Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me more than these?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (philō) you.”
Jesus: “Feed (boske) my lambs (arnia).”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (philō) you.”
Jesus: “Tend (poimaine) my sheep (probatia).”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (phileis) me?”
Peter: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (philō) you.”
Jesus: “Feed (boske) my sheep (probatia).”
Jesus used a strong word (agapas) when He asked if Simon Peter loves Him the first two times. The agape love is an unconditional love, the kind of love that Christ modelled for us. It is a love that is self-sacrificial with a willingness to lay down one’s life if necessary. This divine love is different from storge (natural liking), eros (sexual), and philia (friendship), as illustrated in the book “The Four Loves” by C. S. Lewis. It is no wonder that Jesus chose such a strong word precisely because Peter thought he could and would lay down his life for Jesus earlier (John 13:37). John 21:15-17 is essentially a continuation of that conversation they had before the cruxification and resurrection.
This is in contrast to Peter’s response who consistently used a word (philō) that is of a lower intensity. Having not been able to live up to what he had spoken, Peter gained an awareness of self and understand his weaknesses better. Perhaps, we should learn from Peter’s humility and not overrate ourselves, consciously or sub-consciously. Peter learnt it the hard way, but we could learn from him instead. And Jesus, as loving and comforting as always, chose to cease using such a strong word (agapas) but a word (phileis) that Peter could more readily identified with. Peter would have realised it immediately, besides the point that he was asked three times in parallel to his denial of Jesus. Peter was certainly affirmed when Jesus spoke about the kind of death (John 21:18-19) he would face, hinting that Peter would possess agape love.
And each time Jesus asked Peter if he loves Him, He gave a commission to Peter. The commissions were in relation to Peter’s declaration of his love for Jesus. In John 14:15, Jesus said "If you love me, keep my commands.” And in John 14:23, Jesus also mentioned that "Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” So Jesus was essentially asking Peter to walk the talk, and guided Peter on the things to be done if he truly loves Him. Because anyone who does not love Jesus will not do these things (John 14:24). But this does not mean that anyone who does these things truly loves Jesus. For it is possible to go through the motion of outward actions, without an inward experience of love that motivates and powers our actions. The first love (Rev 2:4) is the key to everything else.
Interestingly, Jesus used the word (boske) to illustrate feeding the lambs (arnia) in the first instance. This is in contrast to the third instance when He used the word (boske) to illustrate feeding the sheep (probatia). A reasonable question then would be to ask about the difference between a lamb and a sheep. Another question to ask, is the difference between feeding (boske) and tending (poimaine) mentioned in the second instance. And why is tending associated with the sheep rather than the lambs. The obvious difference between the lambs and sheep would be the age. Lambs are younger sheep or sheep are grown up lambs. In spiritual terms, lambs are young believers and sheep are matured believers. In physical terms, lambs refer to the children, sheep refers to the adults.
Of interest, the word (boske) was used only a few times in the New Testament. And when they were used, they were all referring to the feeding of swine or pigs in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt 8:30-33, Mark 5:11-14, Luke 8:32-34). The Gospel of John is the only book that associated it to lambs and sheep. Since it is the nature of swine or pigs to gobble down anything that you throw at them, even pearls, I would like to suggest that perhaps John was hinting that it is the same with the believers in the sense that the true lambs and sheep are hungry for spiritual food. The commission to Peter was to feed them, not with earthly food, but with the spiritual word of God and especially the Word of God - Christ Himself.
As for the word (poimaine), it was used on occasions pertaining to Jesus being the Shepherd or actual shepherding of sheep. In two particular instances, it was referring to the shepherding of God’s flock. The two instances are in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2. The latter is more informative than the former since it is an epistle of Peter, of which Peter felt it was necessary to also mention the right characters of the shepherds to God’s flock. The commission to Peter then, was to watch over the sheep and not to lord it over them. The shepherds are not to take everything upon themselves, but to supervise, watch over and guide the sheep in the right direction where necessary.
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” ~ Acts 20:28
“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them - not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve.” ~ 1 Peter 5:2
Putting together, Jesus charged Peter to feed the children and young believers with spiritual food. They need the spiritual food to grow up and mature in Christ (Eph 4:11-16). Through the feeding, they will also be equipped for good works. And they will require advices, guidance, feedback and support in their various area of ministries. But more importantly, even as they are now mature, they still need to be sustained with spiritual food. They still need to see the vision of Christ in order to be encouraged and empowered by the Spirit in their walk with God. They still need to be reminded of their love and passion for Jesus. Just like when they were children and young believers.
At the end of the day, the questions that Jesus posed to Peter are relevant to everyone. Jesus was not asking Peter only, and only Peter, to love Him and to feed/tend the lambs/sheep. It was an offer of privileges to everyone who love Him. What would your response be, if Jesus asks you today, “Do you love (agapas) me?”