John 21 serves almost as a post script to the great gospel. Christ’s atoning death and resurrection have already been recorded, and the evangelistic purpose of the book has been summarized in John 20:30-31. Rather than ending with a typical record of the Great Commission, however, John instead records for us a beautiful scene on the seaside during which Christ appears to the disciples, feeds them, and instructs them.
The text climaxes in the pointed yet gracious reinstatement of Peter in verses 15-17. It has often been observed that just as Peter denied Christ three times, Jesus questioned his love three times and commended him to ministry three times. There’s a gentle reproof in the reminder of Peter’s unfaithfulness and boasting: “Do you love me? Are you still claiming greater fidelity than these, your fellow disciples?” (Mark 14:29) Ouch. But there’s also great grace: “Peter, I’ll still use you. Feed my sheep.”
Beyond Jesus’ message of grace to Peter and Peter’s desperate appeal to Christ’s knowledge that his love, though imperfect, was sincere, John’s text contains some great lessons for pastoral ministry and the centrality of the local church.
Jesus gives a doxological motive to pastoral ministry. Our Lord unmistakably connects our love for Himself with our care for His church, insisting three times that our love for Him is evidenced chiefly by love for His sheep. Peter had tried to show His love for Jesus on his own terms: in boastful promises to fight to the death, in an audacious rebuke, in ambitious jousting with the other disciples for position, and even in hacking off a servant’s ear in a show of ill-advised aggression. His attempts to show his love were terribly flawed, as are so many of ours. Christ simplified things for him and for us. “Love Me? Feed my lambs.” This is instructive from both angles:
- Our love for Christ must show itself in care for His flock.
- Our care for Christ’s flock must be rooted in our love for Christ.
I delight to think on Jesus’ esteem for and protection of His church. To care for Christ’s sheep is to worship Christ, just as to oppress them is to persecute Christ (Acts 9:4). “Love me by loving mine.” What a great word even for those who aren’t called to be shepherds.
Jesus describes the doctrinal focus of pastoral ministry. Shepherds are commanded to care for His sheep in two specific ways—to “feed” and “tend” them. The verb Christ uses in the first and third commands (the Greek word bosko, vv. 15 and 17) is a general term for feeding. The undershepherd is a dietician. We nourish the church by giving out the Word, not our own opinions. And our ministry, though evangelistic, is focused primarily on caring for the church of Christ—sheep.
The second verb Christ uses (the Greek word poimaino, v. 16) is the term we more commonly associate with pastoring, or even translate as pastor. It still speaks of nourishment, but it includes other aspects of pastoral ministry as well. Diligent study and sound hermeneutics are necessary. However, preparing a biblically accurate sermon can become a mere “craft.” We can be perfectionistic about proper exposition while thinking little of the sheep we’re actually feeding. We’re preaching to needy people, for whom we should be praying and of whom we should be thinking as we study. And they need more than food. They need protection. They need leadership. They need encouragement. They need pastoral attention. Shepherds should smell like sheep.
Finally, Jesus highlights the gentle nature of pastoral ministry. There’s a tenderness required in pastoral ministry. (Notice the gentle characteristics required of elders in such passages as 1 Timothy 3:3 and 2 Timothy 2:24-26, for example.) Thus, Christ uses a diminutive term for His flock, especially in verse 15: “Feed my little lambs.” Peter was impulsive. He was a tough guy. But he needed to learn to nurture sheep rather than run over them. It’s a lesson he not only learned, but passed on in 1 Peter 5:1-4. Ministry is a tender thing, even for tough guys. Even when sheep are confused or in need of correction. And again, giving them gentle pastoral attention is worship.
The elders with whom I pastor Tri-County Bible Church meditated together on these great truths over the weekend. It was a rich time. By God’s grace, we hope to make John 21:15-17 a defining text for our ministry in this local assembly. Might we show our great love for our Lord by loving and caring for His flock. And might you do the same in your local church!