Most of us have heard, at one time or another, this passage from Scripture. But many of us may not know what it means. Why did Christ repeat the same question three times? Wasn’t he satisfied with the first answer?
The hidden meaning of this passage becomes extremely clear in the Greek original. Greek had four words for Love: Agape, Eros, Philia, and Storge. Each word for love had its own unique meaning behind it. Agape was perfect, pure, selfless Love, the highest possible form of Love. Eros was more romantic desire, from which we get our word Erotic. It was a form of Love solely romantic, which in many cases turned into pure lust rather than Love. Philia was a form of Love for friend, or a close comrade. Storge was the Love of a family member.
Now, when we read the passage in Greek, armed with our knowledge of Greek types of Love, what do we see?
Christ asks Peter: “Peter, do you Agape me?”
Do you perfectly love me? Selflessly? Totally?
And what can Peter say? He has recently abandoned Christ to his death, and denied Christ three times to save himself. He loves Christ, but he is too overcome by shame to say that his Love is selfless and perfect. So he responds:
“Lord, you know I Philia you.”
“Lord….I love you as friend.”
So Christ asks him again: “Simon Peter, do you Agape me?”
Christ shows him that the difference has not passed him by. And Peter again says: “I Philia you Lord”
Then, for one final time, Christ asks him: “Simon Peter, do you Philia me?”
Christ accepts the limits of Peter’s weakness, and therefore, in a step reminiscent of his incarnation, he brings himself to a weak human level. Peter is conscious of his weakness, and saddened by it. He tells Christ: “You know all things. You know that I Philia you.”
By his three professions of Love, as weak, as imperfect as they are, Peter has expiated his three denials of Christ. This shows us the great mercy of God, who is willing to forgive Peter, who brings to God only part of the Love he wishes he could. God shows us that our contrition need not be perfect, nor our Love complete. We have only to go to him with what little we have, and God in his infinite goodness shall provide the rest.
Perhaps we are struggling with a sin, which we commit over and over again, and we simply feel like we have offended God past the point of forgiveness. Or perhaps we feel that our Love for God is totally incomplete and inadequate. (Which it probably is.)
But God knows this. He knows we are weak, fallible beings, and he has truly infinite mercy upon us. Just try your hardest, and pray for his daily grace, that you may overcome the weaknesses which so overpower you, and he will provide.