By Kathi Pelton
“If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” Matthew 16:25
There are so many things that we try to hang onto— afraid to lose what we think that we need. We are living in a time that shouts, “Protect your life! Protect what belongs to you.” We need to exercise such discernment and we need the wisdom of God to navigate these days. I fully admit that after the death of my brother in late January (from the virus) that I spent a good two months pulling back— mostly to grieve but also because I watched him suffer so much that I had to work through some very real fear. There was an element of trauma that it left on my soul. I began to hesitate and count the cost— which was shocking and even disheartening to me.
I began thinking about when Jesus was arrested and Peter was gripped by a very real fear of losing his life— he ran through the streets in panic and confusion trying to get as far away from the threat as possible. When asked if he was a disciple of Jesus, he denied even knowing him— why? Because of the fear of losing his life. And yet the result of denying him probably brought more pain and agony than if he had given up his life. He was deeply grieved and disheartened by what he had done.
I am always so moved by Jesus’s response to Peter the first time they came face to face after his resurrection. While Peter had returned to fishing (for fish rather than men) Jesus waited for him to return to the shore as he cooked breakfast. After the meal he asked Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
He calls him Simon rather than the name he gave him, Peter— why? Possibly because in Peter’s shame and facing the death of Jesus he had returned to his old identity. He returned to boats, nets and fish. Therefore, Jesus is about to call him back to his true identity and purpose. He begins by addressing his old identity as “Simon, son of John.”
He asks him three times if he loves him— the same amount that Peter had denied him. Each time Peter answered with, “Yes Lord! You know that I do.” Then Jesus exhorts him, “Tend my sheep.”
The interesting fact, that is not well understood, is that when Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” He is using the Greek word for love, “agape.” This is the highest form of love. Yet, when Peter responds to him saying, “You know that I love you.” He uses the Greek word, “phileo,” which is a brotherly love that is more conditional (lesser form of love).
The third and final time that Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, he also uses the “phileo” form of love. When Jesus does this, Peter realizes that the Lord is revealing that Peter has loved him with a conditional love that has wanted to maintain his life. The Lord once again responds with, “Shepherd my sheep.” Why? Because a true shepherd will lay down his life in agape love for his sheep.
Jesus is not condemning him but revealing to him that his “brotherly or human love” could not do what needs to be done or even live in a way that will do what Jesus has just done— lay down his life for his sheep.
The phileo love could not support a “life laid down.” Like Peter, many of us have had to come to the end of our human love, strength, and even our beliefs that we will never shrink back. It is here, in this place of weakness and failure, that we can ask the Spirit to let his agape love flow through us and have victory over our phileo love. This is a work of the Spirit, who restores our true identity, our call and our hearts.
As we know, in the end Peter not only was a shepherd of God’s precious sheep but he too laid his life down as the agape love of his Holy Spirit strengthened him to do.
It is easy to say, “We lay it all down” until we come face to face with actually doing that. I have been convinced that I have and would lay it all down because I have left home, family, personal desires and even what I considered safety to follow him many times. Yet, in the moment of looking at, “Could I lose my life?” I hesitated. I had to look at the condition and form of my love.
Is my love phileo or agape? There is no condemnation in this question but rather an invitation to come up higher and to surrender my love for his. The question momentarily took my breath away but was immediately followed by, “Shepard my sheep.” This restores his commissioning and his faith in who he is in us.
So, how do we lay down our lives when we realize that we have phileo love? We must understand that his Spirit lives in us. His Spirit fully possesses agape love— the highest form of unconditional love (that holds nothing back and has no need for personal gain). We then allow our lives to be a conduit of his agape love that lives within us. We recognize that in ourselves we are limited to phileo love but in him we are consumed with agape love.
We cannot lay down our lives wholeheartedly without doing it by the Spirit. Peter had made passionate declarations of how he would never leave Jesus before his arrest. He was not lying but did not realize that in himself the best he could give in his own strength was the conditional phileo love that would always come up short.
Because the Spirit has come to live within believers, we now can allow his agape love to do what we could not do. Our flesh may fail but his Spirit in us will prevail. “Not by might, nor by power but by my Spirit.” This is what the Lord says and how we can lay down our lives.
As we recognize the greater need for absolute dependency on his Spirit, in everything we do and all that we lay down, we will overcome the phileo love that has limited us in so many ways. We lay down all dependency on “self!” We surrender even the best intentions and the most passionate declarations to yield to his Spirit, who can do what we cannot. We let the true Shepherd live through us and lay his life down through us again and again.
“By your Spirit— I lay my life down!”
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