John 21:17
He said to him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, love you me? Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, Love you me? And he said to him, Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you. Jesus said to him, Feed my sheep.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(17) He saith unto him the third time.—Again the question is asked, but this time the Lord uses Peter’s own word, and His question seems to say, “Dost thou, in personal affection and devotion, really love Me?” The third time, to him who had three times denied! and this time the love which Peter knows has ever filled his soul seems to be doubted. The question cuts to the very quick, and in the agony of the heart smarting beneath the wound, he appeals in more emphatic words than before to the all-seeing eye that could read the very inmost secrets of his life, “Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee.”

Feed my sheep.—The better reading is, probably, little sheep. The difference is of one letter only (πρόβατα and προβατία), and a mistake would therefore be easily made by a copyist. The diminutive word occurs nowhere else in Biblical Greek, and is almost certainly, therefore, part of the original text; but whether it was first written here or in John 21:16, or in both, must with our present knowledge be left undetermined. The order of the Received text is “lambs” (John 21:15), “sheep” (John 21:16), “sheep” (John 21:17). The Peshito Syriac must have read “lambs,” “little sheep,” “sheep”; and this is in part supported by the Vulgate, which has “agnos,” “agnos,” “oves,” and more exactly by the Latin of St. Ambrose, who has “agnos,” “oviculas,” “oves.” This would point to a three-fold gradation answering to the three-fold question, and committing to the Apostle’s care the lambs, the little sheep, the sheep of the flock of Christ. Still, it must be admitted that the more probable reading is lambs, little sheep, little sheep, and that the difference of thought is in the difference of the verbs. “Feed My lambs; be a shepherd to the weak ones of the flock; feed these weak ones.” He who loved Christ is to be like Christ, a good shepherd, giving his life for the sheep who are Christ’s. He who had been loved and forgiven, held up that he might not fall, restored after he had fallen, is to be to others what Christ had been to him—feeding men with spiritual truths as they can bear them, gently guiding and caring for those who are as the weak ones of the flock through ignorance, prejudice, waywardness. The chief work of the chief Apostle, and of every true apostle of Christ, is to win back the erring, helpless, sinful sons of men; and the power which fits them for this work is the burning love which quickens all other gifts and graces, and can appeal to the Great Shepherd Himself, “Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee.” As a remarkable instance of how the Great Shepherd’s words impressed themselves upon the Apostle’s mind, comp. 1Peter 2:25.

21:15-19 Our Lord addressed Peter by his original name, as if he had forfeited that of Peter through his denying him. He now answered, Thou knowest that I love thee; but without professing to love Jesus more than others. We must not be surprised to have our sincerity called into question, when we ourselves have done that which makes it doubtful. Every remembrance of past sins, even pardoned sins, renews the sorrow of a true penitent. Conscious of integrity, Peter solemnly appealed to Christ, as knowing all things, even the secrets of his heart. It is well when our falls and mistakes make us more humble and watchful. The sincerity of our love to God must be brought to the test; and it behoves us to inquire with earnest, preserving prayer to the heart-searching God, to examine and prove us, whether we are able to stand this test. No one can be qualified to feed the sheep and lambs of Christ, who does not love the good Shepherd more than any earthly advantage or object. It is the great concern of every good man, whatever death he dies, to glorify God in it; for what is our chief end but this, to die to the Lord, at the word of the Lord?The third time - It is probable that Jesus proposed this question three times because Peter had thrice denied him. Thus he tenderly admonished him of his fault and reminded him of his sin, while he solemnly charged him to be faithful and vigilant in the discharge of the duties of the pastoral office. The reason why the Saviour addressed Peter in this manner was doubtless because he had just denied him - had given a most melancholy instance of the instability and weakness of his faith, and of his liability to fall. As he had thus been prominent in forsaking him, he took this occasion to give to him a special charge, and to secure his future obedience. Hence, he so administered the charge as to remind him of his fault; and he made him so prominent as to show the solicitude of the Saviour that, henceforward, he might not be left to dishonor his high calling. This same charge, in substance, he had on other occasions given to the apostles Mat 18:18, and there is not the slightest evidence here that Christ intended, as the Papists pretend, to give Peter any special primacy or eminence in the church. The charge to Peter arose, manifestly, from his prominent and melancholy act in denying him, and was the kind and tender means used by a faithful Saviour to keep him from similar acts in the future dangers and trials of life. It is worthy of remark that the admonition was effectual. Henceforward, Peter was one of the most firm and unwavering of all the apostles, and thus fully justified the appellation of a rock, which the Saviour by anticipation had given him. See the notes at John 1:42. 17. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said the third time, &c.—This was the Physician's deepest incision into the wound, while yet smarting under the two former probings. Not till now would Peter discern the object of this succession of thrusts. The third time reveals it all, bringing up such a rush of dreadful recollections before his view, of his "thrice denying that he knew Him," that he feels it to the quick. It was fitting that he should; it was meant that he should. But this accomplished, the painful dialogue concludes with a delightful "Feed My sheep"; as if He should say, "Now, Simon, the last speck of the cloud which overhung thee since that night of nights is dispelled: Henceforth thou art to Me and to My work as if no such scene had ever happened." See Poole on "John 21:16" He saith unto him the third time,.... That by these three testimonies, out of his mouth, the thing might be established, and be out of all doubt:

Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? is it so indeed that thou lovest me? is thy love really so hearty and sincere as thou savest? may it be depended upon?

Peter was grieved, because he said unto him the third time, lovest thou me? because it put him in mind of his having denied his Lord three times; the remembrance of which cut him to the heart and it added to his grief, that his love, which he knew was unfeigned, notwithstanding his conduct, should seem to be suspected:

and he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee; he appeals with great warmth and earnestness to him, as the omniscient God, and the searcher of all hearts, who knows all persons and things, and the secret thoughts, dispositions, and affections of men's minds, for the truth of his love to him; for though he knew the treachery of his own heart, and durst not trust to it; and therefore chose not to be determined by his own assertions, and was well aware that the sincerity of his love might be called in question by fellow Christians, because of his late conduct; but as everything was naked and open to his Lord, with whom he had to do, he lodges and leaves the appeal with him: so every soul that truly loves Christ, whatever Satan, the world, professors, or their own hearts under unbelieving frames, may suggest to the contrary, can appeal to Christ, as the trier of the reins of the children of men, that he it is whom their souls love; and though their love may be greatly tried, and they themselves be sorely tempted by Satan, and suffered to fall greatly; yet their love to Christ can never be lost; the fervency of it may be abated, the exercise of it may be very languid, but the principle itself always remains, as it did in Peter:

Jesus saith unto him, feed my sheep. It may be observed from the repetition of this phrase following upon Peter's declaration of his love to Christ, that such only are proper persons to feed the lambs and sheep of Christ, who truly and sincerely love him: and in doing which they show their love to him: and who indeed would be concerned in this service, but such? since the work is so laborious, the conduct of those to whom they minister oftentimes is so disagreeable, the reproach they meet with from the world, and the opposition made unto them by Satan, and all the powers of darkness: it is true indeed, there are some that take upon them this work, and pretend to do it, who do not love Christ; but then they are such who feed themselves, and not the flock; and who feed the world's goats, and not Christ's lambs and sheep, and in time of danger leave the flock; only the true lovers of Christ faithfully perform this service, and abide in it by preaching the pure Gospel of Christ, by administering his ordinances, in their right manner, and by directing souls in all to Christ, the heavenly manna, and bread of life. Dr. Lightfoot thinks that by the threefold repetition of the order to feed Christ's lambs and sheep, is meant the threefold object of Peter's ministry; the Jews in their own land, the Gentiles, and the Israelites of the ten tribes, that were in Babylon.

He saith unto him the {b} third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

(b) It was appropriate that he that had denied him three times should confess him three times, so that Peter might neither doubt the forgiveness of his grievous sin, nor his being restored to the office of the apostleship.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
John 21:17. But to him who had uttered a threefold denial, opportunity is given of a threefold confession, although Peter at first resented the reiterated inquiry: Ἐλυπήθη … He was grieved because doubt was implied, and he knew he had given cause for doubt. His reply is therefore more earnest than before, Κύριεφιλῶ σε. He is so conscious of deep and abiding love that he can appeal to the Lord’s omniscience. The σὺ πάντα οἶδας [or πάντα σὺ οἶδας with recent editors] reflects a strong light on the belief which had sprung up in the disciples from their observation of our Lord. And again he is commissioned, or commanded to manifest his love in the feeding of Christ’s sheep. The one qualification for this is love to Christ. It is not for want of time no other questions are asked. There was time to put this one question three times over; and it was put because love is the one essential for the ministry to which Peter and the rest are called.17. the third time] He had denied thrice, and must thrice affirm his love. This time Jesus makes a further concession: He not only ceases to urge the ‘more than these,’ but He adopts S. Peter’s own word, philein. The Apostle had rejected Christ’s standard and taken one of his own, about which he could be more sure; and Christ now questions the Apostle’s own standard. This is why ‘Peter was grieved’ so much; not merely at the threefold question recalling his threefold denial, not merely at his devotion being questioned more than once, but that the humble form of love which he had professed, and that without boastful comparison with others, and without rash promises about the future, should seem to be doubted by his Lord.

thou knowest all things; thou knowest] Once more we have two words for ‘know’ in the original and only one in the A. V. (Comp. John 7:27, John 8:55, John 13:7, John 14:7.) The first ‘knowest’ (oidas) refers to Christ’s supernatural intuition, as in John 21:15-16 : the second ‘knowest’ (ginôskeis) to His experience and discernment; Thou recognisest, perceivest, seest, that I love Thee. See on John 2:24-25.

Feed my sheep] It is doubtful whether we have or have not precisely the same word for ‘sheep’ here as in John 21:16. The Greek word here according to the best authorities is undoubtedly a diminutive (probatia, not probata); in John 21:16 the evidence is pretty evenly balanced between probatia and probata (‘little sheep’ and ‘sheep’). One is tempted to adopt S. Ambrose’s order in John 21:15-17—‘lambs,’ ‘little sheep,’ ‘sheep’ (agnos, oviculas, oves), which seems also to have been the reading of the old Syriac: but the balance of evidence is against it. But without counting the possible difference between ‘little sheep’ and ‘sheep,’ there are three important distinctions obliterated in the A. V.,—the two words rendered ‘love,’ the two rendered ‘feed,’ and the two rendered ‘know.’

S. Peter seems to recall this charge in his First Epistle (John 5:2-3), a passage which in the plainest terms condemns the policy of those who on the strength of this charge have claimed to rule as his successors over the whole of Christ’s flock.John 21:17. Τὸ τρίτον, the third time) Comp. ch. John 13:38. The decisive number.—ἐλυπήθη, was grieved) In feeling so, his distress was with good reason.—καὶ εἶπεν, and he said unto Him) At this point, as it were wearied out, he pours out his whole self [in a one final appeal to His omniscience].—[Κύριε, σὺ πάντα οἶδας, Lord, Thou knowest all things) Peter in truth had most largely had proof of the OMNISCIENCE of the Lord Jesus, along with the rest of the disciples. Let us first collect the testimonies of it which occur in the Gospel of John. Jesus knew who Simon was, ch. John 1:42 : The mind and action of Nathanael, John 1:47-48 : What is in every man, ch. John 2:25 : The deeds of the woman of Samaria, ch. John 4:29 : What He Himself was about to do, ch. John 6:6 : The treachery of Judas and of others, ch. John 6:64; John 6:70 : The death of Lazarus, ch. John 11:11 : That His hour had come, ch. John 13:1 : The treachery of Judas, John 13:8 : The denial of Peter, John 13:38 : The disciples’ desire to question Him, ch. John 16:19 : And all things, John 16:30 : The several things which should come upon Him, ch. John 18:4 : And their consummation, ch. John 19:28. Furthermore He knew, according to the report of the rest of the Evangelists, the thoughts of men, Mark 2:6; Mark 2:8; Luke 6:8; Luke 7:47 (with which comp. John 19:39): Matthew 12:25; Matthew 16:8; Luke 9:47; Luke 11:17. Also what was the raiment of Solomon, Matthew 6:29 : What Sodom, Tyre, and Sidon would have done had they seen the works of Christ, ch. John 11:21; John 11:23. He predicted His Passion, Matthew 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22, etc.: The destruction of Jerusalem, Luke 19:43; Matthew 23:35, etc., Matthew 24:2, etc; Luke 23:28, etc.: The circumstances which were about to accompany His entrance into the city and the Passover feast, Mark 11:2, etc., John 14:13; John 14:15; John 14:27 : And very many other things of that kind.—Harm., p. 609, 610.]Verse 17. - And now Peter seems to have conquered, by his persistence, the heart of his Lord, and Jesus adopts the very phrase which Peter twice over had substituted for that which he had himself used; for he saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas (John), lovest thou me? (φιλεῖς με;); as if he had said, "Dost thou indeed love me dearly, love me as a friend, love me with the earnestness and fervor that twice over has corrected my word into one more congenial to thee, and more ample and true than that used by myself?" This trait of Peter's character, which John has hinted on several occasions, is abundantly illustrated in the synoptic narrative and in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? The grief was natural. The repeated question suggests some doubt about his sincerity, and the adoption of the apostle's own word cut him with a more poignant heart-thrust? He may have thought thus: Jesus seems to distrust the reality of my personal affection. and will not accept my implication that this is more to me than the most thoughtful ἀγαπή, the most deeply meditated and measured reverence. He was grieved because a third time seems like an infinite repetition, and, if repeated thus a third time, it may be asked me again and again every day of my life. He was grieved from the irresistible analogy between the threefold denial of which he had been guilty, and this threefold interrogatory. He does not say as before, "Yea, Lord;" but commences, Lord, thou knowest (οϊδας) all things. Omniscience is freely conceded to the Lord. All things that Peter did, thought, or felt, all his bewilderment, all his mistakes, all his impulsiveness and mixture of motive, all his self-assertion, all his weakness and disloyalty, are known; but so also all the inner springs and lines of his nobler nature, and that though he played the fool, he was a hypocrite in his denials. The Lord knew that his faith did not really fail, though his courage did; and in virtue of this breadth of the Lord's knowing, he must have come to full cognizance of the entire meaning of Peter's life. Thou (seest) hast come fully to know that I love thee! Just because thou intuitively knowest all things. The play on οϊδας and γινώσκεις is obvious (see John 10:14; John 17:3, etc.). Jesus saith to him, Feed my little sheep. It is said by some that, even if this be the true reading, we have simply a renewal of the tenderness and strong emotion which led the Lord to speak of the ἄρνια on the first occasion. Doubtless deep and glowing affection pervades the use of these epithets; but if this be the sole explanation, then the reason of the adoption of πρόβατα in the second commission is not evident, ἄρνια would have answered the purpose. There is distinct progress in the ideas:

(1) "Feed my lambs;"

(2) "Rule (shepherd) my sheep;"

(3) "Feed my little sheep."

First, let Peter, let the apostolic company, let any one of the successors of the apostles, learn the delicate duty of supplying the just and appropriate nourishment to those that are young in years or in graces; then let him also learn to guide, direct, protect from outward foes, the mature disciples, and preserve the discipline of the flock, seeking the lost sheep until it be found; and he will find that then a third duty emerges. The sheep that are young in heart, the old men that are childlike in spirit, the trembling sheep that need even more care than the lambs themselves, are specially thrown upon the shepherd's care. Was not Peter himself a προβατιόν? Had he not shown that he was a most imperfect master of himself? He was mature in years, but childish as well as childlike in character. He could (for a while) only see one thing at a time, and he was impatient of the future. Mark welt his characteristic words, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man. O Lord!" "That be far from thee, O Lord!" "Why cannot I follow thee now?" "Thou shall never wash my feet!" "Not my feet only, but my hands and my head!" "Let us build for thee three tabernacles!" "Not so; I have never eaten anything common or unclean!" These are familiar illustrations of the childishness and infantile simplicity, babyish audacity, of the old disciple. Even after the Lord has risen from the dead, Peter ventures to correct his language. Christ, moreover, accepts his persistent alteration of the word for "love" item the lips of this προβατίον. Thus the Lord summons him to undertake a duty which he would on reflection be specially able to appreciate. Lovest (φιλεῖς)

Here Jesus adopts Peter's word. Canon Westcott, however, ascribes Peter's use of φιλέω to his humility, and his hesitation in claiming that higher love which is implied in ἀγαπᾷς. This seems to me to be less natural, and to be refining too much.

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