Leading by Feeding

Immanuel Nashville | Nashville

Before we look at the text, I want to say a few personal words of thankfulness. Since 1975, when I was ordained in Pasadena, California at Lake Avenue Church, only one document has hung on the wall of my study. This one. I don’t have any problem with any of you, including my son or Ray, who hangs their diplomas on the wall from colleges and high schools. That’s the token of gratitude to God for the schools. It’s a celebration of love and teachers you’ve had. I just wanted to make a statement that God’s call on my life to the gospel ministry, and then the church gathering around through an ordination council to confirm that call, is the ground, the sustaining grace, and the goal of all my academic work.

And so, this is the one thing that’s been on my wall for all those years. That’s one reason I bring it to show it to you. But there’s a more important reason, I think. The first name right on the top of those who signed it is Raymond C. Ortlund Sr. Now, you have to feel the significance of this, the providence of this, and the sweetness of this; the man who shepherded me through seminary and toward ordination had a son, and his son was the founding pastor of this church and became the man who shepherded my son toward ordination. That’s a sweet providence. I want to give public thanks to this Ray and Jani for their significant role in this providence.

What a debt two generations of Pipers owe to two generations of Ortlunds. From me to your dad and from Barnabas to you, it’s really quite incalculable. God is to be praised.

Feed My Sheep

I invite you to turn to John 21:15–19 if you have a Bible or a device where you would like to follow along. Let me tell you the point of the message ahead of time and what I’m going to do with the point, and then you can look for it when we read the text. It will be obvious to you where the point comes from, I think.

The point of this message is that the central work of the pastor is leading by feeding. So, Barnabas, if there’s one phrase you remember 40 years from now when you think back on this message, maybe it will be leading by feeding.

Here’s what I’m going to do with that point. First, I’m going to ask, where does leading by feeding come from? Second, how do you do it? And third, where will it take you? Let’s read it:

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.

Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

The situation is that Jesus is raised from the dead. This is his third appearance. It’s by the Sea of Galilee. He has just performed a miracle by telling them to drop their nets on the other side of the boat, and they gather 153 big fish into a net. They recognize it’s Jesus. Peter dives in and they drag the net to the shore. They have breakfast with Jesus, and then come these questions in John 21:15: “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Then in John 21:16 he says, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Finally, in John 21:17 he says, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Denial and Restoration

Now, just a few weeks earlier in John 13:36–38 on the night of Jesus’s betrayal, there was an exchange between Peter and Jesus:

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.

In other words, I know four things you don’t know Peter. First, you’re going to deny me three times tonight. Second, you don’t love me the way you should. Third, you cannot, therefore, follow me now. Fourth, you will follow me afterward.

I love the sovereignty of Jesus. He is saying, “I know your coming down. I know your coming up. Nothing surprises me. I’ve got this under control here. Your sin is certain, and your forgiveness, your redemption, your serving, your following, and your rock-like role are certain also.” That’s an amazing statement. Here’s the way Luke put it when he recorded it:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again (not if), strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32).

So, Jesus prayed for Peter. He knew the answer. Peter’s faith and love and courage failed, but not utterly. He wasn’t Judas. He was saying to Peter, “You will follow me after. Yes, you will. And when you have turned, strengthen your brothers. The reason you’re going to have the strength to strengthen your brothers and do the work I call you to do is that you’re going to love me then.”

The Words of Eternal Life

So, here we are beside the sea. Three questions corresponding to three denials. Peter had said, “I deny you. I deny you. I deny you,” and then, “I love you. I love you. I love you.” And Jesus responds three times, “Feed my lambs. Shepherd my sheep. Feed my sheep.” In John 14, he said three statements about love and obedience:

  • If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).

*Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he is who loves me (John 14:21).

  • If anyone loves me, he will keep my word (John 14:23).

And now he applies that to Peter right here in this situation and his shepherding obedience. He says, “Feed them. Feed them.” And that call to feed the sheep interprets the shepherding. He says feed, shepherd, and feed. So, what does he mean by shepherd the people? He means feed them. And what should he feed them with?

  • I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me shall not hunger (John 6:35).

  • If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever (John 6:51).

  • Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life (John 6:54).

Now, that last statement was so bizarre, commending cannibalism, that the people just left. They thought, “He’s crazy!” John 6:66 says, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him,” even though Jesus had clarified what he meant in John 6:63:

It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

He is saying, “It’s the words. Don’t leave me. I don’t mean cannibalism. It’s the words. If you want to have the life that I give, feed on my words. My words are spirit and life.” So, when we come to John 21 and we hear him say, “Feed my sheep,” we understand he means, “Feed them with my word. I am the life giving nutrition that they will receive through the fullness of you feeding them with my word.”

My Sheep Hear My Voice

Now, if you’re tracking with me, you should ask at this point: “You said the main point of the text and the message was leading by feeding. You haven’t said anything yet about leading. Are you done with the text?"

My question is, what happens when you feed sheep well with the words of Jesus? I’ll read you what happens. It’s in John 10, and it goes like this:

The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow…for they do not know the voice of strangers…And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice (John 10:3–5, 16).

Faithful shepherds are so relentless in feeding with the word of Christ, that true sheep hear, they taste the food of the word and they follow that shepherd. And Barnabas, it’s the only kind of following you want. You don’t want non-sheep following you. Now, if the main point is the central work of a pastor is to lead by feeding, where does it come from? Where does a pastor get that capacity? And how does he do it? And where does it lead him?

1. Where does it come from?

It’s right here in the text. Everybody sees it. It comes from loving Jesus. He says, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Do you love me? Shepherd my sheep. Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” It’s just clear. It’s unmistakable. You don’t need any high level education to see that. Love for Jesus overflows in feeding the flock with the words of Jesus. That’s what lovers of Jesus do; they feed people with the words of Jesus.

Now, I’ve got to clarify something here. Don’t jump to the conclusion that loving Jesus means obeying Jesus. It doesn’t mean obeying Jesus; it’s the cause of obeying Jesus. That’s important. John 14:15 says:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

I have had so many people argue that loving Jesus is obedience. It’s not is; it results in obedience. They’re not the same thing. That’s going to be very important in the second service. That’s another sermon.

Loving Jesus means receiving the bread, drinking of the living water and saying, “That’s really good. I am satisfied with that bread and that water. I am in love with that bread and that water.” That’s love to Jesus. He said:

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

When he asks, “Peter, do you love me? Do you love me?” he means, “Peter, do you value me as all-satisfying bread? Do you value me as all-satisfying living water? Am I your soul’s treasure?” That’s what loving Jesus is.

So, the first and greatest battle in the ministry, Barnabas, is to love Jesus. It’s a battle to love him more than money, more than fame, more than success in the ministry, more than family, and more than life. The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life (Psalm 63:3). Give yourself to the greatest task every day. Feed on Jesus to your soul’s satisfaction. That’s where leading by feeding comes from for all of us.

This is an ordination message, so I’m thinking mainly of Barnabas, my son, but every one of you leads in some capacity. You lead a family. You lead a small group. You lead a friend to Christ. Everybody is a leader at some level, and therefore this message is for every believer.

2. How do you do it?

I’m not thinking mainly of preaching here, though its implications for preaching are massive. Leading by feeding happens, or not, everywhere you open your mouth and everywhere you put your fingers on a keyboard with an email or a blog or a tweet. The fulcrum is feeding. Am I feeding? Am I leading by feeding?

Barnabas, you’re going to be called upon to counsel people in an amazing array of issues. It’s beyond your imagination right now how bizarre and complicated they’re going to be. You’re going to be called to stand beside some dying saints with their family all around you, expecting you to speak words of inestimable preciousness.

You’re going to speak at weddings, banquets, conferences, school chapels, small groups, staff meetings, family devotions, and gospel encounters on the street. You’re going to write books, blogs, tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts, and who knows what other technologies that may develop in the next 40 years. Every time you open your mouth, you will lead somebody somewhere. Every time you write something or say something, you will feed and lead, or not.

This is why I said a moment ago that the only following you want are the sheep. Some shepherds try to get a following. They try to grow a church. They try to lead a movement by being trendy in the way they dress, clever in the way they talk, culturally cool in their references to the latest movie, sharp in their organizational skills, stirring with their emotional stories, relationally manipulative with flattery, impressive with rationality, overwhelming with the force of their personality, and shrewd in their branding. When those methods of leading succeed, and they do, the church grows and the followers increase, but not with the sheep.

My sheep hear my voice…and they follow me (John 10:27).

They’re hungry, Barnabas. They’re scattered. Jesus said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold” (John 10:16). They’re everywhere. You can’t see them. They’re dead in sin right now. They don’t look like followers of Jesus yet. But in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the voice of Jesus, they awaken.

Shrewd leadership, in order to grow churches other ways than the feeding with the word, succeed to our own destruction. Be so saturated with the word of Christ that every time you open your mouth in a small group, staff meeting, counseling session, or a sermon, God’s people feel fed.

Let the Shepherd’s Voice Be Heard

Let me give you a personal story. I led a church for 33 years as a pastor. They called me the lead pastor for preaching and vision. I sat with 40 elders at the end, and for years and years we had 20 to 40 elders. I was never the chairman of the eldership, but I led the elders. How do you do that? How do you lead the elders in a church if you’re not the chairman of the elders? It’s not by politics. I tried not to lead with political maneuvering. I tried not to lead by threats. I tried not to lead by self-pitying in innuendos, though I think I would be good at that; such as saying things like, “Oh, the burdens are so great. You men just don’t understand. You should go along with what I say because the burdens just so great.” It takes one to know one, right? I hate that. I also tried not to curry favor by taking people out to lunch or creating factions. So how did I do it?

I’ll put it in a little testimony. We were coming to the end of an elders’ meeting one night and Tim Johnson, after a rousing discussion, looked up at the elders and he says, “Pastor John is a teaching machine.” What did he mean by that? I was just sitting there as one of the elders. What he meant was, “Pastor John walks into these meetings every three weeks with a relentless orientation on the word of God, and with explanations of texts that relate to the issues at hand.”

I’ll tell you what, if you bring Bible verses to bear with true, contextually accurate interpretation relating to the issues at hand, you lead sheep and elders. The man who knows his Bible best applies it best, winsomely and humbly. It doesn’t matter what rank he holds. It doesn’t matter what office he holds. Eyes turn.

I could name one or two other elders that we had over the years that stopped my mouth with biblical texts. My way didn’t win because he understood the text better. Oh, that was wonderful. It was wonderful to know that elders had been raised up that could put my mouth to silence by the word of God.

So, Barnabas, when you set your heart to lead God’s people into faith, hope, love, righteousness, justice, mercy, missions, courage, strength, and Christ-exalting joy, remember this: In the next 40 years of your ministry, a hundred winds are going to blow with every one of them carrying a new idea about how to lead the church. It will be very discouraging to read those magazines and those blogs. You will think, “Oh no, here comes another idea that I have to deal with.” They’re going to blow over your life relentlessly for the next 40 years. One thing will not change. It will be as true in 2061 as it is today:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

You don’t want any other following, so let his voice be heard in every staff meeting, every devotion, every chapel, every conference, every sermon, and every conversation.

3. Where does that lead?

Where does leading by feeding lead? Let’s read what he says in John 21:18–19:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (this he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God). And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Remember that just weeks before this Peter had said, “Lord, why cannot I follow you now? I’ll lay down my life for you” (John 13:17), and Jesus replied, “You’re not going to follow me now. You’re not ready. You don’t love me as you ought. You don’t have the courage to do what you say you’re going to do. But you will follow me afterward.” But now he is saying to him, “You’re ready. I mean it, Peter. You’re going to follow me all the way down. You’re going to be crucified. That’s why I’m testing you.” With that, every romantic notion of leadership evaporates. Maybe you thought it was going to be cool — a big following, a big church, and lot’s of great music. It meant crucifixion for Peter.

So, I don’t know, Barnabas, whether the Lord will call you or me to martyrdom. In a sense, that particular detail is not the main point. John 21:19 points to the main point. Jesus said this to show by what kind of death Peter would glorify God. Living and dying to the glory of God, that’s the point. That’s where leading by feeding leads. If we feed on Christ daily and find our deepest joy in him, and if what comes from that overflows in feeding others, God will be glorified, whether we live or whether we die.

So, there’s no better way, Barnabas, than leading by feeding. There’s no better way to get ready to live fruitfully and to get ready to die than to lead by feeding.