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 #5201

Study this Passage

/ 10837  

5201. 'And they fed in the sedge' means instruction. This is clear from the meaning of 'feeding' as receiving instruction, dealt with below, and from the meaning of 'the sedge', or longer grass that grows near rivers, as facts known to the natural man. Since such factual knowledge is meant by 'grass or 'plant', as is plain from the Word, 'feeding in the sedge' therefore means receiving instruction in factual knowledge, and through this knowledge instruction regarding things that are true and good. For factual knowledge serves as a means. Indeed it is like a mirror in which an image of interior things reveals itself; and this image is like another mirror in which forms of the truth and the good of faith, and therefore things which belong to heaven and are called spiritual, reveal and represent themselves. But being an interior one, this image is seen by none but those who have faith that is rooted in charity. This is what is meant in the genuine sense by 'feeding in the sedge'.

[2] The meaning of 'feeding' as receiving instruction is evident from those places in the Word where one reads the expression, such as in Isaiah,

Then He will give rain for your seed with which you sow the land, and bread of the produce of the land; and there will be fatness and wealthiness. On that day, they will feed your cattle in a broad grassland. Isaiah 30:23.

'Cattle' stands for those in whom goodness and truth are present, 'feeding in a broad grassland' for receiving abundant instruction.

[3] In the same prophet,

I have given You as a covenant of the people - to restore the land; to share out the devastated inheritances; to say to the bound, Go out; to those who are in darkness, Reveal yourselves. They will feed along the ways, and on all slopes will their pasture be. Isaiah 49:8-9.

This refers to the Lord's Coming. 'Feeding along the ways' stands for receiving instruction in truths, 'the ways' being truths, 627, 2333. 'Pasture' stands for the actual instruction. In Jeremiah,

Woe to the shepherds destroying and scattering the flock of My pasture! Therefore said Jehovah God of Israel against the shepherds feeding My people..... Jeremiah 23:1-2.

'The shepherds' stands for those who give instruction, and 'the flock' for those who receive it, 347, 3795, so that 'feeding' means giving instruction.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 343)

[4] It has become customary to refer to those who teach as 'pastors' or 'shepherds' and to those who learn as 'the flock'. For this reason the use of the expression 'feeding' has become commonly accepted when talking about preaching or about instruction given in doctrine or the Word. But when the expression is used in this way it is only a comparison and not, as when it occurs in the Word, one that holds any spiritual meaning within it. The reason 'feeding', when used in the Word, has a spiritual meaning is that when instruction and doctrine based on the Word are being talked about in heaven, that discussion is represented in a visual way in the world of spirits, where spiritual realities make their appearance within natural images. That representation consists of grasslands that are lush with grass, plants, and flowers, and where also there are flocks; and every variation of this scene occurs, as determined by the nature of the discussion that is taking place in heaven regarding instruction and doctrine.

[5] In the same prophet,

I will bring back Israel to his habitation so that he may feed on Carmel and Bashan; and on mount Ephraim and in Gilead his soul will be satisfied. Jeremiah 50:19.

'Feeding on Carmel and Bashan' stands for receiving instruction in forms of the good of faith and charity. In the same prophet,

There has gone out from the daughter of Zion all her majesty; her princes have become like deer, they have not found pasture. Lamentations 1:6. In Ezekiel

I will feed them in a good pasture, and their fold will be on the mountains of the loftiness of Israel; and they will lie down in a good fold, and on fat pasture they will feed upon the mountains of Israel. Ezekiel 34:14.

[6] In Hosea,

Now Jehovah will feed them like a sheep in a broad place. Hosea 4:16.

'Feeding in a broad place' stands for giving instruction in truths, for 'a broad place' means truth, see 1613, 3473, 3434, 4482.

In Micah,

You, Bethlehem Ephrath, from you will come forth for Me one who will be Ruler in Israel. He will stand and feed [His flock] in the strength of Jehovah. Micah 5:2, 4.

In the same prophet,

Guide 1 your people with your staff, the flock of your inheritance which is dwelling alone. Let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old. Micah 7:14.

In Zephaniah,

The remnant of Israel will feed and rest, with none making them afraid. Zephaniah 3:17.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 3433-3434; Zephaniah 3:13)

[7] In David,

Jehovah is my Shepherd; He will make me lie down in green pastures; 2 He will lead me away to still waters. Psalms 23:1-2.

In the same author,

He made us and not we ourselves, His people and the flock of His pasture; therefore we are His, His people and the flock of His pasture. 3 Psalms 100:3.

In the Book of Revelation,

The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will feed them and will guide them to living springs of water. Revelation 7:17.

In John,

I am the door. If anyone enters through Me he will be saved, and will go in and out, and find pasture. John 10:9.

In the same gospel,

Jesus said to Peter, Feed My lambs; a second time, Feed My sheep; and a third time, Feed My sheep. John 21:15-17.


1. or Feed or Pasture

2. literally, pastures of the plant

3. The first and second halves of this sentence are in fact alternative ways of understanding the original Hebrew.

(References: Genesis 41:2)

/ 10837  
   Study this Passage

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