May 2, 2004

From Fishermen To Shepherds

Preacher: Randy Smith Series: John Scripture: John 21:15–17


From Fishermen To Shepherds

John 21:15-17
Sunday, May 2, 2004
Pastor Randy Smith

When Bible teachers wish to instruct Christians on the Great Commission, they usually use one of the synoptic accounts: Maybe, Luke 24:47, "(Jesus said to them) that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem." Or possibly, Mark 16:15, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation." Frequently they mention Matthew 28:19, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." Unfortunately, very few choose to use the Gospel of John, failing to cite what they believe is an obscure verse hidden in chapter 20. "(Jesus said), As the Father has sent Me, I also send you" (Jn. 20:21).

And that's a shame! Because throughout the past two weeks we have discovered that John did not hide the Great Commission as many presume. On the contrary, the majority of his comments in the final two chapters of his Gospel are dedicated to this subject alone. In addition to the Commission itself, chapter 20 provides evidence of the Gospel's accomplishments (with the conversion of the Apostles), instruction on the Gospel's power (with the coming of the Holy Spirit) and declaration of the Gospel's authority (with the ability for us to forgive or retain sins based on a person's acceptance or rejection of the message).

Then in chapter 21, John includes a living parable depicting the Gospel's effectiveness. Following on the heels of the Commission to win the lost for Christ, the disciples embark on a successful fishing trip. This account parallels the one in Luke 5 where the Apostles also experienced a successful fishing trip immediately followed by Christ's words, "From now on you will be catching men" (Lk. 5:10). John makes it clear to his readers that the Great Commission entails "fishing for men" (Mt. 4:19; Mk. 1:17): Casting the gospel net for the lost, evangelizing in the ocean of this world, catching souls for Jesus.

However, as I've mentioned to you already, the Great Commission demands more than making converts. Yes, the Commission does begin with evangelism, but it ends with discipleship, building these new converts up in the faith and instructing them to go out and repeat the process of evangelism and discipleship in others.

Last week we covered the evangelism aspect of the Great Commission in verses 1-14. This week we'll cover the discipleship aspect of the Great Commission in verses 15-17. Last week, the metaphor for evangelism was fishing, fishing for lost souls. I suppose John could have continued with that metaphor. We evangelize by fishing for lost souls and then disciple by cleaning the fish we've already caught. Since your mind probably goes where my mind goes when we think of cleaning fish, John thankfully switched the metaphor. The new metaphor this week for discipleship is shepherding, shepherding God's sheep.

Allow me a few points of clarification before we begin. I believe there is application in this message for all of you. Each of us are called to be engaged in the ministry of discipleship. Each of us carries shepherding responsibilities necessary in discipleship. And these shepherding responsibilities intensify if we find ourselves in a position of leadership (ministry leader, growth group teacher, deacon, parent, etc). While there will be application for all of us in this message, I believe the primary instruction in verses 15-17 is the specific call of God as He appoints men to be the primary shepherds (or in Latin, pastors) of His church. Christ's commission given to Peter in these three verses is mainly directed to the Apostles and all those who follow in their pastoral footsteps of shepherding Christ's church. This sermon will instruct all of you as to how you should be selecting, supporting and praying for your elders. But ultimately, this sermon goes out to our current pastors and those whom God may call in the future from this flock. This is a time of self-examination for us as the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ Himself outlines our key responsibility.


Let's begin with the first point: "Compelled by Christ's Love."

As you know, Peter had just denied Jesus three times. Our Lord knows that Peter will never succeed as an under-shepherd unless he's secure in his own relationship with the Good Shepherd. Jesus knew the uncertainty of Peter's heart. Thus He no doubt took this situation as a teaching opportunity to demonstrate to Peter: His mercy that provides pardon, His forgiveness that seeks reconciliation and His patience that grants restoration to ministry. Though Satan tries to convince us otherwise, Jesus wants Peter to understand that sin does not need to be the final word.

It was three times Peter denied Jesus and therefore three times Jesus sought to affirm Peter's love. Three times in the span of three verses, Jesus questions the Apostle. "Simon, son of John, do you love Me?" However in the first of these affirmations Jesus adds some additional words not found in the other two. In verse 15 Jesus said, "Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?"

What does the "these" refer to? Some believe Jesus was pointing to Peter's fishing equipment wanting to know if it was his career or his possessions that occupied the priority in Peter's heart. Some believe Jesus was referring to the other disciples wanting to know if Peter loved his dearest companions more than he loved Jesus. Theoretically speaking, all of these could be true and all of these are fine questions we too must also ask ourselves, but I believe Christ's questioning in verse 15 is much more cutting. I believe Jesus was asking Peter, in the presence of all, if his love for Jesus exceeded the others in their love for Jesus. "Peter, do you love Me more than all of these other Apostles?"

I bet it got real quiet at that moment! No doubt the disciples were also eager to see how Peter would respond. And no doubt Peter was in a pickle. To answer "no" would compromise the intensity of his love. To answer "yes" would compromise the integrity of his love.

Maybe a little refresher will clarify Peter's dilemma. Let's not forget that it was Peter who uttered in the presence of them all, "Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You" (Jn. 13:38; cf. 13:8; 18:10-11). To which Jesus immediately replied, "Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times" (Jn. 13:38). On more than one occasion Peter had publicly expressed a devotion that exceeded the other Apostles. In Matthew 26:33 He said, "Eventhough all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away."

After the failure to follow through on these bold predictions, Peter now stood in the midst of his companions humiliated. The one whom Jesus nicknamed "the Rock" (Jn. 1:42) was as shifting sands. The one on whom Jesus promised to build His church (Mt. 16:18) was a weak foundation. The primary leader of the apostolic band was defeated and ashamed.

Jesus understood his public humiliation and sought to restore him with a public affirmation. Our Lord once again gives Peter the chance to boast in his great love for the Savior. There's no doubt that Jesus is glorified when we express extravagant love and are prepared to back it up. However has Peter at this point learned the lesson about over-confidence and self-reliance and human weakness and improper boasting?

It's also important to realize the topic Jesus addresses. It's not correct doctrine. It's not morality. It's love! When Jesus was asked the Greatest Commandment earlier in His ministry, He quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 from the Old Testament: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Mt. 22:37). 1 Corinthians 13 teaches us that love is indispensable. For the Christian, nothing is more important than loving the Triune God.

What a tender way the Savior ministers to His sheep. Jesus did not begin with the condemning, "Peter why did you" as we often do with our children, but rather with a gentle, "Peter do you love me? Despite My crucifixion (that you didn't want) and your denials (that I didn't want), do you still love me?" In the Christian life, it all comes down to love. Before giving Peter his commission, Jesus pressed Peter to evaluate the intensity of his love. Was Jesus the primary object in his affections? If so, there would be nothing Peter wouldn't do for the Savior. Jesus was well aware of the power of love. He was well aware that love compels us to extraordinary tasks.

About 9 years ago I was asked by Julie to assist her with an outreach ministry. She and many other Christians were conducting a "Hallelujah Party" where they play games, sing Christian songs and teach the Bible to inner-city kids on Halloween night in downtown Chicago. Though I am always eager to assist in these opportunities, I was especially excited because I thought it would be a good chance to get to know this beautiful, godly woman better as we were not even dating at this point. I agreed to help and she informed me that all the adults were planning to dress as Bible characters. Well, my costume was really going to catch her attention!

I went to the fabric store (imagine that!) and purchased the necessary supplies to make my own outfit. I had the leather belt and camel hair. I even purchased little plastic bugs that looked like locusts, which I tied with fishing string onto the costume. With scandals on my feet and a wig on my head, I was a perfect John the Baptist!

Unfortunately, I was the only person who followed the directions and attended the party in a costume! I was expecting to catch Julie's eye, but I caught a few more eyes than hers. You should have heard those inner-city kids! "Hey man, what are you!" It was probably the first time they ever played basketball with a 6'4" Hebrew prophet.

Though embarrassing, I believe you understand my point. It's the point Jesus was making with Peter. Through love, we can be compelled to do anything!

Many leaders think they can move their subjects through fear. But the Bible says "perfect love casts out fear" (1 Jn. 4:18). Christ moves us by holding out His infinite love. He enables our heart to embrace His love, which then drives us to gladly submit and joyfully obey. Jesus said, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (Jn. 14:15).

Now that the love relationship is established between Jesus and Peter, Jesus is about to give Peter his commission. But before Peter is given his commission and the opportunity to obey, Jesus lets His disciple respond to His profound question.


We learned Jesus thrice probed the depths of Peter's heart with the question, "Simon, sonof John, do you love Me?" As we move to the second point, we notice that Peter responded to each question with a repeated response of his own. Verse 15, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love You." Verse 16, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love You." However, by the third offering of this question, Peter seems to get a little uncomfortable with the interrogation. Verse 17, "(Jesus) said to him the third time, 'Simon, son of John, 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.'"

As I mentioned earlier, Peter was in a pickle. I'm sure Peter wanted to respond with a convincing "yes" to each of Christ's questions. But how could he do that now when just days earlier he denied His Lord three times, an event the men standing around him were well aware of. On the other hand, how could Peter respond with a "no?" Of course he loved Christ dearly. Of course he wanted to boast in His love for the Savior. Therefore Peter, well aware of his dilemma, did not respond with a simple "yes" or simple "no," but rather with an appeal to Christ's omniscience. "You know that I love You."

In other words, "Lord, You know my faith at times is weak. You know I don't fully love You as I ought and as You are worthy of being loved. I'm at a loss for words since my actions do not always testify of my love for you, but You can see my heart. I have no confidence in my own self-righteousness and my own self-knowledge, but You can see all things. You can see beyond the surface and beyond my recent denials. You know, Lord, that despite my recent failures and not withstanding my present weakness, I do love you. I do not appeal to my works, I appeal to You. I cannot say I love You more than these other men, I do not have that knowledge, but You have the knowledge to see the reality of my heart. You know, Jesus, that I do love you very much!"

Octavius Winslow back in 1864 wrote:

Do I love You, O my Lord?

Behold my heart and see;

Gently dislodge each idol thence,

That seeks to rival Thee.

You know I love You, dearest Lord;

But, oh, I long to soar;

Far from the sphere of mortal joys,

And learn to love You more!"

From: "Grace to Glory"


At this time (as we move to the third point) Peter was taught many valuable lessons: He learned about humility. He learned about the worthlessness of self-confidence. He learned about the need to boast within his own knowledge. He learned about the priority of love that Christ expects for His disciples.

But more teaching still needs to occur. Peter was soon to learn about the complete forgiveness of Jesus Christ. He was soon about to learn how the Savior would not only release him from his guilt and sin, but also gladly restore him to his former place of leadership. And Jesus would conduct this process publicly so the other disciples could witness that Peter's past was past. If Jesus forgave him, they should not feel that he is inferior or unworthy to be their fellow-disciple and leader.

Before we examine Christ's commission itself to Peter, we need to pause and make a few noteworthy observations.

First observation: Love for Jesus always precedes service for Jesus. "Do you love Me Peter? Well then…" If we seek to serve the Lord without love our service is pagan without eternal reward, leading to burnout and often lacking spiritual success. In this account Jesus makes it clear that service for Him must always flow out of love for Him. If we're not careful our Christian service could easily become an activity of the flesh. If time permitted we could insert an event from Luke 10 regarding two sisters named Mary and Martha.

Love for Jesus must always precede service for Jesus.

John Piper, "Trying to work for God without worshipping God results in joyless legalism. Work minus worship magnifies your will power not God's worth. If you try to do things for God without delighting in God you bring dishonor upon God. Serving God without savoring God is lifeless and unreal."

Kent Hughes, "Nothing is of greater importance than loving God! If we fail to take this seriously, we may find at the end of our lives that all of our works counted for nothing…God wants us to be doers…(However) He wants us to be before we do. Love first" (Hughes, John, p. 474)!

Roy Hession, "To concentrate on service and activity for God may often actively thwart our attaining of the true goal, God Himself. At first sight it seems heroic to fling our lives away in the service of God and of our fellows. We feel it is bound to mean more to Him than our experience of Him. Service seems so unselfish, whereas concentrating on our walk with God seems selfish and self-centered. But it is the very reverse. The things that God is most concerned about are our coldness of heart towards Himself and our proud, unbroken natures. Christian service of itself can, and so often does, leave our self-centered nature untouched…With those things hidden in our hearts, we have only to work alongside others, and find resentment, hardness, criticism, jealousy, and frustration issuing from our hearts. We think we are working for God, but the test of how little of our service for Him is revealed by our resentment or self-pity…We need to leave our lusting for ever-larger spheres of Christian service and concentrate on seeing God for ourselves and finding the deep answer for life in Him" (We Would See Jesus, Christian Literature Crusade, 1961, p. 15).

P.T. Forsyth, "It is possible to be so active in the service of Christ as to forget to love Him."

Second observation: Love for Jesus always results in service for Jesus. There are many people in the evangelical church that claim to love Jesus, but aren't doing anything tangible for Jesus. Love is an emotion, but let's not forget that love, biblically defined, is also a verb. Evidence of our love for Jesus is measured in our obedience to His commands. Hence, when we are committed to righteous living we prove to ourselves and others that we really love Jesus. Jesus asked Peter, "Do you love Me." When Peter responded with the affirmative, Jesus did not leave Peter's love on the mystical shelf. On the contrary, He assigned Peter with a responsibility.

And the responsibility that Jesus assigned Peter leads us to the main point of our text. In the acceptance of Peter's declaration, Jesus gives him and every spiritual shepherd that will follow in his footsteps a blessed commission. Verse 15, "Tend My Lambs." Verse 16, "Shepherd My sheep." Verse 17, "Tend My sheep."

As spiritual shepherds, or pastors, we (like Peter) have been entrusted with the highest responsibility on the planet. We are called to care for the sheep that belong to Jesus Christ ("My sheep"). Paul in Acts 20 said we "shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Ac. 20:28). Pastors are stewards of Christ's dearest and most valuable possession.

According to this text, the number one requirement for a pastor is love for Jesus. A. W. Pink once said, "It is only those who truly love Christ that are fitted to minister to His flock! The work is so laborious, the appreciation is so small, the response so discouraging, the criticisms so harsh, the attacks of Satan so fierce, that only the 'love of Christ' - His for us and ours for Him - can 'constrain' to such work. 'Hirelings' will feed the goats, but only those who love Christ can feed His sheep" (The Gospel of John, Zondervan, 1975, p. 1139-1140).

The number one requirement for a pastor is to love Christ and the number one responsibility for a pastor is to shepherd Christ's sheep. Though we are unfamiliar with this metaphor, the thought of shepherd in first century Palestine would have conjured up images of intimacy, tenderness, concern, skill, hard work, suffering and love; feeding the flock, caring for the weak, leading to green pastures, protecting from danger, calling the sheep by name, healing the wounded and seeking the lost.

The metaphor is applicable. Pastors are not called to be CEOs or corporate executives. We are called to follow the role of our Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ who laid His life down for the spiritual betterment of the flock (Jn. 10:11-13). Like Him, we are to lead through service (Mk. 10:45). We are to minister by example (Jn. 13:15). We are to shepherd in love (Jn. 13:34). Possibly the Apostle Paul said it best to his beloved flock in Thessalonica. "Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thes. 2:8).

The pastor's love for Jesus spills over into a love for His sheep, which spills over into a desire to feed them the pure nourishment of the Word, weed them from spiritual danger and lead them to pastures of joy found only as they grow in their love with Jesus Christ. The hireling seeks his own power trip and his own personal agenda, whereas the Shepherd seeks God's agenda and kindly conveys to His sheep, "I love you. I care about you. I am here for you. I am committed to your spiritual best. We can talk about anything you wish and I promise I won't write you off."

Well, how did the Apostle Peter do after receiving his commissioning from Christ? I think very well! In his first epistle we read, "Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:1-3). I pray that our pastor/elders will be found as faithful!

Last week we learned that Christ calls each of us to fish for lost souls within the world. This week we learned that pastors have the responsibility to shepherd saved souls within the church. All of us have a role in the Great Commission. Have you been playing your part in this primary mission given to the church? And if not, has it been a lack of knowledge or a lack of love for Jesus Christ? I can hear the Good Shepherd saying, "Grace Tabernacle, if you love Me you'll gladly obey!"

Appendix regarding Christ's usage of agapao and phileo in verses 15-17

The Situation:

The dialogue between Jesus and Peter in verse 15-17 often uses these two Greek words commonly translated with one English word: "love."

  • Verse 15- (Jesus) "Do you agapao Me? (Peter) "I phileo You."

  • Verse 16- (Jesus) "Do you agapao Me? (Peter) "I phileo You."

  • Verse 17- (Jesus) "Do you phileo Me? (Peter) "I phileo You."

The Interpretations:

Due to the different choice of Greek words, many expositors seek to find some deeper significance in these verses. Listed below are two of the more popular conclusions.

  • Christ called Peter to the highest form of love, agapao love. Due to his recent failure, the unconfident Peter feels unworthy to claim this profound love for Jesus. Still loving Jesus, Peter retorts to a lower form of love, phileo love. Jesus, asking the question for the third time then speaks at Peter's level.

  • Agapao love refers to a cool type of affection whereas phileo love refers to a warm, intimate affection. In originally using agapao, Jesus asks Peter if his love for Him has grown cold. Peter replies to the contrary and Jesus affirms Peter's phileo love in the third question.

The Conclusion:

I believe there are many reasons we should not see any formal significance between these two words. Peter and Jesus are basically referring to the same thing and not different degrees of love.

  • Why would Peter respond with a "Yes, Lord" if he disagreed with the choice of Christ's words in verses 15 and 16?

  • Peter's primary concern appears to be that his love was called into question (see verse 17), not the degree of love that he expressed for the Savior.

  • The primary focus in this section is not the type of love for Christ, but rather the need for love to properly tend Christ's sheep.

  • Quite often the Apostle John, for stylistic reasons, uses different words to refer to the same truth. More of this follows in verses 15-17 (tend/shepherd and lambs/sheep) which few see any distinction. John's variation is simply to avoid monotony.

  • Both words are used interchangeably in this Gospel (3:35/5:20; 11:5/11:36).

  • Both words carry different ranges of meanings throughout the Scriptures which contradict the conclusions stated for John 21:15-17.

  • There is no agreement among respectable expositors. Their interpretations, as seen above, are often contradictory.

other sermons in this series

May 9


The Priority of A Disciple

Preacher: Randy Smith Scripture: John 21:18–25 Series: John

Apr 25


Fishing For Men

Preacher: Randy Smith Scripture: John 21:1–14 Series: John

Apr 18


Disciples Sent To Disciple

Preacher: Randy Smith Scripture: John 20:19–30 Series: John