had impulsively decided to return to being a fisherman and said, “I’m going fishing” and the others joined him (v 3).So, what can we learn from Peter’s conversation with Jesus on this occasion? It was vital that Peter didn’t just have brotherly love for Jesus as he naturally had but that he also had agape love. Why? Because Jesus was giving him responsibility for the entire flock. On Peter Jesus was going to build his church on earth. (Matthew 16:18). Therefore his love for Jesus had to be completely unconditional.
And that’s how our love for Jesus should be. Yes, we sing “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” but that doesn’t pass the test. Do we doubt that Jesus wants our love to show our obedience to Him? What does He answer when asked what is the greatest commandment? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). It’s impossible to love more than that. And what does Jesus say about how our love for Him should be demonstrated? “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.” (John 14:21 NIV)
So, when Jesus asks us, “Do you love Me more than these (money; possessions; watching/playing sports; watching TV; joining in the lifestyles of our non-Christian friends) what do we say? Do we answer as an admirer or a follower; with phileo love or with agape love, in obedience to His wishes?
It would be so easy to think of Peter as a weakling in his faith, having denied Jesus three times in his hour of greatest need. But how would we fare? Of course we pray this would never happen to us but what if we were to find ourselves in the position that so many Christians in the Middle East are living through now, after being invaded by the so-called Islamic State. Many had to make the choice between converting to Islam or death. If we were looking at our fallen comrades and loved ones, who’d chosen to be martyred rather than deny Jesus, and He said, “Do you love me more than these,” what would our answer be? How do we fare even in our simple promises we make to God from time to time? I’m pretty sure most of us let Him down some of the time.
Agape love was the relationship Jesus had with His Father. The most poignant example of this was when, after pleading not to face a horrible death, He said finally, “Yet not what I will, but what You will.”(Mark 14:36 NIV). How often do we say or think that? Unfortunately these days, obedience has certain connotations. People have this thing that if they have to obey something, sometimes even the Law, then someone, somewhere thinks they’re better than they are – in some way of higher standing. We’re brought up to believe that we are as good as anyone else and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it can make us defensive about what we must or must not do. It might be a generational thing. At grammar school, any master’s word was law. If a policeman told us to stop doing something, the response was immediate. If a referee blew his whistle for offside, the whole team didn’t gather round him aggressively and tell him he was wrong.
I suppose it’s easier to grasp the concept if you’ve served in the military or police etc. If someone of a higher rank gave me an order, then it had to be carried out. They weren’t better than me but, in giving me the order, they were taking responsibility for any consequences. Exactly the same applied if I gave an order to someone under my command. This principle was perfectly illustrated when the centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant (Matthew 8:5–10).
I was proud to wear my uniform serving my country, because I was proud of my country and I loved my country — still do, in spite of some of the changes to it. And I’m proud to be serving Jesus because I’m proud of Him and I love my Saviour and Redeemer, who never changes. Paul said ‘Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”’ (1 Corinthians 1:31) Of course he took this from the Prophet, Jeremiah (Jeremiah 9:24). As I said, Jesus was going to give Peter such a heavy responsibility and so had to have his agape, unquestioning love.
There are other times that might require our agape obedience, such as when we’ve been driven to the limit and are about to rant at someone and Jesus asks us “Do you love Me?” Or when we’re about to say something unkind to, or about someone, He says, “Do you love Me?” When we are in a committed relationship and we become a bit more attracted to someone else than we should, He asks, “Do you love Me?” In all these instances and many others, He’s asking if we love him with all of our heart, not only in our words but in our actions as well. We should also bear in mind that each of us has responsibilities not only to those around us but also to Jesus in all that we do or say that we shouldn’t and all in we don’t do or say that we should.
The lesson here is that before we do or say anything we should imagine our Saviour asking “Do you love Me?” Amen.
Hear/read this sermon on
There are many ways in which we can “deny” Jesus in our daily lives, a few of which are mentioned in the sermon at the times when Jesus says, “Do you love Me?” In what other situations might we imagine this kind question from Jesus?
Have you ever faced meeting someone whom you have really let down by something you’ve done/said/not done/not said? How did you handle the situation? What was the outcome? Might you have handled it better? If so, how? Any saints present can make one up.
Do you feel proud enough of your Saviour to tell someone about Him? How did it work out the last time you did?
As Jesus had to make sure that Peter was fully committed have you ever been in a situation that required you to be totally committed or in which you needed someone else’s complete dedication?