Feed My Sheep | R.C. Sproul

It is a profound blessing that we, at least in the West, have easy access to the Word of God. Nearly every home in America, believing or not, has at least one copy. Most of us have multiple copies, and many of us are able to carry God’s Word with us on our smartphones. Like most blessings, however, this one comes with temptations and challenges.

The Danger of the Familiar

The virtual ubiquity of God’s Word has not translated into a biblically literate church. We have run into the opposite aphorism of “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” finding that familiarity can breed contempt. We have Bibles, but many of us know precious little of them. Even, however, when our possession of the Bible leads to proper study of the Bible, we often face another temptation. In some ways, we know more than we ought. Our familiarity with the Bible can lessen the impact of its many surprises. We tend, for instance, to telescope the history of the Bible. The four hundred long years of prophetic silence that God’s people endured between the end of the ministry of Malachi to the announcement of the coming birth of John the forerunner go by, for us, in seconds as we simply turn the page. We miss out on the angst.

We tend, as well, to telescope the lives of the saints. Because we know what will become of Saul, the persecutor of the church, we miss the terror he was to the church, as well as the astonishing choice God made in calling him to minister to the Gentiles. When Peter at Caesarea Philippi has his moment of triumph, boldly proclaiming Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God, we know already that in a few moments, having just been given the name Petros, “the Rock,” that he will be given another name, as Jesus says to him, “Get behind Me, Satan!” (Matt. 16:23). Because we know the whole story, we flatten out the peaks and valleys along the way.

This is perhaps no more evident than when we read the gospel narratives between the crucifixion of Christ and His resurrection. One of the reasons the church marks these days is that we might seek to enter into the horror and sorrow of what came in between. But we all know the good news—He is risen! The disciples, however, did not know this. Indeed, even after Jesus appeared to them, there remained much uncertainty and confusion—which is why, I suspect, Peter went fishing. It was something he knew, a familiar pattern, a calming liturgy.

It turned out, however, to be a rough night. Buffeted by his own shame at denying his Lord three times after his bold affirmation he would never do that, Peter found insult added to injury in failing at fishing. All night, and not a fish to show for it! Imagine the burden of his guilt, the temptation and yet fear to hope, the long, grinding hours of futility. Wait before you rush forward to Peter’s triumphant sermon at Pentecost and feel the weight of that moment.

But when the morning had now come, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Then Jesus said to them, “Children, have you any food?” They answered Him, “No.” And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast, and now they were not able to draw it in because of the multitude of fish. (John 21:4–6)

Isn’t it likely that while one of Peter’s challenges was fixed, his confusion grew? This was not the first time that Jesus, the itinerant rabbi, had taught the veteran fisherman how to do his job. Luke records that event:

When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.” And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (5:4–8)

The first time Jesus told Peter where to fish, Peter responded with fear. He saw in this power the holiness of Jesus, which in turn revealed his own lack of holiness. He wanted to get away as fast as he could. Jesus, however, there and then called Peter to follow Him.

Much has been made—and rightly so—of the similarities and differences between Judas and Peter. Both men, on the same night, betrayed the man they had sat under and labored beside. Both men were overcome with sorrow over what they had done, Judas to the point of suicide. In John’s account of the breakfast by the sea, we see the key difference between the two men—“Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment (for he had removed it), and plunged into the sea” (John 21:7).

Peter’s response to his sorrow was not to flee from Jesus and take his life but to run or, rather, to swim to Jesus for the sake of his life. While the remaining disciples rowed their boat and their catch to the shore, Peter found that he could not wait. When Jesus had appeared earlier, Peter’s betrayal had not been dealt with. He did not know what he would find. But he did know whom he would find.

After eating, Jesus turned His attention to Peter: “When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, 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’” (John 21:15). Twice more Jesus asked the same question, twice more Peter gave the same answer, and twice more Jesus gave the same admonition:

He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, 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 Jonah, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep.” (vv. 16–17)

Much has been made of this threefold repetition. Some have suggested that this was another use of the Hebrew practice of demonstrating emphasis by repetition. When Jesus spoke, “Verily, verily,” or “Truly, truly,” He was admonishing His audience to give special attention. And, of course, God’s holiness is eternally sung by His angels as Isaiah described in His vision, the angels crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa. 6:3).

While such may be the case, I suspect the threefold repetition had more to do with Peter’s grieving heart over his own threefold betrayal of the Lord. In His grace our Lord gives Peter the opportunity, three times, to affirm his love, having denied the same three times just days before. It is a tender moment, and with the balm of the opportunity for Peter to affirm his love, our Lord’s method brought with it the sting of the threefold reminder of the threefold betrayal.

There are, however, two other key elements of this dialogue that are easy to miss—one from Peter, the other from Jesus. Note that Peter’s “defense” is not grounded in his own integrity. Peter’s credibility is at an all-time low. But his reply isn’t simply an increasingly loud insistence of his love. Peter does not bring out evidence, highlighting the sacrifice of his following Jesus during His earthly ministry. He doesn’t remind Jesus of the glory of his proclamation at Caesarea Philippi. Instead, his only defense of his love is the knowledge of his Lord. Three times Peter not only affirms his love for Jesus but also affirms that Jesus already knows the answer to the question: “You know, O Lord.” It is as if he is turning the question back to Jesus. Confused and disappointed by his betrayal, trying to understand how it could not be proof positive of a lack of love, he pleads with Jesus’s knowledge.

Note, however, Jesus’s response. Jesus is not a celestial supercomputer, Google in the flesh spitting out an accurate answer: “Yes, Peter, your answer is correct. I have done a fresh survey of your heart, and My diagnosis is that you do indeed love Me.” Neither does Jesus list the evidence. Instead, He gives a charge—“Feed My sheep.” Three times Jesus asks the question. Three times Peter answers in the affirmative, each time citing Jesus’s own knowledge of the answer. And three times Jesus makes the same command—“Feed My sheep.”

The Danger in the Unfamiliar

While our familiarity with the Bible comes with peculiar dangers, there are also dangers in the many things we are unfamiliar with. Our image of sheep is hopelessly romantic. We think of them as sweet-tempered, docile animals. The original audience knew better.

The use of sheep as a metaphor for the people of God is striking. We see the relationship of the shepherd to the sheep throughout the canon of Scripture. Psalm 23 is of particular note here. David, himself a shepherd, draws from his own experience to depict the Lord with those wonderful qualities of the shepherd: “The Lord is my shepherd.” The first conclusion David draws is that if the Lord is his shepherd, it follows irresistibly that he should not want. For the Good Shepherd does not leave His lambs destitute, starving, in a state of want. That metaphor carries over to the New Testament. In John 10, Jesus declares that He is the Good Shepherd and distinguishes Himself from the hireling who cares for the sheep only as a means of compensation. When the wolf comes, the hireling runs and abandons the sheep. In contrast, the Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.

Anybody in Palestine who knew how dependent sheep were upon their shepherd would grasp the significance of the metaphor. The absolute dependence of the sheep makes it fitting to liken God and His Messiah to the role of the shepherd. But what is perhaps most startling is that the people of God are compared to sheep. If you know anything about sheep, you understand that is not a complimentary metaphor. I remember playing golf once in Michigan. In the middle of the game, we were trying to go down the fairway, and suddenly a flock of sheep wandered across the fairway. It was a flock without a shepherd. We tried to get rid of them, but it was difficult. We could not anticipate their movements. They moved this way, then that way. They sometimes moved backwards, then sideways. They had no direction. They were wandering aimlessly because there was no one to guide them.

While the metaphor of sheep may not be the most flattering, God uses it to describe His own people. The reason calling people sheep is not a complimentary metaphor is because it communicates a kind of stupidity. With respect to the things of God, His sheep—including you and me—are somewhat dense.

But we should not understand the denseness of God’s sheep as meaning that we are incapable of learning. During seminary, in homiletics class, I was told that I should never preach above an eighth-grade level to my parishioners. My professor’s reasoning was that even if all the parishioners have a college education, they are still infantile in their understanding when it comes to theology and the things of God. When I heard that, I said, “I refuse to submit to that. I will not be satisfied with an eighth-grade education for the people in our church. If that is where they are, we cannot let them stay there. We have to help them grow beyond infancy. We cannot let them be content with a childish faith.” We are to depend on God like a child who implicitly and fully trusts in his good father, but we are not to be immature and childish in our understanding of God’s Word. The Bible rebukes us for being satisfied with milk and for being unwilling to go on to the meat of the things of God (Heb. 5:12–15).

All of these things make up part of the background in this discussion and show us what Jesus is getting at with regard to the most important task of His undershepherds, those pastors and elders whom Peter later calls to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2). Undoubtedly, when Peter wrote this text, he had in mind the imagery of sheep that Jesus had used when He had restored him to ministry.

Feed His Sheep

There is, however, a finer precision to the instruction of Jesus. We know from the life of David that a shepherd is called to take great risks for the sake of his sheep. David interposed himself between the flock under his care and a lion and a bear. Hirelings flee at any sign of trouble. True shepherds stand firm. We know from Jesus’s parable of the lost sheep that a good shepherd goes out in search of wandering sheep and rejoices over their return. Jesus could have enjoined Peter in this direction and such would have been fitting.

His specific instruction, however, was that Peter would feed His sheep. Note the capital H in “His.” In calling Peter, the fisherman, to the life of a shepherd, He calls him to the life of an undershepherd. The sheep belong to the Good Shepherd, to Jesus Himself. Peter, however, and by extension all of us who serve as undershepherds, must remember to whom the sheep belong. Pastors are placed in a position of taking care of the lambs who were bought and purchased by Jesus. They belong to Him. There is no greater sacred trust than to be entrusted by God with the care of His people.

Jesus, however, calls Peter not just to care for His sheep but to feed His sheep. Sheep need to be protected. They need to be herded. But most of all, they need to be fed. What does it mean to feed the lambs? What does it mean to tend the sheep? Food, certainly, is the primary substance by which our bodies are nurtured. What Christ is saying to Peter is, “I am holding you responsible to nurture my sheep. You are to feed them. You are to give them nourishing food.”

Jesus did not say, “Peter, if you love Me, poison My sheep.” How could a pastor poison the sheep of Christ? Peter tells us in his second epistle. His central concern was the destruction brought upon the people of God by heretics. Peter was concerned about false prophets destroying God’s people. He knew their erroneous teaching was the antithesis of nurturing food. He knew they were poisoning the Lord’s flock with their false instruction.

We see this same problem in the Old Testament. The greatest threat to the security of Israel was not the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, or the Persians. The greatest threat was always the false prophet within the camp. Every time a true prophet would speak a word from God, there would be a hundred other so-called ministers who came to deny it. Jeremiah knew these false prophets well, and he complained about their false promises of peace, their lying visions, and their dreams that denied the Lord God (Jer. 23:9–27). But what did God say was the answer? “The prophet who has a dream, let him tell a dream; and he who has My word, let him speak My word faithfully” (v. 28). Food that has spoiled poisons people. The only food that will nurture the people of God is the food of the truth of the Word of God. The preacher and teacher of God’s Word is responsible to proclaim this Word faithfully, even if false prophets are found on every corner.

When pastors get in the pulpit and assume the role of the shepherd and acquiesce to the mandate to feed the sheep, they must feed them the truth. They need to be scrupulous in the time that they spend preparing their sermons to make sure that their understanding of Scripture is accurate. They must work to interpret rightly the Word of God so that they do not distort, bend, falsify, or, even worse, replace it with the opinions of men. Those who are called to preach or teach God’s Word must proclaim the truth, not the alternative, which is spiritual poison.

Jesus told Peter to feed His sheep. He did not say, “If you really love Me, Peter, entertain My sheep.” There are too many churches in our day that do everything they can to entertain people. They preach an “easy-believism” that fills churches with people who have made a profession of faith and yet do not possess that faith. No one has ever been saved simply by a profession of faith or by attending a church service. Justification is not simply by profession of faith. You have to have that faith in your heart.

The neglect of the Word of God and the focus on “seeker-sensitive” worship can create dangerous environments. In these environments, pastors may have countless sheep in their care who think they are in a state of grace but who will not receive eternal life on the last day. Jesus will look at these so-called sheep and say, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” (Matt. 7:23).

The principal task of preaching is to nurture the people of God. However, I would be derelict in my duty if I assumed my church was filled with just the redeemed. Every Sunday I know that there are people in my congregation who are not regenerate. If I love them, I have to feed them with the whole counsel of God. I must do whatever is in my power to make sure that these sheep are not lost. And since only the Holy Spirit can save people, the one task that I can perform for the sake of the salvation of the people under my care is the faithful proclamation of the Word of God.

Jesus did not say to Peter, “If you love Me, give them the self-help they need according to the insights of pop psychology.” The only thing under heaven that will nurture the sheep under our care is the Word of God. Our people desperately need this food if they are going to know the Good Shepherd.

The Healthy Food of the Gospel

Dietitians will tell you that the calories you consume should come from healthy, nutritious foods—not from junk food. We can apply this principle to spiritual matters and the food of the Word of God. When Jesus says, “Feed My sheep,” He is not saying, “Give them fast food.” Pastors must make sure that they are not giving Christ’s sheep tasty—but unhealthy—food.

Where does junk food come from? On the one hand, there is food like candy, which was never meant to be healthy. On the other hand, junk food can be food that was once perfectly nutritious food. But, after much alteration, it has lost its nutritional value. For example, you can add many refined sugars and fats to a fruity pastry and then fry it. The fruit thus loses its original nutritional qualities, and the food as a whole is actually unhealthy.

Spiritually speaking, we turn the gospel into junk food when we try to improve upon it. In the last sermon he preached, Martin Luther addressed those who thought the gospel was not enough. These were people who wanted to add “devotion to relics” to their faith. They were searching for alternative sources of power besides the gospel. They thought they could find another source of power by “improving” the gospel—by adding another source of power for healing and transformation. Luther rebuked clergy who supported this return to relics because they were departing from the only true source of power, the gospel of Jesus Christ. They were trying to find power where there was no power, only superstition.

In his sermon Luther also addressed the laypeople, pleading with them not to be fooled by impotent articles that had no real power, that is, the relics. He told them to beware those who would try to improve the gospel. He referred to those who were always seeking improvements on the gospel as “jackanapes”—eloquent scoundrels.

The church of Christ is desperately in need of men who will not be jackanapes in the pulpit. It needs laypeople who will not let their pastors become scoundrels who try to improve on the gospel. How do pastors keep themselves from becoming jackanapes, and how do laypeople keep scoundrels out of the pulpit? By knowing the content of the gospel clearly enough that they can spot counterfeits.

How, though, does a faithful undershepherd stay focused on the message? By believing it himself. In God’s good providence, Jesus’s command to Peter comes not just in the context of Peter’s betrayal but in our Lord’s promise at that time: “I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32). Peter’s betrayal is why he must believe the gospel, which in turn is why he must preach the gospel, for undershepherds shepherd best as they remember that they too are sheep, rescued by the Great Shepherd. Undershepherds feed the sheep because they feed with them on the Great Shepherd, whose flesh is food indeed.

R.C. Sproul, Pulpit Aflame