Who is responsible for a Christian’s spiritual health—for his or her growth in the faith, in understanding the Scriptures, and progressive increase in personal holiness?
The answer might seem obvious. It’s you, right? If you’re a Christian, you need to take ownership of your growth in understanding the Scriptures and pursuit of holiness in Christ.
But is it your responsibility alone?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a pastor say something like this:
“It’s not my job to feed you—you need to feed yourself.”
And, if I had to be honest, nearly every time I’ve heard it, it’s made my skin crawl.
Why? Well, consider John 21:15-17 with me:
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 ESV)
In this passage, the restoration of Peter, Jesus asks him three times:
“Peter, do you love me? Do you love me more than these other men? Do you love me?”
Just as Peter denied Jesus three times, so three times Jesus asks this question. And each time, Peter responds “Lord, you know that I love you.”
Now look at the response that this love brings. Three times, Jesus gives Peter this command:
Feed My lambs.
Tend My sheep.
Feed My sheep.
This command is so imperative that Jesus gave it three times in response to Peter’s profession of love—so what does He mean?
At the risk of being obvious, Jesus means exactly what He says: “Feed My sheep.”
In other words, what He is saying to Peter is that if he is going to be Jesus’ undershepherd, if he is going to be a pastor, then he must care for the needs of the people that Jesus has given him charge over—and that means, first and foremost, that he must direct them to the “green pastures” of the Word of God.
And this call applies to all men who have been given the duty of pastoring Christ’s flock.
There are a couple of ways you can take the phrase, “you need to feed yourself.” It can rightly point to each individual’s need to be proactive in their spiritual health and wellbeing. Some, when using this phrase, point to resources to help them grow—good books, good commentaries, good podcasts that offer additional teaching and insights. And if that’s all that’s meant by it, great.
However, my concern with telling the sheep they need to feed themselves is that it comes across as a cover for laziness on the part of the preacher, perhaps because (in my experience) those who most frequently say it rarely preach from the Scriptures with any consistency.
John 21:15-17 does not allow those of us who have been given the privilege of serving in the role of a preacher or pastor to be relieved of the responsibility of feeding Christ’s sheep. The simple truth is that while we all do need to take responsibility as individuals for our growth, many, particularly those who are new in the faith, don’t have the foggiest idea where to begin. They need to be led to “green pastures.” They need to be shown that the depths of the Word of God are limitless.
That’s what good preaching does—and that’s what Christ’s sheep need if they are to grow and mature in holiness. As R.C. Sproul puts it well in his commentary on this passage:
When the sheep of Christ are fed, nurtured, and filled with the strength of Christ and of His word, they become a mighty army turned loose on the world. Babies have almost no influence in a culture. Before they can turn the world upside down, they have to grow up, they have to become mature, and that happens as they are fed the Word of God. Nothing less will do.
Sheep need the nourishing “food” of the Word of God if they are to grow. Pastors, are you feeding your sheep or starving them?