Steven P. Wickstrom
all Scriptures quoted from the NASB
John 21:1-17 NASB
(1) After these things Jesus manifested Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and He manifested Himself in this way.
(2) Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together.
(3) Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will also come with you.” They went out and got into the boat; and that night they caught nothing.
(4) But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
(5) So Jesus said to them, “Children, you do not have any fish, do you?” They answered Him, “No.”
(6) And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.” So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish.
(7) Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea.
(8) But the other disciples came in the little boat, for they were not far from the land, but about one hundred yards away, dragging the net full of fish.
(9) So when they got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire already laid and fish placed on it, and bread.
(10) Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish which you have now caught.”
(11) Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn.
(12) Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples ventured to question Him, “Who are You?” knowing that it was the Lord.
(13) Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and the fish likewise.
(14) This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.
(15) So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.”
(16) He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.”
(17) He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.”
This may be one of those passages of scripture where you have wondered what on earth was going on. Have you ever wondered why Jesus asked Peter the same question three times in a row? You may have wondered why Peter gave the same answer three times in a row. If you find these verses to be confusing, you are not alone. The reason that these verses are a little confusing is because they not translated accurately. The problem is not because you are unable to understand these verses; the problem is because the translators chose not to translate the verses accurately. I wish I knew why the translators made that choice, but I do not. What I can do however, is to rectify this situation.
Here is the problem: the word “love” is incorrectly translated four times in these verses. While that may not seem like much, it makes it almost impossible to understand the message at the core of these verses. To understand the questions by Jesus and the responses by Peter, it is imperative that we understand the different variations of the word love and how they are used. We therefore need to learn about the three Greek words for love.
There are three main words in the Greek language for love; they are agape, phileo, and eros. Agape is a self-sacrificing, giving type of love. It is something you do with all your heart. Phileo is a friendship type of love. The word denotes the type of love felt and given between family members and friends. Eros is the passionate, romantic type of love. The word eros can apply to dating relationships as well as marriage.
In verse 15, Jesus asks Peter, “do you agape me more than these?” The word agape is correctly translated as “love.” Have you ever wondered why Jesus asked that question? Have you ever pondered about what exactly was Jesus asking Peter? I personally have wondered whether or not Jesus was asking Peter if he loved Him more than the other disciples. I have come to new conclusion: I don't think so. Let me explain why. Let's back up to the beginning of this chapter and see what is happening.
We see in verse three that Peter had invited six of the other disciples to go fishing with him. Peter, the fisherman, was returning to his old line of work. The disciples knew that Jesus had risen from the grave and returned from dead, but he had only been seen twice. Jesus had not been sticking around and I think the disciples were wondering what they were supposed to do with themselves. The disciples had spent almost every waking moment with Jesus for the past three years, and now that was gone. Peter was going back to the lifestyle he had grown up with; feeding the world with fish.
Peter and the other disciples spent the night in the boat and caught absolutely nothing. When the sun started to rise, a stranger on the shore asked them if they had caught anything. Naturally, they shook their heads in disappointment and said “no.” The stranger then tells them that the fish are on the other side of the boat and that they should cast their net over there. Oddly enough, they do just that. They didn't question the stranger, or ask him how exactly he knew where the fish were; they simply obeyed. They pulled up the net and cast it on the other side of the boat. Immediately their net became full of fish. So full in fact, that they could not even pull it into the boat. You can probably imagine Peter's excitement. Gone is the disappointment of a wasted night, replaced with the excitement of a full to bursting net. I imagine that the disciples were laughing, pointing at the net, and slapping each other on their backs.
John quickly figured out that the stranger on the shore was actually Jesus and told Peter (who had not yet made that connection). Peter abandons his boat and swims to shore leaving the other six disciples with task of rowing to shore (pulling a very heavy net). When the boat reaches the shore, Jesus tells them to bring some fish so that they can be cooked for breakfast. Peter and the disciples pull the net onshore and bring a few fish to Jesus. Their excitement must have been obvious to Jesus. He must have smiled and chuckled to himself.
So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” (verse 15) When Jesus asked this question of Peter, I don't think his arm gestured to the other disciples, I think instead that he pointed at the net full of fish. I think that he was pointing at the lifestyle that Peter was returning to. Peter was planning on becoming a fisherman again, but Jesus had other plans. Jesus needed to rock Peter's boat. So Jesus asked the question “do you agape me more than these?”
Peter responded “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” However, Peter did not use the word agape in his response. He used the word phileo. “Yes, Lord; You know that I phileo You.” Essentially, Peter was saying, “Yes, Lord; You know that I am your friend.” It is interesting that Peter did not use the word agape in his answer to Jesus. Instead he used the word for friend.
If you asked your husband/wife (assuming you are married) if they loved you, and they responded that they considered themselves to be your friend, what would your reaction be? You would probably think to yourself, “That wasn't the question that I asked. I asked if you loved me, not whether or not you were my friend.” You might even question their love.
The response of Jesus was probably not what Peter was expecting; “Tend My lambs.” I wonder if Peter had that “huh?” expression on his face. What exactly was Jesus saying to Peter? The word “tend” is the Greek word “bosko - βοσκω” which is used to portray the image of sheep grazing (feeding) in a pasture. The word “lambs” is the Greek word “arnion - αρνιον” and simply means baby, or young, sheep. In case you are curious, a lamb becomes a sheep when it reaches 12 months in age. Jesus is telling Peter to watch over the young lambs while they graze in the pasture. In a manner of speaking, a new Christian (someone who recently accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior) could be referred to as a lamb. I wonder if Peter (who still had that “huh?” expression on his face) thought to himself; I'm a fisherman, not a shepherd.
In order to fully understand what Jesus saying by telling Peter to “graze his lambs,” we need to understand how a lamb eats (or grazes). To understand that, we need to understand a lamb's digestive system. A sheep's stomach has four compartments: the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum. The largest compartment is the ruminant. It is the storage compartment for food that is quickly consumed. This food is then later regurgitated, re-chewed, and re-swallowed in a process that is called cud-chewing. Sheep chew their cud when they are resting.
The next compartment of the stomach, the reticulum, works closely with the rumen. Stomach contents go back and forth, mixing continually between the two sections. Relatively little digestive activity occurs in the next compartment, the omasum. The final compartment, the abomasum is the digestive portion of the stomach. This is where the enzymes and acids break down the food into nutrients that flow into the blood stream.
When a lamb is born, its rumen and reticulum are not yet functional. A lamb cannot digest the food that an older sheep can eat. A lamb must drink its mother's milk to get the nutrition and antibodies that it needs to grow. As the newborn lamb gets older, it will start to nibble on solid food (hay, grass, and grain). This nibbling begins the development process of the young lamb's rumen. As the lamb grows, its rumen and reticulum become functional and it can begin to eat with the older sheep. It is during this process that the shepherd must carefully watch over the lambs to make sure they have the proper foods to grow. A lamb will die without milk and nibble food.
We are not told how long Peter was allowed to ponder Jesus' response before Jesus asked Peter another question. He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” (verse 16) Notice that this time Jesus did not include the phrase “more than these.” It is simply do you agape me? Instead of pointing at the fish and asking Peter if he loves Him more than them, He is now pointing at Himself. Peter, do you agape Me?
What is Peter's response? He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” Once again Peter did not use the word agape in his response. Once again he used the word phileo. “Yes, Lord; You know that I phileo You.” For the second time, Peter was saying, “Yes, Lord; You know that I am your friend.”
Jesus again responds with something that Peter was probably not ready for: He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” Let's take a look again at what Jesus was saying to Peter. The word “shepherd” is the Greek word “poimaino - ποιμαινω” which means to be a shepherd. What does it mean to be a shepherd? Being a shepherd includes watching over, leading, feeding, guiding, caring for, and defending the sheep. The word for sheep is “probaton - προβατον” which simply means (adult) sheep. In a manner of speaking, someone who has been a Christian for some time, or who is mature in their faith, could be referred to as a sheep (rather than a lamb). Jesus is telling Peter to watch over, feed, guide, care for, and defend His sheep. To turn that into the Christian language, I would call those five things (watch over, lead, feed, care for, and defend); discipleship. Jesus was essentially telling Peter to disciple his sheep.
Leading sheep can be easily misunderstood. There are basically two types of leaders: the shepherd who leads by example and asks his flock to follow his lead, and the dictator who drives his flock from the rear, barking like a sheep dog. A flock of sheep will follow a shepherd that they trust. However, sheep can also herded by sheep dog(s) that drive the sheep where the master of the dogs wants the sheep to go. Both types of leaders are effective, but both are not beneficial to the sheep. When sheep follow the shepherd, there is little stress. When sheep are driven by a dictator, there is much stress.
Sheep must be sheared every spring. This removes the heavy coat of wool that protected the sheep against the cold of winter. That same heavy coat of wool might cause a sheep to die of heat exhaustion in the summer. Christians are same way. The spiritual growth that saw us through the winter of life will not sustain us in the summer. We need to start the spiritual “re-growth” again. God shears that comfort zone right off and puts us into new situations where we are forced to grow.
Defending sheep is more than just protecting them from predators. It is important for a shepherd to keep “evil” animals (those that prey on sheep) away from the sheep; however, there are other “evils” that sheep need to be protected from. The wrong food will also kill a sheep: a shepherd must protect (prevent) the sheep from eating the wrong food. However, if there is plenty of good for sheep to eat, they will not eat the weeds that could harm it. A shepherd that does not take care of his flock will kill it just as surely as wolves or wild dogs. A shepherd must protect the weak, injured, and sick of the flock. In order for any of this to happen, the shepherd must care about his sheep. Now back to our story.
The third time that Jesus asked Peter the question, something different happened. The questioned changed. Let's take a look at verse 17. He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” The question may look the same, but it is not. This time, Jesus does not use the word agape; instead he used the word phileo. Peter, do you phileo me? In modern vernacular this would read: Peter, are you really my friend? Ouch! It is no wonder that the Bible records Peter's reaction as grief. Peter was grieved because Jesus was no longer asking if he loved Him, but was instead questioning his friendship.
Peter in his grief (and I think some panic) responded “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” For the third time, Peter used the word phileo instead of agape. “You know that I phileo You.” This time Peter appealed to the omniscience of Jesus by reminding Him that He knew all things. He was essentially saying; “Jesus, how can you ask if I am really your friend? You know everything, so you know that I am your friend.” I think that Peter may have been hoping for an affirmative response. Rather than affirm Peter's friendship, Jesus told him how to affirm his love: “Tend My sheep.”
Let's take a look at what Jesus third response was saying to Peter. The word “tend” is the Greek word “bosko - βοσκω” being used again which you will remember is used to portray the image of sheep grazing (feeding) in a pasture. This time Jesus is telling Peter to watch over the adult sheep (instead of young lambs) while they graze in the pasture. This begs the question: How do sheep graze?
In 18th century America, cattle ranchers and sheep herders had all and out wars with each other. The problem was that when the sheep grazed, they ate the grass and plants all the way down to the soil. Sheep will destroy all plant life in a field if they are not kept constantly moving, which they were not. When the cattle ranchers came along, there was no plant life left for the cattle to eat because the sheep had eaten everything. The shepherds of 18th century America did not know how to be good shepherds. Sheep must be moved from pasture to pasture so that the pastures are not destroyed. The grass and plant life needs to be constantly growing so the sheep have a steady food source.
The shepherd needs to keep moving the sheep to new pastures because if he does not, the sheep will wander off in search of new food. If a sheep has gone missing, it is because it was hungry and was not being fed. Many churches have dwindling numbers because the sheep are not being fed and are wandering away to find new pastures. A pastor's responsibility to keep his flock fed is enormous. A pastor cannot force feed his flock; or be the “do as I say, not as I do” type of leader. That is just like giving a sheep moldy hay to eat or stagnant water to drink. The effect is the same; the sheep will die, or leave to find better food.
Jesus was telling Peter to be a good shepherd: keep the sheep moving, and don't let them destroy a pasture. What would happen if Jesus' sheep (his church) were not kept moving and ran out of food? They would die of starvation. Have you ever been in a church filled with dead sheep? Perhaps those sheep have been in same pasture too long and all the food is gone. Here is an interesting note: The Indiana State Breeders Symposium recommends not keeping sheep in the same pasture for more than seven days. Coincidence? What do you think?
In Matthew 28:19-20 we are given a commission. We are told to make disciples. If you remember, I referred to discipleship as watching over, leading, feeding, guiding, caring for, and defending the sheep. Discipleship is a full time job, or at least it should be, if we take the Great Commission seriously. Many times we think that it is the Pastor's job to make disciples, but it is not. It is the sheep that reproduce and thereby produce more sheep. After you lead someone to Christ, do you simply abandon that person or hand him/her off to the Pastor? No, you don't. After you lead someone to Christ, you begin to disciple that person. After they mature, they will reproduce and begin to disciple, and so on and so forth.
Essentially this means that Christians have a dual role. We must be sheep and at the same time, we must be shepherds. We must be sheep following after Jesus, the Good Shepherd. We must also be shepherds involved in the discipleship of other sheep. It is the infinity loop of the gospel. On one loop, we are always discipling, and on the other loop, always sheep. We are ever flowing back and forth between the two roles. This is demonstrated in the diagram below.
It is possible that Jesus could ask you the same question that he asked Peter. Do you love you me more than these? What would Jesus point at in your life? Would he point at your spouse, your children, your money (or the desire for it), your job, or __________ (you fill in the blank)? If Jesus came up to you and asked if you loved him more than these, how would you respond? Be honest with yourself. Perhaps you would respond like Peter, and essentially say: “No Lord, I don't love you more than these, but I am your friend.” I think that if we were brutally honest with ourselves; that is exactly how we would answer that question. If that was your answer, don't condemn yourself. After all, Jesus did not rebuke Peter for his answers. Instead, Jesus showed Peter how that answer could be changed, and in those verses, he did the same for you.
Do you want your relationship with Jesus to change from friendship to love? Is your relationship with Jesus a phileo relationship or an agape relationship? What type of relationship do you want it to be? Peter's relationship changed from phileo to agape and so can yours. Peter learned to do what Jesus told him to. 1 Peter 2: 2-3 says “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”
Let's take a look at these verses and compare them to Jesus's instructions to Peter. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk (tend my lambs). Peter learned to give new born Christians the “milk” of the gospel and so can you. What is the “milk” of the gospel? Hebrews 6:1-3 says “Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death,[a] and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.” The “milk” of the gospel is teachings about repentance, faith, rituals, laying on of hands, the resection of the dead, and eternal judgment. These are the things that “babes” (lambs) in Christ need to know. They have to digest this milk and grow, before they will be ready to eat sheep food.
“… so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (shepherd my sheep). In Jesus second instruction, Peter learned how to be a shepherd and so can you. He learned how to watch over, feed, guide, care for, and defend His sheep. This allows the sheep to grow up. How did Peter help his sheep to grow? 1 Peter 2:11-17 says “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God's slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” By doing these things, the sheep matured and became adults. This is part of discipleship.
“… now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (tend my sheep). You will remember that Jesus third instruction to Peter was to tend, or graze, the sheep. Peter learned how to feed and care for adult sheep and so can you. When Peter's Christian “lambs” were ready for solid food, he led them into pastures of mature Christian teachings. At this point the sheep were ready to learn about becoming holy, about becoming Christ-like, and developing the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. I will warn you here that in order to feed adult sheep, you yourself must be eating and digesting “adult” food. You must have matured in the faith, or be well on your way, before you can disciple in the “solid food” of the gospel.
If you are in despair right now, do not worry. Peter did not become a mature Christian overnight. Neither did the Apostle Paul. It took them years to become mature Christians. You must understand that growing in Christ takes time. Don't be afraid to give yourself that time. Remember this as you disciple others. Just as it took time for you to grow (and are still growing), so it take time for the Christians you are discipling to grow. Growing in Christ is a lifetime endeavor. We will never stop growing in Christ. So please don't give up. Keep growing in Christ.
Here are my final questions to you. Will you tend (feed) Christ's lambs? Will you shepherd (disciple) Christ's sheep? Will you tend (feed) Christ's sheep? Are you willing to affirm your love for Jesus by tending his lambs, shepherding his sheep, and feeding his sheep? These questions were not easy for Peter to answer, and they may not be easy for you to answer. Peter ultimately answered yes to each of the questions. The Holy Spirit provided the power for Peter to do these things. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit will do the same for you. Do you love Jesus more than these …?