What Did Christ Mean?
When He addressed Peter regarding Loving Him and Feeding His Sheep
Jesus the Christ (Gk. Christos: the Anointed One, the Messiah), the Son of God (i.e., God manifested in the flesh), made a number of exceedingly significant statements during His ministry prior to and subsequent to being crucified on Calvary.
Following His crucifixion and resurrection, Christ “showed Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias,” which was “the third time Jesus showed Himself to His disciples after He was raised from the dead” (John 21:1, 14). At this time, the following exchange took place between Christ and Simon Peter, as recorded in the 21st chapter of the book of John.
(15) So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love [Gk. agapao] Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love [Gk. phileo] You.” He said to him, “Feed [Gk. bosko] My lambs [Gk. arnion].”
(16) He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love [Gk. agapao] Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love [Gk. phileo] You.” He said to him, “Tend [Gk. poimaino] My sheep [Gk. probaaton].”
(17) He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love [Gk. phileo] Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love [Gk. phileo] Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love [Gk. phileo] You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed [Gk. bosko] My sheep [Gk. probation].”
Jesus Christ using figurative language had previously established in the 10th chapter (e.g., vss. 11, 14) of John that He was the Shepherd and those who followed Him were His sheep (lambs). And continuing with this metaphor, He endeavored to convey a two-fold critical lesson to Peter regarding Peter’s spiritual relationship and responsibility, both of which should be shared by all ministers of Christ.
Note the difference in the literal meaning of the two Greek words used by Christ and Peter to express the concept of love in this passage, as well as the literal meaning of the words Christ used to express proper spiritual care (i.e., feed, tend) for His followers.
In the days when Christ walked the earth there were three words for the concept of love used by the Greek-speaking world. They were as follows:
1) Eros – a word referring to erotic or sexual love. This word was not used in the New Testament or the Septuagint (the oldest Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament); although, it was commonly used in the Greek literature of the time.
2) Phileo (and its cognates) – a word referring to tender affection, such as toward a friend or family member, which is used infrequently to express God’s love for His Son (John 5:20) and God’s love for man (John 16:27; 20:2).
3) Agapao (and its cognate agape) – a word (rarely used in extra biblical Greek) referring to a special and unconditional, selfless love for both God’s love for His Son (John 3:35) and God’s love for man (John 13:23; 14:21).
(The key differences between the two words [phileo and agapao] used in the New Testament to express the concept of love is that agapao is a more intense, pure love and it is totally selfless, having only its object’s interests and benefits at heart.)
The Greek word translated “feed” in verses 15 and 17 is bosko, which in the Greek meant exclusively to feed, rather than encompassing the entire office of a shepherd, i.e., guiding, guarding, etc. And the Greek word translated “tend” in verse 16 is poimaino, which refers to the entire process of shepherding: guiding, guarding, folding, and providing pasture (literally, to act as a shepherd).
In this exchange Christ was endeavoring to convey two critical spiritual lessons to Peter, both of which are fundamental to a successful spiritual life for the Christian in his quest for the “salvation of the soul” (Hebrews 10:39; James 1:21; 1 Peter 1:9), even though one may view the second lesson to be applicable to those whom God has called to be “pastor-teachers” (Ephesians 4:11) in this lifetime.
(It should be noted that God’s comprehensive plan of redemption for man involves the salvation of all three aspects [spirit, soul, and body as clearly depicted in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12] of his composition, which may be appropriately understood by accessing and reading Salvation of the Soul by Arlen L. Chitwood at http://bibleone.net/SOS.htm.)
As Peter was generously being served a breakfast-meal of bread and fish, Christ asked Peter more than once if he had a truly special and unconditional (selfless) agape-love for Jesus, more than just for what Christ could provide for him in response to his devotion, in this case, the breakfast-meal of bread and fish. And to these inquiries, Peter responded with an alternate expression of sincere love (phileo), one which did not embody the significant qualities (intensity and selflessness) upon which Christ required.
And it was this agape quality of love that Christ not only desired from Peter but desires from all those who have called upon His name and have been delivered from their death in “trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1, 5, 8, 9; Colossians 2:13), for it is only possible to sufficiently serve and to be favored by Christ when one achieves the height of agape-love in devotion to Him. The following two passages, both of which employ agape-love, make this abundantly clear: John 14:21, 23; 15:9-11.
Additionally, Christ made the case that true evidence of agape-love toward Him would be for Peter to “feed” and “tend” to His sheep (followers), which meant that Peter was to share the truth of God’s Word and assist in (be involved with) the spiritual welfare of other Christians. To properly engage in these undertakings, one must study God’s Word under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13; 2 Timothy 3:16, 17) and make time and effort to “walk [by faith] in Christ” (Colossians 2:6; 2 Corinthians 5:7) toward and for others (Colossians 3:16).
Unfortunately, today it is clear that this most critical revelation of true love for Jesus Christ – the in-depth understanding and sharing of the Word of God (i.e., the acquisition and distribution of the “feed”) – is noticeably missing throughout Christendom. The parables that Christ labored to reveal to His disciples in the 13th chapter of the book of Matthew (vss. 10-33) regarding the “mysteries of the kingdom of the heavens” (vs. 11) have come true, indicating that there is little time left before Christ will return for His own as is seen in 1 Thessalonians 4:13ff.
(A comprehensive treatment of the “mysteries of the kingdom of the heavens” and the various parables of Matthew 13, may be gained by reading Mysteries of the Kingdom, a book by Arlen L. Chitwood, which may be obtained at the following link: http://bibleone.net/MK.htm.)
To truly desire the truth of the Word of God, seeking its solutions at every turn and for every situation in life, rather than to just be satisfied with the surface elements prescribed by most ministers of the Christian faith, is God’s intended path of success for each of His children.
For the Word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (Colossians 3:16)
Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted Word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:21)
Let the instruction Paul gave to Timothy be your mandate in life, as follows:
I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the Word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.
(2 Timothy 4:1, 2)
And by this, you will be properly feeding the sheep, which is the manifest true love of Jesus Christ.