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"Feed My Sheep"

By F. M. Perry, 21 September 2002.

  • "(15) So 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, 'Tend My lambs.' (16) He said to him again 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, 'Shepherd My sheep.' (17) 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 all things; You know that I love You.' Jesus said to him, 'Tend My sheep.'" (John 21:15-17, NASB).
The Bible frequently uses earthly things as models or figures of spiritual things. One such figure used all through both the Old and the New Testaments is that of a flock of sheep with its shepherds. The flock of sheep is a figure of God's people and the shepherds are figures of those whom God appoints to feed those sheep, that is, to care for the spiritual needs of God's people.

Jesus used this figure when He spoke to Simon Peter in John 21:15-17 (quoted above). These were parting words from our risen Lord just a little while before He ascended into Heaven. He asked Peter, "Do you love Me?" Peter replied, "Yes, Lord, You know that I love You." "Then feed My sheep," said the Lord. Jesus referred to the sheep as "My sheep!" Jesus is the Great Shepherd of His people. Jesus called upon Peter and the other disciples to take over the feeding and shepherding of His sheep. You see, Jesus, the great Shepherd, has called upon His disciples to serve under Him as shepherds also.

This conversation Jesus had with Peter just before He ascended into Heaven, was the culmination of three and a half years of teaching by Jesus to His disciples, especially the chosen twelve, who had lived closely with Jesus during His ministry. The teaching had to do with service that the disciples were to render after Jesus ascended back into Heaven. And the teaching also had to do with the continual relationship that Jesus would bear to His disciples on earth even after He ascended into Heaven. During His life on earth with His disciples Jesus presented this teaching to them over and over again in figures and types of real life drama.

For an example of the teaching to which I refer let us look at Matthew 14:13-21:

  • "(13) Now when Jesus heard it, He withdrew from there in a boat, to a lonely place by Himself; and when the multitudes heard of this, they followed Him on foot from the cities. (14) And when He went ashore, He saw a great multitude, and felt compassion for them, and healed their sick. (15) And when it was evening, the disciples came to Him, saying, 'The place is desolate, and the time is past; so send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.' (16) But Jesus said to them, 'They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat!' (17) And they said to Him, 'We have here only five loaves and two fish.' (18) And He said, 'Bring them here to Me.' (19) And ordering the multitudes to recline on the grass, He took the five loaves and two fish, and looking up towards Heaven, He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave to the multitudes, (20) and they all ate, and were satisfied. And they picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. (21) And there were about five thousand men who ate, aside from women and children." (Matthew 14:13-21, NASB).
Matthew told of the occasion when the disciples, under the direction of Jesus, miraculously fed more than five thousand people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. The Holy Spirit speaking through the pen of Matthew tells us that Jesus "saw a great multitude and felt compassion for them, and healed their sick." Here we see the Great Shepherd being concerned for His sheep and ministering to their needs. His disciples were there with Him.

Then the Scripture says, "And when it was evening, the disciples came to Him, saying, 'The place is desolate, and the time is already past; so send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.' But Jesus said to them. 'They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat.'" Look here! Jesus said in effect, "Feed My sheep!" "You give them something to eat," He said. In other words, "You feed My sheep." Jesus was using real live drama to teach His disciples how to "feed His sheep."

The lesson here is like a primer, laid out in simple steps. First, the disciples saw a need of the people and Jesus told them to go ahead and do what was necessary to fulfill that need. But the disciples didn't know how to carry out what they considered to be a very impractical request of Jesus. They said to Jesus, "We have here only five loaves and two fish." Reading between the lines, we know pretty well what the disciples were thinking: this thing which Jesus has told us to do is impossible. These people are hungry and need to eat now. We can't feed this entire multitude with these small resources. All we have is what was meant to be a lunch for one boy, five loaves and two fish.

Note carefully what Jesus said next. It is a vital point in the lesson Jesus was teaching His disciples. "But He said, 'Bring them here to Me.'" After the disciples had gathered together all the resources which they could, and had determined it was not enough, the next step called for by Jesus was, "Bring them to Me!" Remember this was done in answer to the request of Jesus, "You give them something to eat."

Was this a senseless request that Jesus had placed upon His disciples? Was it some kind of a joke Jesus was playing? No! The Lord's field of view encompassed many things which were as yet invisible to the disciples. The Lord spoke from the standpoint of the infinite Being who created all things both physical and spiritual. The disciples were as yet limited in their thinking to the physical realm and scarcely aware that they also were part of the vast invisible spiritual realm. The Lord was teaching His disciples step by step who He was, who they were, and the full spiritual meaning of "Feed My sheep."

Let us read on in the Scripture by Matthew. "And ordering the multitudes to recline on the grass, He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up towards Heaven, He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave to the multitudes, and they all ate, and were satisfied. And they picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelves full baskets. And there were about five thousand men who ate, aside from women and children."

Note this. It was by the hands of the disciples that the food was distributed. The Lord had commanded the disciples to "feed the people," and, finally, it was the disciples who gave out the food. But it was at the hands of the Lord that the food was multiplied. It was the Lord who accomplished what, in the sight of the disciples, was a miracle. But Jesus did not give out the food, and in that sense, did not "feed the people." The disciples, with Jesus' help, "fed the people."

Could the disciples have done it without Jesus? No! Jesus was there. He obviously intended to make it possible for them to do what He had commanded them to do. After being given the task, the next step for the disciples was for them to gather up all the resources they had for the assigned task. Nothing was to be held back. They gathered all the resources they had that day.

Then the next step was to bring it all to Jesus. If they had not responded to the command, "Bring them here to Me," would they have been able to "feed the people?" Surely not. For it was really Jesus who fed the multitudes. He only knew how to multiply the resources to make them adequate.

But Jesus soon was going to depart from this world of flesh to dwell again fully in the spiritual realm. His immediate disciples of that day were to remain on earth a little while longer to "feed His sheep," and they needed to be taught how to do it. And the future disciples of Jesus throughout the entire Christian Age needed to be taught through them. Christian disciples, even today, can never expect to "feed His sheep" without the help of Jesus to multiply their resources.

The lesson was taught. The people have a need. Jesus commanded, "You, Christians, fill that need." You gather all the resources you can. They appear inadequate. You take them to Jesus. Jesus multiplies the resources and gives them back to you so that you can do what Jesus commanded you to do. Then, as His vessel, you do it.

Do you think that the disciples understood the lesson that day while they were with Jesus on the shore of the lake. Why no! They did not fully comprehend it. Perhaps they thought, as many people do today, that the Lord desired primarily to impress the people with His love and with a miracle that would assure them that He was the Son of God. Surely, the Lord desired to do that. But did the disciples comprehend that the Lord had performed a drama that day that was to teach them how to carry out the future spiritual task of "feeding His sheep" after He ascended back to Heaven? The next chapters of Matthew indicate that they did not, as yet, fully comprehend the lesson of the "feeding of the five thousand."

Only a short time later, recorded in the very next chapter of Matthew (Matthew 15), Jesus and His disciples were again in a deserted place in the mountains along the shore of the sea of Galilee, and again a great multitude came to Him. Jesus again healed the sick and disabled among them. And then Jesus called His disciples to Him and said,

  • "I feel compassion for the multitude, because they have remained with Me now three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not wish to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way." (Matthew 15:32).
Very soon after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus was again telling His disciples to feed the multitudes before them. One might think that the disciples should at this time know exactly what to do. The procedure had been clearly illustrated in the previous human drama when the five thousand had been fed. But the disciples said,

  • "Where would we get so many loaves in a desolate place to satisfy such a great multitude?" (Matthew 15:33).
They again thought that Jesus was giving them an impossible task to perform. So Jesus, dramatically using the resources at hand and the multitudes themselves, repeated the previous lesson for the benefit of the disciples.

  • "(34) And Jesus said to them, 'How many loaves do you have?' And they said, 'Seven and a few small fish.' (35) And He directed the multitude to sit down on the ground; (36) and He took the seven loaves and the fish; and giving thanks, He broke them and started giving them to the disciples, and the disciples in turn, to the multitudes. (37) And they all ate, and were satisfied, and they picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, seven large baskets full. (38) And those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children." (Matthew 15:34-38, NASB).
Did the disciples learn the lesson this time? No! Not yet! For only a short time later, as recorded in the very next chapter of Matthew (Matthew 16), we read:

  • "(5) And the disciples came to the other side (of the lake) and had forgotten to take bread. (6) And Jesus said to them, 'Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.' (7) And they began to discuss among themselves, saying, 'It is because we took no bread.' (8) But Jesus, aware of this, said, 'You men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves that you have no bread? (9) 'Do you not yet understand or remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you took up? (10) 'Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many large baskets you took up? (11) 'How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.' (12) Then they understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees." (Matthew 16:5-12, NASB).
Here was the beginning of understanding by the disciples. The Lord used figures, models, and even the people themselves as visual aids to teach lessons. But did they yet comprehend that the miraculous feeding of food to great multitudes of people were really lessons about the distribution of the Lord's spiritual food to the population of the earth? No. Not even yet. We see the teaching being continued (in John 21) by Jesus even after His death and resurrection, during the forty days that He remained on earth before His ascension.

In John 21 (quoted at the head of this article) we read of a group consisting of Peter and six others of the disciples who had gone back to fishing. Jesus met them on the shore. They did not expect Him. But from their boat they had recognized Him and they were filled with anticipation. Jesus had prepared a meal for them. It was a meal of loaves and fishes. Loaves and fishes! What memories this must have brought to the minds of the disciples.

And there on that shore Jesus asked Peter, "Do you love Me?" Peter replied, "Yes, Lord. You know that I love You." Jesus replied, "Feed My sheep." What a lesson for shepherd servants! There is a way to feed the Lord's sheep. It is a cooperative way. We work as earthen vessels for the Lord. The Lord is the essential spiritual element of the cooperative effort. We must take what we have to the Lord. What we have is meager indeed: a little knowledge that is often flawed; the little love and compassion which we have absorbed from the Lord's gift; and a few material resources which we always feel are insufficient. But the result can be an outflow of the Lord's own personal resources so that the shepherd servants become vessels to "feed the sheep" of the world.

The Lord spoke to every Christian when He said:

  • "(19) Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, (20) teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the Age." (Matthew 28:19-20, NASB).
Here in the great commission we have all the elements of the task that Jesus was teaching His disciples to perform. The commission is addressed to the shepherd servants, the Christians of the Age. The essential spiritual Agent with all power, the Lord Himself, is to be with the Christians always, even to the end of the Age. In this case the spiritual food, the gospel, is provided by the Lord, and it is more than sufficient to feed all the people of the earth. What is lacking that prevents the multitudes of the earth from having access to the gospel message today?

Aren't there enough Christians willing to accept the challenge of the Lord's great commission? In New Testament days it took only a relatively few disciples to proclaim the gospel "in all creation under heaven." (Colossians 1:23). Is it that the available resources are insufficient to reach the multiplied multitudes, the billions of people in the far reaches of today's world? But even as the population of the spiritually hungry world has multiplied many times since the New Testament days, so have the means of travel and communication been also multiplied. The various types of today's mass media allow communication into homes in every nation of the world. In many respects today's world is effectively "smaller" than the world of the first century. And means of communication are generally more available and effective than ever before in the history of the world.

What then are the impediments to carrying out the Lord's great commission today? The answer we hear coming from many local churches of the United States is not that the possible resources are not available to reach the whole world, but that local funds are not sufficient to afford such world wide outreach. In many cases the meager local funds that might be put forward under the Lord's plan, as "loaves and fishes" for world wide evangelism, are tied up in more selfish local projects deserving of lesser priority.

Is the Lord's first century plan, which He taught to His first century disciples, believed to be unworkable today? Is the Lord unable to multiply meager resources as He did in the first century? Or is it that Christians just haven't tried the plan lately?

Read the primer! Gather all the resources that you have. Hold nothing back. You will think that it isn't enough. But take it to the Lord. Put it in His hands. And what ever He gives back to you, start giving it out to the hungry people. ... I leave the questions for my Christian readers.

With Love, F. M. Perry.

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