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 #4495

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4495. 'It happened on the third day' means that which is continuous even to the end. This is clear from the meaning of 'the third day' as that which is complete from beginning to end, dealt with in 2788, and so also as that which is continuous. People who suppose that the historical events described in the Word are no more than the facts of earthly history and are holy only because they appear in a sacred book are scarcely able to believe that 'the third day' has that meaning. But, as shown in preceding explanations, it is not only the actual historical narratives that include spiritual and celestial things which are not plainly visible in the letter, but also every word and every number too. The truth of this will in the Lord's Divine mercy be seen far more clearly in the prophetical sections which in the sense of the letter do not hold the mind to the sequence of events in the way that the historical sections do. But anyone who looks carefully into the interior contents of the Word comes to see that the number three, like the number seven, and also the number twelve, holds some arcanum. And if these numbers hold such it follows that every other number in the Word holds the same, for the Word is holy in every part.

(References: Mark 12:2-6)

[2] Sometimes, when I have been talking to angels, I have seen in front of me what looked like numbers written, as if on a sheet of paper, in broad daylight, and I have realized that the spiritual entities about which the angels spoke pass into numbers like these. From this experience I have also been given to know that each number in the Word contains some arcanum. This may be seen plainly from the following in John,

He measured the wall of the holy Jerusalem, a hundred and forty-four cubits, which is the measure of a man, that is, of an angel. Revelation 21:17.

And elsewhere,

Let him who has intelligence reckon the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, that is, its number is six hundred and sixty-six. Revelation 13:18.

It is evident that the first of these numbers, namely a hundred and forty-four, is the product of twelve times twelve, and that the number six hundred and sixty-six is a product of that involving three or six; but what degree of holiness is implied by them may be seen from the holiness associated with the number twelve, concerning which number see 577, 2089, 2129 (end), 2130 (end), 3272, 3858, 3913; and concerning the holiness associated with the number three, 720, 901, 1825, 2788, 4010.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 2129-2130)

[3] Because the number three meant that which is complete even to the end, and so an entire period, whether long or short, it was therefore adopted in the representative Church and used whenever such a meaning needed to be conveyed. It is also used in the same way in the Word, in which every detail carries a spiritual meaning, as may be seen from the following places:

They were to go a three days' journey and to offer sacrifice. Exodus 3:18; 5:3.

They were to be ready on the third day, for on the third day Jehovah would come down onto Mount Sinai. Exodus 19:11, 15-16, 18.

Nothing from the flesh of a sacrifice was to be left until the third day. Leviticus 7:16-18; 19:6-7.

The water of separation was to be sprinkled over the unclean person on the third day and on the seventh day. Numbers 19:11-end.

Those who touched one killed in war were to be cleansed on the third day and on the seventh day. Numbers 31:19-25.

(References: Numbers 19:11-22, Numbers 31:19-24)

[4] Joshua commanded the people that within three days they would be crossing the Jordan. Joshua 1:11; 3:2.

Jehovah called Samuel three times, and three times Samuel ran to Eli and the third time Eli understood that Jehovah was calling Samuel. 1 Samuel 3:1-8.

Jonathan told David to hide in the field until the third evening. And Jonathan sent to him on the third day from then, and revealed his father's intention. Jonathan at that point fired three arrows to the side of the stone. And after that David bowed down to the ground three times before Jonathan. 1 Samuel 20:5, 12, 19-20, 35-36, 41.

Three things were set before David, of which he was to choose one - either the coming of famine for seven years, or his fleeing before his enemies for three months, or the existence of pestilence in the land for three days. 2 Samuel 24:11-13.

[5] Rehoboam told the assembly of Israel which asked for relief from his father's yoke that they should go away for three days and then return And they came to Rehoboam on the third day, as the king said, Return to me on the third day. 1 Kings 12:5, 12.

Elijah stretched himself over the widow's son three times. 1 Kings 17:21.

Elijah told them to pour water over the burnt offering and the wood a third time and they did so a third time. 1 Kings 18:34.

Jonah was in the stomach of the monster for three days and three nights Jonah 1:17; Matthew 12:40.

The Lord talked of someone who planted a vineyard and sent servants three times, and after that his son. Mark 12:2, 4-6, Luke 20:12-13.

Of Peter, He said that he was to deny Him three times. Matthew 26:34, John 13:38.

He said to Peter three times, Do you love Me? John 21:15-17.

[6] From these and many other places in the Word it becomes clear that the number three holds an arcanum within it, and that for this reason this number was adopted within the ancient Churches as a meaningful sign. It is evident that it means the entire period of a Church and of things within a Church, whether long or short, and therefore that which is complete and also that which is continuous even to the end, as is plain in Hosea,

Jehovah will revive us after two days, on the third day He will raise us up, and we shall live before Him. Hosea 6:2.

(References: Genesis 34:25; Mark 12:2-6; Numbers 31:19-24)

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