Catholic don’t just use “on this rock” to argue for the papacy. Another argument that was the first pope comes from John 21:15-17:
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.” A second time he said to him, “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.”
For Catholics, the exclusive command to feed Jesus’ sheep clearly signals Peter’s unique role as leader of Jesus’ Church. As in Matthew 16:18-19, where Jesus singles out Peter and makes him the visible foundation of his Church, here Jesus singles out Peter again and makes him the shepherd of his flock—a universal charge that extends to both the young “lambs” (Greek, arnion) and the old “sheep” (Greek, probaton).
But Protestants have comebacks to John 21:15-17 that challenge the Catholic claim.
“The exchange is merely to give Peter the opportunity to make up for the three times he denied Christ.”
Perhaps the most common counter-response given to John 21:15-17 is that Jesus was simply giving Peter an opportunity to repent for his three denials. Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie put it succinctly:
The overall import of the passage in John speaks more to Peter’s weakness and need for restoration than to his unique authority. The reason Peter is singled out for restoration, being asked three times by Jesus . . . was that only Peter denied the Lord three times and so only Peter needed to be restored. Thus, Jesus was not exalting Peter above the other apostles here but bringing him back up to their level (212).
Answering the Comeback
Catholics have no problem with identifying the connection between Peter’s threefold denial and his threefold restoration. It’s highly doubtful that any New Testament scholar would dispute that. The problem is restricting the exchange merely to Peter’s restoration.
One reason is that Peter, as we mentioned above, wasn’t the only apostle to abandon Christ. At the Last Supper, Jesus warned all the apostles that they would desert him, and Matthew 26:56 tells us that they did.
Given that all the apostles abandoned Christ in some way, there must be something more to the exchange between Jesus and Peter in John 21:15-17. That something more is what Peter is being restored to: a unique role of leadership to feed Jesus’ lambs and shepherd his sheep, including the other apostles. The Gospels reveal that Jesus had already given Peter a unique position among the apostles, and now, following his lapse, Peter is being reconfirmed in that position—not merely being brought “back up to their level.” As the scholar Bradford Blaine Jr. writes,
Although the three professions of love do allow him to mitigate some of the damage of the three denials, they function primarily as warrants for the three pastoral responsibilities he receives: feeding lambs, tending sheep, and feeding sheep. I concur with [the Protestant biblical scholar Herman Ridderbos] that “Jesus has sought not so much Peter’s triple retraction of his denial . . . it is rather what awaits Peter in the future that prompts Jesus to reinforce his ties with him as never before” (170).
The presence of the other core disciples when Jesus gives this command underscores the uniqueness of Peter’s role as shepherd. It means that they are included among Jesus’ sheep whom Peter is to pastor.
Another reason why this comeback’s restrictive view is problematic is simply that restoration isn’t really connected with shepherding. Peter’s threefold expression of love for Jesus would havehis restoration without his being then invested with shepherding duties. These duties involve governance and leadership, which the motif of restoration does not require.
The Greek word here for “tend” (poimainō—v.16) suggests the ruling dimension of Peter’s shepherding. Poimainō is used three times in the book of Revelation to refer to Christ ruling with an iron rod as the messianic king (Rev. 2:27, 12:5, 19:15). The Orthodox theologian Veselin Kesich has this to say about poimainō:
The verb poimainein conveys more than boskein. In a figurative sense, poimainein points to the duties and responsibilities of church leaders—protecting, governing, leading, and caring for the people under their charge. Boskein, on the other hand, points to the shepherd’s activities of feeding or tending (43).
“There are other shepherds.”
Similar to one of the above comebacks to Luke 22:31-32, some Protestants—like James White, Todd Baker, and Ron Rhodes—try to undermine a papal interpretation of John 21:15-17 by saying that others have the role of shepherding, too—both apostles and those of lower rank, such as the presbyters in Acts 20:28. If Christ wants others to be shepherds, then Peter’s commission to shepherd Christ’s flock doesn’t make him a unique leader. He’s just one shepherd like the others.
Answering the Comeback
This objection rests on the assumption that if an idea is used for multiple people, then they must be equal with regard to that idea. But this assumption is false. We must consider other relevant details to see if the common idea, in this case the idea of shepherding, applies equally to Peter and the other apostles.
One detail that favors Peter’s unique shepherding role is the fact that Jesus singles him out in the presence of the others. Protestant New Testament scholar David A. deSilva drives home the point nicely:
Peter is the one commissioned to tend the sheep and feed them; the Beloved Disciple [whom the text presents as the author of John’s Gospel] is not given any specific commission or responsibility for the church in that scene or any other (432).
Another detail is that Peter is the only person that Jesus directly and explicitly commissions as shepherd of his sheep. Jesus does commission the other apostles to administer the sacraments and teach, each of which is a shepherding role, but it’s to Peter alone that Jesus gives the explicit role to shepherd his flock. This reveals that among all the shepherds in Jesus’ Church, Peter is unique.
Catholicism does acknowledge that others are shepherds in addition to the pope. All Catholic bishops are shepherds, and that’s why they carry crosiers—shepherd staffs—as a symbol of that office. But clearly, there can be shepherds of greater or lesser authority and jurisdiction, as with any other kind of rule.
Finally, as we noted earlier, Jesus pointedly entrusts all his sheep, both old (sheep) and young (lambs), into Peter’s care. As Lutheran Bible scholar Joachim Jeremias puts it, “only in John 21:15-17, which describes Peter’s appointment as a shepherd by the Risen Lord, does the whole church appear to have been in view as the sphere of activity” (498). Jeremias contrasts Peter’s universal shepherding role with that of presbyters and bishops overseeing local churches, citing 1 Peter 5:7 and Acts 20:28 as evidence.
And so Peter must be the universal shepherd—not just of some sheep, and not just equally with other shepherds, but rather the shepherd of all Jesus’ flock.
This article is excerpted from Karlo Broussard’s new book, Meeting the Protestant Response. For more examples of Protestant comebacks to classic Catholic arguments, and how to overcome them, buy the book today.