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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:Feed my Sheep
Text:John 21:15-17 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Church Building

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 95:1,3                                                                             

Ps 79:3,5

Reading – John 10:11-16; John 21:1-25

Ps 23:1,2,3

Sermon – John 21:15-17

Hy 55:1,2,3

Hy 56:1,2,3,4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved, it is our joy and privilege to serve in the church of our Lord Christ. Some of us are office bearers, and we are allowed to serve in this capacity. Many of us are not office bearers and we have the opportunity to serve the church in numerous other ways. It’s always a privilege to serve, but the work can be hard. Some work in the church will be really frustrating, and much will probably go thankless.

Because of all that, it’s possible that you lose sight of things. When you’re up to your neck in work, doing what you’ve got to do, you can forget who it is you’re serving. You just put your head down and press on.

But when Christian service feels like just another chore, a joyless obligation, then we’ve forgotten something crucial. We’ve forgotten that we serve a great and gracious Lord. Elders and deacons and ministers—and we all—need this reminder and encouragement: I do what I do, not to serve myself, but Christ. I seek his gain, not my own. We serve out of love for the Saviour.

That’s the heart of working in the church: because we trust in Christ and praise his name, we’re willing to work among his people! We’ll serve out of love for his gospel and glory. Yes, when we love Christ, then we’ll also love Christ’s church. His people are precious to him, so they should be precious to us also. These are the truths of God’s Word in John 21:15-17,HiHi

The Good Shepherd entrusts his flock to his earthly servants:

  1. Jesus’s questions
  2. Peter’s replies
  3. Jesus’s commands


1) Jesus’s questions: By John 21, the disciples were getting used to the idea that their Lord Jesus was no longer dead. It had already been a couple weeks since the resurrected Jesus had first appeared. In our chapter He appears again, this time along the Sea of Tiberias.

A group of disciples had just spent a long and unsuccessful night of fishing. But then that mystery man helped them make an amazing catch. Seeing this, they knew beyond any doubt that He was the Lord. For long ago, when He first called them, Jesus said He’d make them into fishers of men—whose nets would be full of those who believed his gospel! Now they could see it: with his blessing, their work will prosper.

But this wasn’t the only thing Jesus had to teach, that morning by the sea. For after they ate their breakfast of roasted fish, Jesus had a pointed question to ask; he said to Simon Peter, “‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?’” (v 15).

Even from the way He asks the question, we know it’s a solemn occasion. Jesus calls Peter by his original family name, “Simon, son of Jonah.” You might compare it to when parents call their kids by their first and middle name—this is serious. You better listen up!

Years before, Jesus had given Simon a new name. Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” (Matt 16:15). And Simon had answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v 16). This was a good confession. So Jesus gave a name that signified the important job Simon was going to have: “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build by church” (v 18). Simon was now Peter: he was a rock, a foundation for God’s people.

This was a position of great honour, but also great responsibility. As a leader for the people of God, big things were expected of Peter. And he had failed. A few weeks ago, it happened. Jesus had been taken away, and all the disciples scattered. As Jesus was being interrogated by the leaders, Peter stood in the courtyard, warming himself by the fire.

But Peter couldn’t take the heat. Bystanders had challenged him, and said they’d seen him with Jesus. And instead of staying true, Peter denied him. He didn’t know the man. He’d never been with him.

So when Jesus asks this first question by the seaside, using that old name ‘Simon,’ we can be sure it stung him badly. It was meant to sting! Wasn’t Peter still the Rock? Or was he merely Simon again, the humble fisherman from Galilee? Was he no longer the foundation on which Christ would build the church? “Simon son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?”

And what exactly is Jesus asking? “Do you love me more than these?” More than what? The best reference, I think, is to the other disciples. But some commentators say that Jesus could not be referring to them. They say this would be a bit harsh for Jesus to say, without consideration for their feelings or Peter’s reputation. What a thing to ask, with many of the disciples right there! “Do you love me more than these other fellows love me?” Just what is Peter supposed to say?

Some say that Jesus must be referring to material things. Jesus has called Peter to be a fisher of men, so Jesus is pointing to all the stuff on the beach, and asking, “Do you love me more than all of this? More than the safety and stability of your former life? Do you love me more than your expensive fishing boat and all your tackle? Do you love me more than a life close to home, where you can spend time with your wife and kids?” Was Peter willing to lay all these things aside for the sake of being an apostle? So that he could work as a faithful servant of his Lord? If he really loved him, he’d be willing to leave it all behind.

In itself, it’s a good question to ask. Serving God does mean making sacrifice. It means we sometimes have to give up things that we treasure. Each of us must count the cost of following Christ, according to the position He has given us.

For instance, it’s as if Jesus says to the elders and deacons of our congregation, “Do you love me enough to give up some of your comfortable evenings at home? Will you give me more time than you give to your hobbies? Do you love me more than the approval of your friends? Do you love me more than all these things?”

Good questions. But I think it’s more likely Jesus is actually asking that very uncomfortable question: “Simon, do you love me more than these other disciples do?” He asks this to humble Peter. Because it was Peter who exclaimed at the Last Supper, “Lord, I will lay down my life for you!” And it was this same Peter who said, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

Peter had claimed to be supremely devoted to his Master. He claimed it, but hadn’t shown it. So Jesus challenges him. And after Peter replies, Jesus merely repeats the question, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?” (v 16). 

This second time, Jesus doesn’t compare Peter’s love to that of the others. Jesus wants to know from his disciple, “Are you sure that love is the bond between you and me? You say you love me, but is your love real? Will it stand the test of time, and endure the trial of hardship? Is your love committed and true?”

Peter answers again, but Jesus isn’t done yet. For He asks the question a third time: “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?” (v 17). If someone has ever asked you the same question three times in a row, you’ll know it was probably getting tense around that fire by the seaside. The other disciples were probably swallowing hard. Maybe looking at Peter sympathetically, but not daring to say a word.

These three questions drive home the point. Three times Peter had denied his Lord, so three times he had to profess his faith again. He’d shown himself unstable. Now, Peter had to be honest: Did he love Jesus? Did he really love Jesus? Would he always love Jesus?

These were questions for all of the disciples. They’d all abandoned the Lord in his hour of need. All of them needed to reaffirm their love for Jesus. And it was so important to do so, because without a true love for Christ, there can be no true service in his church! A real love for Jesus has to move them. Before they could go spread the gospel to all the nations, they each have to be sure that they were personally devoted to the man at the heart of that gospel, Jesus Christ. They have to be sure that they love him, with heart, mind, soul and strength! Sure that He came first for them, no matter what. For then they’d follow him to the ends of the earth.

This is still true for office bearers today—and for every one of us. It is only by loving Christ that we can serve him rightly. Through being filled with devotion to him, good work will be done. You can know a lot. You can read a lot. You can be gifted in different ways, and hold an important position. But it’s all for nothing without a love for the Saviour. That should be our chief motive, our main driver. ‘Christ loves me, I love him, and now I want to serve him.’

Peter’s example shows that none of us love him perfectly. We too have denied that we knew him. We’ve denied him with the things we said and did, and by what we’ve thought. Aren’t we denying Christ when we knowingly break his commandments—we know it’s wrong, but we still do it? Aren’t we denying Christ when we live like we’ve forgotten his faithfulness? Jesus could turn every one of us inside out. He could search us, and find a million failures.

Yet God is so gracious when we have faith in Christ. If we love him, Christ forgives! If we love him, Christ restores! This is the kind of Saviour we’re allowed to serve: one who is loyal, steadfast, and gracious. If we love him, He comes near. If we love him, He works in us the joy of service.


2) Peter’s replies: When the disciples first saw Jesus that morning, especially Peter was eager to greet him. He’d jumped out of the boat, then waded a hundred yards to get to shore. But now, faced with the grilling of his Master, Peter might’ve wished he was back in the safety of his boat. That old name and those pointed questions hurt Peter deeply.

Yet Peter was nothing if not direct: “‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you’” (v 15). He affirms that he loves the Lord. But the way that Peter answers shows that he’s learned something. This time he doesn’t compare himself to the others. For Peter recognized how he had failed. He saw how his proud words rang hollow. So now Peter can only appeal to what his Master knows: “You know that I love you.”

And the Lord does know. He knows every human heart. He searches and knows us. That’s uncomfortable, to think Christ knows all your thoughts, even your hidden desires. He knows our proud dreams of getting glory for ourselves. He knows our weak hold on the truth, knows our bitter resentment toward this person and that one—knows it all. Yet that same knowledge of the Lord can also be a comfort. Think of Peter: from any point of view, he was worthless. He should’ve been off the team. After talking so big, he’d shown himself to be worthless weakling.

Yet Peter still loved his Lord. He loved Jesus, and Jesus knew it! “You know that I love you.” If we can honestly say that to the Lord, we’re doing OK, better than OK. Because Jesus won’t reject anyone who turns to him with a true love. We might have a lot of personal baggage, and great weakness, but if our love for Christ is real, He won’t turn us away.

So when that second question came, Peter was ready. He replied as he had before, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” (v 16). That was his confidence—the Lord knows the heart. But then Jesus asked his question a third time. We imagine the other disciples leaning in to watch the fireworks: Surely Peter was going to snap under all this pressure! Now he was going to abandon the humble approach and get cranky!

But he doesn’t blow a fuse. Rather, “Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” (v 17). He was hurt because Jesus seemed to doubt him. And Peter at last replies, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you” (v 17). For years they’d been together. For years, Jesus had seen Peter’s devotion. There’d been other missteps. But through it all, Peter had always loved his Lord. And Jesus knew it.

So He didn’t really need to hear Peter say these things. But the point is, Jesus wants to be confessed as Lord. He wants this to be the constant theme of our lives: “I love Jesus Christ.” He wants this repeated confession in our hearts, and on our lips: “I love the Lord.” Because that’s where it all begins. That’s where service and giving and leading and helping begins.

Jesus knows that we love him too, but we’re good at keeping it shut up inside. It’s unspoken, while we prefer to talk about other things. But Christ wants us to speak of this love. Tell the Lord. Tell your friends. Tell your children. Tell your neighbours. If you love Christ, you’ll say it, and you’ll show it.

Elders and deacons too, should be ready to speak about their love for Christ. People need to hear that the things we talk about at home visits are real for our lives, too. They should know that these precious gospel truths mean something to us.

And to do this, we need something to say. It’s good to confess, “I love the Lord, and I believe in him.” But it’s even better to say why you love him. Peter loved Christ because he had experienced the forgiving love of Christ, and his power, and his patience. As a frail servant of the Lord, he’d learned about Christ’s mercy in a very personal way. So now he’d share this message, and Christ would use his preaching for great work in the kingdom.

Still today, I think we’re inclined to listen to the sort of person who clearly loves God, where it comes out of them as genuine and hard-fought. What they say about the Lord rings true, because they know him personally. They’ve struggled with sin. They’ve been humbled. They’ve received grace. When an office bearer can speak of the Lord’s great mercy in this way, we listen. When a friend or fellow believer speaks of why they love Christ, we listen. We want to learn more about this love for Christ, and it’s our delight to do his will.


3) Jesus’s commands: After Jesus asked his first question, and Peter gave his first answer, Jesus replies in a surprising way. He doesn’t answer like we would, with a touch of sarcasm, “You love me? You’ve got a fine way of showing it.” No, Jesus only gave him a simple command: “Feed my lambs” (v 15).

How did Peter react to these words? Did he scratch his head and look around the beach for some wandering sheep? Peter probably knew exactly what Jesus was talking about. For back in John 10, Jesus had called himself the Good Shepherd. There Jesus said that He knows his sheep, and his sheep know him—they listen to his voice, and they follow wherever He leads. And whatever happens, He’ll never forsake them. Jesus is the faithful shepherd, the one who even lay down his life for his flock.

The Good Shepherd is about to ascend into heaven. So it’s clear that someone else needs to take care of the flock. So He gives this job to his disciples. “You love me?” asks Jesus, “Then feed my lambs.” See again how the one leads directly to the other.

If you love Christ, show your love by your service in his church. If you’re devoted to the Good Shepherd, be devoted to his flock. We probably need to hear this, because sometimes we want to give up on the church. It’s easy to be critical of the church, to find things that are wrong and poorly done. So we can think that it’s not worth the effort, that it’s hopeless. In every congregation, in ours too, there are challenges. But Jesus calls us to treat his people just like He treats them: with gentleness, and compassion, and true concern. That’s how we show our love for Jesus: ‘Feed my lambs.’

The task of caring for the sheep is not a one-time thing. It is to be continual and ongoing. For Jesus answers Peter a second time, “Tend my sheep” (v 16). In his instructions, He’s gone from “feeding” to “tending,” moved from “lambs” to “sheep”—but there’s no great difference here. Lambs need to be fed; sheep need to be guided. They are weak and helpless on their own, so Christ’s flock must constantly be strengthened and protected.

What does this mean for today? Christ gives elders and deacons the task of taking the lead in caring for his sheep. They show mercy to the needy ones, those who’ve had operations, gotten sick, or become burdened in any number of ways. The office bearers are called to feed the flock with the good things of the Word. They are to nurture us with the solid food of the gospel. The office bearers must care for the sheep, by pursuing those who are wandering and drawing them back in. They must care for the flock.

A third time, Jesus gives the command: “Feed my sheep” (v 17). Peter now knows what he has to do. He had confessed, he denied, he confessed again—and now he has to carry on with the work Christ had given. As Jesus goes on to say in the next verses, this work would be Peter’s life. It would even mean his death, for one day he’d be taken away to execution. Peter would do the same thing the Chief Shepherd had done: he’d lay down his life.

It’s fascinating that we hear an echo of these words in Peter’s first letter. For there he instructs the office bearers in 5:1-4, “I appeal [to you] as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing…not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” Peter held onto that as his life-calling. It is the selfless and constant service of Christ through being a shepherd of his flock.

The same attitude should move all of us to serve. We love Christ, so we’ll gladly care for his church. We love Christ, so we’ll love his sheep. We’ll show mercy to the weak ones. We’ll be patient with the difficult ones. Beloved, look for sheep who always keep to themselves, and reach out. Have an eye for ones who are struggling. Don’t assume that all the lambs and sheep are happy and well, but take the time to find out how you can help.  

In this work, the elders and deacons have a special calling. We thank God for how He provides men to do this work among us. We pray that they will receive the Lord’s blessing. And we also know that Jesus delights to use each of us in his Kingdom. Like Peter, we are very weak. We struggle. But Christ is strong and faithful. He’ll equip us. He’ll give us the words to say. He’ll give the energy to serve.

And so, my brothers and my sisters, do you love Christ Jesus? Do you truly love him? Then love his people. Tend his lambs, and take care of his sheep.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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