“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus said to His disciples when He appeared to them for the third time after His resurrection (John 21:12). In all His resurrected glory, Jesus condescended to invite His friends to a meal, and it’s in this context that we read about Jesus’ final conversation with Simon Peter.
Jesus asks three times, “Simon, do you love me?” The standard interpretation of this passage is that just as Simon Peter had repudiated Jesus three times—denying even knowing Him, let alone loving Him—Jesus counters with this threefold interrogation: “Simon, do you love me?” But there’s at least one other possible interpretation for this repetition. Specifically, perhaps what we find here is the principle of emphasis by repetition.
To make a point emphatic, Jesus often prefaced His words by saying, “Verily, verily,” or “Truly, truly, I say unto you,” before a profound teaching. We see this again and again in Scripture whereby the truth of a statement is given emphasis by repetition. The Apostle Paul says, “Let him be anathema . . . anathema” (Gal. 1:8–9). The seraphim cried to one another before the throne of God, “Holy, holy, holy” (Isa. 6:3). And the cry is heard in Revelation, “Woe, woe, woe,” when God’s wrath is revealed (8:13).
Whatever the interpretation, whether it’s linked to Peter’s denial or the principle of emphasis by repetition, this is a text that every church member and pastor needs to hear.
Perhaps one of the most common and favored metaphors in Scripture for the people of God is the metaphor of sheep. We immediately think of Psalm 23, where David draws from his own experience as a shepherd and attributes to God the qualities of a shepherd: “The Lord is my shepherd” (v. 1). This metaphor carries over to the New Testament, where Jesus declares Himself to be the Good Shepherd (John 10).
How fitting it is to liken God and His Messiah to the role of the shepherd. Anyone in Palestine would have known how dependent sheep were on their shepherd. To be honest, it bothers me a bit that the people of God are compared to sheep. It’s not really a very complimentary metaphor if you know anything about sheep.
I remember playing golf once in Michigan, and out of nowhere came a flock of sheep without a shepherd—right in the middle of the fairway. It didn’t matter what we did; we couldn’t get rid of those sheep. They were running around aimlessly like lost sheep because there was no one to guide them.
And yet God borrows from nature to describe His own people, and not in a very complimentary way. With respect to the things of God, for the most part, we are like sheep—somewhat dense. All of this makes up part of the background of Peter’s final encounter with Jesus.
Jesus calls Peter to demonstrate his love for Him by feeding His sheep. The first thing we need to learn from this text is that the people of God consist of Christ’s sheep. Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). They are His lambs. When someone is installed as a pastor in a church, he is tasked with taking care of the lambs that were bought and purchased by Jesus. There is no greater sacred trust than to have God entrust His people to a pastor’s care.
But what does it mean to feed Christ’s sheep? What does it mean to tend them? Food, of course, is the primary substance by which our bodies are nurtured. What Christ is saying to His disciple is essentially this: “I am holding you responsible to nurture My sheep. You are to feed them.”
This call to feed Christ’s sheep comes with an incredible responsibility. Pastors must feed God’s people the truth. They must be absolutely scrupulous in the time they spend preparing sermons. They must make sure that their understanding of the Scripture is accurate and that they are not distorting, bending, falsifying, or even worse, replacing the Word of God with something else. Food that is spoiled poisons people. And the only food that will nurture the people of God is the food of the truth of the Word of God.
A direct implication of this truth is that there are certain things to which a shepherd is not called.
A shepherd is not called to entertain. Shepherds are called to make sure that their sheep are not lost. That’s enough to keep every pastor up at night. There are people in the congregation who may not know Jesus at all. I believe that the principal task of preaching on Sunday morning is to nurture the people of God, but pastors would be absolutely derelict in their duty if they assumed their churches were filled with nothing but the redeemed. Every Sunday, there are people in the congregation who are not regenerate, who have never heard the Word of God. And if the pastor loves them, he must feed them with the whole counsel of God.
A shepherd is not called to offer pop psychology. Self-help only heals the wound of the daughter of Zion lightly. The only thing under heaven that will nurture the sheep is the Word of God. That is the food God’s people desperately need if they are going to grow.
Adapted from the 2008 Ligonier Ministries Pastors Conference message from Dr. R.C. Sproul titled “Feed My Sheep.”.