Notes on John 21:15-17

John 21:15‑17  •  8 min. read  •  grade level: 7
But our Gospel, while fully revealing God in Christ on earth and in these closing chapters tracing His ways in Christ risen, first, for the Christian and the assembly, next for Israel, and lastly for the Gentiles, never loses sight of grace working with the individual soul; and Peter must be thoroughly restored and publicly re-instated: so would the Lord have it. He had been already singled out specially (Mark 16:77But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you. (Mark 16:7)) at a moment when such a distinction was of all moment both to himself and before his brethren, who would naturally have regarded with deep distrust the man who had so grievously and spite of full warning denied His Master. And before the eleven had the Lord standing in their midst, He had appeared to Simon. (Luke 24:3434Saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon. (Luke 24:34) Cor. 15:5.) But He would carry on the gracious work profoundly in Peter's heart, and let us into the secrets of this truly divine discipline.
“When therefore they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon [son] of John [or, Jonas],1 lovest thou me more than these? He saith to him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I dearly love thee. He saith to him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again a second time, Simon [son] of John, lovest thou me? He saith to him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I dearly love thee. He saith to him, Tend my sheep. He saith to him the third time, Simon [son] of John, dost thou dearly love me? Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, Dost thou dearly love me and he said to him, Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I dearly love thee. Jesus saith to him, Feed my sheep [or, little sheep].” (John 21:15-1715So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. 16He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. 17He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep. (John 21:15‑17).)
The Lord goes to the root of the matter. He does not speak of Peter's denying Him, but penetrates to its cause. Peter fell through confidence in himself, at least in his love to his Master. He judged that he might go where others could not safely, and that he would stand to the confession of His name in the face of prison and death. The result we all know too well. The greatest of the twelve denied the Lord repeatedly and swore to it, notwithstanding fresh and solemn warning. But restoration is not complete though we own the fruit ever so fully. In order to thorough blessing the Lord would have us, like Peter here, to discern the hidden spring. This he had not reached yet: the Lord makes it known to His servant. There is no haste; He waits till they had broken their fast, and then He says to Simon Peter, “Simon, [son] of John, lovest thou (ἀγαπᾷς) me more than these?” He calls him by his natural name; for well He knew wherein lay the secret, which gave a handle to the enemy; and He would awaken a true sense of it in the apostle's soul. Through assurance of his own superior affection he had not merely trusted in himself, in comparison with others, but slighted the word of the Lord. Had he laid His words to heart with prayer, he had not fallen when tried, but endured the temptation and suffered. But it was not so. He was sure that he loved the Lord more than all the rest; and if they could not stand such a sifting, he would; and this confidence in his own surpassing love to Christ was precisely the cause, as the interrogation of the bystanders was the occasion, of his fall. And now the Lord lays the root bare to Peter, who had already wept over the open fruit.
Yet at first Peter does not discover the aim of the Lord. He does avoid unwise comparison with others; he simply appeals to the Lord's inward conscious knowledge: “Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I dearly love (φιλῶ) thee.” Far from denying his profession of tender affection, the Lord proves His own value for it, and His confidence in Peter, for He, the good Shepherd, about to quit the world, entrusts to His servant that Which was unspeakably precious in His eyes and Most of all needed His care: “Feed my lambs.” Thus does He prove our love by answering to His love for the weakest of saints. “Whosoever loveth him that begat, loveth him also that is begotten of him.” We love, because He first loved us; but it is not that we love Him only, but those that are His, not those that love us, naturally, but those that He loves, as divinely. “He that saith, I know him and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; and if a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he also is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen. And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.”
Did not Peter deeply and increasingly feel the Lord's loving trust thus reposed in him, more than even before he fell? The administration of the kingdom of the heavens, the keys (not of the church nor of heaven, but) of the kingdom had been promised to Peter, and made good in due time. Here it is more tender and intimate, though there is no ground to extend the flock here committed to him beyond those of the circumcision. (Of. Gal. 2) Did he not remember Isa. 40:1111He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:11), in communion with the blessed Messiah in His work of feeding that flock like a shepherd, gathering the lambs with His arm and carrying them in His bosom, while gently leading the nursing ewes?
The Lord appeals once more, but drops all reference to others. “He saith to him again a second time, Simon [son] of John, lovest thou me? He saith to him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I dearly love thee. He saith to him, Feed my sheep.” It is painfully instructive that even such a ripe scholar as Grotius should commit himself to an opinion so unworthy as that these marked changes of expression represent no weighty distinctions of truth.2 But Peter, though he no longer thinks disparagingly of others, cannot give up his assurance that the Lord was inwardly aware of his true affection for Himself. And the Lord now bids him tend or rule His sheep, as before feed His lambs. And Peter at a later day impresses the same on the elders among the Jewish Christians he was addressing, sojourners of the dispersion in Pontus and other districts of proconsular Asia: “Tend the flock of God which is among you, overseeing not of constraint but willingly; nor yet for filthy lucre, but readily; nor as lording it over your possessions, but making yourselves ensamples to the flock.” In the Lord's words, as in the apostle's, it will be noticed how carefully the lambs and the sheep are said to be Christ's, not the elders' nor even the apostle's. The flock is God's flock. He who treats Christians as his congregation is guilty of the same forgetfulness of divine grace and divine authority, as the congregation in regarding the minister as their minister, instead of Christ's. If any think these are slight distinctions, it is clear that they have no right apprehension of a difference which is as deep in truth as it is fraught with the most momentous consequences for good and ill in practice. Only this gives moral elevation, as it alone springs from faith; this alone delivers from self and gives the true relation and character, even Christ, whether to those that minister, or to those ministered to.
But the Lord speaks to him yet again. “He saith to him the third time, Simon [son] of John, dost thou dearly love me?” Here the probe reached the bottom. Not a word of blame or reproach; but the Lord for the third time questions him, and for the first time takes up his own word of special affection. Did not his threefold denial appear in the light of the threefold appeal, and, above all, of that word expressive of endearing love “Peter was grieved, because He said to him the third time, Dost thou dearly love Me? and he said to Him, Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I dearly love Thee. Jesus saith to him, Feed My sheep,” or, if the reading of the Alexandrian, the Vatican, and the Paris palimpsest, &c., be preferred, My “little sheep,” a diminutive of tenderness and endearment.
The work of restoration was now fully done. Peter abandons every thought of self and can find refuge only in grace. Only He who knows all of Himself without an effort, only He could give credit to Peter's heart spite of his mouth and all appearances; yet did not He know that His poor denying servant dearly loved Him? The answer of the Lord, committing afresh what was dearest to Him on earth, the gift of the Father's love to Himself, seals Peter's restoration, not in soul only, but in his relation to the sheep of His pasture. Feed them, says the Lord. To tend or rule pastorally is not forgotten; but positive nourishment, as of the lambs at the beginning, remains to the last, the abiding task of the shepherd, the habitual need of the sheep; but it demands enduring and deep love, not to scold or govern, perhaps, but to feed, and not least of all Christ's sheep. Only the love of Christ can carry one through it.