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 #4169

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4169. 'Your sheep and your she-goats have not miscarried' means its state as regards good and the good of truth. This is clear from the meaning of 'sheep' as good, dealt with below, and from the meaning of 'she-goat' as the good of truth, dealt with in 3995, 4006. The word good when used by itself means the good of the will, whereas the expression the good of truth means the good of the understanding. The good of the will consists in doing good from good, whereas the good of the understanding consists in doing it from truth. To people who do good from truth those two activities seem to be one and the same, when in fact they are considerably different from each other. For doing good from good consists in doing it from the perception of good, and that perception does not exist with any except those who are celestial. But doing good from truth is doing it from knowledge and consequently from the understanding. It amounts to doing it without any perception that it is good, and so solely as something that a person has been taught to do by others, or else by the exercise of his own intellect has decided that it is good. Such truth may well be faulty, but if it has good as its end in view, then a person's action arising out of that truth becomes tantamount to good.

[2] 'Sheep' means goods. This may be seen from many places in the Word, from which places let merely the following be quoted: In Isaiah,

He was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. He is led like a lamb 1 to the slaughter, and like a sheep before its shearers, he did not open his mouth. Isaiah 53:7.

This refers to the Lord, where He is compared to 'a sheep' not by virtue of truth but of good. In Matthew,

Jesus said to the twelve whom He sent out, Do not go into the way of the gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Matthew 10:5-6.

'The gentiles' to whom they were forbidden to go stands for those among whom evils exist - 'gentiles' meaning evils, see 1259, 1260, 1849; 'the cities of the Samaritans' stands for those among whom falsities are present; and 'sheep' stands for those among whom forms of good may be found.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 1259-1260)

[3] In John,

Jesus after the Resurrection said to Peter, Feed My lambs. A second time He said, Feed My sheep; the third time He said, Feed My sheep. John 21:15-17.

'Lambs' stands for those who have innocence within them. The first reference to 'sheep' stands for people whose practice of good stems from good, the second for those whose practice of it stems from truth. In Matthew,

When the Son of Man comes in His glory He will place the sheep at His right hand but the goats at His left. And He will say to those at His right hand, Come, O blessed of My Father, possess as an inheritance the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me. Insofar as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers you did it to Me. Matthew 25:31-40.

Here it is quite plain that 'sheep' stands for goods, that is, for those in whom good is present. Every kind of good flowing from charity, which will in the Lord's Divine mercy be described elsewhere, is included here in the internal sense. 'Goats' means in particular those who have faith but no charity.

[4] Similarly in Ezekiel,

As for you, O My flock, said the Lord Jehovih, Behold, I am judging between one member of the flock and another, between rams of the sheep, and he-goats. Ezekiel 34:17.

'He-goats' means in particular those whose faith is not linked to any charity. This becomes clear from the meaning of 'he-goats' in the good sense as those who possess the truth of faith and from this some charity, but in the contrary sense those whose faith is not linked to any charity. Such people reason about salvation from basic assumptions that faith is what saves. The same point is apparent from what the Lord says about the goats in the passage in Matthew quoted above. But people who do not possess any truth of faith, or at the same time any good of charity, are carried away into hell without undergoing any such judgement, that is to say, without any examination to prove that they are governed by falsity.


1. The Latin means cattle, but the Hebrew means lamb, which Swedenborg has in other places where he quotes this verse.

(References: Genesis 31:38)

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