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* Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches. This article is the conclusion of the text of the address given at the commencement exercises of the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary on June 16, 2003. The preceding installments appeared in the July 2003 and September 1, 2003 issues of the Standard Bearer.

So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs….

John 21:15-23

Guarded Against Ministerial Temptations


Not only does love for Jesus move the minister to do the work of a pastor. Undertaking the care of the church in love for Jesus Christ also guards the minister against real and powerful temptations in the work of his office.

First, the indispensable qualification guards against the danger that we love the church and devote ourselves to the welfare of the members simply out of love for people and desire to help people. There are men like this in the ministry. They seem to be model pastors. They are highly regarded by their congregations. But love for Jesus is not part of their ministry. Such a minister keeps peace in the flock at the expense of sound doctrine and obedience to the law. Such a minister is a popular counselor to the “hurting,” because he refuses to expose sin, call for repentance, and insist on a sacrificial change of life. Such a minister is highly thought of as a preacher, because he never preaches anything offensive, always avoids the sharp edges of the Reformed faith, and is invariably positive.

When Jesus put Peter back into office, He did not ask, “Do you love my sheep and my lambs?” but “Do you love me?”


Ministerial Self-Love


Second, the indispensable qualification guards against the real danger that we ministers love and seek ourselves in the ministry. This is a peril that can never sufficiently be recognized and combated by us. The sin is ambition—ambition not in its usual sense of being willing to work hard, but in the sense of a craving to have the preeminence.

Jesus ruled out this crippling weakness in His ministers in four distinct ways in His restoration of Peter in John 21. Obviously, Jesus did not ask, “Lovest thou thyself, so that you can ably and shrewdly make your work in my church advance yourself, your career, and your reputation?”

Also, the first of the three questions about loving Jesus included the comparison, “more than these” (John 21:15): “Peter, do you love me more than these?” Jesus was asking whether Peter still claimed to love Jesus more than the other disciples loved Jesus. That had been Peter’s claim earlier. The night of Jesus’ capture by His enemies Peter said, “Although all shall be offended, yet will not I” (Mark 14:29). “I love you more than they do.”

In his answer to Jesus’ question at his restoration, Peter deliberately ignored the comparison. No longer does he make any such claim. Had he made the claim to love Jesus more than the others, Peter would have disqualified himself from the ministry. There is no place in the ministry for the arrogant attitude of superiority. There is no place for the lust for primacy. Christ is first in the church, and there is no second, or third.

In addition, Jesus nipped in the bud Peter’s unhealthy concern, how John, the beloved disciple, would serve Christ. Having been restored to office and having learned by what death he should glorify God, Peter asked, “What shall this man do?” (John 21:21). Jesus’ answer was, “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me” (John 21:22). This was an important aspect of the restoration of Peter.

These words of Christ give important instruction to us ministers.

It is wrong for ministers to compare the place and work of their colleagues with their own place and work; to resent the gifts and work of another; to be jealous of others; or to hold those with lesser talents and in a less conspicuous position in contempt. All of this betrays self-love.

Christ is sovereign in His arrangement of the service of Him by each of us: “If I will,” He said, “what is that to thee?” “You follow me in your own place and way; leave your colleagues’ service of me up to me.”

And the cure of the ministerial penchant for comparisons is the indispensable qualification: Love for Jesus Christ.

The fourth way in which Christ guarded against crippling ambition in the ministry was His forewarning that in his love for Jesus and in his care of the church Peter would suffer martyrdom: “When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not” (John 21:18). Peter was killed for the sake of Christ, as legend has it, by being crucified upside-down.

I maintain that every faithful minister becomes a martyr by being hated (often within his own congregation), enduring the reproach of Christ, having his name unjustly defamed, suffering loss, and thus losing his earthly life. This is the opposite of seeking and finding one’s earthly life and thus advancing oneself. The minister who loves Jesus does not love his own life unto the death (Rev. 12:11).

In his homilies on John’s gospel, Augustine put it this way:

For what else mean the words, “Lovest thou me? Feed my sheep,” than if it were said, If thou lovest me, think not of feeding thyself, but feed my sheep as mine, and not as thine own; seek my glory in them, and not thine own; my dominion, and not thine; my gain, and not thine; lest thou be found in the fellowship of those who belong to the perilous times, lovers of their own selves.

A Lovely Answer

“Do you love me?”

This question comes to every one of us aspiring or ordained to the office of the ministry.

What is our answer?

Peter’s answer was lovely.

It was lovely not only because he ignored the comparison with the others, not only because he affirmed his love for Jesus, and not only because he consistently used a weaker word for his love for Jesus than Jesus had used in His first two questions.

But his answer was lovely also because he grounded the truthfulness of his affirmation of his love for Jesus, not on the evidence of his own attitude and behavior—his spirituality and his deeds of service—but only on Jesus’ knowledge of Peter’s love.

Mark this well!

Peter’s answer was not, “Yea, Lord; my extraordinary spiritual experiences and my exceptional deeds prove my love, or will prove it.”

But his answer was, “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.”

Three times: “Thou knowest.”

At the very end, as at the beginning, of one’s ministry—a faithful ministry—a minister of the gospel cannot say more than Peter did: “Lord, thou knowest that I love thee.” He cannot say, “Why, of course, I love you: look at all I have done for you.” It is with the work of the ministry—a faithful ministry—as it is with the good works of the believer: the more you examine them, the more you see self-love, imperfect love, lack of love.”

No, at the end of a ministry, and finally when we give account of our ministry—a faithful ministry—to Jesus, the chief shepherd, all we can say is, “Lord, thou knowest that I love thee.”

This is enough.