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 #2371

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2371. 'And they said, Did not this one come to sojourn' means people with different teaching and a different life. This is clear from the meaning of 'sojourning' as receiving instruction and living, and so as doctrine and life, dealt with in 1463, 2025. Here the nature of the state of the Church around the last times is described, when faith is no more because charity is no more, that is to say, when the good of charity is rejected on doctrinal grounds as well, because it has severed all connection with life.

[2] The people described here are not those who falsify the good of charity by explaining things to their own advantage. They are not those who, so that they may be very great and may possess all the world's goods, make the good of charity the earner of merit. Nor are they those who assume the right to dispense rewards, and in so doing defile the good of charity by various devices and misleading means. Instead the subject is those who do not wish to hear anything about the goods of charity, that is, about good works, only about faith separated from those works. And this they wish to hear from the argument that man has nothing but evil within him and that even the good which springs from himself is in itself evil, and so contains nothing of salvation; and from the argument that no one can merit heaven by means of any good, nor accordingly be saved by it, only by means of a faith whereby they acknowledge the Lord's merit. This is the teaching which flourishes in the last times when the Church starts to breathe its last, and which is enthusiastically taught and favourably accepted.

[3] But to maintain from all this that anyone can lead an evil life and at the same time possess a faith that is good is a false conclusion. It is also a false conclusion to say that because man has nothing but evil within him, good from the Lord - which has heaven within it because it has the Lord within it, and blessedness and happiness within it because heaven is within it - cannot exist there. Finally it is a false conclusion to say that because nobody can merit [heaven] by any good, heavenly good from the Lord in which [self-] merit is regarded as something monstrous has no existence. Such good exists with every angel, such good exists with every regenerate person, and such good exists with those who perceive delight, and indeed blessedness, in good itself, that is, in the affection for it. The Lord speaks of this good or charity in the following way in Matthew,

You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy. [But] I say to you, Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who hurt and persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? And if you salute only your brothers, what more are you doing [than others]? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? Matthew 5:43-48

Similar words occur in Luke, with this addition,

Do good and lend, hoping for nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. Luke 6:27-36.

[4] Here good which is derived from the Lord is described and the fact that it does not carry any thought of repayment. Consequently people who are governed by that good are called 'sons of the Father who is in heaven', and 'sons of the Most High'. Yet because that good has the Lord within it there is also a reward: in Luke,

When you give a dinner or a supper, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbours, lest perhaps they invite you back in return, and you are repaid. But when you give a feast invite the poor, the maimed, the blind, and you will be blessed, for they have nothing with which to repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. 1 Luke 14:12-14.

'Dinner', 'supper', or 'feast' means the good that flows from charity, in which the Lord dwells together with man, 2341. Here it is described therefore, and it is plainly evident, that recompense lies within good itself since this has the Lord within it, for it is said that 'you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just'.

[5] People who strive to do good from themselves because the Lord has commanded it to be done are the ones who at length receive this good and who after receiving instruction then acknowledge in faith that all good comes from the Lord, 1712, 1937, 1947. And they are now so opposed to self-merit that they are saddened by the mere thought of merit and perceive that blessedness and happiness with them is that much diminished.

[6] It is quite different in the case of those who fail to do good and instead lead an evil life, while teaching and professing that salvation resides in faith separated from charity. These people are not even aware of the possibility of such good. And what is remarkable the same people in the next life, as I have been given to know from much experience, wish to merit heaven on the basis of all the good deeds they recall their having done, for they are now aware for the first time that no salvation lies in faith separated from charity. But these are the ones whom the Lord refers to in Matthew,

They will say to Me on that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by Your name, and by Your name cast out demons, and in Your name do many mighty works? But then will I declare to them, I do not know you; depart from Me, you workers of iniquity. Matthew 7:22-23.

With these people it is also seen that they had paid no attention at all to any one of the things which the Lord Himself taught so many times about the good that flows from love and charity. Instead those things had been to them like clouds sailing by or like things seen in the night, such as the things recorded in

Matthew 3:8-9; 5:7-48; 6:1-20; 7:16-20, 24-27; 9:13; 12:33; 13:8, 23; 18:21-end; 19:19; 22:35-40; 24:12-13; 25:34-end;

Mark 4:18-20; 11:13-14, 20; 12:28-35; Luke 3:8-9; 6:27-39, 43-end;

7:47; 8:8, 14-15; 10:25-28; 12:58-59; 13:6-10;

John 3:19, 21; 5:42; 13:34-35; 14:14-15, 20-21, 23; 15:1-8, 9-19; 21:15-17.

These then, and other things like them, are what were meant by the words 'the men of Sodom' - that is, those immersed in evil, 2220, 2246, 2322 - 'saying to Lot, Did not this one come to sojourn, and will he surely judge?' that is, Will people with different teaching and a different life teach us?


1. The Latin means the dead; but the Greek means the just, which Swedenborg has in other places where he quotes this verse.

(References: Genesis 19:9; John 15:1-19; Luke 6:43-49; Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 18:21-23, 18:21-35, 18:24-35, 22:34-40, 22:34-39, 25:34-46)

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