He said to him again 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, “Shepherd My sheep.”
Scripture calls everyone to lead in one way or another. Mankind was created to have dominion over, subdue, and take charge of God's creation (Gen 1). Parents are to lead their children (Deut 6), husbands are to lead their wives (1 Peter 3), older women are to counsel and lead younger women (Titus 2), and pastors are to lead their churches (1 Tim 3; Titus 1). Whether you are a seminary student or a stay-at-home mom, everyone is exhorted to lead biblically, to fulfill their God-ordained responsibility of leadership.
In secular society, highly-regarded leaders are generally zealous, passionate, and ambitious. They are visionaries with the ability to inspire and motivate others. They have clear, well-defined goals, and they know how to make those goals a reality. Such qualities are all useful, but these descriptions leave out the most crucial component of biblical leadership—service.
Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to appreciate “those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and to esteem them highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess 5:12–13). Elsewhere, Paul adds that the Corinthians were to be in subjection to those who "have devoted themselves for service to the saints” (1 Cor 16:15-16).
Notice the theme here: work, labor, service. It’s because of their service that they are to be followed. The idea of a leader being a servant is more of a gloss in our modern vocabulary. We do lip service to the concept by using terms like "public servants" without fully exemplifying the underlying meaning.
In the gospels, Jesus constantly highlights this issue: leadership is humility displayed through service.
On three different occasions, He repeats that “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9, 10; Luke 22). Good leaders must first become good servants! That’s the point Jesus is making when He says to Peter, “Shepherd My sheep.”
In this scene, Jesus gives three qualifications for leadership:
Jesus is not talking about a love for others in this passage. Love for people in general is undeniably important for ministry leadership, but that is not His focus here. In His conversation with Peter, Jesus asks him three times, "Do you love Me?” The motive and foundation of biblical leadership is a love for God. It must be first and foremost in a leader’s life. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind"(Matt 22:37). Everything flows out of an over-arching love for God. It is the driving force of service for God and His Kingdom. Relationships with people can bring trials, struggles, and unfulfilled expectations, but love for God blunts the sting of the disappointments.
Be an Example
If love for God is the heart and soul of biblical leadership, then example is the conduit. Each time Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love Me?” He immediately exhorts Peter to prove it. “If you love Me, shepherd My sheep.” Peter would have to earn the right to be followed by being an example. And, remarkably, that he does!
- He took the initiative in gathering believers and selecting a replacement for Judas (Acts 1)
- He reiterated the gospel boldly in the face of certain persecution and called others to obey God rather than men (Acts 2–5)
- He left his comfort zone to evangelize cross-culturally (Acts 10), fully aware that criticism would inevitably follow (Acts 11)
- He defended God's holiness (Acts 5, 15)
- He accepted correction when confronted by Paul (Gal 2; 2 Peter 3:15-16)
Holiness is a powerful and crucial partner in the proclamation of the gospel. Peter was a model of servant leadership. He proved his love for Christ by obeying His commandments (John 14:15). His life not only declared the gospel but also exemplified the gospel. As it was with Peter, so it is with us.
Holiness is a powerful and crucial partner in the proclamation of the gospel.
A life of holiness makes the gospel visible, not just audible. An old Puritan saying puts it this way: “Your preaching can pound nails into the boards of men's hearts, but it is your life that will pound them deep."
Die to Self
The mentality of a servant leader must be dying to self. Jesus continues His conversation with Peter by saying, "‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.’ Now this He said signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had spoken this, He said to him, ‘Follow me’” (John 21:18–19). Beginning with “truly, truly,” Jesus emphatically announces Peter’s new ministry trajectory—unexpected dangers, far-reaching responsibilities, and certain martyrdom. Peter would need to sacrifice himself to God’s plan.
True leadership in ministry requires dying to self, doing what God has ordained.
The command is a present imperative. "Keep on following Me.” In other words, “if you truly love Me, you must keep on following Me." When Jesus began His ministry, He called Peter to follow Him, to “become a fisher of men” (Mark 1:17). Here, Jesus expands that summons—a call to sacrifice, self-denial, and unreserved faithfulness and loyalty. About a century ago, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson aptly noted, “Loyalty means nothing unless it has at its heart the absolute principle of self-sacrifice.” That is what Jesus asks of anyone who would follow Him, to humbly say yes to God’s sovereign providence.
Biblical leadership hinges on a servanthood that is motivated by love for God, lived out through humble example, and saturated with a mentality of self-sacrifice. The question this text calls us to answer is, “What kind of leader will you be?”
[Editor's note: This post was originally published in January 2018 and has been updated.]