Love sums up the Great Commission. Jesus said, “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”: to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as you love yourself (Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:28-33; cf. Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36; Luke 10:27; Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). Where such love is the motivation of our labor, the effort cannot be in vain; but where it is not the heartbeat of our life, whatever we do will be wasted energy (1 Corinthians 13). In its larger context, then, everything about our ministry turns on love.
This truth runs through Scripture, but it is focused no where more personally by Jesus than in a confrontation with Peter after the resurrection (John 21:1-23). Some of the disciples had been fishing all night on the sea of Tiberias, and had caught nothing. As the dawn began to break, Jesus appears on the shore, though they do not recognize Him in the mist. Showing an interest in their occupation, He asks about their catch. When they confess their failure, He tells them to cast their net on the right side of the boat. Instinctively, they follow His directions, and almost immediately their nets fill with fish.
The experience recalls an incident a few years before when four of these same disciples, after a night of fishing without success, were told by Jesus to launch out into deeper waters and let down their nets. When they obeyed, the catch of fish was so great that the boat began to sink, and they had to call for help. Afterward, Jesus entreated them to follow Him, and He would make them to become fishers of men (Mark 1:16-20; Matthew 4:18-22; Luke 5:1-11).
As the disciples struggle to bring in the nets, the similarity with the other experience cannot be mistaken, and John exclaims: “It is the Lord!” (John 21:7). At this, Peter – unable to restrain his excitement — dives into the water and swims ashore.
When the disciples get their boat to land, Jesus has a fire kindled and some fish frying over it. He asks them to bring over some of their fish and join Him for breakfast.
After they had finished eating, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” Giving a strong affirmative response, the big fisherman is told: “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15).
Not content to leave the issue, however, Jesus asks again, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me?” Receiving the same answer, Jesus makes a similar application (John 21:16). Then, without further comment, He quickly comes back to the decisive question, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:17).
Grieved that Jesus would interrogate him about this three times, Peter adamantly affirms: “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Whereupon, after reemphasizing the necessity of feeding his sheep, Jesus tells Peter what love will cost in obedience (John 21:18-22).
By focusing on this truth, Jesus brings out the underlying question in Christian service. Though speaking to Peter, His words were uttered in the hearing of the other disciples, and could just as well be directed to everyone who would follow Him. You can hear Him call your name, as He asks, “Bill, Mary, Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
I
Observe that Jesus is the object of love. Not a creed, not a church, not a religion, but Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”
He sets Himself before us as the only way to fully know God. In His meeting with the disciples following the Last Supper, He told them: “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Not only does He exclude other options of access, but He affirms that God has “granted Him authority over all people that He might give eternal life to all those” who come unto Him (John 17:2).
How men and women respond to His claims becomes the crucial question in determining human destiny. He is the revelation of God in human personality, who, in the fullness of time, assumed our identity in the flesh. He bore in His body our sorrows and griefs and, finally, accepted the judgment for our sins on the cross, suffering for us, the just for the unjust that He might bring us to God. Put to death in the flesh, He was raised again by the Holy Spirit, and ever lives to make intercession for His people (1 Peter 3:18; Hebrews 7:25).
“Simon, do you love me?”
There is good reason to ask. Not long before, Peter had three times denied his Lord. The memory of that tragic failure was doubtless awakened by the thrice-repeated question, just as the fire must have reminded him of that night in the palace courtyard when he swore that he was no friend of Jesus (Mark 14:66-72; Matthew 26:69-75; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:25-27).
Yes, Peter had repented, and wept bitterly; but Jesus’ question is not how much you regret the past, not how many tears have been shed — but do you love me. It is His preeminence in our heart that makes the other expressions acceptable.
Or the words might be taken to mean “more than these things” — more than the comforts of home, more than the acclaim of a good reputation, more even than the work you are doing for Him. Not that these other things are undeserving of love, but that Jesus expects to be loved more. The giving of Himself for us precludes any rival to our devotion. We may not have much, but whatever we have, He wants all of it.
Interestingly, on the last occasion, when Peter affirmed his love, he added: “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you” (John 21:17). With his memory of past failure, he could not appeal to his record but he could appeal to his Lord’s understanding.
What a comfort to the soul! Jesus knows all about it. We don’t have to explain our situation to Him. In His infinite knowledge, He interprets the thoughts and intents of the heart; He knows when we truly love Him.
I remember a time years ago when my son made this truth so real to me. It was a hot afternoon at the end of the harvest season, and I was out in the backyard cleaning my garden. Jim, who was then no more than three or four years old, saw me working, and it occurred to him that I was thirsty. So he pulled a chair up to the kitchen sink, got a dirty glass, and filled it with water from the faucet. The next thing I knew my name was being called. As I turned around, there was my son coming across the garden holding that smudgy glass of warm water, saying, “Daddy, I thought you were thirsty, so I brought you a drink.” And, as he held up the glass, a smile stretched across his face from one ear to the other.
You might think, couldn’t he do better than that? Why, that was not cool water; it was not even pure water. And you would be right. But when you looked at his face, you would have to say that was pure love. He was doing the best he knew to please his daddy.
In some similar way, that is how every disciple of Christ can love in this world. Though we continually make errors in judgment, and fall woefully short of our desire to be like Jesus, still in our heart we can do the best we know to please Him. Can you appeal to His perfect understanding today, as did Peter, and say with all your soul, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you”?
II
But the affirmation, sincere as it may be, needs expression in more than words. So each time Peter confesses his love, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” He underscores that love overflows in ministry to the world.
Love for Christ, you see, cannot be self-Contained for it “comes from God,” and thereby reflects something of His own nature (1 John 4:7-8; cf. Romans 5:5). It is the kind of love that would not let us go, even “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8). Calvary is His witness.
As Jesus was hanging on the cross, recall how the worldlings came by and mocked Him, saying, “He saved others, but He can’t save himself” (Matthew 27:42; Mark 15:31; cf. Luke 23:35). The irony is that in their derision the scoffing crowd said the truth. Of course, He could not save Himself. That was the point. He had not come into the world to save Himself; He came to save us. “He came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45).
Just as He was sent into the world, now He sends us (John 17:18; John 17:20-21). “Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).
His mission in the flesh now accomplished, Jesus tells His disciples to take care of those for whom He gave His life. People are likened to sheep that are lost without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). Left to themselves, there is no hope of recovery. Someone with the heart of Christ must go to them, tell them the Gospel, and lead them to the fold of salvation.
Then, having come to Jesus, the sheep must be nurtured in His way; they need to be fed and clothed and protected from ravaging predators. It will require loving discipleship by committed servant. But by faithful shepherding, the sheep will grow up and someday begin to reproduce their kind.
There was a time when Peter was like a sheep, wandering aimlessly, without any direction in life. But now, through the miracle of divine grace, his nature has been so transformed that he is becoming like a shepherd.
In this ministry there is a place for us all. Our form of service will vary, depending upon gifts and callings, but God who made us what we are will use every disciple in some way, to care for His sheep. And whatever is done truly for the love of Christ, even to “one of the least” of these sheep, becomes an act of worship to the Lord (Matthew 25:40).
An incident in the life of Uncle John Vassar illustrates what I mean. A zealous soul-winner for the Lord, he served as a Colporteur for the American Tract Society. One day as he tried to share the Gospel with a lady, she cut him off and would not accept a tract. Not to be outdone, however, the old gentleman asked if he could sing her a song, and then proceeded to raise the verse!
But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give myself away,
‘Tis all that I can do.
As he finished singing, the woman was utterly subdued, and ultimately became a Christian. Giving her testimony in church, she said: “Ah, those drops of grief, those drops of grief — I couldn’t get over them!”1
I am not suggesting that anyone follow Vassar’s eccentric style. Methods of witnessing are variable, and have no virtue in themselves. It’s the love prompting them that makes all the difference. Would it be unfair to ask: how is your love for Jesus finding practical expression in ministry to the sheep?
As you ponder the question, consider carefully the priority of bringing the witness of Christ into the marketplace of today’s unreached world — fields white unto harvest, yet where so few servants are laboring.
Do you realize that nearly half the peoples of the earth have not heard an intelligent presentation of the Gospel, and that they will not have the opportunity unless someone who knows the Savior crosses the boundaries of their culture, identifies with them, and builds a bridge of love? Can you be that person? One who will answer the cry of the lost multitudes: “Come over and help us!” If you cannot go yourself, can you support one to take your place?
Is your name being called? “Suzie, Ralph, Simon son of John, do you truly love me? Then feed my sheep.”
III
Lest some think that ministry is optional, Jesus concludes His discourse with the command: “Follow me” (John 21:19-22). Obedience to Christ is finally the test of our love.
Actually this truth was put to the disciples in the beginning when they were asked to come with Him (John 1:39-43). It was their obedience to His word which enabled them to become a part of His fellowship and continue to learn of Him. He did not ask them to follow what they did not know to be true; but what they did understand, He expected them to practice.
“Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord,” Jesus said, “will enter the kingdom of heaven,” but only those who do the will of God (Matthew 7:21; cf. Luke 6:4-6). “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:12). “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (John 14:21; cf. John 14:23-24). “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in His love (John 15:10; cf. John 15:12).
Christ’s obedience to the will of the Father who sent Him was the example of what perfect love means. The giving of Himself on the cross was the climax of that commitment. And since that offering had been made in His mind before the worlds were made (Revelation 13:18; Acts 2:32), each step that He took on earth was a conscious experience of the love of God.
In the same sense of obedience, there is a cross for all who would follow in His steps (Matthew 8:34; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23). Not that any disciple can duplicate His atoning sacrifice, of course. No one could do that work but the perfect man, and it has been finished once and for all. Yet the principle of obedience to the mission of God, whatever it entails, remains as the basis for continuing in the joy of Christ’s love.
To be sure, such obedience is costly. It will mean the surrender of our lives in loving submission to His will (Mark 8:35; Mark 10:21; Matthew 16:25; Matthew 10:21; Luke 9:24; Luke 14:33; Luke 18:22). For Peter it would actually lead to an early martyrdom, as Jesus told him: “When you are old you will stretch out your hands,” a way of indicating the manner of his death, and he would be led to a place of execution where no man would want to go (John 21:18). According to tradition, it happened just that way. He was stretched out on a cross, and crucified upside down.
The mode of physical death, however, is of no importance. What matters is the crucifixion of our own self-centeredness, “so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless” (Romans 6:6; cf. Galatians 2:20; Galatians 5:24). Herein is the secret of that love which casts out all fear (1 John 4:7-21).
“Follow me,” Jesus said to Peter. With this the Master moved on, perhaps going to the mount where other believers were waiting for Him, at which time He would give them the Great Commission to go and disciple all nations (Matthew 28:18-20).
John also started to follow, and noticing Him out of the corner of his eye, Simon asked, “Lord, what about him?” (John 21:21). Would John also meet a martyr’s death? Or would he have it easier?
Jesus turned to Peter, and answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me” (John 21:22). What has John’s situation got to do with your obedience? Whatever happens to your fellow believers, whether they have a more comfortable lot in life is not your problem. Face up to your own responsibility. “You must follow me.”
Isn’t that where the issue rests with us all? Finally each of us must answer for ourselves.
A few years ago I was gripped by the account of those five missionaries who were killed while seeking to make contact with the Auca Indians in Ecuador. What so arrested my attention was an interview a reporter had with the widowed wives. “Why would God permit this to happen?” he asked. “After all, were not the men on an errand of mercy?”
One of the wives, turning to the incredulous man, quietly replied: “Sir, God delivered my husband from the possibility of disobedience.”
That is too reckless, too dangerous, you might say. Yes, it may be. Nevertheless, it is what made the apostolic Christians more than conquerors. Throwing caution to the wind, they lived like those who already reckoned themselves to be dead — dead to sin, dead to the world, but alive unto God. Would that this kind of obedience to Christ characterized the church today!
I read about a little boy who was told by his doctor that he could save his sister’s life by giving her some blood. The six-year-old girl was near death, and her only chance of recovering was a blood transfusion from someone who had previously conquered the illness. Since the two children had the same rare blood type, the boy was the ideal donor.
“Johnny, would you give your blood for Mary?” the doctor asked.
The boy hesitated. His lower lip started to tremble. Then he smiled, and said, “Sure, Doc, I’ll give my blood for my sister.”
Soon the two children were wheeled into the operating room — Mary, pale and thin; Johnny, robust and the picture of health. Neither spoke, but when their eyes met, Johnny grinned.
As his blood siphoned into Mary’s veins, one could almost see new life come into her tired body. The ordeal was almost over when Johnny’s brave little voice broke the silence. “Say, Doc, when do I die?”
It was only then that the doctor realized what that moment of hesitation, that trembling of the lips meant. For little Johnny, in his naivete, actually thought that in giving his blood to his sister he was giving up his life. And in that brief moment he made his great decision.2
In a way, that is the kind of decision we make at the cross. It is a commitment of love unto death. And once made, it is a decision renewed daily as we follow Him.
As you know the command of your Lord, what is your decision? Do you hear Him call your name? “Bud, Jane, Simon son of John, do you truly love me? Then care for my sheep.”
1. Recounted in the story of Vassar’s life, compiled by his nephew, T. E. Vassar, in Uncle John Vassar: or, The Fight of Faith (New York: The American Tract Society, 1879), p. 161.
2. Narrated by Myron L. Morris, M.D., in Coronet, November, 1948; and retold by Robert E. Coleman, The New Covenant, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1984), pp. 31,32.

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