Okay, I realize that the title of this blog might be slightly inflammatory. And, I will readily admit that this descriptor of Peter is not my first choice. Unfortunately, that particular first choice would have greatly offended most of my Yiddish, etymologically-wary readers (of whom I have a groys kibets), and was probably even more inflammatory than “weasel”.
However, as controversial as that title is, the reasoning behind my assigning this appellation to the guy Jesus decided to build His church upon is sound. Bear with me – you just might end up agreeing with me.
This morning at Men’s Bible Study we were finishing up the Gospel of John. This meant that we were coming to what I believe is one of the most awkward passages of the Bible. The resurrected Christ is on the shore. Peter, realizing the guy who just scored them a 153 fish catch was Jesus, immediately dove into the lake and swam to shore (one of the reasons it's hard not to love the weasel).
After a fish dinner, Jesus and Peter have a confab. And here’s where things get a wee bit uncomfortable. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Him, and three times Peter answers “Yeah.” Now, before I lose you folks who are saying, “Oh, Steve’s just going to do the Greek agape (true, sacrificial, you-first love) vs. phileo (brotherly, fond of, groovy kind of love) thing again”, don’t bail yet. Stick with me at least until my a-ha moment, then feel free take a powder if you so desire.
The way it reads in the Greek, and thus in our translations, has Jesus asking Peter if he agapes him and Peter finding himself utterly unable to speak that word in return. Seriously, it’s worse than watching Fonzie try to force out the words “I’m sorry”.
Jesus: Peter, do you agape me?
Peter: Yes, Lord, I aga-ga-aga-agaga-phileo you.
Two times we have to witness this awkward scene, as we squirm in our pews. I want to scream out, “Dude, just say the stinkin’ word! You can work out the existential details later!”
Finally, Jesus, tiring of the whole scene, asks Peter if he phileos Him. Peter, excited that Jesus is finally speaking his language, quickly answers in the affirmative.
Now, this is the way I have always preached this. And this is the way I have always heard it preached – Jesus fast-balling agape, and Peter the weasel bunting back phileo. Then, this morning, I had one of those moments that was half inspiration and half duh. And it got me thinking; maybe Peter isn’t such a weasel after all.
When we read our NIVs or NASBs or NLTs or whatever version du jour you prefer, we are reading a translation from the original Greek. The problem is that Peter and Jesus were not speaking Greek. They were speaking Aramaic – a Hebrew derivative that was the common language of Israel. Now, I’m no Aramaic expert, but I do know how to Google. And from what I’ve read today, there appears to be only one primary word for “love” in the Aramaic language, and certainly nothing as finely differentiated as agape vs. phileo.
Thus, that after-dinner parley most likely sounded something like this:
Peter: Yes, Lord, I love you.
In other words, it was just like my English translation told me before I learned enough Greek to mess it up. Peter is getting less and less weaselly by the minute.
The next obvious question is, “Then, what’s up with the Greek version of the events? Was John just stirring up trouble?” Peter himself puts the kibosh on that thought when he writes in 2 Peter 1:20-21, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” These words aren’t John’s; they are the Lord’s.
While the Aramaic word Jesus and Peter used was the same, the Holy Spirit is using the Greek to give us a look into the inner workings of Peter’s heart. Jesus asked him if he loved Him – meaning with a true, sacrificial kind of love. Peter confidently replied that he did love Jesus – a very true statement. But the Spirit lets us know that they’re talking about two different things. Peter’s love wasn’t to the depth that it needed to be. He wasn’t quite ready yet to lay it all on the line for Christ. He only had that phileo-level love.
Now, if I’m going to point my finger at Peter for telling Jesus that he loved Him with a love short of complete sacrifice, then I better be sure to have another finger pointing back at myself. How many Sunday mornings do I sing songs of praise, pledging my undying and completely devoted love to Christ, while in truth my heart falls far short of that mark? How many times have I prayed, fully offering myself to Christ, only to reflect back a week later and realize my spiritual batting average should have landed me on the first bus back to the minors?
So, was Peter a weasel? Yeah. But no more so than I am or any of us are. The beauty of it all, though, is that Jesus loves the little weasels, all the weasels of the world. And He died for us. And He rose again. And He offers us weasels a free gift of a heavenly eternity with Him, where we will be able to finally love Him with a pure, righteous, utterly non-weaselly love.