ESV - 15 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.
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From my understanding, the purpose of the differing terms used was related to the Christian "maturity" of those to whom Jesus was referring. Lambs were those who would be new or weak in faith, with "feeding them" being oriented toward instructing and strengthening them. Sheep would be believers of longer or deeper status, where the feeding would be related to governing them, and providing them with more advanced teaching that would enable them to grow even further in the faith. Jesus' use of both terms indicated that Peter's ministry was to be a comprehensive one, caring for the needs of the entire Christian "flock".
I always look at the context first in order to interpret a bible passage correctly. Just prior to the instruction given to Peter, he and 6 other disciples had fished all night catching nothing. Fishing was a labor intensive job then casting a net repeatedly and pulling it in to the boat. Peter would have been exhausted and frustrated as he approached the shore. The sun must not have risen completely when he heard a man on the shore ask if they had any food, did they catch any fish? Peter responded curtly, No. Not knowing it was Jesus when asked by the man to cast the net on the other side of the boat and they'd catch some. Peter responds obediently and they fill the net with fish! John then recognizes the man was Jesus, Peter dives in the water and swims the 100 yards (200 cubits) to Jesus. There is no mention or sign of faith on the part of Peter and the others making them respond positively. They didn't even know it was Jesus! There had to have been a strong prompting in Peter's spirit to obey. He was a professional fisherman. He'd fished that lake all his life. I'm sure many times before he'd fished all night and come up empty. He knew it made no sense to cast the net on the other side when he'd gotten nothing previously. Why did he do it? He obeyed the inner voice, the still small voice of the lord speaking to him and guiding him in all things, which the Lord had promised to do, Psalm 32:8, Psalm 37:23-24, Proverbs 3:5-6. His OBEDIENCE was the key. In John 14:15 & 23 Jesus told the disciples clearly, "if you love me keep my commandments". That was said with God's kind of love, agape, the same form of love Jesus used in asking Peter if he loved him the first two times he asked. The third time he asked Peter if he phileo him (loved him as a friend). It's interesting, Peter in all three answers used the word for love meaning, love as a friend, not agape. I believe Jesus was stressing to Peter the need to be obedient to what Jesus had told him during the 3 years they were together in ministry. The NT had not yet been written. The Apostle's would be filled with the Holy Spirit only days from this encounter at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit will guide them in all they do and say, John 14:26. Today we have the same Holy Spirit plus we have the Holy Word of God. We also have God's promises to always guide us. All he asks of us is to obey Him, even when our faith may be lacking. The Spirit will guide you when your greatest desire is to obey Him. Jesus wanted Peter to obey him in his care over the church of God. He gave him an object lesson to show his provisional care to always lead Peter in his care for the young church. My greatest desire is to always be pleasing in the site of Jesus, obeying him as he leads me every day, so that day when I stand, or fall, before him, he'll say, "Well done thou good and faithful servant, enter into your rest".
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