Grace, Love, and Feeding Sheep
By Dr. David Calhoun
Associate Professor of New Testament and Archaeology
Jesus said to Peter the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because Jesus said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17)
Have you ever failed another person to such a degree that you wonder if they will ever forgive you? In the final chapter of John’s gospel we observe the apostle Peter, who had recently denied his suffering Lord in the courtyard of the high priest. Moreover, we witness Jesus reinstate this fallen disciple.
Many apply this chapter only to those whom we label shepherds (i.e., ordained pastors). After all, Jesus repeatedly says, “feed my sheep.” However, Peter here is not a mere pastor, he is an apostle. Thus, in one sense the original application is properly very narrow. Yet applying this chapter today requires us to focus on how Jesus responds to this fallen disciple. And in Jesus’ response we see a pattern: Jesus graciously calls those who love him to minister to others.
Important Features in John 21
First, observe that chapter 21 follows the resurrection appearance to Thomas and the “purpose statement” of the gospel articulated in John 20:30–31: “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” As a result, some scholars have questioned why chapter 21 is even here. After all, a fine conclusion to the gospel occurs in 20:30–31; and consequently chapter 21 appears superfluous. However, the author is quite aware that in this chapter he presents a third resurrection appearance (21:14).
Next, the meal in this chapter echoes Jesus’ previous feeding of the multitudes in chapter six. Not only is the food the same (bread and fish), but in both accounts, Jesus is the one who provides the feast. The one who is the Bread of Life has now—as risen Lord—again symbolically provided another messianic banquet.
Another noteworthy section is the threefold questioning of Peter that certainly parallels his threefold denial of Christ. At first Peter claimed that he would follow Jesus even unto death. Then, at the hour of testing, he—as Jesus predicted—denied his Lord three times. This failure remains unresolved in John’s gospel until this final chapter. Here Jesus’ threefold call to “feed my sheep” reinstitutes Peter in his ministry, even as Jesus also prompts Peter to restate his love for his Lord.
The question asked thrice of Peter is, “Do you love me?” Jesus employs two different verbs for “love” (agapao twice, then phileo). The verb phileo, which some conceive to be a lesser “neighborly” love, actually can signify in this gospel the love the Father has for the Son and for the Christian; it also can express the Christian’s love of Jesus. Both verbs depict the love Jesus has for Lazarus; and both describe the disciple “whom Jesus loved”. John commonly varies his vocabulary in order not to weary his Greek readers. However, rather than emphasize any possible nuance between these verbs, simply observe: Jesus, before reinstituting Peter to his service, reminds Peter of his love for Christ.
As he affirms his love for Jesus, Peter is instructed to do two things: “feed my sheep” and “follow me”. The directive to “follow me” restates Jesus’ essential call to discipleship found throughout the gospel. Peter, after his Lord’s gracious threefold reinstitution, has yet again been called to respond as a disciple of Christ. Moreover, Peter’s discipleship requires him to fulfill his call to tend Christ’s sheep.
It is important to note that the sheep belong to Jesus, not to Peter. Jesus repeatedly calls them “my” sheep. It is Jesus who is the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for the sheep. And the sheep ultimately follow Jesus. Peter is called to serve the Great Shepherd by caring for his sheep.
However, Peter fails again almost immediately after Jesus has graciously re-commissioned him. Peter begins to compare his lot in life to that of John, the “beloved disciple” (John 21:21–22). Jesus’ strong rebuke reminds Peter that he must focus on his own discipleship. In the midst of such repeated failure we witness again that Peter was not inherently worthy of his calling. Yet, Peter’s failure is met with grace from the risen Lord, who calls him to continued discipleship. Of course we too are not worthy, and yet our gracious Lord calls us to respond in love as his disciples and to minister without jealously resulting from comparing our allotted path in life with that of others.
We should wrestle a bit more with the fact that John 21 occurs just after the great “purpose statement” of the gospel (20:30–31). Though many have seen chapter 21 as an unnecessary appendix, this final chapter clearly culminates themes found earlier in John (such as shepherding, following Jesus, Christ’s resurrection, messianic banquet, and Peter’s denial of Christ). Most importantly, this chapter forwards another theme that occurs frequently in the gospel: the call to love.
In very general terms, the gospel of John can be divided into Jesus’ public ministry (chapters 1–12) and his private ministry with his disciples (chapters 13–17). The first section especially concerns “believing” in Christ. The second section contains a reoccurring motif of “love.” For example, the Father loves the Son, and the Son pours out his love on his followers (John 15:9). Anyone who loves Jesus is loved by Him and by the Father (see John 14:21, 23). Disciples are called to abide in Christ’s love (15:9-10). The person who loves Jesus keeps Jesus’ commandments, especially through loving one another. When Peter is asked, “Do you love me,” he is being reminded of Jesus’ fundamental call to loving relationship and discipleship. This final chapter of John teaches us that the Christian life is not only about faith, but also concerns loving and following Jesus.
Jesus’ Response and Our Lives
I believe that Jesus’ response to Peter in this passage establishes a pattern for Christ’s relationship to all his followers. All of us have been forgiven and are called to love Jesus; and our love for Jesus propels us to serve others in his name. From this understanding flow several specific applications for our lives.
We minister in response to the grace of Christ. Often I have counseled people wrestling with their own sinfulness and wondering if they are worthy to minister to others. In such brokenness at least two matters must be conveyed—often simultaneously. It is indeed vital that we grapple with the sin in our lives; to do this, we all must confess, repent, pray for Christian growth, study God’s Word, avoid tempting situations, seek counsel (perhaps professional counseling), look for accountability partners, and possibly even engage in public confession where we may have injured others. Yet, in the midst of our daily struggles to honor our Lord, we must always also remember that Christ calls sinners such as us to his service. Peter abandoned the Lord in his darkest hour. Jesus forgave Peter; surely he forgives us. Peter fails yet again just after his Lord’s gracious re-commission (see John 21:20–21). If Jesus still directs Peter to follow him after such an outburst, surely he also calls us to continue daily in discipleship.
We minister out of love for Jesus. Before calling Peter to feed sheep, Jesus asks him, “Do you love me?” Having personally spent time with Bedouin shepherds in the Middle East, I can assure you that sheep are malodorous dumb animals. Shepherding demands a deep commitment. When Jesus compares Peter’s ministerial call to tending sheep, he was not promising an easy ministry. Do you want to serve in Christian ministry for the long term? Sometimes you will be overjoyed at working with people. At other times ministry will tax you to your wit’s end. How can we stay committed for the long haul? Serving out of love for Christ will sustain our commitment.
We are called to care for Christ’s sheep. Whether we are in lay or vocational service, we must always remember that the people in our ministry belong to Christ, and he is the one who directs our service. Christ is the Lord of the church.
This conclusion to John’s gospel indicates how grace embraces us in our hour of need, how such grace calls us to love Christ, and how that love for Christ propels us to reach out beyond ourselves to serve his people.