So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, [son] of Jonah, 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. He said to him again a second time, "Simon, [son] of Jonah, do you love Me?" He said to Him, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love You." He said to him, "Tend My sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon, [son] of Jonah, do you love Me?" Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, "Do you love Me?" And he said to Him, "Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You." Jesus said to him, "Feed My sheep. John 21:15-17 NKJV
I have often been asked questions about which translation of the Bible I prefer, and what are my reasons for choosing it. You may have noticed by now that I almost always use the New King James Version when teaching, but I wouldn't have you think that is the only one. I actually have four versions I use for study on a regular basis, and others I use occasionally. Why is this? Although I find all to be useful and similar in translation, there is much to be said for one that most accurately conveys the intent and meaning of the words God chose to use.
This passage is a perfect example of that because many believe from reading different translations that Jesus simply repeated Himself three times when instructing Peter. The truth is, however, that Jesus was making three different points. When examined in context we find Jesus was explaining the different responsibilities of a good shepherd. What I want to talk about today is what I feel God is instructing not only Peter, but all believers in regards to others in the body of Christ. So here follows the three responsibilities of a good shepherd revealed to us by Jesus in this passage.
Feed my Lambs...The meaning of feed should pose no problem for any who read this passage, but I think the point is not the word "feed", but rather the word "lambs". You see, here Jesus is making the point that our first responsibility is to the young, newborn members of the body of Christ. I'm sure most of us are familiar with the following passage;
as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby
1 Peter 2:2 NKJV
As a parent, and from my own life experience, I know that the lessons learned at an early age are the ones that tend to stay with you the longest. With a background in construction, I know that the foundation is the most important structure in any building. If that is not right, everything else will be just a little "off". The Bible uses both these situations as examples of how important it is to teach new believers the principles of what God desires to see in us. Look carefully at the following passage from the book of Hebrews where we find this point illustrated.
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need [someone] to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food.
Hebrews 5:12 NKJV
Somehow these believers got off on the wrong foot, and the point is being made that they need to go back and start over learning the basics. The "first principles" are the most important and our responsibility as a good shepherd is to teach these basic principles to the "lambs" at the beginning of their walk with God.
Tend My sheep...Here we find the word sheep replaces the word lambs, and the word in the Greek refers not only to a mature sheep, but to a flock as well. We also see that instead of feeding, the active word is now "tend". It would seem then that the important word here might be tend because that carries an entirely different meaning than feed. The word in Greek is "poimainō" which means "to feed, to tend a flock, keep sheep, to rule, govern". The point I believe Jesus is making here is that a good shepherd has a responsibility regarding where the entire flock, or in our case the Church, the body of Christ, goes.
Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. 1 Peter 5:2-4 NKJV
Many times as believers it becomes easy to believe that it is the "leaders" of the church to decide the direction we go. We then sit back and complain about what the state of the church is, or about what we perceive as it's shortcomings. Yet I believe the point Jesus is making here is that we all, as shepherds, have a responsibility to be involved in determining the direction the flock goes. We should be willing to "speak out", then "live out" the principles we know God expects from us, not just go along with the "crowd" whatever direction they go.
Feed My sheep...Although similar, this command tells us to we have a responsibility to feed the "sheep" as well as the "lambs" previously mentioned. How is that different? I'm sure if you think about it you will realize that the difference is that mature believers have a need for food which is more substantial than the "milk" we received as newborns. Jesus is telling us that as shepherds, we need to be concerned with the type of food given to adults in the flock, because as we all know, in order to be grow and be healthy we need to be careful about what we eat.
Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him."
John 6:27 NKJV
But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, [that is], those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
Hebrews 5:14 NKJV
A good shepherd watches closely just what the flock is eating. The food taken in is directly responsible for the health of the flock. Do you watch what is being taught to the body? Are you willing to speak out if you believe something is being taught that does not conform to the principles revealed in scripture? If you are in a position to teach, are you careful to examine what "food" you are feeding? You are what you eat. If the body of Christ is not eating healthy food, it will suffer and be ineffective for the purpose it was intended.
It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking we are just the "sheep" in the flock, and then be content to just "graze" as we wander through life. God wants much more from us than that. I believe this passage makes it clear that God expects us all to assume the responsibilities of a good shepherd, and to fulfill the expectations given in this passage towards the rest of the flock. We all should spend this week examining our lives to see if there are ways we can be better shepherds.