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Lesson 106: Loving and Serving Jesus (John 21:15-17)

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October 11, 2015

Having served as a pastor for over 38 years, I’ve seen many people who serve the Lord for reasons that are sometimes noble, but yet inadequate to sustain them over the long haul. Some are so-called “laymen” (although I hate that term), while others are full-time pastors, church workers, or missionaries. But they serve the Lord for inadequate reasons.

Sometimes people serve because they want to help advance Christ’s kingdom. That’s a noble, but inadequate reason for serving Christ. Some pastors serve the Lord because they love studying theology and teaching the Bible accurately. While that is a vital task (Titus 1:9), by itself it’s an inadequate reason for serving Christ. Sometimes pastors and others in the church serve because they genuinely want to help people with their problems. Again, that’s a noble, but inadequate reason for serving the Lord. Sometimes people serve because they get a sense of satisfaction from serving. While it’s legitimate to be pleased when God uses you, that’s also an inadequate reason for serving.

On a carnal level, some serve the Lord because it makes them feel important when they help people and those people sing their praises. But these people often get wounded and quit serving when they don’t receive the applause that they think they deserve. Some pastors serve because they like being the center of attention. Some enjoy the power or the feeling of importance that comes from being in leadership. The worst pastors are in the ministry to get rich at the expense of the people they are supposedly serving or to prey on the women who look to them for spiritual leadership. The Bible strongly condemns such evil men (2 Pet. 2:14-15).

In our last study, I asked the question, “In whose life are you having a spiritual impact?” I pointed out that every member of Christ’s body should be serving Him by helping make disciples. But beneath the question, “Are you serving Christ?” is the more fundamental question, “Why do you serve Him?” What is your motivation for serving? In our text the Lord Jesus drills home to Peter and to us the foundational motive for serving Him:

Loving Jesus because He has graciously forgiven all your sins is the foundational motive for serving Him.

Behind that statement are the two great commandments: to love God and to love others. If we love God because of His love and grace toward us, we will serve Him by loving others. So loving Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who gave Himself on the cross to rescue us from God’s judgment, is the essential motive for serving Him. If that motive is not central in your heart, you will burn out or blow out in your service for the Lord.

This short exchange between the risen Lord Jesus and Peter represents Peter’s public restoration to his apostolic ministry. On the day Jesus arose, the angel at the empty tomb told the women (Mark 16:7), “But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.’” Those words, “and Peter,” would have rang in Peter’s ears and lifted his depressed spirit after his miserable denials of his Lord. I think that Peter would have asked the women, “Did the angel say, ‘and Peter’?” It assured him that the Lord had not rejected him because of his failure. That same day, Jesus met privately with Peter to reassure him and restore him personally (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5). But now the risen Lord restores Peter to his apostolic office in front of these other six disciples.

Peter had denied the Lord three times and so three times Jesus repeats the essential question, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” These three questions hit Peter like repeated hammer blows to drive the point home. Three times, the third time with grief because it reminded him of his threefold denials, Peter affirmed, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” And, three times the Lord responded to Peter’s affirmation of love, “Tend My lambs. … Shepherd My sheep. … Tend My sheep.” The point is, loving Jesus because He has forgiven all your sins is essential for serving Him.

To paraphrase Paul (1 Cor. 13:1-3), you may be the world’s most eloquent speaker, but if you don’t love Jesus you’re just a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. You may have impressive spiritual gifts and great theological knowledge and faith that can remove mountains, but if you don’t love Jesus, it’s all worth nothing. You may give away all your possessions and even suffer martyrdom, but if you do it without love for Jesus, it profits you nothing. Love for Jesus is the essential motive for all you do for Him.

1. Loving Jesus is at the heart of a relationship with Him.

When Christ saves you, it’s always on a personal basis. The good shepherd “calls His own sheep by name” (John 10:3). If Jesus has saved you, it’s not because of anything in you, but rather because your name was written in the Lamb’s book of life from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8; 17:8; 20:15; 21:27). Jesus died on the cross for you because He loved you (Gal. 2:20). He desires your love in response to His great love for you. Thus…

A. Loving Jesus from the heart is the main thing to focus on in your relationship with Him.

Jesus’ repeated question to Peter hits each one of us: “Do you love Me? Do you love Me? Do you love Me?” It reminds me of the Lord’s rebuke to the church in Ephesus (Rev. 2:2-4):

“I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.”

They were doing well in many areas. They were working hard for the Lord. They would have protested, “Lord, look at how we’re serving You!” But He said to them, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.” They were holding to sound doctrine and putting false teachers out of the church. That’s essential, because without sound doctrine, we may be following a false gospel which is no gospel at all, or a false Christ of our own making (Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Cor. 11:4). But sound doctrine alone is hollow if it does not rest on genuine love for Jesus. The Ephesians were persevering and enduring hardship for Jesus’ sake, which is commendable; but only if it is done out of love for Jesus. The Lord said, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.”

The Ephesians probably could have added, “But Lord, we’re faithful in church attendance, we celebrate communion often, and we give generously to Your cause!” But Jesus said to them, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.”

At this point, I need to comment on the familiar point that John uses two different Greek words for “love” in this dialogue. The first two times that Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love Me?” He uses the Greek verb agapao. Peter replies using the Greek verb phileo. But the third time, Jesus uses phileo and Peter replies again with phileo. Based on this, some argue that Peter’s love doesn’t come up to the higher word that Jesus uses, so finally the Lord comes down to Peter’s lower word. But the problem is, sometimes the two words are used synonymously (John 3:35; 5:20; 11:5, 36; 16:27) and some scholars argue for opposite nuances of the two words. And Paul elevates phileo to a very high plane when he says (1 Cor. 16:22) that if we don’t phileo the Lord, we are accursed.

Generally (but not always) agapao refers to God’s love for people or our love for Him, whereas phileo is used of love between people. Agapao has the notion of committed love that sacrifices itself for others: Christ’s love for us; a husband’s love for his wife; the church’s love for one another (Eph. 5:2, 25; 1 Cor. 13). But John often uses synonyms for stylistic variation. In our text, he uses two different words for “know,” two for “feed,” and two for “sheep” (Colin Brown, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [Zondervan], 2:542-543). For these and many other reasons, hardly any scholars see any practical difference in John’s use of these two words in our text (see D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 676-678).

Our love for the Lord must encompass both aspects of agapao and phileo. It’s like my love for Marla. Over 41 years ago, I committed myself to love her exclusively until death parts us. That agape commitment is the basis for the phileo relationship that we have built over the years. And while our relationship is not built on feelings, but rather commitment, I do have strong feelings of love for her. If the feelings were never there, something serious would be wrong with our relationship. The same should be true of your love for the Lord. It’s based on commitment, it consists of a growing relationship, and it often involves strong feelings.

But don’t wrangle about words and miss the main point: loving Jesus from the heart is the main thing to focus on in your relationship with Him. Peter’s comment (John 21:17), “Lord You know all things; You know that I love You,” shows that it’s not enough to say or sing that we love Jesus. Anybody can do that. Rather, love for Jesus must come from the heart, which only God knows. So the question arises, “How do I develop and maintain genuine love for Jesus from the heart?”

B. Loving Jesus from the heart is the result of experiencing His abundant grace.

When Peter first encountered Jesus’ power in the miraculous catch of fish, his immediate response was to cry out (Luke 5:8), “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” When you encounter Jesus’ purity and power, you instantly recognize your own sinfulness. But Jesus graciously responded to Peter on that occasion (Luke 5:10), “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.” John 1:42 records that when Andrew brought his brother to Jesus, “Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).” (Cephas and Peter both mean “rock.”) By God’s grace, Simon the sinful man became Peter the rock.

So Peter experienced the Lord’s grace when he first met Him, but here he experiences it again. Jesus underscores His grace by calling Peter by his original name, “Simon, son of John.” It reminded Peter of who he had been when Jesus first met him. In the upper room, Peter had boasted that even if the other disciples denied Jesus, he wouldn’t (John 13:37; Matt. 26:33). But although all the disciples fled in fear when Jesus was arrested, Peter had failed worse than the others by denying three times that he even knew Jesus. When Jesus asks (John 21:15), “Do you love Me more than these?” He was probably referring to Peter’s earlier boast. But then, rather than removing Peter from his apostolic office, the Lord graciously restores him and entrusts the care of His sheep to him. So Peter painfully knew his own sinfulness and failure, but he also knew God’s forgiveness and grace.

Coming to Jesus as a guilty sinner and receiving not judgment and rejection, but forgiveness and grace, is the source of loving Him. When the sinful woman anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears and anointed Him with perfume as He dined with Simon the Pharisee, Jesus said that she loved much because she had been forgiven much, but the one who is forgiven little, loves little (Luke 7:47). It’s not that anyone is forgiven “little,” in that we all have sinned repeatedly and flagrantly. But not all realize how much they’ve been forgiven. Like Simon the Pharisee, many think that they’re basically good people who don’t need much forgiveness. Such people love Jesus little. But when God opens your eyes to the depths of your sin, but then says, “Your sins are forgiven,” you love Jesus much. So to keep fervent in your love for Jesus, remember how much you’ve been forgiven. His grace fuels the fire of love for Him.

C. Loving Jesus requires that we be restored when we have sinned against Him.

Peter denied Jesus by a charcoal fire; here the Lord restores him to ministry by a charcoal fire (John 18:18; 21:9; the only two times this noun is used in the NT). Peter had denied Jesus before others three times; so three times Jesus asks Peter to confess his love for Him before others. Peter had boasted that he was a notch above the other disciples in his commitment to the Lord. But now he is humbled, so that he doesn’t say, “Yes, I love You more than these,” but simply (John 21:15), “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” Looking back on your sin is always humbling, but necessary.

Although the Lord knew that His questions would cause Peter to be grieved, the Lord also knew that grieving over our sins is a necessary part of being restored from those sins to a place of useful service for Him. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). No one can properly serve the Lord who shrugs off sin as no big deal. And no one can have the deep love for Jesus that sustains ministry who doesn’t appreciate the awful price that He paid to redeem us from our sins. So when we do sin, we need to confess it to the Lord and feel the grief that our sin causes Him.

But the Lord doesn’t restore us just so we can enjoy our relationship with Him, although that is primary. The result of our love for Jesus is that we will serve Him:

2. If you love Jesus, serve Him by feeding His sheep.

In other words, if your cup is full to the brim with His love and grace, slop it over on those around you. Three times the Lord drives home to Peter that if he loves Him, he is to tend or shepherd His sheep. We learn:

A. Jesus has a flock and He wants those who love Him to feed and shepherd His flock.

“Tend” means to feed a flock (Matt. 8:30; Luke 15:15). To “shepherd” refers to all of the activities of that job, including feeding, guarding, guiding, and caring for the well-being of the flock. The word “pastor” means “shepherd” and is used interchangeably with “elder” and “overseer.” Later Peter reflects the Lord’s charge to him when he writes (1 Pet. 5:1-3),

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.

Shepherding the Lord’s flock is primarily the job of the elders in each local church. Paul exhorted the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:28), “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” Some of you men in the church should desire the office of elder or overseer (1 Tim. 3:1) because you love Jesus and therefore you love His sheep. A man should not be appointed as an elder before he begins to shepherd the flock. Rather, he should be engaged already in shepherding the flock, and then the church recognizes that the Holy Spirit has appointed him as an elder.

The main job of a pastor should be to feed God’s flock from His Word. Paul stipulates that some elders are to be supported financially so that they can labor hard at preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17). He says that the elders must “be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). The sheep are vulnerable to attacks from deceptive false teachers, who try to lead them astray from the truth (Matt. 7:15; 2 Cor. 11:13-15). A pastor who doesn’t feed the flock on sound doctrine is not doing his job!

B. Jesus’ sheep belong to Him and are precious to Him because He gave His life for them.

Three times Jesus refers to the church as His: “My lambs, My sheep, My sheep.” They don’t belong to any pastor, but to the Lord. And since they belong to the Lord, who bought them with His own blood, pastors should be diligent to care for each one and love each one because each one is precious to Jesus.

It always bothers me when I see Christians despise or put down other Christians. Granted, some of the sheep can be obnoxious! Yes, they can be self-centered, stubborn, and difficult to be around. But if Jesus loved them enough to die for them, then we all have to love them, too. They’re His sheep!

But you may be thinking, “Thankfully, that’s your job, not mine! I’m not called to be a pastor.” But not so fast!

C. Jesus wants to use every believer to help feed and shepherd His sheep.

Granted, shepherding the sheep is primarily the job of the elders. But the elders can’t possibly do it alone. The “one another” passages in the New Testament show that shepherding the Lord’s flock is the responsibility of every maturing member of the church. Older believers should shepherd those who are younger in the Lord. Husbands must shepherd their families and feed them from God’s Word. Mothers should teach their children the ways of the Lord. If you’re further along than another believer, then you have something to contribute to him or her. You can teach the newer believer how to feed himself from God’s Word. You can warn him of spiritual dangers that he may not be alert to. Even if you’re both at the same place spiritually, you can help each other grow in following Christ.

After the Lord delivered the Gerasene demoniac, he wanted to accompany Jesus. But even though he was a brand new believer, the Lord told him (Luke 8:39), “Return to your house and describe what great things God has done for you.” Luke adds, “So he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him.” So if you love Jesus because He has changed your life, you have something to contribute to others.

D. Love for Jesus is the foundation for serving His sheep.

Yes, you should love the sheep because Jesus loves them and gave His life for them. But sometimes the sheep aren’t all that lovable. Your love for Jesus has to undergird your service to His sheep or you’ll get hurt or disgusted and quit serving. Love for Jesus is what keeps you going when the sheep are ornery or stubborn or disagreeable. I’m not serving the sheep for what they can give me. I’m just a sheep dog, and sheep dogs don’t get much from the sheep, except hassles and manure! In our case, we serve as sheep dogs because we were in the dog pound, headed for extermination, when the Shepherd rescued us and put us into service. While we want to help the sheep, we serve them because we love the Shepherd and want to please Him. He asks you, “Do you love Me?” If you answer, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You,” He replies, “Tend My lambs.”


One of the main reasons that I felt called to be a pastor was that I couldn’t shake the implications of Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” I thought, “If Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, and I love Christ, then I need to love His church and give myself up for her.” Love for Jesus who first loved me has kept me serving His flock, even though every week I feel overwhelmed by my inadequacy for the task.

Not everyone is called to be a pastor. But Jesus asks everyone who has experienced His love at the cross, “Do you love Me?” If you answer, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” His reply is, “Tend My sheep.”

Application Questions

  1. How can someone whose love for the Lord has grown cold renew it (see Rev. 2:1-7)?
  2. Should a pastor who has fallen into gross immorality ever be restored to ministry? If so, when? Cite biblical support.
  3. While sound doctrine is absolutely essential, it can be abused. How? How can loving Jesus and His flock prevent this abuse?
  4. Agree/disagree: While shepherding God’s flock is primarily the job of the elders, all believers should be involved in the task. Practically, how does this take place?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Forgiveness, Leadership, Pastors

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