Teacher’s Overview of Lifeway’s “Explore the Bible” lesson: John 21:15-23 “Do You Love Me?”

A brief overview for Sunday School teachers & Bible study leaders, of Lifeway’s “Explore the Bible” lesson of John 21:15-23, “Do You Love Me?” for Sunday, May 28, 2023.

(A video version of this overview is available on YouTube at:

INTRO:  POST FACEBOOK QUOTE:  “People don’t always say: ‘I love you.’ Sometimes it sounds like: ‘Be safe. Did you eat? Call me when you get home. I made you this.’”

I would ask my group: ??? What do you think about this quote???

Then after you hear everyone’s response, ask: ??? Besides saying “I love you,” what is something that somebody said or did for you, that showed you that they loved you???

(For example: when Cheryl & I were sick for about 10 days a couple of weeks ago, James Peterson, one of our deacons, showed up one morning and mowed & weedeated our whole lawn for us. He never SAID “I love you” that day — but he sure showed it!!)

You/your group can share examples like that for a while.

Then I’d say:  In today’s passage, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him — but then He asks him to SHOW it with his life! He asks US to do the same thing too! Let’s look at what Jesus had to say to Peter — and to US, here in John 21 this morning:


Last week we saw how Jesus appeared to His disciples twice in the room where they had gathered, on the first day of the week, Sunday. Now in John 21 He appears to them again, as they went out fishing. The first part of the chapter tells how they caught nothing, but Jesus tells them to let down the net on the other side, and they did, and it was full of fish (153 fish, :11 says; this is just one of those details that shows this is real) So Peter says “It is the Lord!”, and jumped into the water to swim to shore. The rest of the disciples came the traditional way, in the boat, and brought the fish. Jesus already had a meal prepared for them, :9 says. (As you may remember, Luke 24 says that the resurrected Jesus also ate broiled fish, thus dispelling the myth that “Jesus was a vegetarian”!) 

In :15 they have finished breakfast, and Jesus begins to talk to Peter. This is where our focus passage for this week picks up, as we wrap up our last lesson in this study of the Book of John.


I. The Test of Love (:15-17)

II. The Cost of Following (:18-19)

III. The Personal Focus (:20-23)

I. The Test of Love (:15-17)

Verse 15 says after they finished breakfast, Jesus asked 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, “Tend My lambs.” 

This exchange is basically repeated three times, with a couple of little “twists” in the original Greek language of the verses:

ONE is the use of the word “love.”

— When Jesus first asked Peter “Do you LOVE Me?” He used the word “agapao” (from “agape”). Interestingly, when Peter said “You know that I LOVE you,” he did NOT respond with “agape,” but with “Philo” (from phileo, “brotherly love.”)

— The second time He asked “agapas Me” (from “agape”) and Peter answered again “Philo”, from “Phileo.”

So both of these first two were identical in language.


This time Jesus changed to Peter’s language: “Phileis” (from phileo, brotherly love) me? And again Peter answered Him, “You know I love You (again, Philo, from “phileo.”) 

So the change in language here is dramatic.

Now, I know that SOME Greek scholars say that the different words for “love” in Greek are not as dramatically different as what they are sometimes made out to be; that “agape” and “phileo” can be used more interchangeably than what we often realize. I understand this. BUT I also believe that the way these words are used here CANNOT be just “coincidental”: that Jesus starts with one word, and Peter used a different one to respond (why would he do that? Why wouldn’t he just respond with the same word Jesus originally used?) And then Jesus finally used Peter’s “lesser” word … to me that’s all just too much to be of no significance. I DO believe there must be significance in meaning. Words mean something. And these words, and they way that they are used, mean something. What exactly that change of language MEANS, is for us to interpret. But to me it is too striking to mean nothing. It means something. 

I think Peter is reluctant to use “agape,” the highest word for love, when he knows he’s denied Jesus three times! In real life, he did NOT lay down his life for Jesus; how can he say he loved Him with agape love?! 

But then Jesus really confronts Peter by going ahead and using his “phileo” language: “Do you even love Me like THAT?”

It’s very strong, very meaningful. It obviously meant something very strong to PETER, because 

:17 says “Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, ‘Do you love (phileo) Me?”

??? WHY do you think Peter was “grieved” when Jesus asked this the third time???

(— Because it might have seemed to him that Jesus didn’t believe him, that he kept asking … like, “Why do you keep asking; didn’t you believe me the first time?”

— Then again, it is likely that the significance of being asked THREE times, when he had DENIED Jesus three time, sunk in. 

“Three times I denied Him; now three times He’s asking if I love Him.” Very likely, all his denial came right back home to him. 

??? If Jesus WAS purposefully bringing up the denial, which most believe He was, WHY do you think He would do that???

(He was making Peter face up to what he had done. He can’t just “paper over it” like it never happened. It DID happen, and it was a big deal. It was a great sin. So he makes him confront it. Jesus can forgive it; He can forgive ANY sin if we will bring it to Him. But He won’t just “pass over it” as if it didn’t happen. He makes us own up to it, and repent of it. That’s what He appears to do with Peter here: I know what you did; are you willing to repent of that and recommit your life to Me? And to his credit, Peter did. He re-affirmed his love for Jesus three times, and recommitted his life to follow Him until death, which he did ….)

A SECOND “twist” in the language has to do with the commands Jesus gave Peter to care for His sheep. It’s interesting that Jesus said it a slightly different way each time:

— “Tend My lambs” (Literally “boske”, from “bosko,” “feed the lambs My”.)

— “Shepherd My sheep” (“poimaine” literally “shepherd,” we get our word “pastor” from it. “ta probata” “sheep” MY)

— “Tend My sheep” (“boske ta probata” “feed the sheep” MY)

So the language is different; though the basic message appears to be the same: “Feed, shepherd, feed” My “lambs, sheep, sheep”) 

The POINT though, that Jesus appears to be making is, don’t just SAY that you love Me, SHOW it!

And HOW does Jesus want him to show it? By feeding/shepherding His sheep!

There is some real application for us here!

Peter WOULD indeed go on to shepherd Jesus’ sheep. He would minister to God’s sheep through a minstry of preaching, and teaching, and writing New Testament letters. He DID show that he loved Jesus by “feeding/pastoring” His sheep

Can WE do the same thing today? Absolutely!

— We can pastor (literally “poimen” is “shepherd, pastor” just like Jesus said here.

— Here’s some application for YOU as a Sunday school teacher: you are “shepherding” your little “flock” and “feeding” them the word, just like Jesus said. You are showing your love for Him by feeding His sheep! Talk about giving you a vision for ministry! 

— And you can encourage others in your group to have this ministry; maybe God is calling one or more from your group to teach adults, or youth, or children. Don’t hinder that; encourage it! Call them to serve the Lord by feeding His sheep. Have them talk to you, or your pastor, or SS director, if they are interested. But one of the best ministries you can have — and one of the best signs that you are successful in your discipling in your class, is that God would raise up and multiply teachers and classes out of your class. And this would be a great place in scripture to encourage those who are called to it, to respond. 

— Some may not become “Sunday school teachers” per se, but might serve as a class care group leader, contacting absent or hurting members; or by serving as a deacon in the church, caring for widows or homebound; or in other caring capacities that your church has available.

— But whether they become “official” teachers or deacons or not, ALL of your class members can help “feed His sheep” by teaching their own children, and grandchildren; by “tending” to homebound and sick people in your church and in your community. 

??? You might ask your group to chip in with ideas: “What are some other ways that we can “feed/tend/care” for Jesus’ sheep/people???

Then after we’ve shared some of those possibilities, I’d make the point that in SOME way, Jesus wants us all to CARE FOR HIS SHEEP!  If you love Him, SHOW it by caring for His sheep. He has gifted us in different ways to do that, and there are many ways to do it, like we just discussed — but we each need to do it somehow, with the particular gifts He has given you. Jesus wants you to show your love for Him, by loving the people He loves. “Feed/care for His sheep.”  

II. The Cost of Following (:18-19)

But serving Jesus like He was asking Peter (and US) to do is not without its costs. Jesus now tells Peter something of what it was going to COST him to follow Him. He said “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.” 

That’s a picture of being “handcuffed,” basically, and taken off to suffer and die. Which would actually come to pass. History tells us that Peter was indeed imprisoned, and eventually crucified for his faith, when he was older, and serving as a pastor in Rome.

So :19 says, “Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he (Peter) would glorify God.” 

So being imprisoned is a cost of serving Jesus. Possibly being put to death is a cost of serving Him. That is what Jesus said was going to happen to Peter.

??? Can you think of other things that it might COST us to serve/minister for Jesus?

(It costs us time; maybe cost us doing something we don’t “feel” like doing; it may cost the good opinion of others; it can cost us money as we give/help others; there are also costs involved in a heart that cares for people. When you really care for people, then you have a constant burden for them; you hurt with them; sometimes you get betrayed and disappointed by others; that is a cost. It can cost your health.

There are ALL KINDS of costs that can be associated with following Jesus and serving His sheep.  You & your group can think of many. But I would just emphasize: we need to be aware that there may be costs — we need to go into it with our eyes open — but we also need to be willing to PAY those costs to follow Jesus. It costs, but it is worth it, and we should be willing to do it. 

III. The Personal Focus (:20-23)

To me this last section is such a classic exchange. After Jesus tells Peter what he was going to have to suffer, :20 says Peter turns around and sees “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John) and he asks in :21, “Lord, what about THIS man?”  He’s like, so I am going to have to suffer and die, what about HIM? 

We see this in kids all the time. You tell one child something hard you want them to do, and what do they say: “Well what does JOEY have to do?”

That is basically what Peter was saying here: So I am going to be imprisoned and die? What about John? What is HE going to have to do? 

And Jesus’ response in :22 is SO instructive to us: “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? YOU follow Me!”

This is SUCH a good word for us. Don’t compare yourself with others. Don’t compare God’s plan for YOU with what He has for someone else. Don’t worry about what He’s giving to them, or doing with them, or anything else. Everything may not seem “fair” to you — but that doesn’t matter. God is the Potter, and we are the clay. He has the right to do with any of us just what He desires. God has different plans for His different people, and they are not all the same, and they are not always “fair.” We see a lot of examples of this:

— why does one of His servants have perfect health, and another suffer with poor health their whole life?

— why does of of His servants die peacefully in their sleep, while another dies in anguish?

— why do some of His servants live very prosperous lives, while others live in poverty?

— why do some of His servants seem to be more blessed in ministry, while others have a smaller or less popular ministry, or seem to always face struggles in their ministries?

It’s so easy — and so much in our nature — to “look over our shoulder” at others of the Lord’s servants and say, “But Lord, what about THIS man?  What about THIS woman? What about THEIR ministry? Why don’t THEY have to suffer? What are You going to make THEM do?”

But Jesus’ answer is so instructive: “If I want him to remain until I 

come, what is that to you? YOU follow me.”

In other words, don’t worry about what I am having anyone else do or NOT do; YOU just take care of what I am asking YOU to do. Everything is not always going to appear “equal” or “fair” to us — but we need to remember, we aren’t God. We can’t know why God has one plan for one person, and a different one for another. Often they are strikingly different.

Take for example John himself, whom Peter was referring to. John’s brother James was the first Christian martyr, put to death by the sword by Herod. But his brother, John, evidenlty lived to his 90s, leading many to believe, as this passage said, that he wouldn’t die until the Lord returned. Why was one brother killed young, and the other lived to almost 100? We can’t know that! 

As Romans 9:20 says, the clay can’t say to the Potter, “Why did you make me like this?” We aren’t God; we don’t have His wisdom or perspective — and we don’t know what different rewards He has for us all in glory. We just need to trust Him. Just like Jesus said here: “What is that to you; YOU FOLLOW ME!”

This is such a good word for so many of God’s people. Whether they’d ever say it or not, some of your group members may be thinking: Why do I have it so hard, while others do not? Why don’t I have what others have? What about them? Just remind them of Jesus’ words here: what are they to you? “YOU follow Me.” You aren’t accountable for what anyone else does. You are accountable to God. YOU just follow Him! Serve Him to the best of your ability, and do what He’s asked you to do. And as this passage today shows us, He asks us not just to SAY that we love Him, but to SHOW it by our service for His people. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. YOU just follow Him — and you will have your own reward with Him. You just follow Him!

You might consider using the words of the hymn to close, or at some other point in the lesson:

“I love Thee, I love Thee, I love Thee my Lord.

I love Thee my Savior, I love Thee my God.

I love Thee I love Thee, and that Thou dost know.

But how much I love Thee, my ACTIONS will show”! 

Let’s show Him by our actions that we really love Him, and feed His sheep as He gifts and directs us to do. 


— Remember if you’ll type your email in blank under: “Follow Blog Via email,” WordPress will automatically send you next week’s overview and you won’t have to search for it.

— And if you write something in the Comments below, I’ll be sure to pray for your and your group by name this week, and any specific requests you mention.

Per my licensing agreement with Lifeway:

– These weekly lessons are based on content from Explore the Bible Adult Resources. The presentation is my own and has not been reviewed by Lifeway.

– Lifeway resources are available at: goExploretheBible.com  and: goexplorethebible.com/adults-training

– If you have questions about Explore the Bible resources you may send emails to explorethebible@lifeway.com

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
This entry was posted in Explore the Bible SS lesson overviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Teacher’s Overview of Lifeway’s “Explore the Bible” lesson: John 21:15-23 “Do You Love Me?”

  1. A.B. says:

    Good Morning Bro Shawn! I am a Sunday School teacher in Corbin, KY and I just wanted to thank you for these outlines and such a deeper study of God’s word for us. I really appreciate the time you put into these as resources for others! God Bless you in your ministry and daily.

  2. Sherrie says:

    So helpful to insight to lesson for teaching thank you

  3. Dennis Zmek says:

    Thank you for this was a big for me

  4. Weldon Fallaw says:

    Always get on the Bible runway to teaching the lesson listening and following you.
    Appreciate your ministry and thank God for ministers like you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s