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


Arcana Coelestia #10132

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10132. 'Lambs, the sons of a year, each day' means the good of innocence in every state. This is clear from the meaning of 'lambs' as the good of innocence, dealt with below; from the meaning of 'the sons of a year' as a form of it that is child-like but has truths implanted in it, also dealt with below; and from the meaning of 'each day' as in every state. For 'a day' means a state, and 'the morning' and 'the evening' of a day, when the burnt offerings of lambs were presented, mean every state.

'A day' means a state, see 893, 2788, 3462, 3785, 4850, 7680.

Changes of states are like the changes in a day of morning, midday, evening, night, and morning again, 5672, 5962, 6110, 8426.

[2] The fact that the good of innocence is meant by 'lambs' is clear from places in the Word where 'lambs' are mentioned, as in Isaiah,

The wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child will lead them. A suckling will play over the viper's hole, and a weaned child will put out his hand onto the basilisk's den. They will not corrupt themselves on all My holy mountain. And it will happen on that day, that the nations will seek the root of Jesse, who is standing as an ensign of the peoples; and His rest will be glory. Isaiah 11:6, 8-10.

These words describe the state of peace and innocence in the heavens and in the Church after the Lord came into the world. And because a state of peace and innocence is being described the lamb, kid, and calf are mentioned, also a little child, suckling, and weaned child, every one of which means the good of innocence. Inmost good of innocence is meant by 'the lamb', interior good of innocence by 'the kid', and exterior good of innocence by 'the calf'; and these three degrees of good are likewise meant by 'a child', 'a suckling', and 'a weaned one'. 'The holy mountain' is heaven and the Church where the good of innocence resides; 'the nations' are those who have that good within them; and 'the root of Jesse' is the Lord, who is the source of that good. For the good of love coming from Him and offered back to Him, also called celestial good, constitutes the good of innocence.

[3] 'The lamb' means the good of innocence in general, and the inmost good of innocence in particular. This is clear from the fact that it is mentioned first, and also from the fact that the Lord Himself is referred to as the Lamb, as will be seen below.

'The kid' means the interior good of innocence, see 3519, 4871.

'The calf (or young bull)' means the exterior good of innocence, 430, 9391.

'A child' means innocence, 5236, as do 'a suckling', 'a weaned child', that is, an infant, 430, 2280, 3183, 3494, 5608.

'The holy mountain' is where the good of love to the Lord resides, 6435, 8758.

'The nations' means those who have that good within them, 1416, 6005.

That the good of love to the Lord, called celestial good, constitutes the good of innocence is clear from those who are in the inmost heaven. Because they have that good within them they appear naked, as young children; they do so because nakedness depicts innocence, as does early childhood, see the places referred to in 9277, and what has been stated in 3887, 9680.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 9262)

[4] It says that 'the wolf will dwell with the lamb' because 'the wolf' means those who are opposed to innocence, as also in the same prophet,

The wolf and the lamb will feed together. They will not do evil nor destroy on all My holy mountain. Isaiah 65:25.

And in Luke,

Jesus said to the disciples whom He sent out, Behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Luke 10:3.

[5] Since the Lord when He was in the world was - as to His Human - Innocence itself, and since for this reason innocence emanates wholly from Him, the Lord is called the Lamb, and the Lamb of God, as in Isaiah,

Send the Lamb of the Ruler of the land from the rock towards the wilderness, to the mountain of the daughter of Zion. Isaiah 16:1.

In the same prophet,

He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth. He is led like a lamb to the slaughter. Isaiah 53:7.

In John,

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming; he said, Behold, the Lamb of God who bears away the sin of the world. John 1:29, 36.

In Revelation,

The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will feed them and will guide them to living springs of water. Revelation 7:17.

And elsewhere in the same book,

These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins; these are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These were bought from men (homo), being the firstfruits to God and the Lamb. Revelation 14:4.

And many times elsewhere in Revelation besides these two places, such as Revelation 5:6, 8, 12-13; 6:1, 16; 7:9-10, 14; 12:11; 13:8; 14:1; 15:3; 17:14; 19:7, 9; 21:9, 14, 22-23, 27; 22:1, 3.

(References: Revelation 21:26)

[6] It was because those who possess innocence are meant by 'lambs' that the Lord first told Peter Feed My lambs, then afterwards Feed My sheep, and again, Feed My sheep, John 21:15-17. 'Lambs' in this instance are those who are governed by the good of love to the Lord, for they possess the good of innocence more than all others, whereas 'sheep' are those governed by the good of charity towards the neighbour and those governed by the good of faith.

[7] The word 'lambs' is used with a similar meaning in Isaiah,

Behold, the Lord Jehovih comes with might, and His arm exercises dominion for Him. He will pasture His flock like a shepherd, He will gather the lambs into His arm, He will carry them in His bosom, He will gently lead the sucklings 1 . Isaiah 40:10-11.

These verses refer, it is evident, to the Lord. Since those who are governed by love to Him and who for this reason possess the good of innocence are meant by 'lambs' it is said that 'He will gather them into His arm' and 'He will carry them in His bosom'. For these people are joined to the Lord through love, and love is spiritual togetherness. And this also is why those verses go on to say, 'He will gently lead the sucklings', for sucklings and young children are those who possess the good of innocence, 430, 2280, 3183, 3494.

[8] From all this one may now see what the burnt offerings and sacrifices of lambs mean, why they were offered each day, on each sabbath, at each new moon, at each feast, and every day during the feast of Passover, and why at the feast of Passover the lamb called the Passover lamb was eaten, spoken of as follows in Moses,

This month shall be for you the head of months; the first shall it be for you in respect of months of the year. You shall take a member of the flock, a male, from the lambs or from the kids. And they shall take some of the blood and put it onto the [two] doorposts and onto the lintel, and onto the houses in which they will eat it. They shall not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted with fire. Exodus 12:1ff.

The feast of Passover was a sign of the deliverance from damnation of those who receive the Lord in love and faith, 9286-9292, thus who possess the good of innocence; for the good of innocence is inmostly present in love and faith and is their soul. This is why it says that they were to put the animal's blood onto doorposts, lintel, and houses; for where the good of innocence is, hell cannot come in. The reason why they were to eat it roasted with fire was that this was a sign of the good of celestial love, which is the good of love to the Lord received from the Lord.

(References: Exodus 12:2-3, 12:5, Exodus 12:7-9, 12:7, Exodus 12:9)

[9] Because a lamb was a sign of innocence, when the days [of purification] after giving birth had been fulfilled a lamb, the son of a year 2 was offered as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or else a turtledove was offered as a sacrifice, Leviticus 12:6. The young pigeon or the turtledove was a sign of innocence, just as the lamb was. By 'giving birth' is meant in the spiritual sense the Church's giving birth, giving birth to the good of love; for no other kind of birth is thought of in heaven. And by the burnt offering and sacrifice of those creatures is meant purification from evils by means of the good of innocence; for this good is what the Divine flows into and uses to effect such purification.

[10] The reason why someone who sinned through error had to offer a lamb or a a female kid, or two turtledoves, or two young pigeons as a guilt-offering, Leviticus 5:1-13, was that 'sin through error' is sin owing to lack of knowledge, and if the lack of knowledge has innocence within it purification takes place. Regarding a Nazirite also it says that when he had completed his Naziriteship he had to offer a lamb, the son of a year 2 , as a burnt offering, a ewe lamb, the daughter of a year 2 , as a sin-sacrifice, and one ram as a eucharistic sacrifice, and also a basket of unleavened bread, cakes mixed with oil, and wafers of unleavened bread anointed with oil, Numbers 6:13-15. All these - the lamb, ewe lamb, ram, unleavened bread, cakes, wafers, and oil - mean celestial things, that is, aspects of love to the Lord received from the Lord. The reason why they were offered as a sacrifice by a Nazirite after the days of his Naziriteship had been fulfilled was that a Nazirite represented the celestial man, or the Lord in respect of the Divine Celestial, 3301, the Divine Celestial being what is Divine and the Lord's in the inmost heaven, and what is Divine there being innocence.

[11] From all this it may be recognized that 'a lamb' means the good of innocence, for all beasts that were sacrificed meant some aspect of the Church. It may be recognized primarily from the fact that the Lord Himself is called the Lamb, as is clear from the places referred to above; also that those people are called 'lambs' who love the Lord, as in Isaiah 40:10-11, and in John 21:15; and in addition that upright people are called 'sheep', for example in Matthew 15:21-29; 25:31-41; 26:31; John 10:7-16, 26-31; 21:16-17, and elsewhere, while bad people are called 'goats', Matthew 25:32; Zechariah 10:3; Daniel 8:5-11, 25. All useful and gentle beasts mean good affections and inclinations, while useless and savage ones mean evil affections and inclinations, see the places referred to in 9280.

(References: Matthew 25:31, 25:31-40, 25:31-32)

[12] The good of innocence is meant not only by 'a lamb' but also by 'a ram' and by 'a young bull'. But the difference is that the inmost good of innocence is meant by 'a lamb', interior or middle good of innocence by 'a ram', and external good of innocence by 'a young bull'; for a person has an external level, an internal level, and an inmost level, on each of which the good of innocence must be present if the person is to be regenerate, the good of innocence being the very essence of all good. Because those three degrees of innocence are meant by a young bull, a ram, and a lamb, these three animals were offered as a sacrifice and a burnt offering whenever purification by means of that good was represented. That is, they were offered at each new moon, at feasts, on the day of firstfruits, and when the altar was consecrated, as is evident in Numbers 7:15, 21, 27, 33ff; 28:1-end; 29:1-end. For the meaning of 'a young bull' as the external good of innocence, 29:see9391, 9990, and that of 'a ram' as the internal good of innocence, 10042. As regards what innocence is, what it is like with young children, what it is like with the simple lacking in knowledge, and what it is like with the wise, see the places referred to in 10021(end).

(References: Numbers 7:38, 28, 29)

[13] When it says that the lamb to be offered as a burnt offering had to be 'the son of a year', the meaning was that then it was a lamb; for when it was more than a year old it was a sheep. And since a lamb was so to speak an infant sheep, the kind of good that belongs to infancy or early childhood, which is the good of innocence, was meant by it. This also was why lambs were offered as a burnt offering in the first month of the year, when the Passover was celebrated, Exodus 12:2ff, Numbers 28:16, 19; on the day of firstfruits, Numbers 28:26-27; and on the day on which the sheaf was waved, Leviticus 23:11-12. For by the first month of the year, the day of firstfruits, and the day of waving the sheaf the state of early childhood, and so the state of innocence, was also meant.


1. The Latin word here is lactentes (sucklings). When the word has occurred in previous quotations of the verse it has been assumed, in the light of the Hebrew, that lactantes (those giving suck) was intended.

2. i.e. in its first year

(References: Exodus 12:2-3, Exodus 12:5, Exodus 12:7-9)

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Thanks to the Swedenborg Society for the permission to use this translation.