THE DEMANDS OF DIVINE LOVE
T. Pierce Brown
About thirty or more years ago I wrote an article entitled, “I Love You But I Do Not Like You.” It was the first one of which I am aware that pointed out the difference between what Jesus asked and what Peter answered in John 21:15-17. Of course I am not the first one who recognized the difference. I simply had not read anything about it in any religious publication. For those who are still not aware of the difference in what Jesus asked and what Peter answered and what difference it makes, we will take a moment to point it out, although that is not the thrust of this article.
Jesus asked, “Lovest (agape) thou me more than these?” Peter responded, “Thou knowest that I love (phileo) thee.” Several Greek scholars seem to see no distinction between the words, but it seems evident that the use of two different words shows some difference. If I understand it properly, Jesus was asking for a commitment of sacrificial love. Peter was making a statement of a feeling of affection. They are different. The kind of love that Jesus demands, even for our enemies, is not an emotion at all. It is a choice of will to sacrifice of what we are and have for the welfare or pleasure of another.
I do not doubt that Jesus would like for us to have a feeling of affection for Him. Most of us probably do not have enough, for we can sing or speak about Jesus dying on the cross for us with no more emotional response than if we were talking about killing hogs. He wants us to show reverence and respect, feel admiration and affection. But the “agape” about which He asked Peter is the kind of love He wants at the very center of our being. If we have the will to sacrifice of what we are and have for His pleasure, then other things will come in the proper place and at the proper time.
So, the first thing we note is that He wants a certain kind of love. The second thing is very similar, but in this passage is emphasized in a different way. He says, “Lovest thou me more than these?” When Alexander Campbell debated Bishop Purcell, Purcell took the position that Jesus was asking, “Do you love me more than the other disciples do?” I think William Barclay takes that position. I do not remember whatCampbell’s reply was, but there are at least three reasons why that is not the correct exegesis of the passage. First, how could Peter know he loved the Lord more than the others did? Can I know whether I love the Lord more than you do? Second, one does not need to know if he loves the Lord more than someone else does. I may need to love the Lord more than I do, but I do not need to try to love Him more than you do. Third, even if he loved Christ more than the other disciples did, it would not be fitting to brag about it and compare his love with the love of others. There is no example of Jesus ever asking a person to make that kind of comparison.
Jesus had already pointed out that a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things he possesses (Luke12:15). He had already said, “He that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew10:37). So He was asking Peter to compare himself with the standard already set up, not to compare himself with someone else. As Paul later said, “But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves are not wise” (2 Corinthians10:12).
The answer to this question, “Lovest thou me more than these?” is probably the key to most of our spiritual successes and failures. Our lives are ruled and directed by the kind of supreme love we have for persons or things. We would not need to teach much on the subject of giving if we can teach people to love God supremely. We would not need to nag people on the subject of church attendance if we can get persons to love Christ properly. We do not have to dwell on the fact that husbands should not beat their wives if we can teach them so that they love the Lord with all their heart, soul, strength and mind. Then they will love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians5:25).
In this story we see that He first demands sacrificial love. Second, He demands supreme love. It must be “more than we love these,” whatever “these” are. If we have not learned how to do that, we should start learning. This kind of love can be commanded, taught and learned. It is not a spasm of the colon or heart or something into or out of which one falls.
Third, there is to be a confession of our love. Probably all who love or want to be loved recognize some value in being told of that love. Occasionally I meet a wife who reports something like this: “When I ask my husband if he loves me, he is likely to reply, `I told you 30 years ago that I love you, and if I change my mind, I will let you know’.” We should gladly tell of our love for the Lord, both to the Lord and to any concerned person. Jesus was not asking Peter in order to find out if Peter loved Him, and how much, for He already knew. He wanted to help Peter to find out. You and I need to know about the extent of our love. What sort of love and how much we have for the Lord is very important. If we discover that we do not love enough, and want to make it grow, there are at least four things that will help in the process.
These apply in all cases of love, whether it is the love a person has for his wife, his parents, his enemies or God. First, one needs to think good things about the other person. These may be good things about what he is, or what he does or has done. Second, say good things about the person. Express appreciation to and about another person for the good he has done. Tell persons you love them, and tell them why. This helps to make love grow. Third, do good for them. Do something that pleases them, or will be helpful to them. Fourth, receive good from them if they offer it. Each of these is important enough for a whole article to be written about it.
There are those who ridicule what they call the “five steps of conversion” and make laughing, sarcastic inquiries about whether a man with four fingers can be saved. For those who do not understand the reference, it relates to people like Raccoon John Smith and others of the Restoration Movement who tried to help persons see and remember the simplicity of the plan of salvation by what they called the “five finger exercise” of using the hand to remember, “hear, believe, repent, confess and be baptized.” However, these shallow critics do not seem to be aware that every step that God ordained is not merely a mechanical step, but has excellent logical, psychological, physiological and spiritual reasons for being included. The plan of salvation is not an arbitrary plan that would have worked just as well if it had been composed of other things, such as “Stand on one foot in the corner for one minute.” Whether we use five fingers or one finger five times, each step is important, and those who make fun of “five steppers” are simply ridiculing God’s plan of redemption.
The thing I am trying to emphasize is that God wants us to confess our faith and love, because there are many values in that confession if done properly. Doing it properly involves more than a mere repetition of a formula, whether it is called “regurgitation” or another reprehensible term. It was good for Peter to be asked to make that confession three times.
The Lord wants more than our love. He wants more than the first place in our love. He wants more than a confession of that love. He wants a demonstration of it. It would take more time and space than is now available to make a proper study of the different expressions used in this passage, but I will mention them for the value of those who want to do extended study of them. Jesus first said, “Lovest thou me (agapas me)?” Peter replied “I love thee (philo se).” Jesus said, “Boske ta arnia mou (feed my little lambs).” The second time, He said, “Poimaine ta probatia mou (shepherd my little sheep).” The third time, He said, “Boske ta probatia mou (feed my little sheep).” Without properly going into detail, we need to know that He wants one who loves Him to demonstrate it by providing nourishment and watching for the general welfare of His lambs and sheep.
The demands of Divine love include our giving specific evidence of the kind of love He demands. It is not enough to feel or speak of love for Jesus himself. It includes His statement in Matthew 25:40, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” There are false teachers that say, “Real love cannot be commanded or demanded, but must be spontaneously expressed. A father who would say to his child, `I only want a striped tie in a green box’ and would reject a spontaneous loving gift of a green bath robe is an arbitrary and wretched father.” Contrary to this false doctrine is the plain statement of Jesus in Matthew 23:36-37 and other places. What they are trying to teach is that if you claim to love God, you can worship with or without instrumental music, or any other way you choose, for you must have freedom to express love spontaneously. But Jesus says, “If a man love me, he will keep my words” (John14:23). So our demonstration of love must be the demonstration He ordained, not some substitute. Note well: this does not mean we can not show our love in other ways, nor that there can not be a spontaneous expression of love. It only means that even if an earthly father says, “I want a striped tie in a green box” it is not a proper expression of love for the child to say, “I am not to be concerned about what my father wants, for I will express my love by giving him a red tie in a blue box instead.” How much more important the principle is with our love for God.
These are some of the demands of divine love. When God loves us enough with the kind of love that involved the giving of His only begotten Son, that love was offered freely. However, a proper response to that kind of love impels us to love Him back with a sacrificial love, with a supreme love, with a confessed love, and with a demonstrated love. It is to be demonstrated according to the expressed will of Him who deserves our love and life. That does not mean the love will not or should not be expressed spontaneously in other ways. It does mean that our spontaneous expression must not be substituted for God’s expressed will. John said, “He that saith I know Him, and keepeth not His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in Him” (1 John 2:4).