Committed Christians Love Christ More than Anything Else
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.” 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.” 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.” (21:15–17)
The primary mark of the redeemed has always been love for God. The Shema, the great Old Testament confession of faith, declares, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). Later in Deuteronomy Moses exhorted Israel to manifest that love by obeying God’s commandments (10:12–13; 11:1). When Daniel poured out his heart in prayer for his people, he addressed God as “the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Dan. 9:4). After the exile Nehemiah echoed Daniel’s prayer: “I beseech You, O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Neh. 1:5). The theme of loving God was also on the heart of David, who wrote, “I love You, O Lord, my strength” (Ps. 18:1).
The New Testament also teaches that love is the mark of a true believer. When asked to name the greatest commandment of the law, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). In 1 Corinthians 8:3 Paul wrote, “If anyone loves God, he is known by Him.” On the other hand the apostle warned, “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed” (1 Cor. 16:22). Only those who love God receive eternal life (James 1:12) and inherit the kingdom (James 2:5). Peter wrote in his first epistle, “Though you have not seen Him [Christ], you love Him” (1 Peter 1:8). Love is also the driving, compelling force that motivates Christian service (2 Cor. 5:14).
Peter learned the hard way what it means to love Jesus Christ. He had vociferously declared his unfailing devotion to Him more than once. At the Last Supper, “Simon Peter said to [Jesus], ‘Lord, where are You going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later.’ Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You’ ” (John 13:36–37). A short while later he boldly proclaimed, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away” (Matt. 26:33). Yet when the chips were down, Peter’s self-confessed love failed and he openly denied three times that he even knew Jesus. His vaunted courage proved to be nothing but empty talk when facing a threatening situation.
Peter’s failure highlights the biblical truth that obedience is the essential evidence of genuine love. In John 14:15 Jesus put it plainly: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” In verse 21 He added, “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me” (cf. 15:10). In 1 John 5:3 John echoed the Lord’s teaching: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome,” while in his second epistle he added, “And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, that you should walk in it” (2 John 6).
Jesus knew that if Peter was to play the crucial role in the early church that He had chosen him for, he would need to be restored. Peter needed to understand that although he had forsaken Christ, Christ had not forsaken him (cf. Rom. 8:31–39). The Lord had evidently already appeared to Peter privately (Luke 24:34; cf. 1 Cor. 15:5), but Scripture does not record any details of that meeting. Whatever may have happened in Peter’s personal encounter with the risen Lord, since his denials were public knowledge, he needed to be publicly restored. The other disciples needed to hear Peter’s reaffirmation of his love for Christ and Christ’s recommissioning of him, so they would be willing to loyally support his leadership.
As soon as they had finished breakfast (cf. 21:12–13), Jesus initiated the restoration by confronting Peter. That He addressed him as “Simon, son of John” suggests that what followed was a rebuke. Jesus had given Simon the nickname “Peter” (John 1:42), but sometimes referred to him as “Simon” when Peter did something that needed rebuke or correction (e.g., Matt. 17:25; Mark 14:37; Luke 22:31). It was as if our Lord called him by his former name when he was acting like his former self. The Lord’s pointed question, “Do you love Me more than these (i.e., the boat, nets, and other fishing paraphernalia)?” went right to the heart of the issue. As noted in the previous chapter of this volume, Peter, impatient at Jesus’ delay in meeting the disciples and beleaguered by his own failures, had impulsively decided to return to being a fisherman (21:3). That he was sure he could do well—or so he had thought. But Jesus confronted Peter and called him to follow Him and be the fisher of men he was first called to be (Matt. 4:19). “No servant can serve [be a slave to] two masters,” He had previously told them, “for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13). Jesus challenged Peter to permanently abandon his former life and be exclusively devoted to following Him, based on his love.
Peter replied to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” There is an interesting wordplay in the Greek text. The word Jesus used for love is agapaō, the highest love of the will, love that implies total commitment (cf. 1 Cor. 13:4–8). Peter, painfully aware of his disobedience and failure, felt too guilty to claim that type of love. The brash pronouncements were a thing of the past; broken and humbled and fully aware that his action precluded him from a believable claim to the highest love, Peter answered by using the word phileō, a less lofty term that signifies affection. He also appealed to Jesus’ omniscience, reminding Him, “You know that I love You.”
Accepting Peter’s humble acknowledgement that his love was less than he had claimed and Christ deserved, Jesus still recommissioned him, graciously saying to him, “Tend My lambs.” Tend translates a form of the verb boskō, a term used of herdsmen pasturing and feeding their livestock. The present tense of the verb denotes continuous action. In keeping with the metaphor He introduced in 10:7–16 (cf. Pss. 95:7; 100:3; Ezek. 34:31), Jesus described believers as His lambs, emphasizing not only their immaturity, vulnerability, and need, but also that they are His (cf. Matt. 18:5–10). It is the same responsibility given to every pastor, as Paul pointed out in Acts 20:28 and as Peter himself exhorted in 1 Peter 5:2. Paul instructed the young pastor Timothy that the means to doing this was to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Continuing to reinforce His point on the supremacy of love as the motive to faithfulness, Jesus said to Peter again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Once again He used the verb agapaō, and once again Peter was unwilling to use that word; in his reply, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You,” Peter again used the verb phileō. The Lord then charged him, “Shepherd My sheep.” Jesus chose a different term than the one translated “tend” in verse 15. This word, a form of the verb poimainō, is likely a synonym for the previous verb, both of which are suitable to express the full scope of responsibility that pastoral oversight entails (cf. Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2).
But Jesus still was not through with Peter, so 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?” The reason for Peter’s grief was a change in the Lord’s vocabulary. Unlike His two previous questions, this third time Jesus used Peter’s word for love, phileō. He called into question even the less than total devotion Peter thought he was safe in claiming. The implication that his life did not support even that level of love broke Peter’s heart. All he could do was appeal even more strongly to Jesus’ omniscience, saying to Him, “Lord, You know all things (cf. 2:24–25; 16:30); You know that I love You.” For the third time Jesus accepted the apostle’s recognized failure and imperfection (cf. Isa. 6:1–8) and graciously charged Peter to care for His flock, saying to him, “Tend My sheep.” Peter’s restoration was thus complete. As Andreas Köstenberger notes,
Perhaps at long last Peter has learned that he cannot follow Jesus in his own strength and has realized the hollowness of affirming his own loyalty in a way that relies more on his own power of will than on Jesus’ enablement.… Likewise, we should soundly distrust self-serving pledges of loyalty today that betray self-reliance rather than a humble awareness of one’s own limitations in acting on one’s best intentions [cf. 2 Cor. 12:9–10]. (John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004], 598)
Peter remained obedient to the Lord’s commission for the rest of his life. His ministry from that point forward involved not only proclaiming the gospel (Acts 2:14–40; 3:12–26), but also feeding the flock the Lord had entrusted to him (cf. Acts 2:42). Nearing the end of his ministry many years later, Peter wrote,
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1–3)
Christ’s Next-to-Last Word
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
The last two chapters of John’s Gospel contain the parting words of Jesus to his disciples, which I have referred to as “the real last words of Christ.” In doing this, I have contrasted the words spoken after the resurrection with those seven, more commonly studied words, spoken before. These postresurrection words are: (1) “Peace be with you” (20:19, 21); (2) “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (20:21); (3) “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22); (4) “Stop doubting and believe” (20:27); (5) “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (20:29); (6) “Feed my sheep” (21:17; cf. v. 15); and (7) “Follow me” (21:19, cf. v. 22). I have spoken of these as: a great bequest, a great commission, a great consolation, a great challenge, a great benediction, a great responsibility, and a great invitation.
As we draw to the end of chapter 21 we come to the sixth and seventh of these “last” words, and we notice something interesting about them. They are each repeated, the sixth (“Feed my sheep”) three times (vv. 16, 17, and, with a slight variation, v. 15) and the seventh (“Follow me”) twice (vv. 19, 22). The repetition grows out of the narrative, but it is significant in itself. When God says something once we should listen. When he says it more than once the words should command our prolonged, rapt, undivided, and obedient attention.
We notice first that the sheep mentioned here are Christ’s sheep, for he says, “Feed my sheep.” They are his in two ways. First, by creation—he made them. Second, and even more importantly, by redemption. On an earlier occasion the Lord had said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). In speaking to the Ephesian elders just before his final departure to Jerusalem, Paul said, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). If the flock were ours, we could do with it as we wished or as we thought best. But if it is Christ’s, as it is, then we must do as he wishes, recognizing our responsibility to him.
Peter understood this, for years later, when he came to give instructions to the leaders of the church, he spoke of their responsibility to the chief Shepherd as a motivation for the faithful performance of their duties. “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but becasue you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:1–4). There is nothing that will make us more diligent in Christ’s service than the firm recognition that we are only undershepherds of that Chief Shepherd to whom the flock belongs and to whom we are responsible.
The Task Assigned
At this point we have a very big topic. We have “the sheep,” the flock of Christ. We have the shepherd. We have ourselves as undershepherds. Even if we should restrict our attention to our own role as undershepherds, we could consider the many traits of character we must have to be effective in our assigned task or even the areas in which we must operate to fulfill it. As far as traits are concerned, we have the need for humility, hard work, self-control, temperance, gentleness, the proper management of one’s own household, piety, and many other things that the New Testament mentions explicitly. Under the second category, we might consider being examples to the flock, exercising discipline and effective oversight.
But the burden of our text, while not excluding these other matters, is nevertheless more restricted. It tells us that our responsibility as undershepherds is primarily to feed the sheep which have been entrusted to us. How? By teaching, sharing, and in any other way communicating the Word of God. There is nothing else upon which Christians can feed. So our job is to teach the Bible both by word and example.
Here we must be very practical, for the difficulty at this point is generally not one of ignorance of what we should do but rather of how the task should be done. The principles that should govern our responsibility in this area are the same as those that should govern our own personal study of God’s Scriptures. There are five of them.
- We should teach the Bible on some regular schedule. We recognize this need in our own study of the Word of God, for one of the things we rightly stress in this area is the need for daily devotions. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to “give us this day our daily bread,” and while it is true that this refers to all our daily needs, physical as well as spiritual, it certainly does not exclude the need for a daily feeding upon God’s Word. For this reason a popular devotional guide is called Daily Bread. Another, which makes the same point, is called Manna in the Morning. A third is Daily Light. Just as we each individually need a daily period of feeding upon God’s Word, so should there be a regular teaching and communicating of the Word by all who are in positions of spiritual authority.
One obvious place for this is the preaching that goes on Sunday by Sunday in a faithful, Bible-teaching church. But that is only one area. Another is some kind of a weekly Bible study or Bible class. Some exercise this responsibility in a less formal way through work with neighbors or fellow employees. The point is merely that this must be regular. An occasional testimony does not fill the bill.
- Our teaching or otherwise communicating the truths of the Bible should also be systematic. That is, instead of an occasional or random comment upon the Bible or an occasional, unrelated lesson, there should be an attempt to progress in a deliberate fashion through one or more books of the Bible or even through the Bible as a whole. Many people do not really study the Bible; they do not know how. They merely read it. This is not bad. It is wonderful. But it does leave a special area of responsibility to leaders to teach those passages.
I would suggest this procedure. First, present the book as a whole, reading it carefully together four or five times. Second, divide the work into sections, just as you would divide a contemporary manuscript into chapters (not necessarily the same chapters as in our Bibles), subsections within those chapters and paragraphs. Third, relate these sections to one another, asking: Which are the main sections dealing with the main subjects? Which are introductory? Which are excursions? Applications? This study should lead to a general outline of the book. Fourth, proceed to a more detailed study of the individual sections. Ask: What is the main point of this section? To whom is it spoken? How does it apply? What are the conclusions that flow from it? Finally, study individual phrases and key words. This kind of study will not be possible in every teaching situation, but it should be done by the teacher as preparation for his or her own teaching at the very least. To feed others we must first be fed.
- The Bible should be taught as comprehensively as possible. I mean by this that we are not to become specialists in prophecy or Pauline studies or the nature of the flood to such a degree that we neglect the larger picture that those we teach obviously also need to know. The Bible is balanced in its many emphases. Christianity is meant to be balanced. If we do not study and teach the Bible comprehensively, we will become unbalanced and the church will be warped.
- We must teach the Bible prayerfully. One obvious lack in the American church today is good systems of effective Bible study. But having said this, it is also necessary to say that we can have good systems, even superb and highly sophisticated systems, and still miss the point of Bible study by failing to ask God to speak to us through it. The scribes were great scholars, but they became mechanical in the working out of their method and so missed the Bible’s main teaching. They failed to recognize the Christ when he came.
In Psalm 119 the author gives expression to the attitude we should have when he writes, “Do good to your servant, and I will live; I will obey your word. Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law” (vv. 17–18). What will happen if our study and teaching is preceded by a prayer like this? Several things. First, it will make us conscious that we are actually meeting with God in our Bible study and not merely going through a prescribed religious ritual. Second, we will be sensitive to what God is saying to us and will be able to alter our lives and behavior accordingly. Third, it will make us conscious of the needs of others so that we will be able to teach them effectively. There is nothing more exciting in our fulfillment of Christ’s commission to feed his sheep than to know that God himself is actually speaking to us and through us to his people.
- The final point is that we must study the Word of God obediently. When God speaks, he speaks for a purpose. He expects us to obey him. Do we obey him? If we do, our lives and the lives of those for whom we are responsible will be changed. Our churches will be changed, and so will our society.
A Word to Preachers
All this applies quite broadly, for there are very few of us who do not have some degree of responsibility for someone. We are all usually undershepherds in some way. But I want to say a special word to preachers, for the task of teaching the Word of God is particularly their own. The minister has many functions. He must administer, counsel, visit, and do scores of other things. But just as the primary responsibility of a carpenter is to build and a painter to paint, so the primary responsibility of a pastor is to teach the Word of God. Indeed, if he does not, how can he expect the other undershepherds of his flock to fulfill their share of this responsibility?
There is a decline in this area today due to a prior decline in a belief in the Bible as the authoritative and inerrant Word of God on the part of the church’s theologians, seminary professors, and those ministers who are trained by them.
Inerrancy and authority go together, for it is not that those who abandon inerrancy as a premise on which to approach the Scriptures necessarily abandon a belief in their authority. On the contrary, they often speak of the authority of the Bible most loudly precisely when they are abandoning the inerrancy position. It is rather that, lacking the conviction that the Bible is without error in the whole and in its parts, these scholars and preachers inevitably approach the Bible differently from inerrantists, whatever may be said verbally. In their work the Bible is searched (to the degree that it is searched) for whatever light it may shed on the world and life as the minister sees them and not as that binding and overpowering revelation that tells us what to think about the world and life and even formulates the questions we should be asking of them.
The problem is seen in a report of a panel discussion involving a rabbi, a priest, and a protestant minister. The rabbi stood up and said, “I speak according to the law of Moses.” The priest said, “I speak according to the tradition of the church.” But the minister said, “It seems to me. … ”
It is hard to miss the connection between belief in the authority and inerrancy of Scripture issuing in a commitment to expound it faithfully, on the one hand, and a loss of this belief coupled to a neglect of Scripture and an inability to give forth a certain sound, on the other.
Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is one who makes this connection. He writes on the decline of preaching: “I would not hesitate to put in the first position [for the decline]: the loss of belief in the authority of the Scriptures, and a diminution in the belief of the Truth. I put this first because I am sure it is the main factor. If you have not got authority, you cannot speak well, you cannot preach. Great preaching always depends upon great themes. Great themes always produce great speaking in any realm, and this is particularly true, of course, in the realm of the church. While men believed in the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God and spoke on the basis of that authority you had great preaching. But once that went, and men began to speculate, and to theorize, and to put up hypotheses and so on, the eloquence and the greatness of the spoken word inevitably declined and began to wane. You cannot really deal with speculations and conjectures in the same way as preaching had formerly dealt with the great themes of the Scriptures. But as belief in the great doctrines of the Bible began to go out, and sermons were replaced by ethical addresses and homilies, and moral uplift and socio-political talk, it is not surprising that preaching declined. I suggest that this is the first and greatest cause of this decline.”
So here is my word to preachers. You above all men have been given the task of feeding Christ’s sheep by a careful, regular, and systematic teaching of the Bible, but you will never do this unless you are convinced of the truthfulness of every word you find there. So settle this first. Is this book the very Word of God in the whole and in its parts? Has God spoken infallibly in its pages? If not, seek another profession. If he has, then proclaim this Word with all the strength at your disposal.
“Feed My Lambs”
There is one last word based upon a slight variation in Christ’s command between verse 15 and verses 16 and 17. It is a variation between “Feed my sheep” (in the second and third instances) and “Feed my lambs” (in the first).
I admit that this may be only a stylistic variation—many commentators say so. Again, it may only be a suggestion that all Christ’s people are children—“lambs” as well as “sheep.” But when I remember the concern of our Lord for children and the teaching of Scripture that children especially are to be brought up in the nurture and admonition of Christ, I wonder if Jesus is not saying clearly, “And when you are feeding my sheep, do not forget the children; in fact, begin with the children, for the kingdom of heaven is of such as these.”
The church’s best ministers have felt this and have thus spent time with children. I give two examples: Martin Luther and John Wesley. What did Luther do? He produced the Smaller Catechism which was especially for children. It was nonpolemical and presented the gospel clearly. Luther once said that he would be glad to have all his works perish except the reply to Erasmus (The Bondage of the Will) and this catechism. Wesley, who, like Luther, was greatly concerned for children, advised his pastors: (1) where there are ten children in a society, meet them at least an hour every week; (2) talk with them every time you see any at home; (3) pray in earnest for them; (4) diligently instruct and vehemently exhort all parents at their own houses; and (5) preach expressly on education.
Such work is not glorious. It will not capture the world’s attention. But it is a command of Christ, and the one who will do this will have the joy of knowing that in serving “one of the least of these” he has served Christ.
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, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15)
Part of what makes the gospel such good news is that sinners can not only be forgiven but also be restored. This idea is so hateful to the devil that he seeks to counter the gospel with deceptive lies. Satan might reluctantly admit that Christians may be forgiven our sins and delivered from judgment. But when it comes to leading a happy and useful Christian life, and especially to being used by the Lord in some important way, Satan whispers to us that our sin has disqualified us forever. This is especially the devil’s message to those who have sinned greatly after becoming Christians. Christians who have sinned, he urges, might as well continue sinning, or at least accept the fact that their failure has bound them to a low plane of Christian existence and service.
The antidote to Satan’s lies is always the Word of God. The antidote to this particular lie is found at the end of the Gospel of John, where we learn of Peter’s restoration not just to salvation but to apostolic service. We would be hard-pressed to commit a sin as grievous as Peter did when he denied Jesus three times on the night of his arrest. Therefore, Peter’s restoration encourages us that we may be restored not only to salvation but also to usefulness to Christ.
Three Questions For Peter
In the first half of John 21, Jesus met the disciples along the shore of the Sea of Galilee after filling their net with fish. Jesus awaited them beside a charcoal fire where a meal was cooking (John 21:9). Learning that it was Jesus, Peter flung himself into the waters and eagerly propelled himself into the Lord’s presence. We can imagine that after the meal began, however, Peter might have become uneasy. He would have looked at the charcoal fire, his mind suddenly turning to another charcoal fire that had burned outside the high priest’s residence on the night of Jesus’ arrest. Peter had huddled there together with some of the temple guard. On the way into the courtyard, the door-maiden asked whether he was one of Jesus’ disciples, and Peter denied it. Then by the fire, one of the guards recognized Peter and said to him, “You also are one of them.” Peter replied, “I am not.” Then a servant to the high priest suggested that Peter had been with Jesus earlier that night. Peter again denied Jesus, at which moment, according to Luke, Jesus “turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:58–61). At that look, the unfaithful disciple went away, weeping bitterly for his failure.
It seems likely that Jesus had arranged for this similar fire to await Peter beside the Sea of Galilee. Taking his own place where the temple guards had sat, Jesus looked at Peter once more, asking three times whether he loved him, one question for each of Peter’s denials.
It is frequently taught that the key to understanding Jesus’ questions and Peter’s answers is found in the different Greek words used in this passage for love. In the first two of Jesus’ questions, he asked for Peter’s love using a verb form of the word agape. This is said to refer to the highest form of love, a divine love that involves the whole will. Peter answered by using the word phileo, which refers to a lower form of love, involving affection and friendship. Under this view, taught by many able teachers of Scripture, Peter was too abashed by his failure on the night of Jesus’ arrest to claim anything but the lower form of love for Jesus. His chastened spirit could no longer assert any claim to a higher love. In his third question, Jesus lowered his demand from agape to phileo, accepting the love that Peter could assert and being willing to work in his disciple to produce the greater love in due time.
The problem with this approach is that the apostle John seems to use these two words for love, agape and phileo, more or less interchangeably. The concepts identified by the two words are valid: there is a divine love of the will, normally identified as agape, and a lower, human love of attraction and affection, associated with phileo. The problem is that John does not tend to use the words agape and phileo in such a technical sense. For instance, in referring to himself as “the disciple whom the Lord loved,” John uses agape in one instance and phileo in another (John 20:2; 21:7). Moreover, John tends to vary his vocabulary for stylistic reasons. In this passage, recounting a conversation that probably occurred in Aramaic, not Greek, John uses two different words for love, two different words for knowing, and two different words for the idea of tending Jesus’ sheep. Therefore, most scholars today doubt that the key to understanding Jesus’ questions lies in the difference between agape and phileo in John’s use.
How, then, do we understand Jesus’ questions? First, we should note that Jesus began not only by asking whether Peter loved him, but by specifying, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15). We remember that earlier on the night of Peter’s denials, Jesus had warned that all the disciples would fall away after his arrest, but that the disciples should await him in Galilee after his resurrection (Matt. 26:31–32). Peter insisted that he would remain true even if the other disciples did not: “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (26:33). Now, here they were in Galilee, and Peter had fallen away. “Do you still think that you love me more than the others do?” Jesus inquired. Peter’s answer revealed his chastened spirit: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” (John 21:15). Jesus then asked Peter twice more: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (21:16–17). Peter repeated his first answer: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” (21:16). For his third answer, he said, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (21:17).
By inquiring about Peter’s love three times, Jesus was not rubbing salt in his wounds but doing the serious work of bringing his disciple to a true repentance. We can be sure that this was painful for Peter. We can imagine that with each question, his mind would have remembered each of the three times he had denied his Lord. John notes that “Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ (John 21:17). This grief was a necessary part of the Lord’s work of prompting repentance for the sake of true restoration. With Jesus homing in on the full extent of his betrayal, Peter could answer only by appealing to the Lord’s omniscience. If Peter loved the Lord, then Jesus would know it because the Lord had himself instilled the love that Peter needed: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (21:17). Peter shows that only a genuine believer can take solace in the Lord’s true knowledge of our hearts.
We can see Jesus’ purpose in bringing Peter to repentance not only in matching his three questions to Peter’s three denials, but also in Jesus’ form of address. In John’s Gospel, ever since this disciple’s calling to follow Jesus, he had been known as Peter, which means “the Rock” (John 1:42). This name refers to Peter’s confession of faith, which was an example of the Great Confession on which Jesus would build his church (see Matt. 16:16–18). Now, Jesus reverts to Peter’s former name, referring to him as “Simon, son of John” (John 21:15). This amounts to a temporary deposing of Peter from his office. Before there could be thought of restoring Peter to his calling as an apostle, they must first retrace the steps by which Peter could be considered even a Christian. So it is for us all: more basic than our calling to service is our calling to salvation through a loving faith in Christ.
Repentance and Restoration
Jesus had already forgiven Peter his sin, promising peace to Peter and the others on the night of his resurrection. So why did Jesus need to drive Peter to so painful a repentance? There are three answers, the first of which was for the sake of Peter’s own conscience. Until Jesus had addressed Peter’s great sin, the matter must continually hang over the disciple’s spirit. Alexander Maclaren explains: “The threefold denial needed to be obliterated by the threefold confession; … every black mark that had been scored deep on the page by that denial needed to be covered over with the gilding or bright colouring of the triple acknowledgment. And so Peter thrice having said, ‘I know him not!’ Jesus with a gracious violence forced him to say thrice, ‘Thou knowest that I love thee.’ ”
Was it cruel of Jesus to require Peter to recall each shameful stage of his betrayal, dragging him, as it were, by the scruff of the neck to turn his face to the very details of his sin? No, it was true kindness to insist on Peter’s repentance: “The Lord wounds only that He may heal.” Unlike the false prophets of Israel who sought to heal the wounds of sin lightly (cf. Jer. 6:14), Jesus demands a thorough healing so as to gain a true peace.
Jesus’ kindness is seen in that at each of Peter’s steps of recalling his denial, Jesus assured him not only of forgiveness but of full restoration. It would have been cruel had Jesus left Peter in doubt as to his acceptance, but Jesus did not leave any doubt. In the light of Christ’s super-abounding grace, Peter was not cast down by his sin but lifted up in the amazing divine love that saved him. This example encourages Christians to seriously examine our sins before God’s presence in prayer. In this way, we will grow in grace through repentance and by recalling the unfailing love that freely suffered death for our redemption. Only against the true depth of our guilt may we measure the height of God’s love for us and glory in the cross of Christ as we ought.
The second reason that Peter needed to be brought to a detailed repentance was to ensure that he learned the lesson from his failure. Beneath Peter’s sin in denying Jesus was a dangerous self-confidence. Peter had boasted of laying down his life for Jesus (John 13:37), when Peter really needed Jesus to lay down his life for him. Indeed, it is evident that the reason Jesus permitted Peter to fall, praying for his faith to be restored but handing him over to his sin (Luke 22:31–34), was the benefit to Peter upon his repentance. A. W Pink explains: “That fall was necessary in order to reveal to Peter the condition of his heart, to show him the worthlessness of self-confidence, and to humble his proud spirit.” We will be blessed if we learn that lesson from Peter’s repentance, not needing to be allowed to fall or to suffer the pain of our own sin and repentance.
The third reason why Peter needed to repent thoroughly was for the sake of his future calling as an apostle. What authority could Peter wield in the matter of faith in Christ if his failure on the night of Jesus’ arrest remained hanging over his head? His betrayal must have “cast a great shadow over his usefulness and, indeed, his credibility in the church and before the world.” This explains why Peter’s repentance must take place in the presence of several other future apostles. His sin pertained to his public office in the church and thus demanded a public repentance and a public restoration by Christ.
This episode speaks directly to the question whether church leaders who fall into sin today can be restored to their office. Most commonly, we learn of pastors who fall to sexual sin and are required to quit the pulpit. In other cases, church leaders may be removed for financial fraud or abuse of spiritual authority. The question is raised whether such a fallen leader can ever be restored to his former position. We know that everyone can be restored to salvation through faith and repentance, but is it possible for a pastor or elder to be restored to office after committing a gross and scandalous sin?
In light of Jesus’ treatment of Peter here, the answer must be Yes. Sins of a sexual or financial nature cannot be considered more grievous than Peter’s denial of Jesus. Jesus shows us, however, that there must be a serious and determined work of repentance and not merely glib confessions or facile apologies. Since it will be harder for us to establish a true change of heart than it was for Jesus, the work of repentance and restoration today is likely to involve a lengthy period of time and a thorough process of confirmation.
Following Jesus’ example in refusing to use Peter’s apostolic name, leaders who grievously sin should first be deposed from office to preserve the honor of Christ and the well-being of his people. Paul says that elders “who persist in sin” must be rebuked publicly before the church (1 Tim. 5:20). From this, we should conclude that the repentance of a fallen church leader should also be expressed publicly before the church. Noting the importance of a deep, thorough, and public process of repentance, however, we should also note that when true repentance has been established—including a genuine repudiation of the sin itself—we should be willing to restore fallen spiritual leaders to their positions of service in the church. Experience might show that such restoration is rare in practice. The reason is not that restoration is impossible but rather that fallen leaders are so seldom willing to humble themselves to make an honest confession and enable the church to establish a credible and true repentance.
It may be objected that a pastor or elder who has greatly sinned cannot be trusted not to sin again. By this logic, however, no one is eligible to serve as a leader in the church, since even the holiest Christians have often sinned and even the strongest spiritual leaders can be led into sin if they are not wary regarding their lives. If we believe in the power of God’s Spirit and if we can have confidence in the grace that God gives in repentance, there is no reason for us to lack confidence in a restored leader’s ability to serve in a godly and effective way. Peter’s example after he was restored, recorded in the book of Acts and reflected in his letters, proves the power of Christ’s restoring grace. For Christians who repent and look anew to Christ, failure is never final.
The Pastoral Calling
As Jesus secured Peter’s repentance with three demands to affirm his love, he also restored Peter with three commissions to the pastoral office. When Peter first answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” Jesus answered, “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15). When Peter affirmed his love a second time, Jesus said, “Tend my sheep” (21:16). Finally, when Peter answered Jesus’ question by asserting Christ’s knowledge of his love, Jesus concluded, “Feed my sheep” (21:17). In his abounding grace, Jesus did not say, “All right, Peter, you are forgiven. But of course, I can never use you in a place of leadership again.” That might be the way we would reason about Peter, but it is not how Jesus responded. Instead, Jesus publicly restored Peter to his calling as a shepherd over the flock of God.
Observing Peter’s restoration, we can note three important things about the pastoral office to which Peter and the other apostles were called. The first is that those called to spiritual leadership are shepherds over the flock that belongs to Jesus and is precious to the Lord. Notice that Jesus told Peter to serve “my lambs” and “my sheep” (John 21:15–17). Pastors should therefore not be surprised when believers are weak and immature, since Christ calls them “lambs,” nor that the “sheep” are prone to wander and are in need of constant care, proper feeding, and leading. Most importantly, a pastor is to remember that the church is composed of lambs that Jesus says are “mine.” James Montgomery Boice comments: “There is nothing that will make us more diligent in Christ’s service than the firm recognition that we are only undershepherds of that Chief Shepherd to whom the flock belongs and to whom we are responsible.” Similarly, since Christ has no possession more dear to him than the souls of those for whom he shed his precious blood, his confidence in the restored Peter is seen in his committing of these sheep to Peter’s care.
Second, we have in Peter’s restoration a helpful description of the pastoral calling. To what work is a pastor called by Christ? First, Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Next, he told Peter, “Tend my sheep.” Finally, Jesus returned to the initial theme, saying, “Feed my sheep.”
Here we see the two dimensions of the pastoral calling. Like the apostles before them, pastors today are called to the work of feeding the flock of God with the spiritual nourishment of God’s Word and also of shepherding and leading the flock through pastoral care.
There is no warrant for the Roman Catholic dogma that here the church is placed under Peter’s sole authority as the single potentate who rules in the absence of Christ. The book of Acts shows that Peter never claimed or exercised such a lordly rule over the church. Matthew Henry comments: “This charge given to Peter to preach the gospel is by a strange artifice made to support the usurpation of his pretended successors, that fleece the sheep, and, instead of feeding them, feed upon them.”
Paul’s description agrees with that of Jesus in speaking not of princes over the church, but of Christ’s providing “shepherds and teachers” to serve the church (Eph. 4:11). Paul’s description perfectly matches Jesus’ calling to Peter to feed the sheep and tend the flock. Ministers of the gospel are not called to be fund-raisers, program organizers, building custodians, or committee chairmen, but teachers of God’s Word and pastors of Christ’s flock.
Since Jesus places his sheep under the care and feeding of his under-shepherds, this makes membership in a faithful church a matter of urgent concern for every follower of Christ. Decades later, Peter would himself pen the classic description of the kind of faithful shepherd the church needs: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:2–4).
We must never slight the pastor’s calling to lead the flock, but we should note that Jesus emphasizes the teaching function of his shepherds. Jesus specified the feeding of his sheep first and last to Peter. This tells us that a pastor’s primary responsibility is to feed the flock of Christ. How are Christ’s sheep to be fed? The Bible’s answer: by teaching and preaching the Word of God. To be called by Christ to the pastoral office is therefore to be gifted and prepared to preach and teach the Scriptures with fidelity and power. Called to this work, a faithful pastor must devote a significant portion of his working time to the prayerful preparation of his teaching so as to most wholesomely feed the beloved sheep who belong to Jesus.
Boice suggests five principles for a successful ministry of God’s Word. First, the Bible should be taught on a regular schedule, primarily in “the preaching that goes on Sunday by Sunday in a faithful, Bible-teaching church.” Second, the Bible should be taught in a systematic manner, ideally in the sequential exposition of whole books of Scripture. In this way, the church is fed with a balanced diet of the whole counsel of God. Third, the Bible should be taught as comprehensively as possible. This means that Christians are not to be focused only on prophecy or Pauline theology or creation studies but should be taught from all the kinds of biblical literature. Fourth, pastors must preach and churches must receive God’s Word prayerfully. With David, we must ask the Lord: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Ps. 119:18). Finally, the Bible must be taught obediently. Boice comments: “When God speaks, he speaks for a purpose. He expects us to obey him. Do we obey him? If we do, our lives and the lives of those for whom we are responsible will be changed.”
A final point seen in Jesus’ restoration of Peter is the primacy of love for those who lead Christ’s flock. Indeed, the fact that Jesus confronted Peter over the matter of his love shows the importance of love for the whole of the Christian life. R. Kent Hughes comments:
The abiding principle is that before all things, even service to him, we must love him with all our hearts. That is the highest priority in life. It is the first question for every theologian. It is the essential question for the pastor. It is the supreme question for every missionary. It is the number one question for every one of us who wants to please God. Loving God is the highest priority of our lives.
Love for Christ is preeminently necessary for the shepherds of Christ’s flock. Ligon Duncan tells of an aged saintly woman of the Scottish kirk who said, “The older I grow, the more I love the Lord’s people.” “Isn’t that sweet,” thought the man to whom she spoke. She continued, however, “The older I grow, the more I love the Lord’s people and the less I trust them.” Duncan comments: “The Lord’s people will hurt you. You will seek to serve the Lord’s people; they will let you down. When that happens, you are being given the privilege of reflecting your Savior, because he washed the feet of the disciples who abandoned him.”
It is only love for Christ and his church that empowers us to continue serving Christ’s flock when the church fails us. A. W. Pink observes: “The work is so laborious, the appreciation is often so small, the response so discouraging, the criticisms so harsh, the attacks of Satan so fierce, that only the ‘love of Christ’—His for us and ours for Him—can ‘constrain’ to such work. ‘Hirelings’ will feed the goats, but only those who love Christ can feed His sheep.” Love for Christ’s flock will give a pastor persuasiveness with his congregation, patience for their failings, and an eloquence that mere learning can never supply. When it comes to shepherding the flock of Christ, “other qualities may be desirable, but love is completely indispensable.”13To Love Thee More
We should not conclude our study of this passage without asking Jesus’ question to Peter of ourselves. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks. It is essential that we be able to answer this question, apart from which no further advance can be made.
Thankfully, Jesus did not say, “Do you love me perfectly?” or “Do you love me as I deserve?”—in which case we must all be turned away, abashed. He simply asks for our love. If we belong to Jesus, then like Peter, even filled with self-doubt and shame, we may answer, “Lord, you know.” “You know all my failings, all my weaknesses, and all my needs. But you also know that, Yes, I do love you.” Implied in that answer, of course, is a desire to love Jesus better and more completely, a longing to love him as he deserves to be adored by his redeemed people. The way to love Jesus more fully is to spend time with him, since we long to be with those we love. So let us be eager to open up Christ’s Word and fervent in opening our hearts in prayer. William Cowper supplies words that will help us to answer Jesus’ plea when we pray:
Lord, it is my chief complaint
That my love is weak and faint;
Yet I love Thee and adore,—
Oh! for grace to love Thee more!