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 #2788

Study this Passage

/ 10837  

2788. That 'on the third day' means that which has been completed, and the beginning of sanctification, is clear from the meaning of 'the third day'. 'Day' in the Word means state, 23, 487, 488, 493, 893, as also does 'year', and as in general do all periods of time - an hour, day, week, month, year, or age; also morning, midday, evening, and night; and spring, summer, autumn, and winter. And when 'the third' is added to any of these the end of that state, and at the same time the beginning of the next, are meant. Here, the subject being the sanctification of the Lord which was effected by means of temptations, 'the third day' means that which has been completed and at the same time the beginning of sanctification, as also follows from what has been said previously to this. The reason for this meaning is that when He had fulfilled everything the Lord was to rise again on the third day, for the things that were done by the Lord while He lived in the world, that is, the things that were yet to be done by Him, were embodied within the representatives of the Church as though they had already been done. This was as it is with the internal sense of the Word, for with God that which is yet to come to pass and that which already is are one and the same; indeed to Him the whole of eternity is here and now.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 487-488)

[2] This is why the number three was representative not only in the Ancient Church and in the Jewish but also among various gentile nations; see what has been stated about this number in 720, 901, 1825. That such was the origin of the meaning of 'three' is clear in Hosea,

We will return to Jehovah, for He has wounded and will heal us; He has stricken and will bind us up; He will revive us after two days, on the third day He will raise us up that we may live before Him. Hosea 6:1-2.

Here 'the third day' stands for the coming of the Lord and His resurrection. The same is clear from Jonah, in that he was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights, Jonah 1:17, to which the Lord refers in Matthew as follows,

As Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Matthew 12:40.

[3] It should be realized that in the internal sense of the Word 'three days' and 'the third day' have the same meaning, as also do 'three' and 'third' in the following places: In John,

Jesus said to the Jews, Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. He was speaking of the temple of His body. John 2:19-21; Matthew 26:61; Mark 14:58; 15:29.

It is a well known fact that the Lord rose again on the third day.

[4] For the same reason the Lord also distinguished three periods in His life: in Luke,

Go and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, but on the third day I reach completion. Luke 13:32.

Also, the Lord underwent the final temptation, which was that of the Cross, at the third hour of the day, Mark 15:25. Three hours later, that is, at the sixth hour, darkness fell over the whole land, 1 Luke 23:44. And three hours after that, at the ninth hour, the end came, Mark 15:33-34, 37. But in the morning of the third day He rose again, Mark 16:1-4; Luke 24:7. See also Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:18-19; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34; Luke 18:33; 24:46. From all this, and especially from the Lord's resurrection on the third day, the number three was representative and possessed a spiritual meaning. This fact becomes clear from the following places in the Word:

When Jehovah came down upon Mount Sinai He told Moses that he was to sanctify the people today and tomorrow and they were to wash their garments and be ready on the third day, for on the third day Jehovah would come down. Exodus 19:10-11, 15-16.

When they travelled from the mountain of Jehovah on a three days' journey, the Ark of Jehovah travelled before them on the three days' journey to search out rest for them. Numbers 10:33.

There was thick darkness for three days in all the land of Egypt, and nobody could see his brother for three days, but the children of Israel had light. Exodus 10:22-23.

(References: Matthew 20:19)

[5] The flesh of a sacrifice made as a vow-offering or as a freewill-offering was to be eaten on the first and the second day; nothing was to be kept until the third day but was to be burned, because it was an abomination. So too with the flesh of a sacrifice made as a 'eucharistic' offering; if this was eaten on the third day the one offering the sacrifice would not be accepted and that soul would bear his iniquity. Leviticus 7:16-18; 19:6-7.

Anyone who touched a dead body was to purify himself on the third day, and on the seventh day he would be clean. If he did not do so that soul would be cut off from Israel. And one that was clean was to sprinkle water over the unclean person on the third day and on the seventh day. Numbers 19:12-13, 19.

Those who had killed someone in battle and had touched one who had been slain were to purify themselves on the third day and on the seventh day. Numbers 31:19.

(References: Leviticus 19:6-8)

[6] When they came into the land of Canaan the fruit of a tree was to be uncircumcised for three years and not eaten. Leviticus 19:23.

At the end of three years they were to bring every tenth part of their produce in that year and deposit it within their gates so that the Levite, the sojourner, the orphan, and the widow might eat. Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 26:12.

Three times a year they were to keep a feast to Jehovah. And three times a year every male person was to appear before the face of the Lord Jehovah. Exodus 23:14, 17; Deuteronomy 16:16.

Joshua told the people that in three days they would be crossing the Jordan and inheriting the land. Joshua 1:11; 3:2.

Jehovah called to Samuel three times and the third time he answered Him. 1 Samuel 3:8.

(References: Deuteronomy 24:12)

[7] When Saul wished to kill David, David hid in the field until the third evening. Jonathan told David, I will sound out my father on the third day from now. Jonathan said that he would shoot three arrows to the side of the stone. And David fell face to the ground, before Jonathan and bowed down three times.12, 19, 20, 35, 36, 41.

David was to choose one of these three things - either seven years of famine in the land, or his own flight before his enemies for three months, or pestilence in the land for three days. 2 Samuel 24:12-13.

(References: 1 Samuel 20:5, 20:12, 20:19-20, 20:35-36, 20:41)

[8] There was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. 2 Samuel 21:1.

Elijah stretched himself over the dead boy three times and revived him. 1 Kings 17:21.

When he had built the altar to Jehovah, Elijah told them to pour water over the burnt offering and over the wood three times. 1 Kings 18:34.

Fire consumed the captains of fifty sent on two occasions to Elijah, but not the one sent on the third occasion. 2 Kings 1:13-14.

It was a sign to King Hezekiah that they were to eat in that year what had grown of itself, and in the second year further growth from the same; but in the third year they were to sow, reap, plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of these. 2 Kings 19:29.

(References: 1 Kings 17:21-22; 2 Kings 1:13)

[9] Daniel went into his house and had the windows open in his [upper] chamber towards Jerusalem, where three times a day he gave thanks on his knees and prayed. Daniel 6:10, 13.

Daniel was mourning for three whole weeks, not eating pleasant bread, nor drinking wine, nor anointing himself, until the three whole weeks were completed. Daniel 10:2-3.

Isaiah went naked and barefoot three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and against Cush. Isaiah 20:3.

Out of the Lampstand went three branches on either side, and three almond-shaped cups on each branch. Exodus 25:32-33.

In the Urim and Thummim there were three precious stones in each row. Exodus 28:17-20.

(References: Daniel 6:11, 6:14; Exodus 28:17-19)

[10] In the New Temple there were to be three chambers on this side of the gate and three on that, and all three were to measure the same. And the breadth of the gate to the vestibule of the house was to be three cubits this way and three cubits that. Ezekiel 40:10, 21, 48.

In the New Jerusalem there were to be three gates to the north, three to the east, three to the south, and three to the west. Ezekiel 48:31-34; Revelation 21:13.

The same may be seen in the following places:

Peter denied Jesus three times. Matthew 26:34, 69 and following verses.

The Lord said to Peter three times, Do you love Me? John 21:17.

Also, in the parable about the man who planted a vineyard, he sent servants three times, and at length his own son. Luke 20:12; Mark 12:2, 4-6.

The labourers in the vineyard were hired at the third hour, the sixth hour, the ninth hour, and the eleventh hour. Matthew 20:1-17.

And concerning the fig tree which, because it bore no fruit for three years, was to be cut down. Luke 13:6-7.

(References: Matthew 20:1-16, Matthew 26:69-75)

[11] Just as a group of three and a third one were representative, so also was a third part, as in the following:

Minchahs consisted of two tenths of fine flour mixed with a third part of a hin of oil, and the wine for the drink-offering was a third of a hin. Numbers 15:6-7; Ezekiel 46:14.

In Ezekiel it is said that he was to run a razor over his head and over his beard, and then to divide his hair, burning a third part in the fire, striking a third around the city with his sword, and scattering a third to the wind. Ezekiel 5:1-2, 11.

In Zechariah it is said that in the whole land, two parts were to be cut off, and the third would be left. Yet this third would be led through fire and tested. Zechariah 13:8-9.

[12] In John it is said that when the first angel sounded there came hail, and fire mixed with blood; and it fell on to the earth so that a third part of the trees were burned. The second angel sounded and so to speak a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea. And a third part of the sea became blood resulting in the death of a third part of the creatures who had their being in the sea. And a third part of the ships was destroyed. The third angel sounded and there fell from the sky a great star burning like a torch and it fell upon a third part of the rivers. The name of the star is Wormwood. The fourth angel sounded and a third part of the sun was struck, and a third part of the moon, and a third part of the stars, so that a third part of these was blacked out, and the day had no light for a third part of it, nor likewise the night. Revelation 8:7-12.

[13] The four angels were released to kill a third part of mankind. Revelation 9:15.

A third part of mankind was killed by these three, fire, smoke, and brimstone, which went forth out of the mouths of the horses. Revelation 9:18.

The dragon drew with his tail a third part of the stars of heaven and cast them down to the earth. Revelation 12:4.

'A third part' however means something which is not yet finished, whereas 'a third' and 'a group of three' mean that which has been finished - evil in the case of the evil, good in the case of the good.


1. or over the whole earth

(References: 1 Kings 17:21-22; Genesis 22:4; Matthew 20:1-16)

/ 10837  
   Study this Passage

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