According to the Gospels, Peter denied Jesus three times. Is this the reason why Jesus asked Peter "do you love me" exactly three times?
Q: "Is there a causal connection between the denial of Peter and Christ's question?"
The first impression, it is a casual connection, and nowhere in the Scripture is any proof text for either ways.
However, the incident of three times question and answer may NOT be just a simple case of “casual connection,” but has some important significance and implication as well:
1. the number “three” in the Scripture is one of the prominent number next to the “seven,” and “it is a number of harmonies, of God’s presence, and of completeness,” according to the study of biblical numerology.
2. in Scripture (OT & NT), “three times” sometimes used as an emphatic triple to describe the intensity and “completeness” of something or action denoting more than a “casual” incident, i.e,
a). God said “3 times”:
- God calls Samuel “3 times” (1 Samuel 3:8).
- Jesus prayed “3 times” on the night (Matt.26:36-56).
- Jesus spoke about “3 -time-denials” to Peter (Matt. 26:34) and ask Peter “3 times” (John 21).
- Angel’s warning - ‘Woe, woe, woe” (Rev. 8:13; 9:12; 11:14) the end of God’s wrath (15:1).
b). People said something “3 times”:
Peter denied “3 times” (Matt. 26:69-74).
God showed the vision “3 times” to Peter (Acts 10:11-16).
Paul prayed “3 times” for the thorn to be removed (2 Cor. 12:8).
Then, what is the implications of “three times” in the context?
First, in consideration of above observations, it becomes evident that Peter’s “three times” denials” was NOT a casual act of lie-out just to evade the awkward moment but was a complete disowning of Jesus:
- He was warned by Jesus of his “denial” but he presumptuously boasted that he would never (Matt. 26:33; Lk. 22:33), yet succumbed to clear and present fears, lost his faith, he so quickly renounced His Master and Savior even using strong and foul languages as if he was NOT a Lord’s disciple.
Second, Jesus’ “three times” questioning was His way of “complete and total healing and restoration” of Peter.
Peter, after a penetrating look from Jesus , he went out and wept bitterly (Lk. 22:61,62). Unlike Judas remorseful yet hanged himself, Peter’s tears were of true sorrow and repent. He did not go his own way afterward, instead, he stayed with the disciples, ran to the tomb of Jesus at hearing the news from Mary, and went to Galilee to wait for Jesus (Matt. 28:10).
But, the “inner wound” -the lingering guilt and shame, low-self-esteem, etc. were still there.
Jesus, the Master Healer, through the “three-time” question and answer session, “totally heals” him of his inner wound. Proved by Jesus moving up to the next step of the re-affirmation of Peter to the office, and Peter answers with a humble heart.
Jesus’ “three times” questions, “Ἰωάννου ἀγαπᾷς με?”, but, now Peter did NOT even dare to answer with the same word Jesus used, ἀγαπάω. Instead, Peter persistently answered “three times” with “φιλῶ σε.” Peter's such response implies Peter’s former self-confidence now eradicated and done away.
And, then Jesus’ by using of the word of commission three times in succession: “feed ...tend ... feed my sheep” (Jn 21: 16-17) reinstated Peter to his office formerly, publicly completely! Jesus confirmed it when He said:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this He said to him, “Follow me.” (Jn 21: 18-19 ESV)
- And Peter lived up to his name “Πέτρῳ,” and answered the call, Ἀκολούθει μοι (Follow me!) with his life dying on the cross upside down- according to the Church tradition.
The “three times” in the context was NOT of just a “casual connection.”
This whole three time incident (plus other incidents in the Bible) also provide an answer to an important and divisive theological question (frequently comes up at a theological debate), as in Q/A after the conclusion.
"Three times" questioning of Jesus to Peter is the reflection of His complete love for Peter and will for restoring Peter, that goes for US too.
Like in the parable in Lk. 15:11-32, the father of the prodigal son never wrote his son off, but waited long enough until his return, and with such gladness restored the son who was lost, and so was Jesus with Peter who deserted Him, and will be same with US as well.
Incidentally, again in the parable, we see the same beautiful "three times" in father's actions - the best robe, a ring, and sandals for his penitent son, and oh, one more, the fattened calf welcome party!
This is what God' love for us all when Jesus said: "God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
- Jesus said, "Forgive 7 x 70 times." But, as the Scripture indicates, ἀγάπη is not a good record keeper of faults/offenses of others (1 Cor. Ch. 13). Furthermore, the Good Shepherd who came to give His life for His sheep, and a new life abundant to His sheep, if His sheep fails 1 (one) time more than 7 x 70, He, more than likely has forgotten His counting, and so will start it all over again for us, as a loving mother does.
This "three time" incident also provides an answer for:
“Does God "erase and rewrite" the names written in the Book of Life every time Believers "sin and repent?”
Peter’s name was NOT. Jesus told Peter after turned again to strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31-32). Peter took hold of Jesus and His word not making a terrible choice.
In contrast, Judas made a choice to leave Jesus forever.
The prodigal son was NOT. The father waited until his return home.
A thief (an Israelite, His own) on the cross was saved at last minute, when he repents and believed in Jesus. (He too at first mocked Jesus -Matt. 27:44, but he accepts Him and Jesus grant him what asked for.(Lk. 23:39-43)
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps. 51:17 ESV)
“The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.(2 Peter 3:9)
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and t cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
"Jesus is "interceding for us" at the right hand of God(Rom. 8:34), NOT denying us right then each and every time we deny Him or sin against the Word!
Three is a number of completeness.
Do not trust in deceptive words and say,
"This is the temple of the LORD,
the temple of the LORD,
the temple of the LORD!"
In Matthew 4, Jesus Is tempted by Satan 3 times in the wilderness.
Three is also the number of finality.
The Good Samaritan story:
- a certain priest
- a Levite
- finally, a Samaritan
The Parable of the Sower:
- Some fell on rocky ground
- Other seed fell among thorns
- Still other seed fell on good soil
Friend, lend me three loaves of bread
The Prodigal Son
- he squandered his wealth in wild living
- he worked to feed the pigs
- Finally he came to his senses and returned to his father
The Coming of the Kingdom
- the days of Noah
- the days of Lot
- the day of the Son of Man
I know of a few considerations on this topic
Peter Denies Jesus
First, in John 18, Peter stands around a fire (ἀνθρακιά) at the house of Annas, the father in law of Caiaphas. It's around this fire that Peter denies Jesus three times. The testing goes like this:
1) The woman [who guarded the gate] said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”
2) They [the slaves and the police] asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.”
3) [A slave of the high priest related to the one who he cut the ear off of] asks, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Again Peter denied it
Jesus Asks Peter
This same name for the small fire of coals appears only here in John 21. The testing of Peter (by Jesus) also happens around the fire.
1) Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love (ἀγαπᾷς) me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you (φιλῶ).” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
2) A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me (ἀγαπᾷς)?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you (φιλῶ).” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
3) He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me (φιλεῖς)?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me (Φιλεῖς)?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you (φιλῶ).” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep."
Here are a few things to not about what I believe is a significant continual polemic against Peter.
- Chapter 21 starts with the disciples getting into a boat, led by Peter, to go fishing. They catch nothing. Is this a metaphor for Peter's leadership in the absence of Jesus? He has them casting off the left (wrong) side of the boat. It's not explicit about "left."
- It is only when Christ shows up and commands them to cast on the other side (e.g. do the opposite of what Peter was leading them in doing) that they caught a multitude of fish (always symbolic of fishing for men in the gospels).
- The testing of Peter, around the charcoal fire, refers back to Peter's denial and he fails again. Each time Jesus downgrades his question. First "do you agape me more than these." Then simply "do you [even just] agape me?" Then finally "do you phileo me?" He has downgraded from agape, the love Christ commanded of the disciples to just phileo. He has come down to Peter's level, but Peter still couldn't even get it.
- The third time, it's like Peter couldn't even hear the request to agape the previous two times. The narrator says "Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love (Φιλεῖς) me?”" But Jesus had said agape the previous two times.
- The narrator progresses from calling him "Simon Peter" (Jn 21:15) to calling him just "Peter" (Jn 21:17). I think this is relevant because Simon means "he who hears" (from the Hebrew verb shema) like Simon of Cyrene (in the synoptics) who hears and is grabbed out of the crowd and forced to carry the cross against his will.
- I think this last point is interesting. Remember the parable of the sower and what happens if seed falls on rock (Petra). "when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away." The text then says that "the seed" is the word of God. It seems that Simon (he who hears) is transformed into "he who is a rock who can't hear and will abandon." Either way, being a rock is no good if someone is going to plant the word in you.
- Finally, take a bit and re-read John 10 and think about Jesus asking him to feed/tend "my" sheep/lambs. In John 10 we have
John 10:11-15, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
Note that Jesus says "my sheep" as if he is "hiring" Peter to be a shepherd who "does not own the sheep." I think this polemic about sheep applies here too.
There is so much more about the primacy of the beloved disciple in this chapter. - Jesus has to tell Peter to "follow me!" twice, but the Beloved disciple is already following. - The Beloved Disciple recognizes Jesus first and informs Peter.
But the final thing that I really get out of this chapter, and that really cooks my noodle is that there is a powerful commentary at the end of chapter 21.
- (John 21:18), "you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go."
This means that John 21 (normally called the Epilogue and thought to be added later) was added after Peter was martyred on a cross (~68AD). This means that the previous parts of John were likely written before 68-70AD making it one of the earliest gospels. The epilogue and some other things (like chapter 15-17) were probably added later for . The epilogue (ch 21) was adding additional information that wasn't present.
But the real crazy thing is the way they describe the controversy around the prophecy of the Beloved disciple and how he'd live forever (John 21:23). This ending section of the epilogue was added because the community had been shocked by a real death that was contrary to their doctrine! This means that there was a real flesh and blood person behind the beloved disciple and that the community believed that he knew Jesus personally!
It is this "hack job" epilogue at the end of John that makes me believe that there was a real author there. It was this scramble to correct a prophecy about their leader that makes me believe that this was not just some dreamed up set of stories. And this "correction" added later helps me believe in the reality and flesh and blood nature of the author (the Beloved disciple) far more than any flat out statement about it could. There is real humanity behind these words!
So it seems like this section is a polemic against Peter after division had crept into the Johannine community. There are many theories about the content of John coming out of the eastern (e.g. Syria) empire while Peter represents the western (Rome) empire.
As far as I am a doubting Thomas, this claim about the "rumor" of the beloved disciples immortality in the epilogue is a kind of wound in the side that helps me to believe that these contents have some significant value and are not cooked up. There was someone that knew Jesus, who this community thought was Primary over Peter, and they thought would live until Jesus returned. And then he died.
Edit: An extended note.
- John 13:23 - the disciple whom Jesus loved (agapaó)
- John 19:26 - the disciple whom Jesus loved (agapaó)
- John 20:2 - the disciple whom Jesus loved (phileó)
Note that there are also three verses featuring the disciple whom jesus loved outside of the chapter 21 epilogue. Of each of these three times, the word "loved" matches the pattern used for peter in chapter 21.
Is that related? Sure. How? No idea. The beloved disciple can't be peter. They are present and described separately and in mutually exclusive language in all cases but at the cross where it is only the BD.