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.” 16 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.” 17 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.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jn 21:15–17). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
The key source for this is regurgitated from various sermons, I’ve heard over the years, but it’s worth visiting. For reference I’m using Logos Bible Software and specifically the Lexham Bible dictionary to dig a little deeper. This passage where Jesus asks Peter of his love is one of those that we don’t have suitable words to translate. The first two time, Jesus says Peter do you ἀγαπάω (agape love) me. Peter’s answer is Yes, Lord you know that I φιλέω (phileo love) you every single time. Agape is the sort of self-sacrificing love that our God is great at, and phileo love is a brotherly or familial love. Obviously in most of our experience, phileo love is fairly on again off again love depending on how we are relating to that particular family member from day to day.
To think about these words outside of the context of the Last Supper and weeks preceding Jesus’ death is to miss out on the story. Think about the statements Peter has made up to the night of his betrayal. Statements like, “You are the Messiah”, “you will not be killed”, “I’ll never deny you”, “even if every one turns from you I will stay.” Then in the moment of Jesus’ greatest need, Peter denies him. See up until that point in his life, Peter would have said that he had agape love for Jesus.
In Peter’s life, watching Jesus predict his own death, suffer shame, die, and rise from the dead, was to help him to recognize the emptiness of his own commitment, passion, and courage.
Watch what happens though. After the first time when Peter recognizes that he only has brotherly love for Jesus, Jesus entrusts the feeding of his lambs to Peter. Almost like in real life, where a small child could watch a lamb and care for it.
The second time, Jesus asks. Peter doesn’t try to step up and say he’ll really be committed to God. No, he stays where he knows he lives. Peter stays authentic. Jesus says Peter now should shepherd sheep.
The third time, Jesus asks, but this time Jesus asks for brotherly love. Peter, finally knowing his true level of love, calls for Jesus to recognize it. Now, if I knew more about sheep, perhaps I’d have a better understanding of the difference between feeding sheep and shepherding sheep. There does seem to be some greater degree of entrusting to care for feeding.
The question becomes then, how authentic am I? Am I still trying to convince God that I have agape love for him? Am I still deluding myself into thinking that my goals and plans will save Jesus’ ministry here on earth? These false claims can be and are used by the Devil to distract us from God’s true work and goal. God doesn’t want a man who will say how great his love for God is. God wants an authentic man who will recognize the value of feeding God’s sheep.