What Did Jesus Mean When He Said, ‘Take Care of My Sheep’?

A good shepherd is known and trusted by his sheep, provides them with pasture and all they need for their wellbeing, and a good shepherd will protect them from harm to the point of laying down his life for them.

Ed Jarrett
take care of my sheep

After Jesus’ resurrection, he met with his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and had a meal with them. Afterward, he took Peter aside and three times asked Peter if he loved him. Three times Peter answered in the affirmative.

John 21:16: "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."

And all three times Jesus responded with some variation of the command to care for his sheep. What is it that Jesus was telling Peter here? This article will examine Jesus’ commission of Peter recorded in John 21:15-17.

Jesus as the Good Shepherd

Jesus was fond of using analogies that would be familiar to those he spoke to. And the people of his day and place were very familiar with shepherds and sheep.

So, using them as an example of his relationship to his followers would be very illustrative. Much more so than it is now in a time and place where shepherding is much less common.

Jesus’ most extensive use of this analogy of a shepherd and sheep comes in John 10:1-18. Here, Jesus identifies himself as “the good shepherd.” A good shepherd is known and trusted by his sheep, provides them with pasture and all they need for their wellbeing, and the shepherd will protect them from harm to the point of laying down his life for them.

Jesus’ sheep, in this illustration, are those who know and trust him, who listen to his voice, and who follow him where he leads.

Shepherds and Sheep

Shepherding sheep is an unfamiliar practice to many of us in more industrialized parts of the world. The closest we may ever get to sheep is at a petting zoo or wearing wool clothing.

Yet the picture of shepherds and sheep is tightly woven into the scriptures. Probably the most familiar of the psalms is Psalm 23, a psalm picturing a shepherd leading his sheep and providing for them.

Sheep can be roughly divided into two camps. In one camp, you have the wild sheep. These include the Big Horn and Dall Sheep. These sheep live independently of humans and thrive in the wild.

The other camp includes domesticated sheep. There are many different species of domesticated sheep, but what they all have in common is that they need human intervention to thrive.

A shepherd’s role is to provide the needed care for a flock of sheep. The shepherd will protect his flock from predators and thieves. He will ensure that they have access to food and water.

And he will tend to them when they are sick or have strayed from the flock. The shepherd’s life is tightly bound to his sheep. And the sheep are dependent on the shepherd to care for them.

Peter’s Commission

I believe that it is important to understand this passage in John 10 to really grasp what it is that Jesus is telling Peter to do in John 21. In John 10, Peter was one of the sheep that Jesus, as the good shepherd, was caring for.

But Jesus was leaving. And some of those sheep he had cared for would need to take on the role of shepherd. The analogy of shepherd and sheep breaks down here because real sheep never become shepherds. But it is still a useful illustration.

Shortly after this event, recorded in John 21, Jesus had stood trial before the Jewish and then the Roman authorities. During the Jewish portion of the trial Peter also faced a trial, and three times failed, denying that he knew who Jesus was.

Most people see a connection between Peter’s denial of Jesus and what takes place in John 21:15-19. Here, three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Three times Peter affirms that he does.

And three times Jesus then tells him to care for his flock. It seems that Jesus is restoring and commissioning Peter. Despite his failure at Jesus’ trial, he is tasking Peter with a role in the kingdom Jesus was establishing.

"Take Care of My Sheep"

What was it Peter was tasked with doing? It was to feed Jesus’ lambs, the little ones who needed the most care. It was to take care of his sheep, providing for their needs and protection. And it was to feed his sheep, making sure they had a steady diet of good grass and water.

In essence, Jesus was commissioning Peter to take on the role that he himself had been filling for the past three years. Peter was not expected to fully step into Jesus’ place; that was the role of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16).

And the sheep did not become Peter’s flock, they remained Jesus’ sheep. But Peter was called to take care of those sheep for Jesus. He was to become an under-shepherd, caring for the flock of Jesus, the chief shepherd.

And that commission given to Peter 2000 years ago was also given to others in Scripture and continues today. The word that we translate as pastor comes from the Greek word for shepherd.

Our pastors today carry on the commission of Peter, feeding the flock of Jesus. And tightly bound to pastors are teachers (Ephesians 4:11), another role within the flock with some responsibility for feeding the sheep.

I believe the best description of the caring and feeding role of the shepherd for Jesus’ flock comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church. In Ephesians 4:11-16, Paul identifies those given the task of shepherding. And that task is primarily an equipping one: leading the flock to maturity, stability, and fruitfulness.

For further reading: 

Why Was Jesus Called the Good Shepherd?

In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, What Does it Mean That Jesus Leaves the Ninety-Nine?

Who Are the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25?

Why Does the Bible Say “The Lord is My Shepherd” in Psalm 23?

What Does it Mean That Jesus Is Our Advocate?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Alan Currie


Ed Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.


Originally published April 05, 2021.