The Bible


John 21:15-25 : Feed my lambs, Feed my sheep



15 So 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.

16 He 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.

17 He 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.

18 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.

19 This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me.

20 Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee?

21 Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do?

22 Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.

23 Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?

24 This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true.

25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.

    Study the Inner Meaning



An After-Breakfast Conversation


By Joe David

This inscription is on a stone at the church hall in South Ronaldsey, in the Orkneys, northeast of Scotland.

(A commentary on John 21:15-25)

In the first part of this chapter, seven of the Lord's disciples had come home to Galilee. They had gone fishing, seen Jesus on the shore, followed his instructions to fish on the right side of the boat, dragged a net loaded with 153 fish to shore, and... as the second half of the chapter begins, they have just finished breaking their fast with Him. Now they are relaxing.

Jesus says to Peter,"Do you love me?" and Peter, perhaps a little startled at the question, thinking that the answer is obvious, answers "yes", and Jesus responds, "Feed my lambs". Twice more this sequence is repeated, but with some changes. Then, after this unusual conversation, the Lord tells them all a little parable about being young and later being old. Then the Lord tells Peter to follow him, and Peter, apparently jealous, asks what John is supposed to do. The Lord mildly rebukes Peter’s jealousy by saying, "If this man tarry until I come what is that to you?", but then He tells John also to follow him.

Finally, the gospel of John, and indeed the collection of all four gospels, closes with an explanation by John that he is the writer of this gospel.

So now, let’s look more closely at the conversation, the parable, and the outbreak of jealousy.

Only two of the seven disciples, Peter and John, are mentioned in this part of the story. Peter represents faith, or truth, but truth about spiritual things that we really believe are from God. John represents good, or love to the neighbor. The former resides in the understanding part of the mind and the latter in the will part of the mind.

In telling Peter to feed His sheep, the Lord is saying that to follow Him means to preach the truths that all the disciples now know about the Lord, His coming, and about how a life should be led, in order to be a follower of the Lord in a new church. In the conversation the Lord is direct and probing. "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?" I think Peter is being asked whether he loves the Lord, Jesus, more than he loves his fellow Galilean friends, though it’s ambiguous, it could mean "do you love me more than these other six do?’ When Peter answers the first time he says "Lord thou knowest that I love thee."

With this first of the three probing questions, the Lord answers "Feed my lambs," while after that the response is "Feed my sheep." Sheep and lambs both represent people who are in a love of doing good, but while sheep means those who love to do good for the sake of the neighbor, lambs mean those who do good for the sake of the Lord. The first is spiritual good, and the second is higher, and is called celestial good. But people who wish to do good at first don’t know what is good; they need to learn that from the Word and be taught. This is why Peter is told to "feed them", which is to say that truth must indicate how good is to be done. In order to do things that are good, the will's wanting to, and the understanding's knowing how to go about it, must be conjoined. For a successful Christian life, or on a larger scale, a Christian church, 'Peter' and 'John' must work in harmony.

Then comes the parable. "When you were young you got yourself ready and did what you wanted on your own. But when you become old, you have to reach out for help and another shall carry you where you don’t want to go."

This doesn’t seem to fit in here, but of course it does, and in two ways. The first way is given in the Biblical text; it is about the Lord’s death, that all the prophecies were leading Him to His crucifixion, as is mentioned. The second way is a lesson for all of us. When we are young, confident, and strong, we feel that we can do what we want and don’t need any help. Temptations to do evil we ourselves can deal with. But when we grow wiser we realize that all our strength comes from the lord, and if we continue to depend only on ourselves, the temptations from the hells will be too strong and we will be led into doing what the hells want for us, not what we want. We must learn at the start to follow the Lord and depend on Him. This he says at the end of the parable, where it seems not to fit until we understand the parable. "And when He had spoken this He saith unto (them), follow Me." That’s what we need to do also.

Peter is happy to do this preaching of the truth and maybe feels that he has been singled out, but he also realizes that John also loves the Lord and is loved in return. So he asks "And what is this man supposed to do?" It seems that the needed harmony is not yet present, and that Peter is jealous of the bond, and probably hopes to be assured that he is number one... but that doesn’t happen. Peter is simply told that it doesn’t matter; he needs to do the job he has been given.

I’m reminded of the story of Jacob and Esau, in Genesis 25, where Esau is the firstborn and will inherit the birthright and blessing from Isaac, as his due. Jacob by craft devised by his mother deceives Isaac and steals what is Esau’s. Then he runs off to Padan-Aram and stays there with his uncle and becomes rich. It is only on his return journey that he wrestles with the angel and has his name changed to Israel, that he again meets Esau. The change of name means that now that Jacob is rich with truth from the Word, now with the friendly meeting with Esau, also rich, that the two twins can in parable, be merged into one personage, called Israel, meaning the joining of good and truth in the mind.

Esau means something similar to John, they both represent goodness or true charity. Jacob means something similar to Peter, they both represent truth learned from the Word. Any seeming enmity between them as to which is more important can make them both useless, and in a person who is becoming angelic (as everyone should be aiming for), there is no enmity. Truth enables good, and good inspires truth in order to get something done. Although we can think and speak of them separately, they are (perfectly in the Lord and less so in angels) conjoined into a oneness so as to be seen as married. The marriage of the Lord's Divine good and Divine truth is the origin of all creation. Yes, all creation.

This marriage of good and truth, and the need for both to work in our lives, in balance and harmony, is a core New Christian concept.

In the Gospels, there is just one more story that takes place after this one. In it, the rest of the disciples join the seven mentioned here to hear the Lord’s last commands.

From Swedenborg's Works


Apocalypse Explained #482

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482. Verse 17. For the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, signifies that the Lord will instruct them out of heaven. This is evident from the signification of "the Lamb," as being the Lord in relation to Divine truth (of which see above, n. 297, 343, 464); also from the signification of "throne," as being heaven (of which also above, n. 253; "in the midst of the throne" signifies in the universal heaven, for "in the midst" signifies in each and every thing, that is, in the whole, see above, n. 213; also from the signification of "to feed" as being to instruct (of which presently). This makes evident that "the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne shall feed them" signifies that the Lord will instruct them out of heaven. It is here said, "the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne shall feed them," and above, "He who sitteth on the throne shall dwell over them" which makes it very clear that it is the Lord who is meant both by "He who sitteth on the throne," and by "the Lamb in the midst of the throne," but "He who sitteth on the throne" means the Lord in relation to Divine good, and "the Lamb in the midst of the throne" means the Lord in relation to Divine truth; for "to dwell," which is said of Him that sitteth upon the throne, is predicated of good (see above, n. 470); and "to feed," which is said of the Lamb, is predicated of truths; for "to feed" signifies to instruct in truths.

(References: Revelation 7:17, Revelation 10:10)

[2] In the Word of the Old Testament mention is frequently made of "Jehovah" and "God," also of "Jehovah" and "the Holy One of Israel," and both mean the Lord alone, "Jehovah" the Lord in relation to Divine good, and "God" and "the Holy One of Israel" the Lord in relation to Divine truth; it is thus said because of the marriage of Divine good and Divine truth in every particular of the Word. That "to feed" signifies to instruct can be seen without further explanation, since it is a custom derived from the Word to call those who teach "pastors" (or feeders), and those who are instructed "a flock;" but why they are so called is not yet known, and shall therefore be told. In heaven where all things that appear before the eyes are representative, representing under a natural appearance the spiritual things that angels think and by which they are affected; thus are their thoughts and affections presented before their eyes in such forms as exist in the world, that is, in forms similar to natural things, and this by virtue of the correspondence that is established by the Lord between spiritual things and natural. (This correspondence has been treated of in many places; also in the work Heaven and Hell , n. 87-102, and 103-115.) It is from this correspondence that in heaven flocks of sheep, lambs, and goats appear feeding in green pastures, and also in gardens; and these appearances spring from the thoughts of those who are in the goods and truths of the church, and who from these think intelligently and wisely. It is from this that mention is so often made in the Word of "flock," "pasture," as also of "feeding," and "feeder" (or shepherd); for the Word in the letter consists of such things as appear in heaven before the eyes, and these signify correspondent spiritual things.

(References: Heaven and Hell 103-115)

[3] As it is known in the church that "to feed" signifies to instruct, "pasture" instruction, and "shepherd" an instructor, a few passages only in which "feeding" and "pasture" are mentioned shall be quoted without further explanation. In Isaiah:

In that day shall thy cattle feed in a broad meadow (Isaiah 30:23).

He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; He shall gather the lambs into His arm, and shall gently lead them that give suck (Isaiah 40:11).

He shall say to the bound, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Reveal yourselves. They shall feed upon the ways, and in all the bare hills shall be their pasture (Isaiah 49:9).

In Jeremiah:

Against the shepherds that feed My people, ye have scattered My flock. Because of cursing the land mourneth; the pastures of the desert are dried up (Jeremiah 23:2, 10).

He shall feed Israel on Carmel and Bashan (Jeremiah 50:19).

In Ezekiel:

I will seek My flock and I will search them out. I will feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and upon the mountains of the height of Israel shall their sheepcote be; there shall they lie down in a good sheepcote, and in a fat pasture shall they feed upon the mountains of Israel (Ezekiel 34:11, 13, 14).

In Hosea:

I did know thee 1 in the wilderness, in a land of drought; where they had pasture (Hosea 13:5, 6).

In Joel:

The droves of cattle are perplexed, because they have no pasture; and the droves of sheep are made desolate (Joel 1:18).

In Micah:

Out of Bethlehem of Ephrathah shall go forth one who shall stand and feed in the strength of Jehovah (Micah 5:2, 4).

Feed Thy people with Thy rod, the flock of Thine heritage; they shall feed in Bashan and Gilead (Micah 7:14).

In Zephaniah:

The remnants of Israel shall feed and lie down (Zephaniah 3:13).

In David:

Jehovah is my Shepherd, I shall not want; He will make me to lie down in pastures of herbage (Psalms 23:1, 2).

The Lord chose David; from following the ewes giving suck He brought him to feed Jacob His people, and Israel His inheritance; and he fed them in the integrity of his heart (Psalms 78:70-72).

Jehovah hath made us His people, and the flock of His pasture [keri]. Therefore we are His people and the flock of His pasture (Psalms 100:3).

In John:

Jesus said to Peter, Lovest thou Me? He said that he loved Him. He said unto him, Feed My lambs. He said a second time, Feed My sheep. Again He said a third time, Feed My sheep (John 21:15-17).

Also in many other passages, in which "to feed" signifies to instruct in truths, and "pasture" truths in which they are instructed.


1. The photolithograph has "them," but cf. AE 780; AC 6078.

(References: Ezekiel 34:13-14; Hosea 13:5-6; Psalms 23:1-2; Revelation 10:10)

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Thanks to the Swedenborg Foundation for their permission to use this translation.