John, the beloved disciple, shares with us a conversation. It’s between the risen Jesus and sort of the Lead Disciple, Peter after they ate bread and fish together. This was a fireside talk with Jesus about church leadership.
Read John 21:15-17 with me: v.  When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, 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 a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”  He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (my emphasis added in bold)
Much emphasis has been placed the verbs for “love” here. There’s phileo used and agapao, but all throughout John’s Gospel, John has used these verbs interchangeably and so it would be a mistake to make much of this. What’s actually more significant is the nuance Jesus uses with the words “feed/lambs” in v. 15, “tend/sheep” in v. 16, and feed/sheep in v. 17. THOSE verbs matter.
Those verbs are important to make much of, because, as one commentator puts it, “This ministry is described in verbs, not nouns: Tend, feed, not…hold the office of pastor. And the sheep are Christ’s sheep, not Peter’s. Not, Tend your flock, but Tend my sheep” (Barrett, Essays)
Ministry, and leadership is described by a total, and full and holistic caring of the flock of God. I might be Lead Pastor of Redemption Church today, but this is not my church. Redemption is a part of Christ’s church. All ministers or pastors are stewards of a church that is not theirs or ours but HIS.
Apparently, Peter got this message because in his First Letter he wrote, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you”—seems like he took the words of Jesus very seriously.
Now, out of everything Jesus could have said to Peter in the whole world, have you ever thought about why Jesus said this? Why did he say the same thing three times—thrice?
Jesus could have given Peter three different charges.
For example, as a pastor of a church committed to being Presbyterian, we might expect Jesus to say to Peter three different things:
- Preach the gospel.
- Administer the sacraments.
- And exercise church discipline.
And yes, that would have been “right.”
But Jesus doesn’t say that.
Instead, he says the same thing three times not so much to say what Peter should do but the kind of leader and disciple Peter is to be. In other words, the ministry is not a task list or job description so much as a way of being and living and acting in the world. Jesus is telling Peter, and is charging Christian leaders with something a whole lot more challenging than crossing off a ministry checklist.
Peter, “Tend my lambs, shepherd my sheep, tend my sheep.” Peter, shepherd. Peter, I am the “Good Shepherd,” let me lead you in the way of being and leading more like me. Peter, the whole Old Testament is full of me identifying as the True Shepherd who watches over my people, over and against all the false shepherds and hired hands who don’t. Peter, “the Lord is your shepherd, you shall not want (Psalm 23), I am the God who has saved you and has called you and who loves you and who leads you and who guides you, so shepherd others as I am shepherding you.
Why did Jesus press this home so much to Peter? There are many things pastors and elders have to focus on in leading a church. You’ve got to preach the gospel every week, you’ve got to do this and that, but it’s easy to get caught up in our duties and responsibilities. Check, I’m doing what I gotta do. I make visits, I pray for people by name regularly and pray publicly, I craft sermons, I moderate meetings, etc. etc.
But Jesus speaks to the heart of a pastor, the heart of an elder, and the heart of any and every leader in the church: yes, you have tasks to do, yes you have focal points, but always remember you are a shepherd first and foremost. And what a shepherd does is he tends, he feeds, he cares for the sheep. A shepherd is responsible for God’s people, caring for their needs both in doctrine and in life.
This cuts to the heart of every fake leader. If anyone reading this aspires to any office or leadership position in the church, let me just say, to reiterate what Kathy Keller once wrote: you can’t fake it in ministry. Sure, people do all the time but it tends to lead to either a) Abuse or b) Burnout.
You can’t keep up the facade and if you try you’ll break yourself or you’ll break others. And that’s not how it’s supposed to be. Godliness and character matter more than training and charisma in the ministry. It just does.
That’s why in qualifications for church officers, Paul writes to Timothy and Titus not to go to a specific seminary or to be able to craft the best 3 point sermons but of the essential qualities, the character and quality and disposition of being in any given leadership role. Leaders should not be contentious or divisive, they should be gentle, have a good reputation with outsiders, etc. So it matters how outsiders view pastors and elders and leaders. It matters how neighbors do. This is crushing to people rushing into ordination or other church leadership positions, but it’s protecting the church from severe trauma like we keep hearing about in the news.
You see, true leadership is not just what you do but how you go about doing it. Leaders are accountable to the Chief Shepherd, Jesus. Leaders are responsible for all kinds of stuff, sure, but God places more value not on everything that gets done, but also in how what gets done is done.
(Look with me again at the rest of v. 17): “Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep" (John 21:17).
Peter was grieved. He was distressed. It’s that Aha! moment when you realize that you’ve been found out. You are fully known, fully exposed. Someone has just found out a deep secret you’ve kept, or a person who wasn’t supposed to hear what you did or said just found out. Has that happened before to you? Peter realizes Jesus just asked him three questions is because he denied Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. He’s grieved because he is confronted with all the sin he has done. He’s put on the spot; called out.
You see, Peter knew his own story.
And his story said, “Not good enough.”
His story resounded: I said I believed in Jesus, I said I would follow him even to death, and when the moment came I didn’t do it. Then that moment came again, and I denied him. And it came back and guess what, I didn’t act any different.
Luke 22:31-34 records for us his prior dedication to the Lord, but it only serves to highlight his coming rejection of the Lord:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”
His life story read three times—fail, fail, fail. Deny, deny, deny. I’ll never deny, but I denied denied denied. This is what makes Jesus’ words so hard to bear for Peter. Three times Peter hears that where he has failed the most he is also LOVED the most.
Right where he has forsaken God is the place where God has declared, I will never forsake you because my Son was forsaken for you.
That right there is true for you today if you find yourself believing in Jesus Christ. You may think nobody cares about your story. You might think of yourself as worthless, or your life as pointless, or your work as meaningless—but God says in Jesus Christ: wherever you are, you are known and you are loved to the fullest in spite of yourself. You see, God can do that because, through faith in Christ, when he looks at us he sees his perfect son. God can do that because when he looks at our sin he sees every crimson stain of our past, present, and future nailed to the cross where the lamb of God was slain.
You know a lot of people have been buzzing about Facebook’s data breach. Other people are privy to your information. Well, God has breached all of your data. There isn’t a single post, message, text, conversation, or moment of your life that he is unaware of. He has watched it all. Every part of your life has been recorded.
Not if this God has so moved into this world not to condemn but to save.
And so in all of those areas where you’re fully known, in Christ God says to you: You are fully loved. You are fully mine.