Q. John 21:15-17 records Jesus asking Peter three times if he loves him, Was this Jesus’ way of letting Peter know he was forgiven for denying Him three times?
A. That’s a reasonable interpretation. But John 21:15-17 also contains a fascinating use of words that we miss in the English because we only have one word for love. In the Greek there are four words for love, two of which are used in this passage, and all they have different meanings. In John 21:15 when Jesus first asked Peter, “Do you truly love me more than these?” He used a word that means to be totally given over to someone irrespective of the response. We would call it unconditional love. But when Peter responded, he used a different word for love, one that describes the love one has for a brother.
When Jesus asked the second time it was the same, with Jesus using the greater form of the word and Peter responding with the lesser one.
The third time, Jesus downgraded His expectation and changed His question to use the same word Peter had used, allowing Peter to respond in kind. In John 21:17 Peter said, “Lord you know all things. You know that I love you.” By this, Peter knew that the Lord was aware of his inability to respond unconditionally to God’s love.
From this interaction we learn two things. The first is Peter’s admission that it’s impossible for man to love God with the same intensity that God loves man. The second is that God understands this and accepts man’s weakness.