John’s Gospel: Chapter 21:1-17 (“Feed my lambs”)

(John 21:1 ESV) After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way.

The Sea of Tiberias is usually called the Sea of Galilee.

(John 21:2-3 ESV)  2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together.  3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

It’s interesting that the disciples returned to Galilee and went fishing, even though they’d seen the resurrected Jesus. Perhaps they’d gone back to visit their families. And, well, fishermen fish.

(John 21:4-6 ESV)  4 Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  5 Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.”  6 He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish.”

It’s not surprising that they did not recognize Jesus in this case, because he was surely some distance away.

Many take the vast quantity of fish as symbolic of the fishing for men the apostles would soon undertake. Jesus produces the catch; we just need to cast our nets.

(John 21:7 ESV) 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea.

Why did the disciple Jesus loved conclude it was Jesus? Was it the miracle of the catch? Did he recognize Jesus on the shore? It seems that we’re to conclude that it was the miraculous catch because only Jesus had the power to control nature in this way.

That is, to conclude that this was Jesus was an act of faith — a faith that led the always impetuous Peter to jump in the water (again!)

(John 21:8-11 ESV)  8 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.  9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread.  10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”  11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn.

Jesus had prepared breakfast. No explanation for where Jesus got the fish already being cooked is offered. After all, this is Jesus!

(John 21:12 ESV)  12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.

This is an odd verse, isn’t it? I mean, either they recognized Jesus or they didn’t. Evidently, they could only recognize him by his words and his behavior, not by his appearance. Something had changed that the author cannot explain.

(John 21:13-14 ESV)  13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish.  14 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Jesus fed the disciples fish and bread, very much like the feeding of the 5,000.

(John 21:15 ESV)  15 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.”

This is one of most badly exegeted passages in the entire New Testament (which says a lot). Some really bad conclusions have been drawn.

Jesus begins, “Simon, son of John.” This is a formal greeting. It emphasizes the seriousness of the conversation that’s about to ensue, but it also suggests a certain interpersonal distance — rather like me referring to my brother as “Mr. Guin.”

“Do you love me more than these?” Who are “these”? The bread and fish? The NET Bible translators conclude —

It seems likely that there is some irony here: Peter had boasted in John 13:37, “I will lay down my life for you,” and the synoptics present Peter as boasting even more explicitly of his loyalty to Jesus (“Even if they all fall away, I will not,” Mat 26:33; Mar 14:29). Thus the semantic force of what Jesus asks Peter here amounts to something like “Now, after you have denied me three times, as I told you you would, can you still affirm that you love me more than these other disciples do?”

In short, “Do you really love me more than these other disciples do — the ones who didn’t deny me?”

“Do you love me?” uses agapē (it’s a long “e”, by the way). Peter responds with phileō. The New Testament tends to use agapē to refer to disinterested love, that is, love that expects nothing in return, whereas phileō tends to be used of the love friends and family members have for each other. But it’s a mistake to think of phileō as a weaker form of love than agapē. After all, many people will die for their friends and family.

In fact, if Jesus is asking, “Do you love me as someone might love a starving child in Africa?” then Peter is saying, “No, I love you as a friend or family member,” which makes perfect sense given that Jesus had only recently said,

(John 15:13-14 ESV) 13 “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.  14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

Indeed, we find phileō in such passages as —

(John 5:20 ESV) For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel.

(John 16:26-27 ESV)  26 In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf;  27 for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.

Phileō is used in John to refer to the love of family members, especially the Father and Son. It’s certainly not to be translated by “like” or “love just a little” — all the horrid sermons on this subject notwithstanding.

Plainly, Peter was expressing a deeply felt love for Jesus. Peter was making it more personal than the question required. After all, Jesus had begun with an impersonal tone!

Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs.” Who are the lambs? Well, baby sheep. And Jesus uses “sheep” twice later in the same conversation. Earlier in John, “sheep” refers to the Jews, of whom Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Of course, that discourse also includes Jesus saying he has sheep of another sheepfold (John 10:16). That is, “sheep”  and “lambs” include all whom Jesus shepherds, that is, both Jewish and Gentile converts. In effect, he’s appointing Peter as his under-shepherd to tend to Jesus’ sheep, beginning with the church that’s about to filled with newborn lambs.

(John 21:16 ESV) 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love [agapē] me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love [phileō] you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

Jesus repeats the question and Peter repeats his answer. Jesus replies speaking of “sheep” rather than “lambs.” The meaning is surely the same.

Rather than “feed,” this time Jesus commands Peter to “tend” his sheep. “Tend” would be more precisely translated as “shepherd.” It’s the verb form of the noun “shepherd.”

(John 21:17 ESV) He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love [phileō] me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love [phileō] me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love [phileō] you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Jesus is not settling for a lesser form of love from Peter — not at all. He’s asking Peter whether he told the truth the first two times. In other words, “Peter, you denied me three times. I now insist that you affirm your love three times.”

When Peter heard the third question, he was surely reminded of his denials and realized that Jesus was, in effect, challenging him to rise above his sins, to suffer the charge from the lips of Jesus, and to be restored — but only after having to deal with what he’d said.

Jesus was not willing to merely let bygones be bygones. The sin had to be dealt with — by effectively confronting it and letting Peter not only feel the sting of being doubted, but by charging Peter to prove his love by taking on a great responsibility — to become shepherd to the sheep of the Good Shepherd.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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