“When, now, they had breakfasted, Jesus said to Simon Peter: ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him: ‘Yes, Lord, you know I have affection for you.’ He said to him: ‘Feed my lambs.’ Again he said to him, a second time: ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him: ‘Yes, Lord, you know I have affection for you.’ He said to him: ‘Shepherd my little sheep.’ He said to him the third time: ‘Simon son of John, do you have affection for me?’ Peter became grieved that he said to him the third time: ‘Do you have affection for me?’ So he said to him: ‘Lord, you know all things; you are aware that I have affection for you.’ Jesus said to him: ‘Feed my little sheep.’”
– John 21:15-17
These words were spoken by Jesus after his resurrection. He had completed his ministry and was now giving his final and farewell instructions to his apostles. To the apostle Peter, Jesus emphasized that feeding, or teaching, his sheep is the way to demonstrate love for him.
In addition to these words to Peter, Jesus spoke to all eleven remaining apostles:
“He said to them: “It does not belong to you to get knowledge of the times or seasons which the Father has placed in his own jurisdiction; but you will receive power when the holy spirit arrives upon you, and you will be witnesses of me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the most distant part of the earth.”
– Acts 1:7-8
And just before he ascended into heaven, he further said to the eleven:
“All authority has been given me in heaven and on the earth. Go therefore and make disciples of people of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit, teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded you. And, look! I am with you all the days until the conclusion of the system of things.”
– Matthew 28:19-20
Jesus had laid upon his apostles a weighty responsibility – to ‘feed his sheep,’ ‘preach the good news of the kingdom’ to the most distant part of the earth and ‘make disciples’ of people of all the nation. But how would the eleven apostles accomplish this ministry? How could this small number, in their limited lifespan, spread the good news of the kingdom across the entire globe? Clearly, they would need help.
From Few To Many
Early in his ministry, Jesus taught practically everyone he met. He was sought after by thousands who were in desperate need of a healing message.
“And Jesus set out on a tour of all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the good news of the kingdom and curing every sort of disease and every sort of infirmity. On seeing the crowds he felt pity for them, because they were skinned and thrown about like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples. ‘Yes, the harvest is great, but the workers are few. Therefore, beg the Master of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest.’”
– Matthew 9:37-38
Additional harvest workers came from the harvest itself. In other words, as the apostles made disciples, these disciples joined in carrying out the ministry. The book of Acts speaks of many such disciples – the 120 disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11); Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 6:1-7:60); Philip the evangelizer (Acts 8:4-8); Saul, who was became the apostle Paul (Acts 9:1-15); Barnabas, Symeon, Lucius and Manaen (Acts 13:1); James, the brother of Jesus (Acts 15:13); John Mark (Acts 15:37); Timothy (Acts 16:1-5); Silas (Acts 16:19-24); Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:1-4); Apollos (Acts 18:24-28); and Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, to name a few. And they included both men and women. (Acts 2:17-18; 5:14; 8:12; 16:12)
By commissioning every disciple to be a preacher and teacher of the good news, Jesus ensured the continued growth and spreading of the good news, such as occurred when persecution broke out in the Jerusalem synagogue. The opponents of the good news could not ‘lop of the head’ and kill the kingdom message. When they stoned Stephen to death and attacked the relatively small group of apostles and disciples, it only served to spread the message further.
“On that day great persecution arose against the congregation that was in Jerusalem; all except the apostles were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. But reverent men carried Stephen to the burial, and they made a great lamentation over him. Saul, though, began to deal outrageously with the congregation. Invading one house after another and, dragging out both men and women, he would turn them over to prison. However, those who had been scattered went through the land declaring the good news of the word.”
– Acts 8:1-4
Because the source of the good news was not centered in, and dependent upon, the apostles, it freely spread and traveled with each disciple as they fled to the ‘most distant part of the earth.’
The fact that all disciples were required to participate in this worldwide feeding program is evident in Paul’s words to the Corinthians:
“But all things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of the reconciliation, namely, that God was by means of Christ reconciling a world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses, and he committed the word of the reconciliation to us. We are therefore ambassadors substituting for Christ, as though God were making entreaty through us. As substitutes for Christ we beg: ‘Become reconciled to God.’”
– 2 Corinthians 5:20
Paul also explained that while we may have different ways of spreading the good news, we are each individually given the same spirit to accomplish our ministry, and each member should be allowed the freedom to carry out the ministry to their fullest potential:
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but there is the same spirit; and there are varieties of ministries, and yet there is the same Lord; and there are varieties of operations, and yet it is the same God who performs all the operations in all persons. But the manifestation of the spirit is given to each one for a beneficial purpose. For example, to one there is given through the spirit speech of wisdom, to another speech of knowledge according to the same spirit, to another faith by the same spirit, to another gifts of healings by that one spirit, to yet another operations of powerful works, to another prophesying, to another discernment of inspired utterances, to another different tongues, and to another interpretation of tongues. But all these operations the one and the same spirit performs, making a distribution to each one respectively just as it wills.”
– 1 Corinthians 12:4-11
He identified the worldwide Christian congregation as the Body of Christ, and explained that no member of the Body can nor should attempt to exclude another member from sharing in the ministry:
“The eye cannot say to the hand: ‘I have no need of you’; or, again, the head [cannot say] to the feet: ‘I have no need of you.’ much rather is it the case that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary, and the parts of the body which we think to be less honorable, these we surround with more abundant honor, and so our unseemly parts have the more abundant comeliness, whereas our comely parts do not need anything. Nevertheless, God compounded the body, giving honor more abundant to the part which had a lack, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the other members suffer with it; or if a member is glorified, all the other members rejoice with it.”
– 1 Corinthians 12:21-26
Yes, the entire Christian congregation has the responsibility of ‘feeding Jesus’ little sheep!’ As he counseled the Hebrews, we all “ought to be teachers.” (Hebrews 5:12-14) But which member speaks for the Body? The head, of course! And that position is already filled by Jesus Christ himself:
“Also, he is before all [other] things and by means of him all [other] things were made to exist, and he is the head of the body, the congregation.”
– Colossians 1:17-18
Doing Business in Jesus’ Absence
Just before Jesus’ arrest and betrayal, he presented various parables to his apostles to prepare them for his departure, and instructing them how to conduct themselves in his absence. One of the parables is called “the Parable of the Faithful and Discreet Slave” (Matthew 24:45-51) and the other is called “the Parable of the Talents.” (Matthew 25:14-30)
In both parables, the master entrusts certain duties to his servants. In the Parable of the Faithful and Discreet Slave, the master entrusted his servants with caring for the household. In the Parable of the Talents, the master entrusted his servants with ‘talents’ (a certain sum of money) according to their individual ability. In both parables, the master left for a time, and later returns for an accounting.
In the Parable of the Faithful and Discreet Slave, the servant who had been faithfully cared for the household was appointed greater household responsibilities. In the Parable of the Talents, the servants who had faithfully done business with the talents, were given even more talents. And in both parables, the servants who abandoned their responsibilities or refused to work for the master’s increase, suffered great loss.
According to Luke’s accounts of this night of parables, the apostle Peter asked Jesus:
“Then Peter said: “Lord, are you saying this illustration to us or also to all?”
– Luke 12:41
And according to Mark’s account of this night of parables, we learn the answer:
“But what I say to you I say to all, Keep on the watch.”
– Mark 13:37
The message of both parables is to faithfully, discreetly and industriously carry out the work Jesus gave each of us to do, namely preaching the good news of the kingdom and feeding the many so as to ‘make disciples of people of all nations.’ This work was to continue until the ‘conclusion of the system of things. (Matthew 28:19-20) We should each individually strive to be faithful and discreet in our kingdom commission.
Beating Our Fellows
In the Parable of the Faithful and Discreet Slave, Jesus tells us that there is a possibility that some among us, who began faithful, will grow weary of waiting for the master’s return and start to ‘beat their fellow slaves.’ Those who fail in this way will be punished with the greatest severity. (Matthew 24:48-49) How can we understand and apply this part of the parable?
We know that we are each commissioned as ambassadors substituting for Christ to carry the good news of the Kingdom to the most distant parts of the earth. We would not want to hinder any of our brothers in carrying out their commission – even if we think they are going about it the wrong way. As long as they are preaching the good news about Jesus, we are to either encourage them or let them be. Remember this experience of the apostle John:
“John said to [Jesus]: ‘Teacher, we saw a certain man expelling demons by the use of your name and we tried to prevent him, because he was not accompanying us.’ But Jesus said: ‘Do not try to prevent him, for there is no one that will do a powerful work on the basis of my name that will quickly be able to revile me; for he that is not against us is for us.”
– Mark 9:38-40
Instead of trying to prevent others from spreading the good news, we should follow the example of Aquila and Priscilla when they encountered the disciple Apollos who was not teaching the good news correctly:
“Now a certain Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, an eloquent man, arrived in Ephesus; and he was well versed in the Scriptures. This [man] had been orally instructed in the way of Jehovah and, as he was aglow with the spirit, he went speaking and teaching with correctness the things about Jesus, but being acquainted with only the baptism of John. And this [man] started to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him into their company and expounded the way of God more correctly to him.”
– Acts 18:24-26
No, we should not ‘beat’ those brothers into submission, or otherwise try to prevent them from teaching. We should instead try to ‘expound the way of God more correctly to them.’ As Paul said:
“Brothers, even though a man takes some false step before he is aware of it, you who have spiritual qualifications try to readjust such a man in a spirit of mildness, as you each keep an eye on yourself, for fear you also may be tempted. Go on carrying the burdens of one another, and thus fulfill the law of the Christ.”
– Galatians 6:1-2
Carrying Our Load
When Jesus’ commissioned his followers to ‘feed his sheep’ by preaching and making disciples of people of all nations, he was not limiting the work to a special group. No, he wanted all of us to have a share in this joyous work. This is what he was pointing to when he counseled:
“You are the light of the world. A city cannot be hid when situated upon a mountain. People light a lamp and set it, not under the measuring basket, but upon the lampstand, and it shines upon all those in the house. Likewise let your light shine before men, that they may see your fine works and give glory to your Father who is in the heavens.”
– Matthew 5:14-16
The apostles understood their responsibility and did not let anyone beat them into abandoning the work, nor frighten them into hiding their light. Remember their encounter with the Sanhedrin — the ‘rulers, the older men and the scribes:’
“Now when they beheld the outspokenness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were men unlettered and ordinary, they got to wondering. And they began to recognize about them that they used to be with Jesus; and as they were looking at the man that had been cured standing with them, they had nothing to say in rebuttal. So they commanded them to go outside the Sanhedrin hall, and they began consulting with one another, saying: ‘What shall we do with these men? Because, for a fact, a noteworthy sign has occurred through them, one manifest to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it.”
– Acts 4:13-16
These ‘older men’ could not refute or rebut anything Peter or John boldly preached. If they could, surely they would have done so! Nor could they discount the value of their ministry. These weakened ‘older men’ had to recognize that the words of these ordinary apostles were having an effect on all who listened to them. But instead of supporting their work, the Sanhedrin took counsel among themselves to suppress these ministers of the good news. Yet even their threats proved impotent:
“‘Nevertheless, in order that it may not be spread abroad further among the people, let us tell them with threats not to speak anymore upon the basis of this name to any man at all.’ With that they called them and charged them, nowhere to make any utterance or to teach upon the basis of the name of Jesus. But in reply Peter and John said to them: ‘Whether it is righteous in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, judge for yourselves. But as for us, we cannot stop speaking about the things we have seen and heard.”
– Acts 4:13-20
These brothers were respectful yet determined to complete their ministry. After being released by the Sanhedrin, they prayed to the Father for strength and continued on in their work. (Acts 4:23-31) The stellar examples of Peter and John should empower and embolden all ministers of the good news to be faithful and discreet in their ministry!
When we look back on the development of the preaching work, we see the importance of each one of us having a part in the feeding work. While it began in the hands of a few, it rapidly spread to the many! Yes, many disciples feeding the people of all nations making many more disciples. Many hands feeding many people. That is how it is done!