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 #3934

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3934. 'And Leah said, A troop comes!' in the highest sense means Omnipotence and Omniscience, in the internal sense the good of faith, and in the external sense works. This is clear from the meaning of 'a troop' in this context. The reason 'a troop' in the highest sense means Omnipotence and Omniscience is that the word troop here denotes a large number; and when a large number is used in reference to the Lord's Divine an infinitely large number is meant, and this is nothing else than Omnipotence and Omniscience. But the term omnipotence is rooted in the idea of vastness in dimension, and omniscience in the idea of vastness in number. Omnipotence is also rooted in the idea of infinite good, or what amounts to the same, in Divine love and so in the Divine will, whereas omniscience is rooted in the idea of infinite truth, or what amounts to the same, in Divine intelligence. Why 'troop' in the internal sense means the good of faith is a question of correspondence, for good that is the good of charity corresponds to the Lord's Divine omnipotence, and truth which is the truth of faith to His omniscience.

[2] The reason why 'a troop' in the external sense means works is that these correspond to the good of faith. Indeed works are the product of that good, for the good of faith cannot exist without works, just as thinking what is good and willing it cannot exist without the doing of it. The one is the internal, the other the corresponding external. What is more, so far as works are concerned, if they do not correspond to the good of faith they are not the works of charity, nor are they the works of faith, since they are not the outcome of what should properly be within them, but dead works that have no good or truth within them. But when the external does correspond to the internal, works are either those of charity or of faith. The works of charity are those which flow from charity as their soul, but the works of faith are those which flow from faith. The works of charity are done by one who is regenerate, whereas the works of faith are done by one who is not yet regenerate but is becoming so. The same applies to affections, that is to say, to the affection for good and the affection for truth. The regenerate person does good out of an affection for that good and so from a desire for good, whereas the one who is to be regenerated does good out of an affection for truth, and so from a knowledge of good. (How these affections differ from each other has often been shown already.) From this one may see what is meant by works.

[3] Furthermore the relationship of the good of faith to works is like that of a person's will and consequent thought to his face, which, as is well known, is an image of the mind, that is, of the person's will and consequent thought. If will and thought do not present themselves in the face as their true image then hypocrisy or deceit, not will and thought, are manifested there because that person presents a different face from what he wills and thinks. It is similar with every act of the body in relation to the more internal things of thought and will. The internal side of a person lives within his external by means of act or action. If act or action does not accord with his internal it is a sign either that that act is not the product of his internal but a mere response to custom and habit, or that it is something untrue as in hypocrisy and in deceit. Here again one may see what is meant by works. Consequently anyone who professes faith, more so anyone who professes the good of faith, and yet denies works, and more so if he rejects them, is without faith and still more without charity.

[4] This being the nature of the works of charity and faith, and since nobody has any charity or faith in him unless works are being done, the Word therefore mentions works so many times, as may be seen from the following places: In Jeremiah,

Your eyes have been opened upon all the ways of the sons of man, giving to everyone according to his ways and according to the fruit of his works. Jeremiah 32:19.

In the same prophet,

Turn now every one of you from his evil way, and make your works good. Jeremiah 35:15.

In the same prophet, I will requite them according to their work and according to the work of their hands. Jeremiah 25:14.

In Hosea,

I will visit upon him his ways, and requite him for his works. Hosea 4:9.

In Micah,

The earth will be a desolation over its inhabitants, on account of the fruit of their works. Micah 7:13.

In Zechariah,

Thus said Jehovah Zebaoth, Turn from your evil ways and from your evil works. Jehovah Zebaoth thought to deal with us according to our ways, and according to our works so He dealt with us. Zechariah 1:4, 6.

In John,

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from labours, for their works follow them. Revelation 14:13.

(References: Hosea 4:8)

[5] In the same book,

I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged by the things written in the books, according to their works. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and hell gave up the dead that were in them. They were judged therefore every one according to their works. Revelation 20:12-13.

In the same book,

Behold, I am coming quickly, My reward with Me, to give to everyone according to his work. Revelation 22:12.

In John the Evangelist,

This is the judgement, that light has come into the world, but men preferred darkness rather than light, for their works were evil. Everyone who performs evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light lest his works should be exposed. Anyone however who does the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen, because they have been wrought in God. John 3:19-21.

In the same gospel,

The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify of it that their works are evil. John 7:7.

In the same gospel,

Jesus said to the Jews, If you were Abraham's sons you would do the works of Abraham. You do the works of your father. John 8:39, 41.

In the same gospel,

If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. John 13:17.

[6] In Matthew,

Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works. He who does and teaches so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:16, 19.

In the same gospel,

Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by Your name, and by Your name cast out demons, and do many mighty works in Your name? But then I will confess to them, I do not know you; depart from Me, you workers of iniquity! Matthew 7:21-23.

In Luke,

The householder replying says to them, I do not know where you are from. Then you will begin to say, We ate in your presence and we drank; you taught in our streets. But He will say, I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity! Luke 13:25-27.

In Matthew,

Everyone who hears My words and does them I will liken to a wise man. But everyone hearing My words and not doing them will be likened to a foolish man. Matthew 7:24, 26.

In the same gospel,

The Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father together with His angels, and at that time He will repay everyone according to his works. Matthew 16:27.

[7] From all these places it is evident that works are what save a person or what condemn him, good works being those that save, evil those that condemn; for his works contain what he wills. Anyone who wills what is good does what is good, but anyone who does not do what is good, no matter how much he may say that he wills it, does not will it when he does not do it. It is as though he were to say, I will it, yet I don't will it. And because the will itself is contained in works, and charity belongs to the will, and faith to charity, it is evident what kind of will, that is, what kind of charity and faith, is present in someone when he does not do good works, and more so when he does the opposite of these.

[8] In addition it should be recognized that the Lord's kingdom begins in a person in the life that belongs to works, for he is then at the start of regeneration; but once the Lord's kingdom is established in him the kingdom ends in works, and then he is regenerate. Indeed the internal man is in this case present in the external in a corresponding fashion; and since works are done by the external man while charity and faith rooted in charity dwell in the internal man, works are therefore at the same time charity. And as it is in the works of the external man that the life of the internal so presents itself, therefore - when speaking about the Last Judgement in Matthew 25:32-46 - the Lord lists nothing else than works, declaring that those who have done good works will enter into eternal life and those who have done evil into a state of damnation. What has been said also shows the meaning of what one reads about John's lying at Jesus' breast and in His bosom and about His loving him more than the rest, John 13:23, 25; 21:20; for John represented good works, see the Prefaces to Genesis 18, 22. What the works of faith are, which from their appearance may be called the fruits of faith, and what the works of charity are, will in the Lord's Divine mercy be discussed more fully elsewhere.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 2135, 2760 [1-2], Genesis 30:9-11; Matthew 7:21-24)

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