Actually, as we will see, Christ did not use those exact words three times. Why was Christ telling Peter to “feed My sheep”? Each time Jesus said, “Feed My sheep,” or a similar, but not identical expression, it was in response to Peter’s threefold declaration of love for Jesus. Christ used this opportunity to encourage and exhort Peter about his upcoming responsibilities. By asking Peter, “Do you love me?” three times (while using different words for “love”), Christ was showing just how important and necessary Peter’s love and obedience to God was for his future ministry.
Jesus begins by questioning Peter about His love for Him, and each time Peter answers in the affirmative. Jesus follows up with the command for Peter to feed or tend His lambs or His sheep. His meaning is that, if Peter truly loves his Master, he is to shepherd and care for those who belong to Christ.
When Peter first told Christ that he would follow Him even to death, Christ pronounced that Peter would deny Him three times before the rooster crowed. It is quite interesting that three times he denies Christ, three times he is asked if he loves Christ, three times he professes his love for Christ and three times Christ says “feed or tend My lambs or My sheep.” Christ’s repeated question in John 21 would have reminded Peter of his three denials. There is no doubt those denials and how he felt when Jesus turned to look at him at that moment were seared deeply into Peter’s mind (Luke 22:54–62). It wasn’t lost on Peter that Jesus repeated His question to him in different ways three times, just as Peter previously denied Him three times. But we can see that Christ didn’t hold this against Peter.
There is an interesting contrast when looking at the Greek words for “love,” used in John 21:15–17. When Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” in John 21:15–16, He used the Greek word agapao the first two times, which refers to unconditional godly love which can only be granted through the Holy Spirit (compare Romans 5:5). Peter responds throughout with “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You,” using the Greek word phileo, which refers more to a brotherly/friendship type of love. Again Christ is trying to get Peter to understand that he must be receiving the Holy Spirit (which would be the case on the Day of Pentecost) to be able to love Christ and God the Father with godly love in order to be the leader that God is calling him to be. The third time Jesus asks, “Do you love Me?” in John 21:17, He uses the word phileo, and Peter again responds with “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You,” again using phileo. The point in the different Greek words for “love” seems to be that Jesus was stretching Peter to move him from phileo love to agape love, while understanding that he could only obtain the love of God through the gift of the Holy Spirit. In verse 17, however, as Christ does not use the word agape, but the word phileo in His question, He shows Peter that even though he did not yet have the Holy Spirit, that was no excuse for not feeding His sheep with brotherly love. It also shows that God does not do everything for us, but we must do our part and do what we can.
We also find that the three commands Christ gives Peter in regard to the “feeding or tending the sheep or the lambs,” although often translated the same way, are subtly different.
When Christ talks about “feeding” His lambs in verse 15, the Greek means literally “pasture (tend) the lambs.” The Greek word for “pasture” is in the present tense, denoting a continual action of tending, feeding and caring for animals. The Greek word is boskó and means to feed (graze); and figuratively, to spiritually nourish by feeding people the Word of God. By describing His people as lambs, He is emphasizing their nature as vulnerable and in need of constant tending and care. The Greek word for lamb is arníon and means a young lamb, “a little lamb”; and figuratively, a person with pure (innocent), virgin-like (gentle) intentions. This may also refer to those people of God who are still new in the faith.
Christ then talks about “tending” His sheep in verse 16. Christians are often referred to as sheep throughout Scripture (Psalm 95:7; John 10:9,11). In this exchange, Jesus was emphasizing tending the sheep in a supervisory capacity, not only feeding but ruling over them. The Greek word for “tending” is poimaínō and means to shepherd, care for and protect the flock. It focuses on “tending” which includes guarding, guiding, and feeding the flock and is only provided (ultimately) by Jesus Christ – the Shepherd, who calls under-shepherds (such as elder-overseers) to guard and guide His people by His direction (1 Peter 5:1-5).
This expresses the full scope of oversight, both in Peter’s future as a minister and in all those who would follow him in being in the ministry. Peter follows Jesus’ example and repeats this same Greek word poimaino in his first 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 word poimaínō occurs 11 times in the New Testament, usually with a figurative sense of “shepherding (tending) God’s flock.” This provides Spirit-directed guidance (care) in conjunction with feeding His people by teaching them the Word of God (bóskō in Greek, see above).
When Christ says in verse 17 that Peter has to “Feed My sheep,” the literal translation is “pasture (tend) the sheep.” 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 them, bringing them into the fullness of spiritual maturity (Ephesians 4:11-16). The totality of the task set before Peter, and all shepherds, is made clear by Jesus’ three-fold command and the words He chose.
Peter declares that Christians are to desire the pure spiritual milk of the Word so that by it, they can all mature in their salvation (1 Peter 2:2). As early as the book of Deuteronomy, we see the Bible describing His Word as food for His people who are not to live 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). Clearly, the Word of God is something we should be constantly using and learning from!
One of the main jobs 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). The ministry should be one of pastors feeding God’s people the Word of God. We continue to feed the sheep as Christ would have us do by staying close to God, while at the same time preaching and proclaiming the good news or gospel of the Kingdom of God.
Lead Writer: Kalon Mitchell