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 #864

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864. These are they that follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth, signifies those who have been joined to the Lord by the acknowledgment of His Divine Human, and by a life according to His commandments. This is evident from the signification of "the Lamb," as being the Lord as to the Divine Human (see above, n. 314; also from the signification of "following Him whithersoever He goeth," as being to acknowledge His Divine and to do His commandments. "To follow the Lord" has a similar signification as "to go or to walk after Him." That "to go or walk after the Lord," signifies to acknowledge, to obey, and to act and live from Him and with Him, may be seen above n. 787. This is the signification of "following the Lord," because no one can follow the Lord from self, but only from the Lord Himself. For the Lord draws after Him the man who from freedom wills to follow; but He can draw no one who does not will to follow Him. For the Lord so operates with man that man may follow Him as if of himself; thus does the Lord flow into man's freedom; and this He does for the sake of the reception and implantation of truth and good with man and consequent reformation and regeneration. For unless it appeared to man that he followed the Lord as if of himself, that is, acknowledged His Divine and did His commandments as if of himself, there would be no appropriation and conjunction, and thus no reformation and regeneration. For everything enters into the man and becomes as if it were his own that man receives in freedom, that is, as if of himself, whether it be what he thinks and speaks or what he wills and does as if of himself. And yet man ought to believe, as the matter really is in itself, that he does these things not from himself but from the Lord; and this is why it is said that he must act not of himself but as if of himself. Another reason for this is that man has no perception of the Lord's operation into his will and into his thought therefrom; for man knows nothing about his conjunction with angels; consequently he supposes that whatever he wills and thinks he wills and thinks from himself; therefore he cannot know otherwise than that this is done by himself; and yet all good flows in, that which he thinks, that which he wills, and that which he consequently does. And as he knows this from the doctrine of the church, namely, that all good is from God, he ought to believe that he does not do good of himself, although he does it as if of himself. This is meant by what the Lord taught in Mark:

So is the kingdom of God as if a man should cast seed upon the earth, and should then sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up he knoweth not how (Mark 4:26, 27).

And in John:

A man can receive nothing unless it be given him from heaven (John 3:27).

And in the same:

He that abideth In Me and I in him, the same beareth much fruit; for without Me ye can do nothing (John 15:5).

(References: Mark 4:26-27; Revelation 14:4)

[2] To acknowledge the Lord's Divine Human and to do His commandments is to follow Him, because only those who do this can be conjoined to the Lord. That everyone is conjoined to the Lord according to the acknowledgment and confession of Him from the heart and according to the life, can be seen from this, that all the angels of heaven acknowledge no other Divine than the Divine of the Lord, and all angels of the heavens live according to the laws of order, which are His commandments, that is, they live in the Divine that proceeds from the Lord, which is called the Divine truth. Because they so live they live in a heavenly aura, or in a heavenly ether, into which none can be admitted except those who are in life from the Lord. If any others were to enter into that ether it would be like letting mice into a pipe out of which the air has been exhausted.

[3] All this makes clear what is signified in the spiritual sense by "following the Lord whithersoever He goeth." "To follow Him" has the same signification in the following passages. As in John:

Jesus said, I am the light of the world; he that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life (John 8:12).

"I am the light of the world" signifies that He is the Divine truth itself; "he that followeth Me" signifies he that acknowledges His Divine and does His commandments; "shall not walk in darkness" signifies that he shall not be in falsities; "but shall have the light of life" signifies that he shall be in Divine truths, which teach man eternal life and lead to heaven. Here evidently "to follow the Lord" does not mean to follow Him, but to acknowledge His Divine and obey Him.

[4] In the same:

When the Shepherd of the sheep hath led forth His own sheep He goeth before them and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice; but a stranger they do not follow, but flee from him, for they know not the voice of strangers. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them and they follow Me (John 10:4, 5, 27).

Here, "to follow the Lord" means to acknowledge His Divine and to obey Him; for it is said, He goeth before His own sheep and the sheep follow Him and know and hear His voice; "to know and hear the Lord's voice" signifies to do His commandments.

(References: John 10:4-5)

[5] In the Gospels:

Whosoever wills to come after Me let him deny himself and follow Me (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23).

Evidently "to go after the Lord and to follow Him" is to deny self; and to deny self is to be led not by self but by the Lord; and he denies self who shuns and turns away from evils because they are sins; and when man turns away from evils he is led by the Lord; for he does the Lord's commandments, not from self but from the Lord. "To follow the Lord" has the same signification elsewhere (as in Matthew 19:21, 28; Mark 2:14, 15; 3:7, 8; 10:21, 28, 29; Luke 18:22, 28; John 12:26; 13:36, 37; 21:19-22).

(References: John 13:36-37; Mark 2:14-15, 3:7-8, Mark 10:28-29; Matthew 16:21, 16:28)

[6] All this makes clear that to "follow the Lord" is to be led by Him and not by self; and only those who are not led by self can be led by the Lord; and everyone is led by self who does not shun evils because they are contrary to the Word and thus contrary to God; consequently because they are sins and are from hell. Everyone who does not thus shun and turn away from evils is led by self; and for the reason that the evil that is in man by heredity constitutes his life, because that is his own [proprium]; and until such evils have been removed man does all things from them, thus from self. But it is otherwise when evils have been removed, which is done when he shuns them because they are infernal; then the Lord enters with truths and goods from heaven, and leads him. The chief reason is that every man is his own love; and man, as to his spirit, which lives after death, is nothing else than the affection which is of his love, and all evil is from his love, and thus belongs to his love; from which it follows that a man's love or affection is reformed only by a spiritual shunning of evils and turning away from them, which is shunning them and turning away from them because they are infernal. From all this it can now be seen what it is "to follow the Lord whithersoever He goeth."

(References: Revelation 14:4)

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