John 21:15–17 (NIV)

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."

Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my sheep.

The Bible in our language uses the same word both for lamb and sheep. So at first I didn't have a question about it. But yesterday after I read from an English Bible, I noticed that it uses different words. So I looked on the internet and now I know that a lamb is a young sheep.

This leads me to a conclusion that when Jesus said feed My lambs, it means to feed the "newbie" believers. And when Jesus said feed My sheep, it means to feed the "advanced" believers. And when Jesus said take care of my sheep, it means to take care of both the "newbie" and the "advanced" :).

But that's only my own imagination knowing there is a difference between lamb and sheep. That's why I ask here.

(Also, I know that in one version of the English Bible "Passover lamb" is written - I think all the English Bible versions have "Passover lamb" written too - not "Passover sheep". But I'm not sure though as I haven't read all the verses in the Bible.)

  • I suspect the kind of pastoral care asked for, the kind of love asked about, and the threefold repetitions were all elements Jesus used to reassure Peter of his place in the kingdom, while challenging him about his readiness to assume the responsibility given. But that's another question.
    – Bit Chaser
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 4:13
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  • 1
    Hi karma, I hope you don't mind but I made a few grammar changes to your question to help it read better. Feel free to roll back the changes if you prefer.
    – user6503
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 0:40
  • @Bʀɪᴀɴ, thank you for your grammar correction to my post, Brian.
    – karma
    Commented May 13, 2017 at 3:46

9 Answers 9


Two different words in Greek are definitely used. "Lamb" is indicated by ἀρνίον (arnion), whereas πρόβατον (probaton) indicates "sheep". There is also a difference between "feed" (βόσκω - boskō) and "take care of", or "tend" (ποιμαίνω - poimainō). Your version seems to respect the Greek, but this is not always the case (e.g. KJV).

The reasoning behind Christ's selection of these words is summarized by the Byzantine commentator, Theophylact of Ohrid (11th c.), which seems to be more or less in line with what you surmised:

Note that there is a difference between lambs and sheep, and also between feed and tend. Lambs signify beginners in the faith; sheep, those more mature. Therefore he who loves Christ, and has charge of both lambs and sheep, will feed the lambs, meaning, provide them simple, gentle care suitable for beginners, and will tend the sheep, meaning, apply stricter care for those more mature in faith. But even the more advanced sometimes need gentler care as well, so the Lord instructs His pastors to feed the sheep also.

Explanation of the Gospel of John, p. 309.

  • 5
    This kind of glosses over the other possibilities. It's true there might be some neuance to draw out of the chance in words, but this post doesn't even consider the other possibilities, such as that saying the same thing multiple times different ways can be a way to emphasize the same basic point and make sure they got it. Without so much as mentioning the possibilities this leaves me unconvinced that it's the right answer to this puzzle.
    – Caleb
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 9:37
  • @Caleb - I am following a patristic hermeneutic, so the interpretation given is that that represents, as best we know, how the Church Fathers understand the passage (Theophylact's commentaries are generally summaries of earlier commentaries). You are right, though. As there is a potentially infinite number of hermeneutic approaches, there are an infinite number of ways to interpret the passage.
    – user33515
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 13:44
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    @user33515 There aren't an infinite number of hermeneutical approaches. There may be a lot, but when push comes to shove are only a handful that make any sense at all. Then it comes down to how well the approach has been employed. I wasn't criticizing your implementation of a Patristic hermeneutic so much as noting that since you didn't even mention the other obvious and common interpretations of this much less engage them as to whether they have any merit or not, this answer leaves a lot of room for improvement.
    – Caleb
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 14:43
  • Technically there are an infinite number of hermeneutical approaches, as they can be completely arbitrary. Which ones make sense or do not make sense ultimately depends on one's personal beliefs, even if the beliefs of some may not make sense to others. If the interpretation I proposed is lacking as you suggest, then I would assume that the site will serve its purpose by bringing forth more meaningful answers from others. I did not understand that users are expected to compare alternative interpretations to what they propose. Is this not the case?
    – user33515
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 15:12
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    @user33515 At some point if your hermeneutic is "assign arbitrary meanings" then you might have infinite interpretations but you run out of variations in actual hermeneutical methods pretty fast. In the mean time I it is not a requirement on this site to cover alternative interpretations, but failing to do so (especially in cases where the interpretation you're offering is not the most common or obvious) makes for a weak answer. This is interesting material but I would need to see quite a bit more material before being convinced that it holds the level of merit you assert it does.
    – Caleb
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 15:24

This passage has always troubled me. Jesus doesn't actually say that Peter is forgiven -- directly. Instead, forgive my eccentricity, he seems to be a trifle mildly exasperated. Get over it. That's in the past. You have work to do. Get to it. My death and resurrection erased this problem. I erased your sin with my resurrection, now, get going and don't sit here mired in guilt. FEED MY SHEEP.

  • I think Peter's special commission as the leader of the Apostles is also relevant here (Mt 16:18). Bede (Homilies on the Gospels) and Ambrose (Exposition on Luke) both pointed out that Peter was given the chance here to affirm Christ three times following his three-fold denial earlier.
    – user33515
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 3:14

I just wanted to add to user33515's answer that αρνια "arnia" means not just "lambs" but "small lambs" or "little lambs" (αρνια "arnia" is the plural of αρνιον "arnion").

He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.— More exactly, little lambs.
-Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

he saith unto him, feed my lambs; the younger and more tender part of the flock, weak believers, Christ's little children, newborn babes, the day of small things, which are not to be despised...
-John Gill's Commentary

[...] Upon Peter's reply, Jesus said to him, feed my lambs: "As I shall favour thee so far as still to employ thee as one of my apostles, remember, that the most acceptable way of expressing thy love to me, will be by taking care even of the feeblest of my flock."
-Thomas Coke's Commentary

Jesus is wanting Peter to care for even the smallest of the lambs, as well as the more mature sheep of the fold. So yes, your conclusion that

...when Jesus said feed My lambs, it means to feed the "newbie" believers. And when Jesus said feed My sheep, it means to feed the "advanced" believers. And when Jesus said take care of my sheep, it means to take care of both the "newbie" and the "advanced."

is quite correct. A lamb would be a sheep less than one year old (Britannica / Sheep101 / BrightHubEducation) and would need extra care to help bring it into maturity. But the more mature sheep still need guidance too, which Jesus admonished Peter to also care for.


I have read what I believe to be the entirety of this thread and would like to point out one, if not the only, missing piece that could satisfy the confusion and the hermeneutical bantering. Because Jesus uses two different Greek words for the English word 'love', they should be taken into consideration when determining the context of Jesus' discussion with Peter. In verses 15 & 16 He uses the Greek word agapao or 'agape' to some, and the Greek word 'phileo' in verse 17. So if you follow along in your reading of John 21:15-17 replacing the English word 'love' with it's Greek equivalent as spoken by Jesus, perhaps you'll glean a clearer understanding of His use of 'tend' vs 'feed' and 'lambs' vs 'sheep'. Let's try it with an extremely shortened paraphrase in pursuit of clarity:

(15)Jesus - "Peter, do you agape me?" Peter - "Yes, Lord, you know I phileo you." Jesus - "Tend my lambs" (16)Jesus - "Peter, do you agape me?" Peter - "Yes, Lord, you know I phileo you." Jesus - "Feed my sheep." (17)Jesus - "Ok, Peter, do you phileo me?" Peter - "Yes, Lord, like I've already told you twice before, I phileo you." Jesus - "Then tend my sheep."

So is the message about tending or feeding and lambs or sheep, or does this passage have much more to do with Peter's unwillingness or inability (you choose) to unconditionally 'love' our Lord and yet Jesus still desires to use Peter for His purposes?

I leave you with this quote from GotQuestions.org:

"Agape love does not come naturally to us. Because of our fallen nature, we are incapable of producing such a love. If we are to love as God loves, that love—that agape—can only come from its Source."


The two words are used as metaphors. Lambs, ἀρνία, actually "little" lambs means the Jewish people who have not yet believed or have rejected, Jesus as the Christ. Sheep, πρόβατά, is used as a metaphor for the Jewish people who do believe and accept Jesus as the Christ.

15 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.” (βόσκε τὰ ἀρνία μου) 16 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.” (ποίμαινε τὰ πρόβατά μου) 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 everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep." (βόσκε τὰ πρόβατά μου) (John 21) [ESV]

The passage can be considered by sequence of instructions, by the type of action to be taken, or by type of animal used (metaphorically):

- First: Feed/lambs βόσκε τὰ ἀρνία μου "feed the lambs of me"
- Second: Tend/sheep ποίμαινε τὰ πρόβατά μου "tend the sheep of me"
- Third: Feed/sheep βόσκε τὰ πρόβατά μου "feed the sheep of me"

- βόσκε (feed): my lambs (ἀρνία) and my sheep (πρόβατά)
- ποίμαινε (tend): my sheep (πρόβατά)

- ἀρνία (lambs): feed (βόσκε)
- πρόβατά (sheep): tend (ποίμαινε) and feed (βόσκε)

The first action, "feed" is βόσκε and means to feed or to graze. The second action, "tend" is ποίμαινε (from the root ποιμήν meaning shepherd) and means either to feed, to tend a flock or to rule or govern. The arrangement of the three actions makes sense. First the animals are feed. Then they are tended to, and then they are feed again. In this case, the instructions about the sheep (tend and feed) imply they have already been fed.

While it is logical to see a progression of lambs to sheep, this is not quite consistent with the etymology of ἀρνίον (lamb) which is the diminutive of ἀρήν. Etymologically, one expects a ἀρνίον to become a ἀρήν before being considered to be a ποίμαινε:

 ἀρνίον --------> [ἀρήν] ---> ποίμαινε   
 little lamb ---> lamb -----> sheep

If a relationship between ἀρνίον and ποίμαινε is intended, one must consider ἀρήν has been purposely omitted from the passage. In other words, since the essence of the message is unchanged regardless of which lamb was fed, the choice to use ἀρνίον instead of ἀρήν should be considered purposeful. Two conclusions can be drawn:

  • ἀρνίον was used to give emphasis to "little" lambs 1
  • ἀρνίον was used to avoid caking them ἀρήν

ἀρήν is used once in the New Testament:

Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. (Luke 10:3)

The 72 (disciples) were sent as ἀρήν. If we assume they had been ἀρνίον, that is, diminutive ἀρήν, before becoming disciples, then the metaphoric progression of these specific disciples was:

  1. ἀρνίον - Jewish people in general
  2. ἀρήν - Jewish disciples of Jesus, before the Crucifixion and Resurrection
  3. ποίμαινε - Jewish believers in Jesus as the Christ after the Crucifixion and Resurrection

If this is so, then the three instructions to Peter become:

  1. Feed (that is, evangelize) My little lambs, the Jewish people who rejected Me
  2. Tend (that is, shepherd) My sheep, the Jewish people who believe in Jesus
  3. Feed (that is, encourage) My sheep, the Jewish people who believe in Jesus

From the context, Peter's primary mission is to the Jewish people. He is to preach the Gospel to those who rejected Jesus and tend to and feed (shepherd and encourage) those who do believe.

Essentially, Jesus is rebuking Peter for how he is shepherding the sheep. Instead of preaching the Gospel and encouraging the disciples to be fishers of men (Matthew 4:19, Mark 1:17, Luke 5:10). Peter has gone back to his days as a fisherman (John 21:4). His decision has led six other disciples to follow him. So Jesus tells Peter to get back to work. Preach the Gospel to those Jewish people who heard but do not believe and shepherd and encourage those who do believe.

1. The diminutive could mean size, or age, or simply "lesser." For example, a lamb not chosen to be sacrificed could reasonably be called a ἀρνίον relative to the lamb, ἀρήν, which was chosen, despite being the same age and size.


The only argument that I might have here, Jesus is known as the lamb and not known as the sheep, the lamb is pure, white and he's the only one Worthy, He is the Lamb. So for it to be the little lambs the ones who are just learning in Christianity, doesn't seem to make much sense to me because Jesus knew all , forgive me, knows all. He is not new or a newbie in any way shape or form. So I beg to differ with the notion that lambs mean the newbies, so to speak. Of course this is just my opinion but, common sense as well. I think that it has something to do with, maybe the Jewish people and the gentiles. Being that they are his original people, the Jewish. And that we, the gentiles are his adopted people but yet, his people. Just a suggestion. God bless you

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I'll like to say this, the word 'feed' in VS 15(boskō) and 16(poimainō) is different even though they seem to represent the same thing... But 'boskō' further means 'to keep' while 'poimainō' further means 'to rule'... VS 15:- Keep my young believers Vs16:- Rule my mature ones Vs17:- Keep my mature ones.

Keep them unto maturity and rule them with/through my Love.

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Here's how I'm reading this story:

John 21, NKJV

"Simon Peter said to them, 'I am going fishing.' They said to him, 'We are going with you also.' They went out and immediately got into the boat and that night they caught nothing." (v 3)

Strike one.

Here, we know that Peter initiates the fishing. This sets Peter up to be corrected.

"But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. Then Jesus saith unto them, 'Children, have ye any meat?' They answered him, no." (v 4-5)

Christ is calling them "children," which is unusual since they are men. And since this is the first time they've tried catching fish and they're now being called "children," this sets them up to be called "lambs" in Peter's first correction. "Children, have ye any meat?" = Feed my lambs.

"And he said to them, 'Cast the net on the right side of the boat and you will find some. So they cast and now they were not able to draw it in because of the multitude of fish." (v 6)

Strike two.

This is the second instance. They tried once on their own and once with Christ's help and they still haven't brought fish back to shore. Peter could have gotten out of the boat and plunged into the sea to tend to the nets and to tend to the men by being an example since they weren't working hard enough, but he didn't and they failed to get the fish. Peter didn't: "Tend my sheep."

"Therefore, that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, 'It is The Lord!' Now when Simon Peter heard that it was The Lord, he put on his outer garment (for he had removed it) and plunged into the sea. But the other disciples came in the little boat (for they were not far from land, but about two hundred cubits), dragging the net with fish." (v 7-8)

Third times a charm.

Inspired by Christ, Peter now plunges into the sea. He's working the nets and the men work with him. They are no longer acting like children ('paidion'). He's now able to: "Feed my sheep."

Peter was uninspired when fishing (v 3-6). Christ wasn't there with him (v 3) or he was there but Peter didn't know that he was there (v 4-6). He became inspired when he realized that Christ was there with him (v 7). His attitude changed entirely. Christ is risen (20:14) and Peter knows that he is risen (20:19-23). Christ wants his inspiration when Christ is not around (20:29).


Here in John 21:15 Jesus is speaking directly to Peter an Apostle. He ask Peter if he Peter loved fish more than he loved Him Christ. Peter had to make up his mind that he would follow the demand and commands of Jesus and not resort to fishing for his living.

Still in verse 15 Jesus tells Peter to feed His Lambs. What is or whom are the lambs. A lamb in the Old Testament was used for a sacrifice by the Priest in the Temple. Here in verse 15 these are sacrificial Lambs that Jesus is commanding Peter to feed of give direction and guidance to. Remember that Peter was one of the 3 disciples that was on the enter circle (Peter, James, John). Remember when John the Baptist addressed Jesus as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. The lambs here in verse 15 are the Apostles that followed Christ in His earthly ministry. As Christ was sacrificed for the sin of the world (man kind) the Apostles were every one was martyred for the establishment of the Church for the sake of Christ. So the conclusion is the Lambs in verse 15 are sacrificial lambs of Christ for Christ. God had His Lamb Christ to take away sin and Christ had His lambs (the Apostles) to establish His Church.

Now verses 16 and 17 speaks of the Sheep. In verse 16 the first set of sheep are the Jews. In verse 17 the second set of sheep are the Gentiles.

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