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 #10217

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10217. 'As they have been numbered' means as they have been arranged and set in order. This is clear from the meaning of 'numbering' - when it refers to all things of the Church, which are truths and forms of the good of faith and love - as an arrangement and setting of them in order, so that 'those who have been numbered' means the things which have been arranged and set in order. 'Numbering' has this meaning because numbering implies reviewing, and that which the Lord reviews is also arranged and set in order by Him. Furthermore the word used here to express the idea of numbering means in the original language reviewing, counting up, taking note of, and also visiting, giving orders, and taking control of, thus arranging and setting in order. That word has these meanings because in the spiritual sense each of these activities implies the next, and the spiritual sense consists in that inner meaning which the words of languages, especially eastern ones, frequently possess.

[2] The fact that in the spiritual sense, in which truths and forms of the good of faith and love are the subject, 'numbering' means arranging and setting in order is also clear from places in the Word in which the verb 'numbering' or else the noun 'number' is used, as in Isaiah,

The noise of a tumult of the kingdoms of the nations gathered together! Jehovah Zebaoth is numbering (arranging in order) an army of war. Isaiah 13:4.

In the same prophet,

Lift up your eyes on high and see; who created these? He who brought out their host by number; He calls them all by name. From the multitude of the powerful and of the mighty not a man is lacking in strength. Isaiah 40:26.

In David,

Jehovah who counts the number 1 of the stars gives names to them all. Psalms 147:4.

In these places it is self-evident that 'numbering' means arranging and setting in order, for they refer to Jehovah, that is, the Lord, who does not number any army or count the stars, but arranges and sets such things in order as are meant by 'an army' and 'the stars', namely truths and forms of the good of faith and love. For the subject is not wars in the natural world but wars in the spiritual world, which are the wars or conflicts of truths springing from good against falsities arising from evil.

'Wars' in the spiritual sense are those kinds of conflicts, see 1664, 2686, 8273, 8295.

'An army' is the truths and forms of good belonging to the Church and heaven, 7988, 8019.

'The stars' are cognitions or knowledge of truth and good, 2495, 2849, 4697.

[3] Once it is known what 'numbering' and 'the children of Israel' mean it may be seen why it was that David was not allowed to number the people, and why after he had numbered them the prophet Gad was sent to him to intimate a punishment, 2 Samuel 24:1-15, and why here [in Exodus 30:12] it says that each one should make expiation for his soul, that there may be no plague among them when they are numbered. By 'the children of Israel' the Church's truths and forms of good are meant, and by 'numbering' arranging and setting in order is meant. The arranging and setting in order of the truths and forms of the good of faith and love that are present with each person in the Church and in heaven belongs to the Lord alone. Consequently when such numbering is done by man, as was done by David through Joab, an arranging and setting in order of those things by man, and not by the Lord, is meant; and this is not an arranging or setting in order but a destruction. If the numbering of the children of Israel had not held such things within it, no sin or guilt at all would have been attached to their being numbered.

[4] By 'the children of Israel' spiritual truths and forms of good, which are the Church's and heaven's truths and forms of good, are meant, see 5414, 5801, 5803, 5812, 5817, 5819, 5826, 5833, 5879, 5951, 7957, 8234, 8805.

Much the same is meant by 'the tribes' into which the children of Israel were divided, 3858, 3926, 4060, 6335, 6397.

Since such things are meant by 'the children of Israel' and 'the tribes' and those things are countless, the Word states regarding them,

Their number will be as the sand of the sea, which will not be measured nor numbered. Hosea 1:10.

Who will number the dust of Jacob and the number of Israel? Numbers 23:10.

Jehovah said to Abraham,

I will make your seed as the dust of the earth, so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, so also will it be that your seed may be numbered. Genesis 13:16; 16:10.

And elsewhere,

Look towards heaven and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So will your seed be. Genesis 15:5.

The expressions 'the children of Israel' and 'the seed of Abraham' were not used to mean his descendants but spiritual truths and forms of good, which are countless and also for the most part beyond description. This becomes clear from the consideration that they were no greater in number than any other nation, as also Moses bore witness,

Jehovah has desired you, that He might choose you, not because you are more in number than all peoples; indeed you are fewer than all peoples. Deuteronomy 7:7.

[5] 'Numbering' again means arranging and setting in order in Jeremiah,

In the cities of Jerusalem and Judah flocks will again pass under the hands of him who numbers them. Jeremiah 33:13.

By 'flocks' too the Church's forms of good and its truths are meant, 6048, 8937, 9135, while 'under the hands of him who numbers them' means according to the order set by the Lord. In David,

Who knows the strength of Your anger? Teach us 2 to number our days, that we may gain 3 a heart of wisdom. Psalms 90:11-12.

'Numbering days' stands for arranging and setting states of life in order; and days are said to be numbered after they have been arranged and set in order, thus when they are finished, as in Isaiah,

Through the cutting off of my days 4 I shall go away to the gates of hell; I am numbered [as to] 5 the residue of my years. Isaiah 38:10.

And in Daniel,

The writing appeared before Belshazzar the king, Numbered, weighed, and divided. Daniel 5:25.

When 'numbering' means arranging and setting in order, 'numbered' means what is brought to a conclusion, as when a line is drawn under a list of figures at the end of a calculation.

(References: Psalms 90:12)

[6] 'Numbering' means arranging and setting in order because 'number' means the specific quality of some reality or some state, and that quality is defined by the number attached to it. Consequently numbering something means bringing specific quality to it, and specific quality is brought to spiritual realities through their being arranged and set in order by the Lord. This is what 'the number' means in John,

He causes all to receive 6 a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and no one to be able to buy or sell except him who has the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of its name. Here 7 is wisdom. Let him who has intelligence reckon the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man (homo), that is, its number is six hundred and sixty-six. Revelation 13:16-18.

[7] This chapter deals with the beast from the sea and the beast from the land. 'The beast from the sea' means the Church's truth falsified by factual knowledge derived from the world, and 'the beast from the land' means the Church's truth falsified by the use of the literal sense of the Word to support the evils of self-love and love of the world. For 'the land' means the Church in respect of its goodness and truth, see the places referred to in 9325; and 'the sea' means factual knowledge in general, 28, 2120, 2850. 'Having its mark on the hand and on the forehead' means accepting and loving those falsities; 'having its name' or 'the number of its name' means accepting all things, irrespective of what they are like. For 'the forehead' means the love, 9936, and 'name' the whole nature of the one who is the subject, 3006, 3421, 6674, 8274, 9310.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 1930)

[8] 'Reckoning the number of the beast' means examining and becoming acquainted with those falsified truths of the Church. 'The number of a man' means the reality that is the Church and the state of that Church; 'six hundred and sixty-six' means its specific quality so far as all its falsified truths and falsities arising from evil in their entirety are concerned, also its profanation of what is holy, and its end as well. Being acquainted with them and examining them is an attribute of one who possesses wisdom and understanding, and that is why it says, 'Here 7 is wisdom. Let him who has intelligence reckon its number'. For the number 'six' has the same meaning as the number 'twelve', since it is a half of it, 3960(end), 7973, 8148; and 'twelve' means all the truths and forms of good the Church possesses in their entirety, 2129(end), 2130(end), 3272, 3858, 3913, 7973, and therefore also in the contrary sense all falsities and evils in their entirety. The tripling of the digit 'six' also implies the end, and the end comes when truth has been made altogether profane.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 2129-2130)

[9] From all this it is plainly evident that numbers in the Word have to do with different realities and states, each serving to mean a specific quality that accords with its numerical value, as also in these words John,

The angel measured the wall of the holy Jerusalem, a hundred and forty-four cubits, which is the measure of a man (homo), that is, of an angel. Revelation 21:17.

The numerical value here serves to mean all truths springing from good in their entirety; for 'a hundred and forty-four' has the same meaning as 'twelve', 7973, being the product of twelve multiplied by itself. Therefore also it says in this verse that the measure of it is 'the measure of a man', just as in the verses explained above it says that the number given there is 'the number of a man'. But since truths springing from good are meant in this verse it states in addition that that measure is the measure 'of an angel'; for in the Word 'an angel' means truths springing from good, an angel being a recipient of Divine Truth from the Lord, 8192.


1. literally, numbers the number

2. literally, Make [us] rightly to know

3. literally, that we may put on

4. i.e. When I am in the prime of life

5. i.e. I have been deprived of

6. literally, He causes that he might give to all

7. Reading hic (here) for haec (this)

(References: Exodus 30:5; John 21:17)

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