“Feed my sheep.”
These words were spoken in a beautiful outdoor setting. Early morning air. The lake’s glassy surface reflecting the pink edges of sunrise in the eastern sky. Warm fire crackling on the shore, the satisfaction of a full stomach, the comfort of friends. But for one man, the pleasure of these circumstances was overshadowed by deep, aching regret.
Peter’s self-preserving impulse came back to bite him hard as the One he had denied served him a cooked breakfast, then went right for the heart.
The familiar smell of woodsmoke triggered a painful memory – his refusal to be associated with the arrested Galilean. He could not unsay those words, “I do not know the man” (Matthew 27:74). Now here the friend he abandoned stood face-to-face, asking a strange question. Not, “Why did you deny me?” but, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15).
The Greek word for “charcoal fire” is used in the New Testament in John 21:9 and in one other setting. It is the word used of the fire outside the high priest’s house where Peter and others stayed warm while Jesus was interrogated inside (Luke 22:55).
There by that fire, Peter lied. He swore. He refused to be connected to Jesus.
Then his regret tore him up inside. He wept bitterly (Luke 22:62).
Now his friend is dead. But then – risen!!! And the message, “He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him” (Matthew 28:7).
Dread. But anticipation. Peter would face Jesus. What would He say?
“Catching anything boys? Try the other side of the boat!”
“It is the Lord!”
“Come have breakfast.” A fire.
“Peter, do you love me?” (John 21)
If the fire was not enough to signal to Peter this was an opportunity to move back toward Jesus, to right the wrong, then the question Jesus asked – three times! – was. Jesus laid out a path of restoration for Peter. The first step, really the one big step, was not mere acknowledgment or association, but loyal devotion – “Do you love me?”
Peter’s heart hurt at what he had done to Jesus (John 21:17), but he leaped at the opportunity to make it right, to renounce disloyalty and declare love. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” (John 21:15). Jesus could have justly disowned Peter. But instead He offered Peter the opportunity to declare his loyal love once and for all time, and to follow Jesus through his life, to the death. What grace.
Here, my pastor friend, is something we must all remember. Like Peter, we are in ministry, not by virtue of any goodness in us, but because of God’s magnanimous grace.
Not only at the time of our salvation, but again and again, we realize we don’t deserve the position we are in, that of being right with God. Those who are appointed to ministry are frequently reminded of this fact. Who are we, not only to benefit from God’s grace ourselves, but to be messengers of that grace to others and to have a leadership role in God’s work?
We remember the ways we have disappointed our Lord. We feel unworthy to fellowship with Him, much less to represent Him in ministry. But His grace superabundantly exceeds our sin (Romans 5:20-21).
Jesus’ instruction to Peter is His commission to every pastor: “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15). Three times He asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter affirmed his love. Three times Jesus directed Peter what to do next. Jesus restored Peter’s fellowship with Him, then commissioned him to ministry. “Tend my sheep” (verse 16). “Feed my sheep” (verse 17).
The instruction, “Feed my sheep,” was referenced by the apostle Paul when he charged the Ephesian pastors as recorded in 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” (NASB95).
Peter himself applied the same instruction to pastors in 1 Peter 5:2, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you.”
In each case, the privilege of filling the role of shepherd – pastor – is in view. Pastors are not self-made, but Spirit-made (Acts 20:28). And we are not owners or masters. We care for “the church of God which He obtained with His own blood” (Acts 20:28), the “flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2). Those terms marking out God’s ownership and authority are reminders that pastors are in their positions not by right, but by God’s gracious choice.
How does the fact that you, my pastor friend, are what you are by the grace of God impact you ? Is there a connection between Peter’s conversation with Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and your position as a pastor today?
Here is one connection I see. God’s grace in saving you and putting you in ministry is the antidote for unworthiness.
During my 25 years as a pastor, I think I doubted my ability and right to care for souls every day. Who am I to tell people how to live? Memories of past sins and the sharp consciousness of present, daily struggles eroded my confidence for ministering to others. Do you experience this?
Satan, the accuser, reminds us regularly of our unworthiness. But the ever-cleansing blood of Christ removes the basis for our unworthiness. The great transaction of justification places us into a right relationship with God. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2).
Justified pastor friend, you have peace with God. You have access to God. You stand in grace! You have hope as your source of joy. You were unworthy, but you are made worthy in Jesus Christ.
Take a few minutes and review these truths in your mind. Receive them as reassurances from God Himself individually to you. Allow them to purge out shame, doubt, guilt, regret, and paralyzing feelings of unworthiness.
I am justified by God’s free favor through my faith in the substitutionary death and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ the Lord.
I am right with God. My right standing with God is objective truth. Formerly an enemy, I am officially at peace with God.
I was unworthy to draw near to God myself, even less worthy to represent Him to others. But now I stand in grace. I am in God’s favor. My past performance did not earn God’s favor. My present performance does not keep me in God’s favor. My position in God’s favor is secure.
God’s gracious provision for me includes my place in the body of Christ. His free, unmerited and unmeritable favor that provided me with salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9) also granted my role as a pastor (Ephesians 4:7-8, 11-12).
I am a pastor by the grace of God. I am humbly grateful, and will move forward in confidence, not in my worthiness, but in God’s sovereign choice and limitless grace.
Allow these truths to saturate your soul, to fill your mind, to channel your thoughts. Review them regularly. Reflect them to God in prayers of thanksgiving. Speak them to your own soul. Step into your pulpit, drive to that visit, enter your next counseling appointment, in grace-based confidence.
Paul gratefully acknowledged he was in ministry only by God’s grace.
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.
But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.1 Timothy 1:12-17
Every leader serves in Christ’s church-building work because of God’s overflowing grace.
Grace doesn’t deny our unworthiness. It overpowers it. It redirects the focus from us to God. Because of our unworthiness, Jesus can display His faithfulness, love, and patience. We and all who know us can exclaim, “To Him be the glory forever and ever.”
So, push aside those feelings of unworthiness, and go take care of your sheep.