Divine assistance

Moses’ leadership of the people of Israel ended just before the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land. “Knowing that it would not be long before he would die, Moses asked God to choose a successor to lead the Israelites in his place (Numbers 27:16). God selected Joshua, who had been Moses’ close associate and servant since the time the Israelites were still in Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:13; 32:17; 33:11). Even before their arrival in Sinai, Moses had appointed Joshua to be the leader of the army (Exodus 17:8-13). Joshua would make significant military achievements, but his public commissioning (Numbers 27:22, 23) involved much more that the role of military leader” (note on Numbers 27:15-23). Numbers 27:15-17 tells us, “Moses spoke to the LORD, saying, ‘Let the LORD, the God of the spirits or all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.” The Hebrew word that is translated shepherd, raʿah (raw-awˊ) in Numbers 27:17 is translated wandering in Numbers 14:33 which refers to God’s punishment of the Israelites for not entering the Promised Land when they were first told to. It states, “And your children will be like shepherds, wandering in the wilderness for forty years. In this way, they will pay for your faithlessness, until the last of you lies dead in the wilderness” (NLT). The connection between the Israelites wandering in the wilderness and the role of the shepherd had to do with the people’s tendency toward going astray. Jesus used the analogy of sheep that have gone astray to describe people that have been deceived or are mistaken in their beliefs. The Greek word planao (plan-ahˊ-o) which means “to roam” is translated gone astray in 2 Peter 2:15 and is also translated as be deceived (Galatians 6:7), err (James 5:19, KJV), seduce (1 John 2:26), wandering (Hebrews 11:38), and wayward (Hebrews 5:2) (G4105). Jesus described himself as the good shepherd (John 10:11) and told his disciples:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:1-5)

Moses’ reputation as the shepherd of the people of Israel was dependent upon the miracles that God performed through him in order to deliver the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and then, to sustain them in wilderness for forty years. When Joshua took over as Israel’s leader, God told him, “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5). God acted as the gatekeeper of the sheepfold by being with Moses and Joshua. These two men were given special abilities so that they could lead the people effectively. It says in Numbers 27:18-20, “So the LORD said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him. Make him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation and you shall commission him in their sight. You shall invest him with some of your authority, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey.’” The Hebrew word that is translated obey, shamaʿ (shaw-mah) means “to hear intelligently” or “to heed a request or command” (H8085). The authority that Moses invested in Joshua made the people willing to listen to what he said and to do what he told them to.

God’s instruction to invest Joshua with Moses’ authority had to do with Joshua’s physical appearance (H1935), but it likely had more to do with what could be seen in the spiritual realm than in the physical realm. The Hebrew word that is translated invest in Numbers 27:20 is similar to a Greek word that the Apostle Paul used in his discussion of spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6:10-20. Paul told the Ephesians to put on “the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). The Greek word that Paul used that is translated put on, enduo (en-dooˊ-o) means “to invest with clothing (in the sense of sinking into a garment)” (G1746), but it is often used by Paul to refer to believers putting on things that are invisible or indistinct in the physical realm. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:53-54, “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (emphasis mine). Paul also said in Galatians 3:27, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (emphasis mine). What this may suggest is that when Moses invested Joshua with his authority, he gave him the center stage so to speak, so that everyone focused their attention on Joshua instead of Moses from that point forward. It says of Joshua in Numbers 27:21, “At his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he and all the people of Israel with him, the whole congregation.” In other words, Joshua was calling the shots after he was invested with Moses’ authority.

The first test of Joshua’s use of his authority came after the Israelites’ victory over the city of Ai. Joshua 9:1-15 states:

As soon as all the kings who were beyond the Jordan in the hill country and in the lowland all along the coast of the Great Sea toward Lebanon, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, heard of this, they gathered together as one to fight against Joshua and Israel.

But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, they on their part acted with cunning and went and made ready provisions and took worn-out sacks for their donkeys, and wineskins, worn-out and torn and mended, with worn-out, patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes. And all their provisions were dry and crumbly. And they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and to the men of Israel, “We have come from a distant country, so now make a covenant with us.” But the men of Israel said to the Hivites, “Perhaps you live among us; then how can we make a covenant with you?” They said to Joshua, “We are your servants.” And Joshua said to them, “Who are you? And where do you come from?” They said to him, “From a very distant country your servants have come, because of the name of the Lord your God. For we have heard a report of him, and all that he did in Egypt, and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon the king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth. So our elders and all the inhabitants of our country said to us, ‘Take provisions in your hand for the journey and go to meet them and say to them, “We are your servants. Come now, make a covenant with us.”’ Here is our bread. It was still warm when we took it from our houses as our food for the journey on the day we set out to come to you, but now, behold, it is dry and crumbly. These wineskins were new when we filled them, and behold, they have burst. And these garments and sandals of ours are worn out from the very long journey.” So the men took some of their provisions, but did not ask counsel from the Lord. And Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live, and the leaders of the congregation swore to them.

Moses expressly forbid the people of Israel from making a covenant with any of the nations that existed within the borders of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 7:2). The people of Gibeon were aware that they were going to be destroyed (Joshua 9:24) so they attempted to form an alliance with the Israelites in order to keep from being killed. In spite of his suspicions, Joshua made peace with inhabitants of Gibeon and found out three days later that he had been lied to (Joshua 9:16).

Joshua 9:14 tells us that the men of Israel took some of the Gibeonites’ provisions, “but did not ask counsel from the LORD.” Joshua had the ability to inquire of the LORD (Numbers 27:21), but he decided to trust the Gibeonites and relied on the evidence they provided him of their country being outside the borders of the Promised Land. Joshua’s lack of discernment or perhaps foolish pride compromised the LORD’s plan to have all of the inhabitants of the Promised Land destroyed. The Israelites couldn’t attack the people of Gibeon “because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the LORD, the God of Israel” (Joshua 9:18). Joshua’s frustration is evident in his response to the Gibeonites’ trickery. Joshua 9:22-27 states:

Joshua summoned them, and he said to them, “Why did you deceive us, saying, ‘We are very far from you,’ when you dwell among us? Now therefore you are cursed, and some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.” They answered Joshua, “Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing. And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it.” So he did this to them and delivered them out of the hand of the people of Israel, and they did not kill them. But Joshua made them that day cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord, to this day, in the place that he should choose.

Joshua noted the Gibeonites’ intentional deception and pronounced a curse upon them. It says in Joshua 9:3 that the inhabitants of Gibeon had acted with cunning. The Hebrew word that is translated cunning, ʿormah (or-mawˊ) means “trickery” (H6195) and is similar to the Greek word Paul used to convey the devil’s activity in believers’ lives (G3180), suggesting that there were probably spiritual forces of evil at work when the people of Gibeon acted with cunning to deceive the leaders of Israel and in particular Joshua who was responsible for deciding their fate.

Proverbs 22:17-21 indicates that all believers receive divine assistance when they place their hearts in God’s hands. It states:

Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise,
    and apply your heart to my knowledge,
for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you,
    if all of them are ready on your lips.
That your trust may be in the Lord,
    I have made them known to you today, even to you.
Have I not written for you thirty sayings
    of counsel and knowledge,
to make you know what is right and true,
    that you may give a true answer to those who sent you?

The phrase what is right and true is meant to convey reality, that which is able to be known with certainty. The Hebrew word qoshet (koˊ-shet) “appears twice in the Wisdom Literature, meaning the vindication of a true assessment by reality (Psalm 60:4[6]); and the realization of a person’s truthfulness by an intimate knowledge of the individual (Proverbs 22:21)” (H7189).

The people of Gibeon told Joshua that because it was told to them “for a certainty that the LORD your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives” (Joshua 9:24). The fear that the Gibeonites had was not simple fear, “but reverence, whereby an individual recognizes the power and position of the individual revered and renders him proper respect” (H3372). God’s truthfulness was evident to the people of Gibeon because they had witnessed the destruction of the cities of Jericho and Ai. Their strategy of tricking the Israelites into making a covenant with them was a wise move, given that their leaders were able to save everyone’s lives without fighting a single battle (Joshua 9:27). Unfortunately, Joshua proved to be out of touch with reality and neglected to ask for divine assistance when he should have. As a result of his mistake, the situation escalated and Joshua had to ask God for a miracle.

Joshua 10:1-5 tells us:

As soon as Adoni-zedek, king of Jerusalem, heard how Joshua had captured Ai and had devoted it to destruction, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and how the inhabitants of Gibeon had made peace with Israel and were among them, he feared greatly, because Gibeon was a great city, like one of the royal cities, and because it was greater than Ai, and all its men were warriors. So Adoni-zedek king of Jerusalem sent to Hoham king of Hebron, to Piram king of Jarmuth, to Japhia king of Lachish, and to Debir king of Eglon, saying, “Come up to me and help me, and let us strike Gibeon. For it has made peace with Joshua and with the people of Israel.” Then the five kings of the Amorites, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon, gathered their forces and went up with all their armies and encamped against Gibeon and made war against it.

Adoni-zedek may have thought that Gibeon would be left to its own devices, but the covenant that Joshua made with them entitled the people of Gibeon to God’s protection. “And the men of Gibeon sent to Joshua at the camp in Gilgal, saying, ‘Do not relax your hand from your servants. Come up quickly and save us and help us, for all the kings of the Amorites who dwell in the hill country are gathered against us” (Joshua 9:6). The phrase relax your hand comes from a Hebrew word that is connected with one of the names of God. The Hebrew word râphâh (raw-fawˊ) “means to heal, a restoring to normal, an act that God typically performs” (H7495). After God made the bitter waters of Marah sweet, he told the Israelites, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer.” The Gibeonites wanted Joshua to save them and may have believed their only hope was God’s miraculous power which can bring the dead back to life.

God responded to the situation and provided divine assistance just as if it were the Israelites’ lives that were at stake. Joshua 10:7-14 tells us:

So Joshua went up from Gilgal, he and all the people of war with him, and all the mighty men of valor. And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not fear them, for I have given them into your hands. Not a man of them shall stand before you.” So Joshua came upon them suddenly, having marched up all night from Gilgal. And the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel, who struck them with a great blow at Gibeon and chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon and struck them as far as Azekah and Makkedah. And as they fled before Israel, while they were going down the ascent of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down large stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died. There were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed with the sword.

At that time Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel,

“Sun, stand still at Gibeon,
    and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”
And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,
    until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.

Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel.

Joshua described what happened as the nation of Israel taking vengeance on its enemies (Joshua 10:13). When the five kings of the Amorites declared war on Gibeon, it was as if they had declared war on the nation of Israel because of the covenant that Joshua had made with the people of Gibeon. “At Joshua’s request, God caused the sun to stand still so that the Israelites could achieve a greater victory. This is one of two times recorded in the Old Testament when God interrupted time as a favor or a sign to a man” (note on Joshua 10:12-14). The fact that God did this miracle for Joshua right after he had made the mistake of making a covenant with the Gibeonites and was fighting a battle to defend the people that he was supposed to have destroyed showed that God’s faithfulness transcended human error and was not subject to a particular people being protected, but was based on God’s willingness to fight for anyone that would put his trust in him.

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.