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What Did Jesus Mean by ‘Take Care of My Sheep’?

After Jesus’ resurrection, he met with his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and had a meal with them. Afterward, he took Peter aside and three times asked Peter if he loved him. Three times Peter answered in the affirmative. And all three times Jesus responded with some variation of the command to care for his sheep. What is it that Jesus was telling Peter here? This article will examine Jesus’ commission of Peter recorded in John 21:15-17.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Shepherds and Sheep

Shepherding sheep is an unfamiliar practice to many of us in more industrialized parts of the world. The closest we may ever get to sheep is at a petting zoo or wearing wool clothing. Yet the picture of shepherds and sheep is tightly woven into the Scriptures. Probably the most familiar of the psalms is Psalm 23, a psalm picturing a shepherd leading his sheep and providing for them.

Sheep can be roughly divided into two camps. In one camp you have the wild sheep. These include the Big Horn and Dall Sheep. These sheep live independently of humans and thrive in the wild. The other camp includes domesticated sheep. There are many different species of domesticated sheep, but what they all have in common is that they need human intervention to thrive.

A shepherd’s role is to provide the needed care for a flock of sheep. The shepherd will protect his flock from predators and thieves. He will ensure that they have access to food and water. And he will tend to them when they are sick or have strayed from the flock. The shepherd’s life is tightly bound to his sheep. And the sheep are dependent on the shepherd to care for them.

Jesus as the Good Shepherd

Jesus was fond of using analogies that would be familiar to those he spoke to. And the people of his day and place were very familiar with shepherds and sheep. So, using them as an example of his relationship with his followers would be very illustrative. Much more so than it is now in a time and place where shepherding is much less common.

Jesus’ most extensive use of this analogy of shepherd and sheep comes in John 10:1-18. Here Jesus identifies himself as “the good shepherd”. A shepherd who is known and trusted by his sheep. Who provides them with pasture and all they need for their wellbeing. And the shepherd will protect them from harm, to the point of laying down his life for them.

Jesus’ sheep in this illustration are those who know and trust him. Those who listen to his voice. And who follow him where he leads.

Peter’s commission

I believe that it is important to understand this passage in John 10 to really grasp what it is that Jesus is telling Peter to do in John 21. In John 10, Peter was one of the sheep that Jesus, as the good shepherd was caring for. But Jesus was leaving. And some of those sheep he had cared for would need to take on the role of shepherd. The analogy of shepherd and sheep breaks down here because real sheep never become shepherds. But it is still a useful illustration.

Shortly before this event recorded in John 21 Jesus had stood trial before first the Jewish and then the Roman authorities. During the Jewish portion of the trial, Peter also faced a trial, and three times failed, denying that he knew who Jesus was. Most people see a connection between Peter’s denial of Jesus and what takes place in John 21:15-19. Here, three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Three times Peter affirms that he does. And three times Jesus then tells him to care for Jesus’ flock. It seems that Jesus is restoring and commissioning Peter. Despite his failure at Jesus’ trial, he is tasking Peter with a role in the kingdom Jesus was establishing.

Take Care of My Sheep

What was it Peter was tasked with doing? It was to feed Jesus’ lambs, the little ones who needed the most care. It was to take care of his sheep, providing for their needs and protection. And it was to feed his sheep, making sure they had a steady diet of good grass and water.

In essence, Jesus was commissioning Peter to take on the role that Jesus himself had been filling for the past three years. Peter was not expected to fully step into Jesus’ place; that was the role of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16). And the sheep did not become Peter’s flock, they remained Jesus’ sheep. But Peter was called to take care of those sheep for Jesus. He was to become an under-shepherd, caring for the flock of Jesus, the chief shepherd.

A Pastoral Role

And that commission given to Peter 2000 years ago was also given to others in the Scripture and continues today. The word that we translate as pastor comes from the Greek word for shepherd. Our pastors today carry on the commission of Peter, feeding the flock of Jesus. And tightly bound to pastors are teachers (Eph. 4:11), another role within the flock with some responsibility for feeding the sheep.

I believe the best description of the caring and feeding role of the shepherd for Jesus’ flock comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church. In Ephesians 4:11-16, Paul identifies those given the task of shepherding as well as their task. And that task is primarily an equipping one: leading the flock to maturity, stability, and fruitfulness.

Disclaimer

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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This article was originally published on Christianity.com on April 5, 2021

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