The three commands, although often translated the same way, are subtly different. The first time Jesus says it, the Greek means literally “pasture (tend) the lambs” (v. 15). The Greek word for “pasture” is in the present tense, denoting a continual action of tending, feeding and caring for animals. Believers are referred to as sheep throughout Scripture. “For he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care” (Psalm 95:7). Jesus is both our Good Shepherd (John 10:11) and the Door of the sheepfold (John 10:9). By describing His people as lambs, He is emphasizing their nature as immature and vulnerable and in need of tending and care.
The second time, the literal meaning is “tend My sheep” (v. 16). In this exchange, Jesus was emphasizing tending the sheep in a supervisory capacity, not only feeding but ruling over them. This expresses the full scope of pastoral oversight, both in Peter’s future and in all those who would follow him in pastoral ministry. Peter follows Jesus’ example and repeats this same Greek word poimainoin his first pastoral letter to the elders of the churches of Asia Minor: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers” (1 Peter 5:2).
The third time, the literal translation is “pasture (tend) the sheep” (v. 17). Here Jesus combines the different Greek words to make clear the job of the shepherd of the flock of God. They are to tend, care for, and provide spiritual food for God’s people, from the youngest lambs to the full-grown sheep, in continual action to nourish and care for their souls, bringing them into the fullness of spiritual maturity. The totality of the task set before Peter, and all shepherds, is made clear by Jesus’ three-fold command and the words He chooses.
What is this food with which shepherds are to feed the flock of God? It can be no other than the Word of God. Peter declares that Christians are to desire the pure spiritual milk of the Word so that by it, we can mature in our salvation (1 Peter 2:2). As early as the book of Deuteronomy, we see the Lord describing His Word as food for His people who live not by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from His mouth (Deuteronomy 8:3). Jesus reiterates this thought in His temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:4). The importance of the Word of God as food for our souls cannot be over-emphasized.
Clearly, the job of the shepherds of God’s people is to provide them with the pure milk of the Word of God so they can move on to the meat and solid food of the spiritually mature (Hebrews 5:12-14). Pastoral ministry should be primarily one of pastors feeding their people the Word of God. Only then can pastors declare, as Peter did, their love for the Lord Jesus.
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.” – John 21: 17 (NIV)
Can you hear the urgency in Jesus' question for Peter? The tenderness in the way he pushes Peter past his failure of denying Jesus and into living a life that continues to honor Jesus? After reading this exchange, we can all start to see God’s heart of love for humanity. He desires us to be people who live in service of others!
Jesus goes out of his way to clear the air between Peter and himself. He does not leave this Earth without making sure Peter knows that He is forgiven and that God still has a place for Peter in his Kingdom. Jesus also gives the rest of us insight as to what those who proclaim they love Him must do. He wants us to feed his sheep.
Jesus calls for action to accompany our faith; giving meaning and purpose for our Christian lives.
Let’s be the people that take Jesus’ words seriously and begin to willingly give our time and talent so that we are a blessing to those around us. Philippians 2:17 says, “But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy.”
May we all have the opportunity to share the joy that comes when we are faithful to serve. Let’s explore what Jesus is saying to Peter in John 21 and how we can apply these words to our own lives.
What Does ‘Feed My Sheep’ Mean In the Gospel of John? Three times Jesus charges Peter to care for his church. Jesus tells Peter to feed his lambs, feed his sheep, and then again to feed his sheep. The “lamb and sheep” that Jesus is referring to is the church of Christ. Becoming part of Christ's church means we accept him in our hearts as our Lord and Savior through a prayer of faith.
We see the term sheep used elsewhere in the Bible. In Luke 15:4-7 Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep and says he would leave the 99 to find the one lost sheep. John 10:11 states that Jesus is the good shepherd and he will lay down his life for his sheep.
Jesus is our chief shepherd, caring for all of his followers. Jesus invited Peter and all his disciples to take part in caring for his church. In this text “feed my sheep” means more than just give them food; it's referring to the work of a shepherd. They are called to nurture others, care for the church, feed believers and the lost with spiritual food, protect those in the church, and go out and seek the lost “sheep” that are still out in the world.
Why does Jesus give Peter this charge? It was a way to not only forgive Peter for his earlier betrayal of Christ but to show that Jesus had absolute trust in Peter’s ability to lead in God’s church. Jesus forgives Peter and entrusts him with being part of the most important work to be done here on Earth.
Who Was Jesus Instructing and Why? In John 21, Peter and a few of the disciples decide to go fishing; but after fishing all night they had no success. In the morning, a man calls to them from the shore asking if they had caught any fish. They reply “no” and he tells them to cast their net on the right side of their boats. When they listen to the man from the shore's instructions they suddenly catch an abundance of fish! As they are pulling up the net, packed full of fish, John recognizes that the man on the shore is Jesus and shares this revelation with Peter. Peter immediately jumps out of the boat and eagerly swims to shore to meet Jesus!
When Peter gets to Jesus he sees that Jesus is waiting with fish and bread ready for them to eat. Jesus invites Peter to have breakfast with him and then in verse 17 begins to ask Peter if he loves him. Jesus asks Peter “if he loves him” three times—mirroring how Peter denied Christ three times before he was killed on the cross.
Jesus’ conversation with Peter is Jesus restoring his relationship with Peter, charging Peter to continue the mission of sharing the good news of Jesus with the world, and preparing Peter for what it was going to take to be his follower in the coming months and years. Jesus foretells Peter’s death and instructs him not to worry with the fate of the other disciples but to focus his mind on following Jesus well (John 21:18-22).
Jesus is sharing with Peter and the disciples who are huddled around this breakfast fire during this intimate exchange that to love him was going to mean action on their end. Loving Jesus looked like “feeding his sheep.” These men went out from these precious encounters with Jesus, before he ascended to Heaven, and they all gave all their lives to grow the early church.