After his resurrection, before his ascension, Jesus has this moment with one of his chief traitors, one that is as tender as it is powerful:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, 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.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, 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 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 everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:15-19)
This, then, serves as the great pastoral commission. And it centers not on building a large ministry or casting a large vision. The central pastoral commission centers on this mandate: Shepherds are to feed the sheep.
In the center of Peter’s restoration here is embedded not just a reality of identity but a reality of vocation. What I mean is, Jesus isn’t just reaffirming Peter’s right standing with himself; he is restoring Peter’s pastoral office. He’s giving him something to do, and it is the fundamental, essential, irreducible task of the shepherd—feed Christ’s sheep.
Three times he commands him to care for the flock:
v.15 He said to him, “Feed my lambs.
v.16 He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
v.17 Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
If I may speak briefly to one issue I believe central to the more recent debate about the sufficiency and reliability of the Bible in worship gatherings and in evangelism and apologetic conversations with unbelievers. I think if we trace back some of these applicational missteps to the core philosophy driving them, we find in the attractional church, for instance, a few misunderstandings. The whole enterprise has begun with a wrong idea of what—biblically speaking—the worship gathering is, and even what the church is.
In some of these churches where it is difficult to find the Scriptures preached clearly and faithfully as if it is reliable and authoritative and transformative as the very word of God, we find that things have effectively been turned upside down. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul uses the word “outsider” to describe unbelievers who are present in the worship gathering. He is making the case for our worship services to be intelligible, hospitable, and mindful of the unbelievers present, but his very use of the word “outsider” tells us that the Lord’s Day worship gathering is not meant to be primarily focused on the unbelieving visitor but on the believing saints gathered to exalt their king. In the attractional church paradigm, this biblical understanding of the worship gathering is turned upside down – and consequently mission and evangelism are actually inverted, because Christ’s command to the church to “Go and tell” has been replaced by “Come and see.”
Many of these churches – philosophically – operate more like parachurches. And the result is this: it is the sheep, the very lambs of God, who basically become the outsiders.
And so you will have leading practitioners of these churches saying things to believers like, “Church isn’t for you.”
For example, Steven Furtick, leader of attractional megachurch Elevation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a series called “Confessions of a Pastor” says this:
If you know Jesus–I am sorry to break it to you–but this church is not for you.
“Yeah, but I just gave my life to Christ last week at Elevation.”
Last week was the last week that Elevation Church existed for you . . . Let me get a phone book; there are 720 churches in Charlotte. I’m sure we can find you one where you can stuff your face until you’re so obese spiritually that you can’t even move.
In response to the criticism that his teaching isn’t deep enough, Perry Noble, former leader of Newspring Church in South Carolina, once said this:
I’ve heard it…You have too…Christians saying, “I just want to be fed!” It blows my mind! This would be equal to you and I going to an all you can eat restaurant and crying because no one would bring us any food. Food is all around in this environment…but if the person is lazy and self centered, wanting to be waited on hand and foot, then they could possibly starve to death when food is merely a few feet away.
Church leader Ben Arment, who describes himself as a creator and entrepreneur, writes in a blog post:
“I’ve always felt troubled by phrases such as ‘I need to be fed’ … when referring to spiritual growth. I could never see this thinking in Scripture.”
Well, that is a strange statement to make, because we see it right here in John 21. Jesus, to Peter: “Feed. my. sheep.”
In 2007, Willow Creek Community Church published the results of their REVEAL survey, their intensive and ruthlessly self-critical evaluation of their own success in growing fully-devoted followers of Jesus Christ. A 2008 Christianity Today article explained the results this way:
The study shows that while Willow has been successfully meeting the spiritual needs of those who describe themselves as “exploring Christianity” or “growing in Christ,” it has been less successful at doing so with those who self-report as being “close to Christ” or “Christ-centered.”
To summarize: Willow Creek had done exceptionally well at getting people into the pasture. But they discovered they weren’t doing so well at making sure the flock was nourished.
What was their response to this? How do you fix this discipleship deficiency? Here was the prescription found in the study itself: “Our people need to learn to feed themselves.”
This is something you hear over and over in certain kinds of churches and discipleship cultures—the notion of self-feeding. “You need to learn to self-feed.”
Do maturing Christians need to take responsibility for their personal growth? Do they need to take ownership (as it were) of their spiritual disciplines? Absolutely. You aren’t saved or sanctified by somebody else’s faith.
But in the dim light of modern evangelicalism, I still find it glaringly clear in John 21 that Jesus does not say to Peter, “Teach my sheep to self-feed.” He says, “Feed my sheep.” He says, “Tend my sheep.”
Pastor, if you call yourself a pastor, let’s start with your preaching: When the saints gather on Sunday, what kind of food are you giving them? Are you loading them up with the bread of Christ? Are you ladling out the living water that quenches thirst forever?
Or are you loading them down with law? One of the many other myriad upside-down-nesses of certain kind of churches is how they aim messages of practical Christianity at non-Christians. Handing out how-to’s on obedience to people whose hearts do not trust in Jesus. The best you can do with such a preaching strategy is create well-behaved pagans. Handing out how-to sermons is like commanding bricks without straw
Feed the sheep the gospel. The gospel is the only power of salvation – for the Jew and the Greek. Pastors, every week your people gather in starving. They are weary and worn-out and for some it takes all the faith they’ve got just to get through the door.
What is your job when they wander back into your pen on Sunday morning? Is it not to lay out the feast of the unsearchable riches of Christ? Is it not to present the true food of Christ and his matchless grace? They are hungry, brothers! They ask for bread. Don’t give them stones! Lay out generously the new wine of salvation and the juicy meat of the glory of Jesus Christ. Let’s send our people home fat with gospel!
How you see your sheep will certain affect how you feed them. If you see them as whiny babies you will be inclined to withhold the food of the gospel from them. But if you see them as Jesus saw them – as harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd – your compassion will move you to nourish them with the word.
Pastor, do you have compassion for your flock? It’s something I find startlingly missing in so much ink spilled on philosophy of ministry. I listen to guys talk about their churches and it has so much to do with strategy and technique and style and context – all important things – but sometimes I want to ask them: “Do you love your flock?”
Not every Christian man with an entrepreneurial spirit and a gift for speaking should be a pastor. I say this kindly — if your drive is not to feed the sheep, please quit. If you simply want to build something for Jesus, go sell cars or insurance or real estate. Start a non-profit. We don’t need any more salesmen in the pulpit.
We need tenders of the sheep. We need shepherds up to their elbows in Christ’s little lambs. Pastor, if you don’t get to the end of your week without at least a little wool on your jacket, you might not be a shepherd.
Jonathan Edwards was fired from the pastorate at Northampton in June 1750. But they asked him, until they could find his replacement, to stay on and preach. Astonishingly, he agreed. How could he do this? I think we find a glimpse in his official Farewell Sermon, preached July 1, 1750 (one month after they’d fired him):
I am not about to compare myself with the prophet Jeremiah, but in this respect I can say as he did that “I have spoken the Word of God to you, unto the three and twentieth year, rising early and speaking.” It was three and twenty years, the 15th day of last February, since I have labored in the work of the ministry, in the relation of a pastor to this church and congregation. And though my strength has been weakness, having always labored under great infirmity of body, besides my insufficiency for so great a charge in other respects, yet I have not spared my feeble strength, but have exerted it for the good of your souls. I can appeal to you, as the apostle does to his hearers, Gal. 4:13, “Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh, I preached the gospel unto you.” I have spent the prime of my life and strength in labors for your eternal welfare.
I have tried all ways that I could think of tending to awaken your consciences, and make you sensible of the necessity of your improving your time, and being speedy in flying from the wrath to come, and thorough in the use of means for your escape and safety. I have diligently endeavored to find out and use the most powerful motives to persuade you to take care for your own welfare and salvation. I have not only endeavored to awaken you, that you might be moved with fear, but I have used my utmost endeavors to win you: I have sought out acceptable words, that if possible I might prevail upon you to forsake sin, and turn to God, and accept of Christ as your Savior and Lord. I have spent my strength very much in these things.
Why would he accept their audacious request to keep preaching after they’d fired him? Because he loved Christ’s sheep and he knew the sheep needed to be fed.
Shepherds love the sheep and feed the sheep.