If you have the privilege of being a shepherd in one of Jesus’ churches, take these words to heart. Feed your sheep with the Word of Truth. Tend to and defend your sheep with the Word of Christ. Shield the flock from the fear of death with God’s promises of life.
Travel back in time with me to a quiet shore on the Sea of Tiberius. The sun’s rays have just begun chasing the gray dawn away, casting light upon a ragged band of disillusioned disciples rising and falling with the waves. John 21 hints that the small crew had caught about as much sleep that night as fish. And so, with empty nets in their hands and tired eyes in their heads, they turned and saw through the thinning haze the form of a Man standing on the sand, watching. After a divinely appointed déjà vu (see Lk 5:5-8), the weary group sat down to eat with that Man, Jesus. No one said a word. Why? Not too long before, all the disciples had scattered and fled, leaving Jesus utterly alone before those who would eventually crucify him. Earlier still, one of those disciples named Peter had vowed unyielding faithfulness to his Lord (Jn 13:37). As most of us know, and as all of us have experienced ourselves, his creed had far exceeded his deeds. Despite his bold promise to stand unto death, Peter wilted before a servant girl while warming himself around a charcoal fire (Jn 18:15-18).
Did a guilty silence hang in the air while those disciples, Peter included, gathered around yet another charcoal fire (Jn 21:9). Whatever the atmosphere only one voice cut through the relentless sound of the waves breaking upon the sand. The voice belonged to Jesus. The Savior interrupted the deafening silence and fell uniquely upon the ears and heart of a despondent Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?” (Jn 21:15). While some hold that “these” refers to the fish, there is good reason to believe otherwise. That reason cut to Peter’s heart: he who had boldly promised courage above all the other disciples (Mt 26:33) had been humiliated and needed comfort more than all the other disciples.
Three times Peter had denied the Lord Jesus. Now that same Jesus gave Peter opportunities to reaffirm his love three times. What did Jesus require from Peter to demonstrate his love for the risen Savior? Not bloody-kneed penance. Not an earth shattering crusade. It was, in fact, gentle and faithful care for lambs and sheep. John gave us this passage not to argue about different Greek words for love, but rather to show the Great Shepherd restoring one of His under-shepherds in order to care for the flock. Take some time with me now to consider two aspects of this conversation: first, what Jesus reveals about His own character and concern, and second, what Jesus expects from those who enjoy the privilege of shepherding any part of God’s flock.