Feed My Sheep
John 21: 1 — 19
Our reading comprises two parts:
1. Verses 1 — 14
Galilee — getting back into the old, secure, routines, followed by breakfast
with the Lord. Our text notes for this section come direct from Bishop Ryle's
commentary (c.1908): "Expository Thoughts".
2. Verses 15 — 19: Peter's
reinstatement: verse by verse commentary.
A. Back At Galilee - Breakfast With The
Lord: Verses 1 — 14
The appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ after his
resurrection, described in these verses, is a deeply interesting portion of
the Gospel history. The circumstances attending it have always been regarded
as highly allegorical and figurative, in every age of the Church. It may,
however, be justly doubted whether commentators and interpreters have not gone
too far in this direction. It is quite possible to spiritualise and filter
away the narratives of the Gospel, until we completely lose sight of the plain
meaning of the words. In the present case we shall find it wise to confine
ourselves to the great, simple lessons, which the passage undoubtedly
We should observe, for one thing, in these verses, the
poverty of the first disciples of Christ. We find them working with their
hands, in order to supply their temporal wants, and working at one of the
humblest of callings, the calling of a fisherman. Silver and gold they had
none, lands and revenues they had none, and therefore they were not ashamed to
return to the business to which they had, most of them, been trained. Striking
is the fact, that some of the seven here named were fishing, when our Lord
first called them to be Apostles, and again fishing, when He appeared to them
almost the last time. We need not doubt that to the minds of Peter, James, and
John, the coincidence would come home with peculiar power.
This poverty of the Apostles goes far to prove the divine
origin of Christianity. These very men who toiled all night in a boat,
dragging about a cold wet net, and taking nothing, these very men who found
it necessary to work hard in order that they might eat, these very men were
some of the first founders of the mighty Church of Christ, which has now
overspread one third of the globe. These were they who went forth from an
obscure corner of the earth and turned the world upside down. These were the
unlearned and ignorant men, who boldly confronted the subtle systems of
ancient philosophy, and silenced its advocates by the preaching of the cross.
These were the men who at Ephesus, and Athens and Rome, emptied the heathen
temples of their worshippers, and turned away multitudes to a new and better
faith. He that can explain these facts, except by admitting that Christianity
came down from God, must be a strangely credulous man. Reason and common sense
lead up to only one conclusion in the matter. Nothing can account for the rise
and progress of Christianity but the direct interposition of God.
We should observe, for another thing, in these verses the
different characters of different disciples of Christ. Once more, on this
deeply interesting occasion, we see Peter and John side by side in the same
boat, and once more, as at the sepulchre, we see these two good men behaving
in different ways.
When Jesus stood on the shore, in the dim twilight of the
morning, John was the first to perceive who it was, and to say, "It is
the Lord;" but Peter was the first to spring into the water, and to
struggle to get closer to his Master. In a word John was the first to see; but
Peter was the first to act.
John's gentle loving spirit was quickest to discern; but
Peter's fiery, impulsive nature, was quickest to stir and move. And yet both
were believers, both were truehearted disciples, both loved the Lord in life,
and were faithful to Him unto death. But their natural temperaments were not
Let us never forget the practical lesson before us. As long
as we live, let us diligently use it in forming our estimate of believers. Let
us not condemn others as graceless and unconverted, because they do not see
the path of duty from our standpoint, or feel things exactly as we feel them.
"There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit."
(1 Cor.12: 4.) The gifts of God's children are not bestowed
precisely in the same measure and degree. Some have more of one gift, and some
have more of another. Some have gifts which shine more in public, and others
have gifts which shine more in private. Some are more bright in a passive
life, and some are more bright in an active one. Yet each and all members of
God's family, in their own way and in their own season, bring glory to God.
Martha was "careful and troubled about much serving," when Mary
"sat at the feet of Jesus and heard His word." Yet there came a day,
at Bethany, when Mary was crushed and prostrated by over-much sorrow, and
Martha's faith shone more brightly than her sister's. (Luke 10: 39 - 40; John
11: 20 — 28.) Nevertheless both were loved by our Lord. The one thing needful
is to have the grace of the Holy Spirit, and to love Christ. Let us love all
of whom this can be said, though they may not see with our eyes in everything.
The Church of Christ needs servants of all kinds, and instruments of every
sort; penknives as well as swords, axes as well as hammers, chisels as well as
saws, Marthas as well as Marys, Peters as well as Johns. Let our ruling maxim
be this, "Grace be with all them that love the Lord Jesus Christ in
sincerity." (Ephes 6: 24.)
We should observe, lastly, in these verses, the abundant
evidence which Scripture supplies of our Lord Jesus Christ's resurrection.
Here, as in other places we find an unanswerable proof that our Lord rose
again with a real material body, and a proof seen by seven grown-up men with
their own eyes, at one and the same time. We see Him sitting, talking, eating,
drinking, on the shore of the lake of Galilee, and to all appearance for a
considerable time. The morning sun of spring shines down on the little party.
They are alone by the well-known Galilean lake far away from the crowd and
noise of Jerusalem. In the midst sits the Master, with the nail-prints in His
hands, the very Master whom they had all followed for three years, and one
of them, at least, had seen hanging on the cross. They could not be deceived.
Will any one pretend to say that stronger proof could be given that Jesus rose
from the dead? Can any one imagine better evidence of a fact? That Peter was
convinced and satisfied we know. He says himself to Cornelius, We did
"eat and drink with Him after He rose from the dead." (Acts 10: 41.)
Those who in modern times say they are not convinced, may as well say that
they are determined not to believe any evidence at all.
Let us all thank God that we have such "a cloud of
witnesses" to prove that out Lord rose again. The resurrection of Christ
is the grand proof of Christ's divine mission. He told the Jews they need not
believe He was the Messiah, if He did not rise again the third day. The
resurrection of Christ is the top stone of the work of redemption. It proved
that He finished the work He came to do, and, as our Substitute, had overcome
the grave. The resurrection of Christ is a miracle that no infidel can explain
away. Men may carp and cavil (split hairs or be pedantic) at Balaam's ass, and
Jonah in the whale's belly, if they please, but till they can prove that
Christ did not rise again we need not be moved. Above all, the resurrection of
Christ is the pledge of our own. As the grave could not detain the Head, so it
shall not detain the members. Well may we say with Peter, "Blessed be the
God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath begotten us again unto a
lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." (1 Peter
B. Peter's Reinstatement: Verses 15 — 19
Some Notes On Our Text
After the meal
(see Verses 12 — 14) our Lord gets down to
unfinished business. A short conversation follows. Many of the great scholars
disagree as to the importance of the words used for "love" in the
original Greek text. There is however, a sequence, a flow, which we need to
Jesus opens up this section of the conversation: "Simon
bar Jonah", ie. son of John. Nowhere else is our Lord recorded as having
addressed anyone in this way. It seems that in this brief incident our Lord
takes Peter's mind back to the day when he first began to be a disciple of
Christ, and to all that had happened in the past three years. In particular this
would remind Peter of the day he first came to Jesus, and how he believed Jesus
was the Lamb of God.
Jesus continues: " Do you truly love (agapao) me more
than these?" Our Lord knows perfectly well how much Peter loves him, but it
is Peter who must have no doubt in himself. He is ashamed, after all his talk of
what he would do for the Lord, that he denied Jesus three times and ran away
when he was most needed. Our Lord understands Peter, why he acted as he did, and
how he is feeling at the present time. But Peter cannot be left in this state if
he is to fulfil his role in the Church. The Lord begins taking him through a
most beautiful process of inner healing. Peter is not asked, "Do you
believe?" or "Are you converted?" or "Have you been
born again?" These are complex questions and entirely inappropriate.
Instead, mercifully, the Lord asks Peter to tell him how he feels about him.
Our Lord's question has a little challenge in it. Peter had
once asserted that he loved Jesus more than the other disciples did. The
question therefore before him is something like, "Do you still think you
love me with the purest love (agape): purer than anyone else's love?"
Peter replies, Yes Lord, you know I love you (phileo)".
Peter is being humble and replies with respect, meaning, it may not be the
highest and purest form of love (agape), but it is love just the same. Jesus
says, "Feed my lambs".
Jesus again asks
about Peter's love, leaving the others out of it. Just for the moment the
spotlight is on Peter alone. "Do you really love me?" says Jesus,
implying 'as I love you (agape)'. Peter repeats the same reply, words to the
effect: "I have very great love (phileo) for you, though I admit it
may not be as pure as it might". He does not venture to say a word about
the others. He no longer compares the love in his heart with the love in the
hearts of the other disciples. "I only know my own heart, and I feel sure I
love you." Jesus replies, "Take care of (or feed) my sheep".
We note the great St Augustine observes that Christ,
throughout this dialogue says "my" sheep or lambs, not "your".
Yet again Jesus
asks, "Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me?" He is, by this
means bringing Peter closer to him. Peter understands the question very well — "Do you really love me even to the degree you have just said?"
Peter is hurt, and now falls back on truth that cannot be
refuted or diluted, or for that matter, held back. "Lord, you know all
things. You know what sort of love I have for you, and I cannot hide it. My
love is far from perfect, but I do love you."
At that moment, Peter proclaims Jesus to be the Lord who knows all things. As
with Thomas, the Lord has patiently drawn out Peter's confession and
proclamation. There is no doubt that Peter was recalling Psalm 139:
"Lord, I lie open to your scrutiny;
You know me, know when I sit down and when I rise up again,
Can read my thoughts from far away
Scrutinise me O god, as you will, and read my heart;
Put me to the test, and examine my restless thoughts.
See if on any false paths my heart is set,
And yourself — lead me in the ways of old."
(Note: We have used the Greek Septuagint version of the Old
Testament here, as this is the version, rather than the Hebrew, which was used
by the early Church and by the writers of the Gospels.)
This will be Peter's prayer for the rest of his life. Peter is
healed of all self-doubt and haunting guilt. He is now fully restored by the One
he acknowledges as his Lord.
Jesus quietly repeats: "Take care of my sheep."
Three times Jesus has commanded Peter to take up the holy work
of caring for the Shepherd's flock. Relying on Christ's strength he regains his
courage and inner confidence. With those qualities he can be a good shepherd
without being authoritarian, or lording it over the others.
For his humility
and obedience, Jesus explains, he will be given the honour of dying in the same
way as his Master, by crucifixion.
Calmly and without fuss Jesus concludes this time of renewal
with the first message he ever addressed to Peter: "Follow me."
In other words: "Now there is nothing in the way. You are
ready to serve as I have prepared you for. Simply lead my flock by following
We have been privileged to observe another very special moment
in the relationship of Christ and his Apostles. After all the drama of the
crucifixion, Peter has returned home thoroughly depressed. He couldn't sit
around talking about it, so he went fishing to take his mind off everything. But
our Lord has other plans. Patiently he awaits Peter's return to shore, attends
to his bodily needs and then proceeds to confront Peter very gently with his
problem. Without realising it, Peter, in his usual style, engages with the Lord
honestly and openly, holding nothing back. Peter is very tender at this time,
but our Lord knows how to restore him without destroying him. The outcome is
indeed impressive, as the history of the early Church records. For that we will
need to begin reading the Book of Acts.