John 21:17 MEANING

John 21:17
(17) He saith unto him the third time.--Again the question is asked, but this time the Lord uses Peter's own word, and His question seems to say, "Dost thou, in personal affection and devotion, really love Me?" The third time, to him who had three times denied! and this time the love which Peter knows has ever filled his soul seems to be doubted. The question cuts to the very quick, and in the agony of the heart smarting beneath the wound, he appeals in more emphatic words than before to the all-seeing eye that could read the very inmost secrets of his life, "Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee."

Feed my sheep.--The better reading is, probably, little sheep. The difference is of one letter only (??????? and ????????), and a mistake would therefore be easily made by a copyist. The diminutive word occurs nowhere else in Biblical Greek, and is almost certainly, therefore, part of the original text; but whether it was first written here or in John 21:16, or in both, must with our present knowledge be left undetermined. The order of the Received text is "lambs" (John 21:15), "sheep" (John 21:16), "sheep" (John 21:17). The Peshito Syriac must have read "lambs," "little sheep," "sheep"; and this is in part supported by the Vulgate, which has "agnos," "agnos," "oves," and more exactly by the Latin of St. Ambrose, who has "agnos," "oviculas," "oves." This would point to a three-fold gradation answering to the three-fold question, and committing to the Apostle's care the lambs, the little sheep, the sheep of the flock of Christ. Still, it must be admitted that the more probable reading is lambs, little sheep, little sheep, and that the difference of thought is in the difference of the verbs. "Feed My lambs; be a shepherd to the weak ones of the flock; feed these weak ones." He who loved Christ is to be like Christ, a good shepherd, giving his life for the sheep who are Christ's. He who had been loved and forgiven, held up that he might not fall, restored after he had fallen, is to be to others what Christ had been to him--feeding men with spiritual truths as they can bear them, gently guiding and caring for those who are as the weak ones of the flock through ignorance, prejudice, waywardness. The chief work of the chief Apostle, and of every true apostle of Christ, is to win back the erring, helpless, sinful sons of men; and the power which fits them for this work is the burning love which quickens all other gifts and graces, and can appeal to the Great Shepherd Himself, "Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee." As a remarkable instance of how the Great Shepherd's words impressed themselves upon the Apostle's mind, comp. 1 Peter 2:25.

Verse 17. - And now Peter seems to have conquered, by his persistence, the heart of his Lord, and Jesus adopts the very phrase which Peter twice over had substituted for that which he had himself used; for he saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas (John), lovest thou me? (φιλεῖς με;); as if he had said, "Dost thou indeed love me dearly, love me as a friend, love me with the earnestness and fervor that twice over has corrected my word into one more congenial to thee, and more ample and true than that used by myself?" This trait of Peter's character, which John has hinted on several occasions, is abundantly illustrated in the synoptic narrative and in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? The grief was natural. The repeated question suggests some doubt about his sincerity, and the adoption of the apostle's own word cut him with a more poignant heart-thrust? He may have thought thus: Jesus seems to distrust the reality of my personal affection. and will not accept my implication that this is more to me than the most thoughtful ἀγαπή, the most deeply meditated and measured reverence. He was grieved because a third time seems like an infinite repetition, and, if repeated thus a third time, it may be asked me again and again every day of my life. He was grieved from the irresistible analogy between the threefold denial of which he had been guilty, and this threefold interrogatory. He does not say as before, "Yea, Lord;" but commences, Lord, thou knowest (οϊδας) all things. Omniscience is freely conceded to the Lord. All things that Peter did, thought, or felt, all his bewilderment, all his mistakes, all his impulsiveness and mixture of motive, all his self-assertion, all his weakness and disloyalty, are known; but so also all the inner springs and lines of his nobler nature, and that though he played the fool, he was a hypocrite in his denials. The Lord knew that his faith did not really fail, though his courage did; and in virtue of this breadth of the Lord's knowing, he must have come to full cognizance of the entire meaning of Peter's life. Thou (seest) hast come fully to know that I love thee! Just because thou intuitively knowest all things. The play on οϊδας and γινώσκεις is obvious (see John 10:14; John 17:3, etc.). Jesus saith to him, Feed my little sheep. It is said by some that, even if this be the true reading, we have simply a renewal of the tenderness and strong emotion which led the Lord to speak of the ἄρνια on the first occasion. Doubtless deep and glowing affection pervades the use of these epithets; but if this be the sole explanation, then the reason of the adoption of πρόβατα in the second commission is not evident, ἄρνια would have answered the purpose. There is distinct progress in the ideas:

(1) "Feed my lambs;"

(2) "Rule (shepherd) my sheep;"

(3) "Feed my little sheep."

First, let Peter, let the apostolic company, let any one of the successors of the apostles, learn the delicate duty of supplying the just and appropriate nourishment to those that are young in years or in graces; then let him also learn to guide, direct, protect from outward foes, the mature disciples, and preserve the discipline of the flock, seeking the lost sheep until it be found; and he will find that then a third duty emerges. The sheep that are young in heart, the old men that are childlike in spirit, the trembling sheep that need even more care than the lambs themselves, are specially thrown upon the shepherd's care. Was not Peter himself a προβατιόν? Had he not shown that he was a most imperfect master of himself? He was mature in years, but childish as well as childlike in character. He could (for a while) only see one thing at a time, and he was impatient of the future. Mark welt his characteristic words, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man. O Lord!" "That be far from thee, O Lord!" "Why cannot I follow thee now?" "Thou shall never wash my feet!" "Not my feet only, but my hands and my head!" "Let us build for thee three tabernacles!" "Not so; I have never eaten anything common or unclean!" These are familiar illustrations of the childishness and infantile simplicity, babyish audacity, of the old disciple. Even after the Lord has risen from the dead, Peter ventures to correct his language. Christ, moreover, accepts his persistent alteration of the word for "love" item the lips of this προβατίον. Thus the Lord summons him to undertake a duty which he would on reflection be specially able to appreciate.

21:15-19 Our Lord addressed Peter by his original name, as if he had forfeited that of Peter through his denying him. He now answered, Thou knowest that I love thee; but without professing to love Jesus more than others. We must not be surprised to have our sincerity called into question, when we ourselves have done that which makes it doubtful. Every remembrance of past sins, even pardoned sins, renews the sorrow of a true penitent. Conscious of integrity, Peter solemnly appealed to Christ, as knowing all things, even the secrets of his heart. It is well when our falls and mistakes make us more humble and watchful. The sincerity of our love to God must be brought to the test; and it behoves us to inquire with earnest, preserving prayer to the heart-searching God, to examine and prove us, whether we are able to stand this test. No one can be qualified to feed the sheep and lambs of Christ, who does not love the good Shepherd more than any earthly advantage or object. It is the great concern of every good man, whatever death he dies, to glorify God in it; for what is our chief end but this, to die to the Lord, at the word of the Lord?He saith unto him the third time,.... That by these three testimonies, out of his mouth, the thing might be established, and be out of all doubt:

Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? is it so indeed that thou lovest me? is thy love really so hearty and sincere as thou savest? may it be depended upon?

Peter was grieved, because he said unto him the third time, lovest thou me? because it put him in mind of his having denied his Lord three times; the remembrance of which cut him to the heart and it added to his grief, that his love, which he knew was unfeigned, notwithstanding his conduct, should seem to be suspected:

and he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee; he appeals with great warmth and earnestness to him, as the omniscient God, and the searcher of all hearts, who knows all persons and things, and the secret thoughts, dispositions, and affections of men's minds, for the truth of his love to him; for though he knew the treachery of his own heart, and durst not trust to it; and therefore chose not to be determined by his own assertions, and was well aware that the sincerity of his love might be called in question by fellow Christians, because of his late conduct; but as everything was naked and open to his Lord, with whom he had to do, he lodges and leaves the appeal with him: so every soul that truly loves Christ, whatever Satan, the world, professors, or their own hearts under unbelieving frames, may suggest to the contrary, can appeal to Christ, as the trier of the reins of the children of men, that he it is whom their souls love; and though their love may be greatly tried, and they themselves be sorely tempted by Satan, and suffered to fall greatly; yet their love to Christ can never be lost; the fervency of it may be abated, the exercise of it may be very languid, but the principle itself always remains, as it did in Peter:

Jesus saith unto him, feed my sheep. It may be observed from the repetition of this phrase following upon Peter's declaration of his love to Christ, that such only are proper persons to feed the lambs and sheep of Christ, who truly and sincerely love him: and in doing which they show their love to him: and who indeed would be concerned in this service, but such? since the work is so laborious, the conduct of those to whom they minister oftentimes is so disagreeable, the reproach they meet with from the world, and the opposition made unto them by Satan, and all the powers of darkness: it is true indeed, there are some that take upon them this work, and pretend to do it, who do not love Christ; but then they are such who feed themselves, and not the flock; and who feed the world's goats, and not Christ's lambs and sheep, and in time of danger leave the flock; only the true lovers of Christ faithfully perform this service, and abide in it by preaching the pure Gospel of Christ, by administering his ordinances, in their right manner, and by directing souls in all to Christ, the heavenly manna, and bread of life. Dr. Lightfoot thinks that by the threefold repetition of the order to feed Christ's lambs and sheep, is meant the threefold object of Peter's ministry; the Jews in their own land, the Gentiles, and the Israelites of the ten tribes, that were in Babylon.

Courtesy of Open Bible