Beneath the Surface
In Matthew 26:30, Jesus and His disciples traveled to the Mount of Olives, where He made two grim predictions. First, He predicts that all the disciples would fall away that night. Peter disagreed, prompting the second of Jesus’s predictions: “Truly I say to you that this very night, before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” Peter again disagreed, pledging his life to Jesus along with the other disciples. Shortly following these courageous commitments, all the disciples fled, and Peter did, indeed, deny Jesus three times (Matthew 26:69-75).
Peter recognized he had betrayed his commitment to the Lord, and it stung him. Following Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection, Peter returned to his fishing boat with some of the other disciples (John 21:3). In the morning, Jesus shared a breakfast of fish and bread with them, asking Peter specifically, “Do you love Me more than these?”
After committing himself to die with Jesus, Peter denied Him and returned to the fish. Jesus addressed the contradiction between Peter’s words and actions with this simple, easily answered question. To whom was Peter dedicated? To Jesus, or the fish? To Jesus, certainly.
In the same way that Peter had denied Jesus three times, Jesus asked him three times, “Do you love Me?” The third time was grievous to Peter, perhaps reminding him of the look he shared with the Lord as He was being taken for torture and execution (Luke 22:61). Jesus and Peter were both aware of the denials and the number of them. Both would have associated these repetitive questions with the ones that prompted the denials that night.
When Jesus asked Peter the first and second times, “Do you love Me,” Peter responded with a different word for love. The third time Jesus asked, He inserted Peter’s word in place of His own. Beneath the surface of the question, Jesus was asking another. Jesus was asking Peter, “Can I trust what you say? Will you keep your word to Me?”
The message Jesus gave to Peter was communicated beneath the surface. There was more being said than the words that were spoken. Jesus needed Peter to come back, to recommit himself to the kingdom of God with the vigor that had come to define his character. Jesus was helping Peter to walk the path back to discipleship. That help did not require a public recollection of Peter’s denials; they were constantly on Peter’s mind. Peter had once committed himself to die for Jesus, and in John 21:18, Jesus prophesied that, indeed, he would. Jesus followed this prophecy with a two-word command phrase: “Follow Me!”
Peter was wounded by his guilt, and through carefully selected words spoken with love, Jesus bandaged those wounds and helped him walk upright in spirit once again. May all Christians endeavor to speak words like these that would heal the wounded soul and set them once again on the path to godliness.