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 #3994

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3994. 'And every black one among the lambs' means a proprium of innocence, which belongs to the good meant by 'Laban'. This is clear from the meaning of 'black' as the proprium, dealt with immediately above in 3993, and from the meaning of 'a lamb' as innocence, dealt with below. With regard to a proprium of innocence meant by 'black one among the lambs' the position is that, to be good, all good must contain innocence. Charity devoid of innocence is not charity, and still less can love to the Lord exist without it. Innocence is therefore an absolutely essential element of love and charity, and consequently of good. A proprium of innocence consists in knowing, acknowledging, and believing, not with the lips but with the heart, that nothing but evil originates in oneself, and everything good in the Lord, and therefore that such a proprium is altogether black, that is to say, both the will side of the proprium, which is evil, and the understanding side, which is falsity. When a person confesses and believes that in his heart, the Lord flows in with good and truth and instills a heavenly proprium into him which is bright and shining. Nobody can possibly be truly humble unless that acknowledgement and belief are present in his heart; and when they are present he is self-effacing, indeed self-loathing, and so is not preoccupied with himself, in which case he is in a fit state to receive the Lord's Divine. These are the circumstances in which the Lord flows in with good into a humble and contrite heart.

[2] Such is the proprium of innocence meant here by 'the black one among the lambs' which Jacob chose for himself, whereas 'the white one among the iambs' means the merit that is placed in good deeds - 'white' meaning merit, as stated above in 3993. Jacob did not choose this because it goes against innocence. Indeed anyone who places merit in good deeds acknowledges and believes that all good originates in himself, for he regards himself, not the Lord, in the good deeds he does and as a consequence seeks reward on the basis of that merit. For the same reason he also despises others in comparison with himself, indeed he even condemns them, and therefore to the same extent departs from heavenly order, that is, from good and truth. From all this it may be seen that charity towards the neighbour and love to the Lord are by no means able to exist unless they have innocence within them, and consequently that no one can enter heaven unless he possesses some degree of innocence, according to the Lord's words,

Truly I say to you, Whoever has not received the kingdom of God like a young child will not enter into it. Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17.

Here and elsewhere in the Word 'a young child' means innocence - see what has been stated already on these matters in the following paragraphs,

Early childhood is not innocence, but innocence resides in wisdom, 2305, 3494.

The nature of the innocence of early childhood, and the nature of the innocence of wisdom, 2306, 3183; also the nature of the proprium when, with innocence and charity, the Lord gives it life, 154.

Innocence causes good to be good, 2526, 2780.

[3] The fact that innocence is meant by 'lambs' may be seen from many places in the Word, of which let the following be quoted to confirm the point,

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 ox together; and a little child will lead them. Isaiah 11:6.

This refers to the Lord's kingdom and to the state of peace and of innocence there. 'The wolf' stands for those who are opposed to innocence, 'the lamb' for those in whom innocence is present. A similar example occurs elsewhere in the same prophet,

The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox; and for the serpent, dust will be his bread. They will not hurt and will not destroy on all My holy mountain. Isaiah 65:25.

As above, 'the wolf' stands for those who are opposed to innocence, and 'the lamb' for those in whom innocence is present. Because 'the wolf' and 'the lamb' are opposites, the Lord also said to the seventy whom He sent out, in Luke,

Behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Luke 10:3.

In Moses,

He causes him to suck honey out of the crag, and oil out of the stony rock - butter from the cattle, and milk from the flock, with the fat of lambs and rams, the breed 1 of Bashan. Deuteronomy 32:13-14.

This refers in the internal sense to the celestial qualities of the Ancient Church. 'The fat of lambs' stands for the charity that goes with innocence.

[4] In the original language various nouns exist for lambs, and each is used to mean a different degree of innocence, for as has been stated, all good, if it is to be good, must have innocence within it. And so also must truth. Here in Genesis 30:32 the word used for lambs is also used for sheep, as in Leviticus 1:10; 3:7; 5:6; 17:3; 22:19; Numbers 18:17; and by that word is meant the innocence belonging to faith grounded in charity. Different words are used elsewhere, 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.

A different word again is used in the same prophet,

The Lord Jehovih is coming with strength, and His arm will exercise 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, and will lead those that give suck. Isaiah 40:9-11.

'Gathering the lambs into the arm and carrying in the bosom' stands for people who are governed by charity that has innocence within it.

(References: Isaiah 40:10-11)

[5] In John,

When He appeared [to the disciples] Jesus said to Peter, Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these? He said to Him, Yes, Lord; You know that I love You. He said to him, Feed My lambs. He said to him again, Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me? He said to Him, Yes, Lord, You know that I love You. He said to him, Feed My sheep. John 21:15-16.

Here as elsewhere 'Peter' means faith - see the Prefaces to Chapters 18 and 22, and 3750. And since faith is not faith if it does not arise out of charity towards the neighbour, and so out of love to the Lord, neither are charity and love charity and love if they do not arise out of innocence. This is why the Lord first asks whether he loves Him, that is, whether love is present within faith, and after that says, 'Feed My lambs', that is, feed those who are innocent. Then after putting the same question again, He says, 'Feed My sheep', that is, feed those who have charity.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 2135)

[6] Because the Lord is the Innocence itself which exists in His kingdom, for He is the source of all innocence, the Lord is therefore called the Lamb, as in John,

The next day John Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him, and said, Behold, the Lamb of God who bears away the sin of the world. John 1:29, 36.

And in Revelation,

They will fight with the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords, and King of kings, and those with Him have been called and chosen. Revelation 17:14.

There are other places in Revelation besides this - 5:6; 6:1, 16; 7:9, 14, 17; 12:11; 13:8; 14:1, 4; 19:7, 9; 21:22-23, 27; 22:1, 3. It is well known that in the highest sense the paschal lamb means the Lord - for the Passover meant the Lord's glorification, that is, His enduing the Human with the Divine - and in the representative sense means the regeneration of man. Indeed the paschal lamb means that which is the essential feature of regeneration, namely innocence; for nobody can be regenerated except by means of charity that has innocence within it.

(References: Revelation 21:26-27, 21:26)

[7] Because innocence is the first essential in the Lord's kingdom and is the celestial itself there, and because sacrifices and burnt offerings used to represent the spiritual and celestial things of the Lord's kingdom, the essential itself of the Lord's kingdom, which is innocence, was therefore represented by 'lambs'. This was why the continual or daily burnt offering was made from lambs, the first in the morning and the second 'between the evenings', Exodus 29:37-39; Numbers 28:3-4; and a double offering on the sabbath, Numbers 28:9-10; and many more lambs still at the appointed festivals, Leviticus 23:12; Numbers 28:11, 14, 19, 27; 28:1-end. After the days of her cleansing had been completed a woman who had given birth was required to offer a lamb as a burnt offering, also a young pigeon or else a turtledove, Leviticus 12:6. This was required in order that the sign of the fruit of conjugial love - a love which is innocence itself, see 2736 - might be represented, and because innocence is meant by 'babes'.


1. literally, sons

(References: Exodus 29:38-41, 29:38-40; Numbers 28:17, 29)

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