Led astray

Moses’ summarization of the law in the book of Deuteronomy was focused on a key commandment that was intended to guide the Israelites into a successful relationship with God. What Jesus referred to as the greatest commandment is recorded in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which states, “Hear O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”  In order to love the LORD and obey his commandments, Moses pointed out that the people needed to deal with the hardened condition of their hearts. Moses said, “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD which I am commanding you today for your good?…Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:12-16). The Israelites had quickly established a pattern of turning away from the LORD because of a rebellious heart (Deuteronomy 9:12) and were susceptible to being led astray by the people that occupied the land that God intended to give them (Numbers 25:1-5), so Moses commanded them to circumcise their hearts, which meant they needed to open themselves up to God’s spiritual influence and pay attention to the things they were doing that were not consistent with the Ten Commandments.

Moses warned the people of Israel about following the example of the nations around them. He said:

“When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.” (Deuteronomy 12:29-31)

Moses indicated that following the religious practices of other nations was a trap that the Israelites needed to be careful to avoid. The Hebrew word that is translated ensnared, yaqosh (yaw-koshˊ) “always refers figuratively to the catching of a person in an undesirable situation” (H3369). Moses’ statement, “they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:31) was intended to point out that idolatry was a dangerous path to follow because of its association with the depravity of the human heart.

Moses went on to identify three scenarios that were associated with the people being led astray. The first scenario involved the LORD testing of the Israelites’ faith. Moses said:

“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him.” (Deuteronomy 13:1-4)

Testing does not always suggest tempting or enticing someone to sin. The Hebrew word nasah (naw-sawˊ) also means “to try, to prove” (H5254). The purpose of a spiritual test could be to strengthen one’s faith. In the situation where a prophet was able to perform a sign that indicated he had been sent by God, but told the people to serve other gods, the message was to be disregarded because the first of God’s Ten Commandments stated “You shall have no other gods before me” (Deuteronomy 5:7). The Ten Commandments were authoritative and set a precedence for everything else that was in the Mosaic Law. Moses said, “But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your god who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk” (Deuteronomy 13:5-5).

Leaving the way was a habit that the Israelites established early in their relationship with the LORD. Moses reminded the people before they entered the Promised Land that they didn’t deserve God’s blessing. Moses said, “Know therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD” (Deuteronomy 9:6-7). The Hebrew word that is translated rebellion in Deuteronomy 13:5, sarah (saw-rawˊ) means “apostasy” (H5627). In simple terms, apostasy is a false teaching that is intended to undermine one’s faith in God. The result is a lack of confidence in God’s word and a tendency to look for the answers to life’s problems in other places. The phrase leave the way comes from two Hebrew words, nadach (naw-kakhˊ) derek (dehˊ-rek) that together convey the root cause of most sin, getting off on the wrong track. Among the laws for sin offerings that were identified in Leviticus 4 were sins that were committed unintentionally (Leviticus 4:2). An unintentional sin was one that was considered to be a mistake or one that was committed through ignorance of God’s laws (H7684). The Hebrew word that is translated sins unintentionally in Leviticus 4:13, shagah (shaw-gawˊ) means “to stray” (H7686).

The Hebrew word shagah appears three times in Proverbs 5 which focuses on the sin of adultery. Proverbs 5:1-6 states:

My son, be attentive to my wisdom;
    incline your ear to my understanding,
that you may keep discretion,
    and your lips may guard knowledge.
For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey,
    and her speech is smoother than oil,
but in the end she is bitter as wormwood,
    sharp as a two-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;
    her steps follow the path to Sheol;
she does not ponder the path of life;
    her ways wander, and she does not know it.

The adulteress or forbidden woman as she is referred to in Proverbs 5:3 does not know what she is doing and is therefore a danger to those around her. Proverbs 5:5 states, “Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol.” The son is warned to stay far away from her (Proverbs 5:8) and to “rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Proverbs 5:18). In this particular instance, shagah is translated twice as intoxicated and at the end of the proverb as led astray. Speaking to the son about the wife of his youth, the proverb states:

Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
    be intoxicated always in her love.
Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman
    and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?
For a man’s ways are before the eyes of the Lord,
    and he ponders all his paths.
The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him,
    and he is held fast in the cords of his sin.
He dies for lack of discipline,
    and because of his great folly he is led astray. (Proverbs 5:19-23)

The illustration of being intoxicated with love makes it clear that being led astray is associated with having an emotional response to a pleasurable situation. It could also have something to do with being open to the influence of another person.

The second scenario that Moses presented to the Israelites about being led astray had to do with people that were close to them, members of their own households. Moses said:

“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Deuteronomy 13:6-10)

The extreme response of stoning to death a member of your own family shows that the influence of a person that is close to you can be a significant threat to your spiritual well-being. If a loved one tries to turn you away from the LORD, it seems likely that he or she will succeed.

The final scenario that Moses talked about had to do with the corruption of an entire city. Moses said:

“If you hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you to dwell there, that certain worthless fellows have gone out among you and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, then you shall inquire and make search and ask diligently. And behold, if it be true and certain that such an abomination has been done among you, you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword.” (Deuteronomy 13:12-15)

Devoting a city to destruction was an indicator of the severe judgment of God. It was important that the Israelites keep themselves separated from things that were devoted to destruction (Deuteronomy 13:17) because they were considered to be a deadly threat to the formation of God’s people. (H2764).

Moses referred to the Israelites as “the sons of the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1) and said, “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 14:2). The Hebrew word that is translated sons is ben (bane) which generally refers to a son as “the direct male offspring of human parents,” but ben is also a relational term that can express an adopted child (H1121). The Israelites’ special role as the chosen people of God was intended to be a testimony to rest of the world of not only God’s existence, but also his involvement in the affairs of men. The Israelites’ obedience and loyalty to the LORD their God was a critical pieces of God’s plan of salvation. By the time Jesus was born, the Israelites’ sacrificial system had been perfected, but the people seemed to be completely ignorant of what their religious practices actually meant.

Jesus continually criticized the religious leaders of his day for leading people astray. On one occasion, Jesus pronounced seven woes on the scribes and Pharisees because they were abusing their power. Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:2-4). The sharp contrast between the Pharisees’ teaching and their day-to-day activities showed that they were faking their devotion to God. Jesus said to them:

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:13-15)

The phrase child of hell was likely intended to convey the distinction between a person that had a relationship with God and a person that did not have a relationship with God. The people of Israel thought that being a descendant of Abraham guaranteed them access into the kingdom of heaven, but Jesus pointed out that a relationship with God was required. Jesus told the Jews:

I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.” They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” (John 8:37-47)

Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees was followed by a sermon that focused on a period of time that he referred to as the end of the age. Matthew’s gospel tells us:

As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:3-14)

Jesus indicated that one of the signs of the end of the age was that his followers would be led astray, just as the Israelites were.

The Book of Hebrews contains warnings against apostasy and advice for believers that want to keep themselves from being led astray. It states:

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Hebrews 5:11-6:6)

According to Paul, the safest way for believers to keep themselves from being led astray is to have your “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). The phrase powers of discernment refers to spiritual perception and suggests that the only way we are able to distinguish good from evil is by training our minds to do so on a regular basis. In order to do that, Paul said that we must “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1). The Greek word that is translated go on, phero (ferˊ-o) signifies being impelled by the Holy Spirit’s power, not acting according to our own wills, or simply expressing our own thoughts, “but expressing the mind of God in words provided and ministered by Him” (G5342). Jesus explained the Greek word phero in the context of bearing spiritual fruit and said in his parable of the sower, “other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding (phero) thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:8). Jesus later revealed to his disciples the secret of yielding spiritual fruit; when you hear the word of God, you must accept it as the truth (Mark 4:20).

Do you love me?

John’s gospel was written with a specific purpose in mind, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). John focused his attention on the fact that Jesus was an eternal being, but never lost sight of the human qualities that made Jesus like everyone else. In the last chapter of his book, John recorded a conversation between Jesus and Peter that centered on the affection and devotion that had developed between these two men. John wrote:

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.” 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.” 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. (John 21:15-17)

Jesus began by asking Peter a question that was intended to reveal the motive behind Peter’s commitment to him. Jesus asked, “Do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15). The word that Jesus used that is translated love, agapao (ag-ap-ahˊ-o) means “to regard with strong affection” (G25) and is used to describe the love that God has for his Son Jesus (John 3:35). The reason why Jesus asked Peter if he loved him more than these may have been because Peter’s priorities were skewed toward personal satisfaction, rather than serving the Lord.

All four of the gospels indicate that Peter and his brother Andrew were among the first group of disciples that Jesus called into his ministry. John makes note of the fact that Andrew was originally a disciple of John the Baptist (John 1:35-37) and introduced Peter to Jesus. John states, “One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter)” (John 1:40-42). Jesus clearly discerned Simon’s inner character and gave him a new name that described him perfectly, Cephas or Peter, but the personal connection between them apparently wasn’t enough to convince Peter to follow Jesus. Luke’s gospel identifies a second encounter that resulted in Peter making a commitment to follow the Lord. Luke states:

On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:1-11)

The incident that occurred the day that Jesus called Peter to follow him is very similar to what was going on the third time Jesus revealed himself to his disciples after his resurrection. John states:

After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. (John 21:1-8)

Peter’s decision to go fishing contradicted the statement that Jesus made when he called him into his ministry, “from now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5:10), and yet, Jesus didn’t rebuke his disciples, but encouraged them in their efforts by providing so many fish that they couldn’t haul them all in (John 21:6).

Peter’s response to Jesus’ question, “do you love me more than these” (John 21:15) indicated that Peter was aware that there was a difference between the way that the Lord loved him and the way that he loved Jesus. In his question, “do you love me more than these,” Jesus used the word agapao to signify the type of love that he expected from Peter. John 21:15 states, “He said to him, ‘Yes. Lord; you know that I love you.’” The Greek word that is translated love in this verse is phileo (fil-ehˊ-o) which means, “to be a friend to…Phileo is never used in a command to men to ‘love’ God…agapao is used instead, e.g., Matthew 22:37; Luke 10:27; Romans 8:28; 1 Corinthians 8:3; 1 Peter 1:8; 1 John 4:21. The distinction between the two verbs finds a conspicuous instance in the narrative of John 21:15-17. The context itself indicates that agapao in the first two questions suggests the ‘love’ that values and esteems (cf. Revelation 12:11). It is an unselfish ‘love,’ ready to serve. The use of phileo in Peter’s answers and the Lord’s third question, conveys the thought of cherishing the Object above all else, of manifesting an affection characterized by constancy, from the motive of the highest veneration” (G5368). Peter’s response seems to be appropriate given that Jesus asked him, “do you love me more than these” (John 21:15). Peter cherished Jesus more than anything or perhaps even more than anyone else, but the kind of love that Peter had wasn’t enough to keep him from denying that he knew the Lord (John 18:15-17) or from deciding to go fishing when he should have been telling people about Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:21; 21:3).

Jesus talked about love in the context of abiding (John 15:1-17). As a vine and its branches are intimately connected and dependent on each other for nourishment and support, Jesus encouraged his disciples to rely on him for their spiritual well-being. Jesus said, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5). Jesus demonstrated this principle when he told his disciples to “cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some” (John 21:6) after they had been fishing all night and had caught nothing (John 21:4-5). The Greek word that is translated abide, meno (menˊ-o) means “to stay (in a given place, state, relation or expectancy)” (G3306). John elaborated on this point in his first epistle. It states specifically, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:15-16). John’s statement, “God is love” (1 John 4:16) is confusing unless you understand the kind of love that John was talking about. John used the word agape (ag-ahˊ-pay), a derivative of the word agapao, to describe love as something that exists rather than something that we feel or something that we have to see in order for it to be real to us. “In respect of agapao as used of God, it expresses the deep and constant love and interest of a perfect Being towards entirely unworthy objects, producing and fostering a reverential love in them towards the Giver, a practical love towards those who are partakers of the same, and a desire to help others to seek the Giver” (G26).

God’s relationship with the Israelites was based on love (Deuteronomy 4:37) and in a similar way to Jesus’ illustration of the vine and branches, the people of Israel were expected to remain in constant fellowship with God. Moses told the Israelites, “Your eyes have seen what the LORD did at Baal-peor, for the LORD your God destroyed from among you all the men who followed the Baal of Peor. But you who held fast to the LORD your God are all alive today” (Deuteronomy 4:3-4). The Hebrew word that is translated held fast, dabeq (daw-bakeˊ) has to do with adhering to something (H1695). Dabeq is derived from the word dabaq (daw-bakˊ) which is translated cleave in Genesis 2:24 where is says, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” The relationship between God and the Israelites was designed to be a permanent one that would last throughout eternity, but the basis of their relationship was sinless perfection and the Israelites could not achieve that status. Moses’ instruction to the Israelites before he died was, “Only take care and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life” (Deuteronomy 4:9). Keeping your soul diligently implies a constant effort to remain aware of and responsive to the word of God and in particular, with regard to the Israelites, living each day according to the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 4:13). If the Israelites did what they were supposed to, it would go well with them, but Moses said, if they provoked God to anger, they would “soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed” (Deuteronomy 4:25-26).

Jesus explained to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:9-13). Jesus made it clear that obedience was still a requirement for having a relationship with God, but he also pointed out that we are expected to keep his commandments, not the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. Jesus said that he had kept his Father’s commandments and then stated his commandment to us, “that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Jesus used the Greek word agapao to describe the kind of love that we receive from him and that he wants us to give to others. As a standard of measurement, Jesus added, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). In this final statement, Jesus used the word agape, suggesting that God’s love is larger or of a greater magnitude than what humans can achieve, as was demonstrated through Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross. Jesus’ suffering, which is depicted in Psalm 22, shows us the extreme lengths that he went to in order to save us. Jesus’ command that we love one another meant that it was his desire was for us to express his essential nature to others.  “Love can be known only from the action it prompts as God’s love is seen in the gift of His Son (1 John 4:9, 10)” (G26).

The second time that he asked Peter, “Do you love me?” (John 21:16), Jesus likely wanted to make Peter aware of the fact that his affection for him was the result of an inferior type of love that wasn’t reliable. After Peter gave the same response, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (phileo) you” (John 21:16), instead of saying “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15), Jesus instructed Peter to, “Tend my sheep” (John 21:16). One of the analogies that Jesus used to illustrate his relationship with his followers was the good shepherd. Jesus compared the good shepherd with a thief and a robber and said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:10-13). When Jesus told Peter to “Tend my sheep” (John 21:16), he was placing him in a position of responsibility that was comparable to his own. The Greek word that is translated tend, poimaino (poy-mahˊ-ee-no) means “to tend as a shepherd” and “refers to the whole process of shepherding, guiding, guarding, folding, and providing pasture” (G4165). Rather than just feeding his lambs, Jesus wanted Peter to care for his sheep as if they were his own. Jesus’ illustration of the hired hand as someone that sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, may have brought to Peter’s mind his denial of the Lord and perhaps made him realize that he was unworthy of the role of being a shepherd to Jesus’ followers.

When Jesus asked Peter the third time, “Do you love me?” (John 21:17), he used the Greek word phileo instead of agapao to signify the kind of love he expected from Peter and therefore, seemed to be lowering his standard of Peter’s ability to love him. John tells us, “Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love (phileo) me?’” (John 21:17), indicating that Peter felt convicted of his sin and realized that his failure had diminished his credibility as a leader. The point that Jesus probably wanted to make was not that Peter had been disqualified from serving him, but that Peter’s failure was evidence that his phileo love for Jesus was insufficient to accomplish his mission of spreading the gospel throughout the world. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus identified the key to continuous fellowship with God, unity. Jesus prayed:

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:20-23)

The phrase become perfectly one is translated be made perfect in one in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. The difference is significant in that the KJV indicates that the result is that we are made perfect, whereas the English Standard Version (ESV) focuses on the type of oneness that is to be achieved, perfectly one, the same kind of unity that Jesus had with his Father. Psalm 133, a song of ascents, opens with the statement, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1) and concludes with, “For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore” (Psalm 133:3). It might be said that unity is the channel through which eternal life flows to mankind.

Jesus concluded his conversation with Peter by reconfirming his calling. After he told Peter by what kind of death he was going to glorify God, Jesus said to him, “Follow me” (John 21:19). The Greek word that is translated follow, akoloutheo (ak-ol-oo-thehˊ-o) is properly translated as “to be in the same way with” (G190). In order for someone to be a follower of Christ, a union must take place. Paul explained in his letter to the Ephesians that God has united all things in Christ by the shedding of his blood on the cross (Ephesians 2:13) and that God is in the process of making all believers into a single unit or body (Ephesians 2:14-16). Paul went on to say, “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16). The Greek word that Paul used to signify love is agape, suggesting that God’s love is developed in us through the building up or the spiritual strengthening that results from teaching the word of God. That’s why Jesus’ final command to Peter was, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17), meaning, if you really love me, then provide spiritual nourishment to my followers so that they can grow in their faith.

Gaining traction

Paul’s ministry began to gain traction after he arrived at Corinth. One of the factors that seemed to fuel the growth of his ministry was Paul’s conviction that he had been specifically called to preach the gospel to the non-Jewish populations around the world. A turning point occurred when Paul let go of his assumed obligation to preach to the Jews that were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. It says in Acts 18:6, “And when they opposed themselves and blasphemed, he shook his raiment, and said unto them, Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles.”

While he was in Corinth, Paul received a prophetic message from Jesus. Luke tells us, “Then spake the Lord to Paul in the night by a vision, Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city. And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them” (Acts 18:9-11). Jesus’ command to not be afraid suggests that Paul was experiencing anxiety because of the antagonism he was getting from the Jews (Acts 17:5, 13). The bravery he demonstrated in continuing to preach the gospel reflected Paul’s belief that Jesus was with him because he was fulfilling the purpose of his ministry, to spread the gospel around the world.

Paul’s extended stay in Corinth probably enabled him to develop closer relationships and deeper feelings for the Corinthians than he did at any of the other churches he established. The two lengthy letters (1 Corinthians & 2 Corinthians) Paul wrote a few years after his first visit to Corinth show that he had a great deal of concern for the Corinthians spiritual well-being. The city of Corinth which was “perched like a one-eyed Titan astride the narrow isthmus connecting the Greek mainland with the Peloponnese, was one of the dominant commercial centers of the Hellenic world as early as the eighth century B.C. No city in Greece was more favorably situated for land and sea trade. With a high, strong citadel at its back, it lay between the Saronic Gulf and the Ionian Sea and ports of Lachaion and Cenchrea” (Corinth in the Time of Paul, p.1641).

The Lord’s selection of Corinth as Paul’s temporary home base was likely due to its ideal location and culture. “It has been estimated that in Paul’s day Corinth had a population of about 250,000 free persons, plus as many as 400,000 slaves. In a number of ways it was the chief city of Greece…it was a crossroads for travelers and traders” (Introduction to The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, p.1640). In many ways, the Corinthians were similar to believers today. “Most of the questions and problems that confronted the church at Corinth are still very much with us — problems like immaturity, instability, divisions, jealousy and envy, lawsuits, marital difficulties, sexual immorality and misuse of spiritual gifts.”