John 21:15-23 Peter’s Marching Orders
We are to part two of the final story John shares in his PS closing. We are going to take a couple verses out of my bible’s third section of the story and put them with today’s reading. I’m sorry it has taken me so long to get here. I have been doing a dozen other projects lately. But we are here now and we are going to settle in and see where God leads us.
Jesus had finished breakfast with the seven disciples He met at the edge of the sea that morning. I KNOW this meeting wasn’t a coincidence. Jesus had a purpose in mind and this was the perfect place to carry it out.
We are not told of any other conversation happening around the breakfast “table” that day except Jesus’ exchange with Peter. Jesus asks Peter nearly the same question three separate times. I wonder how much time passed between His questions. Were they back to back or did they span the full morning? We know they at least started after breakfast was finished. We also don’t know what the rest of the group was doing or the activity Jesus and Peter were involved in.
I said “nearly the same question” because of a teaching I received concerning this passage when I was younger. It was pointed out that Jesus used a different word for “love” than Peter did during the first two exchanges. Jesus used the Greek word agape, meaning unconditional love as in the God’s kind of love, the first two times. Peter responded with the Greek word phileo, meaning brotherly or friendship kind of love, all three times Jesus asked him this question. Jesus used phileo the final time He asked Peter the question. I believe Jesus was trying to stretch Peter with His word choice. I wonder if Jesus gave up on the stretching when He chose to use phileo too or if He realized Peter’s distress and quit pushing.
I’m also wondering the significance of the slight variations in Jesus’ instructions to Peter after Peter’s answers. My bible has the first instructions being “Feed My lambs.” The second instructions were “Tend My sheep” and the final one was “Feed My sheep.” Here is something I’m thinking over. You don’t have to agree with me. I’m NOT putting it out there as doctrine or anything.
The new church is right on the horizon. Peter will preach his first sermon on the day of Pentecost. There will be MANY “lambs” born that day. These are brand new baby Christians. A lamb’s greatest needs are “feeding” and protection. Feeding the lamb properly is critical for it to make it to the sheep stage, adolescent or adult. Peter was charged with giving the milk of the word to the lambs to help them develop into the mature sheep.
Once the lamb is a mature sheep Peter is tasked with “tending” them. This comes in the form of shearing, cleaning hooves, keeping them in the pasture area, moving them from one grazing area to another, protecting them from predators, ensuring they are caring for their young, and assuring the health of each individual sheep and the flock as a whole. Something I came upon while looking at sheep care is this quote from Modern Farmer that I thought was very appropriate:
“Shepherds, like the sheep themselves, learn quickly that the path to success depends on tending to the flock but caring for the individual. Providing clean water, ample forage and shelter to an entire flock is essential to maintaining the health of the flock. But the success of a shepherd or shepherdess is in the compassion they have for each individual. This means being able to identify a sick or injured sheep or lamb within a flock of hundreds or thousands of sheep. Assisting with the birth of a lamb when needed, caring for a lamb orphaned by its mother, providing the expectant mother with enhanced nutrition or weaning a lamb in a compassionate manner are all part of that job. The more concern the shepherd has for the individuals who are in need of health care, supplemental food assistance or individual attention, the healthier the flock and the more profitable the whole operation is. (This lesson applies to more than a flock of sheep.)”
The last response Jesus gave was for Peter to “Feed My sheep.” Peter’s task is to bring these mature sheep into the best pastures. To move them from the milk of the word to the solid food. This would also include teaching them how to find the best food on their own. Searching out the scriptures as a mature Christian.
This sheep progression brings up visions of tending plants for me too. When the plant is first starting out you use a LOT of care to ensure it a healthy start in the world. Once well established, pruning and shaping comes into play to make the plant healthier and conform it to the desired role it is to play in the garden. Once pruning is completed, feeding and tending the newly emerging growth happens. This cycle continues on for the life of the plant.
The same is true for the child of God. When we first are “birthed” into the Kingdom we need great care to ensure we receive the truth of His word. We need a firm foundation to build our life with Him on. We learn of His salvation, His grace, His love, and His mercy. As we grow we learn how He wants us to behave, how He wants us to treat others, deepen our relationship with Him and the amazing plans He has for our life. During this growing time there is also redirection (pruning) when we go off track. After redirection there is more growth in store again. This cycle continues throughout our life until we finally meet Him face to face.
This care is what Jesus was entrusting to Peter. This was not to say that Peter was completely mature and beyond the need of growing and pruning. He too would encounter these in his life. But Jesus was giving Peter a new direction for his life. He was no longer a fisherman who would return to the sea when he felt lost. He was a shepherd who would find his purpose in the health of the flock; Jesus’ flock.
Jesus ended His direct instructions to Peter with this one command: “Follow Me.” That is one tall order! I’m reading a book called Sitting at The Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith by Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg. They speak of what “following the Rabbi” entails. How it encompasses the whole life of the follower. The follower becomes a servant to the teacher in every way. He places himself completely at the beck and call of the master doing any task the master assigns without question or argument. When, and only when the master feels the student is ready, he brings him into the actual service he has been training for. Jesus just gave Peter His vote of confidence. Peter is ready to take a step forward.
I thing Peter’s experience of brokenness was an important part of his readiness for use by Jesus. Peter was SO sure of himself. He was confident HE would stand the test when push came to shove. But his failure in denying Jesus not once but three times that night brought Peter new insight. Peter saw himself as he truly was; a man just as fallible as any other. A man in need of Jesus’ forgiveness and mercy.
When Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him I’m pretty sure it brought Peter back to the three times he denied Him. It tore Peter’s heart to have Jesus question his love. Peter finally bowed to Jesus’ knowledge in his final answer. “Lord You know everything; You know that I love You” (verse 17). This was where Peter needed to be the night Jesus told him he would deny Him. Willing to say, “You know better than I ever could.”
I want to end tonight by looking at Peter’s question about John. “Lord, what about this man?”
Peter had just been given some pretty tall marching orders. He was to “follow Me (Jesus)” and tend to Jesus’ flock. I don’t know if Peter was asking if John could come along to help, if he was wondering what John’s job would be, or if he was feeling John was intruding on his time with Jesus. Peter might also have been thinking about the things Jesus had just told him about his future. How he would be dressed by another and taken where he didn’t want to go. Could he have been wondering about John’s future safety at that time? Whatever his reasons, Jesus redirected his focus back onto the work he was to do. “Don’t worry about what others are doing; you do what I told you to do. That is where you need to focus.”
Lord Jesus, thank You for using Peter so mightily after his breaking. Thank You for letting him tend Your flock. His restoration gives me hope for my life. I know I will never be a Peter, but if You so fully restored him You can and will restore me too when I fail.
Thank You for the sheep and plant pictures tonight. They helped me see Your story in a new and different light. I love it when You share something new with me in the familiar stories.
Please help me keep my eyes on what You have for me to do instead of comparing or critiquing someone else’s role with You. Help me walk the path You laid before ME. Remind me again to “keep my eyes on my own paper” when I start to wander and wonder.