Feeding the Lambs

Feeding the Lambs

August 19th, 1973 @ 10:50 AM

John 21:15

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.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

John 21:15

8-19-73    10:50 a.m.



On the radio and on television, you are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  This is the pastor bringing the message entitled Feeding the Lambs.  I have switched the evening sermon to the morning sermon and the morning-announced sermon to the evening hour.  In the evening, we are preaching – I am preaching – through the Gospel of John and in the morning through the General Epistles; but because of the presentation of the gifted teachers of our First Baptist Church school whose second year begins in the morning here at our church building – because the presentation of these gifted and dedicated and talented teachers – the sermon in the evening on feeding the lambs was so appropriate that I decided to change it from the evening to this present hour. 

The reading of the text is in the twenty-first chapter of John, verses 15 through 17:


So when they had dined

– It was a breakfast.  When they’d eaten breakfast –

Jesus saith to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of Jonah, 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."

He saith to him again the second time, "Simon, son of Jonah, lovest thou Me?"  He saith unto Him, "Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee."  He saith unto him, "Feed My sheep."

He saith unto him the third time, "Simon, son of Jonah, lovest thou Me?"  Peter was grieved because He said unto him the third time, "Lovest thou Me?"  And he said unto Him, "Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee."  Jesus saith unto him, "Feed My sheep."

[John 21:15-17] 


As I read the passage, it is very noticeable that there is a contradistinction made between His first mandate, "Feed My lambs," to the second, "Feed My sheep," and the third, "Feed My sheep."

It is very noticeable that the Lord said, "Feed My lambs" [John 21:15] – boskō ta arnia – "Feed My lambs;" then, "Shepherd My sheep" [John 21:16], and again, "Shepherd My sheep" [John 21:16].  And when I look at the passage as John wrote it, I also notice – am impressed – by the word that He uses: boskō ta arnia.  That’s plural – "lambs," arnia, lambs; arnion, singular lamb – but he uses a form of it that is very impressive.  The word for "lamb" is arnas, arnas; but He uses arnion, "little lamb," a diminutive of the word. 

We do that in English.  We take words and then we add a little syllable to it in order to make it diminutive.  For example, we will use the word "book." Book.  Then we will add a syllable – "booklet."  That’s a little book – "book, booklet, little book;" or we will say "river, riverlet" – a little river, a diminutive form of it.  We say "a pig, piglet, little pig, little bitty pig, piglet."  We will say the word "sermon" and then "sermonette."  Nobody’s ever heard one around here, but there is such a word in the language: "sermonette."  We do that.  We take the word and add a syllable to it and make it diminutive. 

Now, the Greek language does the same thing: arnas, lamb; arnion, little lamb; biblos, book, biblion, little book; paidion, pais, paidios, child; paidioria, little child.  So the text here is, "Feed My arnia" – "little lambs, little lambs." 

In reading through the Scriptures, I could not help but notice a like startling word that Paul, by inspiration, writes to his son, Timothy, in the ministry.  Second Timothy, chapter 3, verse 15: "And that from a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus."  Now, looking at that, I would have thought he would have written at least paidios: "And that from a child."  I would have thought he’d have used the word paidios, pais, paidios, but he doesn’t. 

Well, not using the word paidios, "child," I would have thought certainly he would have used the word paidioria, "little child."  But he does not use the word paidioria, "little child."   He uses a word there that is astonishing: "That from a brephos" – b-r-e-p-h-o-s, brephos. "That from a brephos thou hast known the Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation" [2 Timothy 3:15] – a brephos

Now, it’s easy to see the meaning of that word in the first chapter of the Book of Luke.  You have the story of the angel Gabriel sent to Zacharias, the priest, and he says, "Your aged wife Elisabeth will have a child" [Luke 1:13]; and six months later, the same angel Gabriel was sent to a virgin Jewess in Nazareth named Mary and said to her that she would be the mother of a foretold, foreordained child conceived of the Holy Spirit [Luke 1:26-38].  Then the first chapter of Luke says that Mary went to see her cousin Elizabeth [Luke 1:39], and when Mary walked into the door and greeted Elizabeth [Luke 1:41], who was six months pregnant, the Scriptures say that "the brephos in the womb of Elisabeth leaped," [Luke 1:44].  Brephos:  It’s a startling word used here. 

Take again in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke: the angel comes down unto the startled shepherd watchers, says that "This night in the city of Bethlehem there is born unto you a Saviour.  Go to Bethlehem and see for yourself," says the angel [Luke 2:8-11].  "You’ll find a brephos wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger" [Luke 2:12].  And the shepherds made haste and went to the City of David and there found the brephos with Mary and Joseph and the brephos lying in a manger [Luke 2:16].  "And that from a brephos, a babe, thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation" [2 Timothy 3:15].

And the Word of our Lord to the chief apostle, Simon Peter, who was given the keys of the kingdom to open the door to the Jew at Pentecost [Acts 2:1-47], to the Samaritan at Samaria [Acts 8:14-25], and to the Gentile at Caesarea [Acts 10:1-11:18]: the mandate Boskō ta arnia, "Feed My little lambs" [John 21:15], "My little lambs." 

"And that from a brephos" – from a babe – "thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make these wise unto salvation" [2 Timothy 3:15]. 

Just to read it is a startling thing; and naturally you would think, "Is this unique, separate, apart, unusual?"  No.  For as you think through the Word of God, you find that corroborated throughout the experience of the people of the Lord.  For example, the Scriptures say that when Moses came of age, when he was a man, that he chose to suffer affliction with the people of God rather than enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward [Hebrews 11:24-26].

Where did he learn that for he was the son of Pharaoh’s daughter? [Exodus 2:1-10; Acts 7:21; Hebrews 11:24]  He was the Prince of Wales and the apparent heir to the throne.  Yet he chose to suffer with his people rather than the regency, the throneship, of the greatest empire that present world, that then world, knew.  Where’d that come from? 

You have no other intermission of that choice and the background that lay back of it but this: When Amram and Jochebed had that little baby boy [Exodus 6:20; Numbers 26:59; 1 Chronicles 6:3, 23:13] – when he became too old to hide [Acts 7:19-20], they made a little ark, a little basket, and put the child in the basket; and they placed him among the reeds, the flags, the papyri that grew at the edge of the Nile River at a place where Pharaoh’s daughter was accustomed to bathe [Exodus 2:3].  And just beyond, the older sister, twelve years of age – Miriam – hid herself to see what would become of the child [Exodus 2:4].  It would die anyway, and maybe this would save the life.  Pharaoh’s daughter came, saw the little ark bobbling on the bosom of the river.  She sent a maid to fetch it [Exodus 2:5]; and when the ark was brought back and it was opened, she saw a beautiful child, and the child cried and it touched her heart [Exodus 2:6]. 

Then Miriam came – the little sister – and said, "Shall I fetch a nurse for the child?" [Exodus 2:7]  And Pharaoh’s daughter said, "Go" [Exodus 2:8].  And Miriam found the mother of the little baby and brought the mother.  And Pharaoh’s daughter said, "Take this child, and nurse it for me," and Pharaoh’s daughter gave the child into the bosom of the mother of the little baby, Jochebed [Exodus 2:8-9].  And the child nursed from her breast [Exodus 2:9]; and when he was weaned, the child was delivered into the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter [Exodus 2:10]. 

And the Scriptures say that he was learned in all of the arts and wisdom of the Egyptians [Acts 7:22].  He grew up in the science, the cosmogony, the anthropology, all of the arts and culture of that day and that generation; and yet when he became of age, he made a destiny-determining choice suffering with his people rather than to inherit the throne of the pharaohs [Acts 7:23; Hebrews 11:24-26]. 

Where did he learn that:  that he belonged to those people, that he knew the name of the God of those people, slaves under hard taskmasters?  There is no other intimation in the Bible other than that he learned it as a brephos, as a babe nursing in her [Jochebed] arms.  It is remarkable. 

Take again in the story of little Samuel.  When she [his mother Hannah] weaned the little boy, she brought him to old Eli, the pastor of the church at Shiloh, and gave the lad into the hands of the old high priest [1 Samuel 1:24-28].  And the Lord appeared to the boy; and the Scriptures expressly say he was so young, he did not yet know the Word of the Lord.  He was a tiny little boy, but God appeared to him and spoke to him [1 Samuel 3:1-18], and the Scriptures expressly say that it was known in Israel from Dan to Beersheba that he would be a prophet of the Lord [1 Samuel 3:19-20] – a brephos, a tiny child.

Take again Jeremiah.  In the first chapter of Jeremiah, the Lord says to him, "Before thou wast formed in the matrix; and before thou was separated from thy mother’s womb, I ordained thee to be a prophet of God" [Jeremiah 1:5]. 

The Holy Spirit says to Zacharias that his son whom he is to name John [Luke 1:13] – later was known as John the Baptist [Luke 7:20, 7:28, 7:33] – is to be filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb [Luke 1:15]. 

It is not without significance that the Lord Jesus in His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday – when they were shouting: "Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.  Blessed be the Son of David" [Matthew 21:9; Mark 11:9-10; Luke 19:35-38; John 12:11-13] – His enemies crowded around Him and said, "Hush these disciples for they blaspheme" [Matthew 21:15-16a; Luke 19:39]; and the Lord said the prophetic moment of all history is come: "If these were to hold their peace, the very rocks would cry out" [Luke 19:40].  Then He quoted the eighth Psalm: "It is ordained of God that praise should come from the lips of infants and sucklings" [Psalm 8:2; Matthew 21:16] – brephos, brephos, "little children." 

In fact, when you read the Scriptures and look at them closely, you have the impression that the whole Word of God is, "There is a Child.  There is a Child."  In the Old Covenant: "There is a Child coming" [Isaiah 7:14].  In the New Covenant: "He has come" [Matthew 1:18-25].  And in the great apocalyptic Revelation:  Look! He reigns over the whole earth [Revelation 1:1-22:21] – the Child, the Child, the brephos, the brephos, the Babe, the Babe. 

Genesis 3:15: The Seed of the woman shall crush Satan’s head.  In the fifteenth chapter of Genesis when Abraham says to the Lord, "Jehovah, what shall happen, for mine heir is this Eliezer of Damascus?  And I’m old, and my wife is old, and there’s no child born.  There’s no seed of promise" [Genesis 15:2-3].  God took Abraham out to the stars, and said, "Look.  Look.  Can you count them?  Neither can you count the seed that shall come out of thy loins" [Genesis 15:4-5].  Abraham was a hundred years old and his wife Sarah was ninety years old [Genesis 17:17; Romans 4:19], but nothing is too hard for God [Genesis 18:14].  The child, the child, the child is promised. 

Nathan the prophet came before David, and said, "Out of thy loins shall a Son be born who shall sit upon thy throne forever, and of His kingdom there shall be no end" [1 Chronicles 17:11-12], a Child, a Child.  And the matchless prophet Isaiah in court language and poetic imagery said, "Behold, look, a virgin shall be with child" – with child, with child, a brephos – "and His name shall be called ‘God is with us’" [Isaiah 7:14].


And Isaiah lifted up his prophetic voice again and said:


Look, behold, unto us a Child

– a child, a child –

is born, and unto us a Son is given; and the government shall rest upon His shoulder.  And His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. 

Of the increase of His government there shall be no end, upon the throne of His father David . . . to establish it in justice and judgment . . . forever.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform it.

[Isaiah 9:6-7]


A Child, a Child, a Child. 

The New Testament begins just like that.  It begins with the glorious announcement, and the angels said to Joseph:


Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy espoused wife:

– great with child –

that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.

She’ll bring forth a Son, you are to call His name Jesus,

– Joshua, Savior –

for He shall save His people from their sins.

[Matthew 1:20-21]


"And there came wise men from the east" – magi of the Zoroastrian Persian religion – "saying, ‘Where is He that is born King of the Jews?  We’ve seen His star in the East’" [Matthew 2:1-2].  Where’s the Child – the Child, the Child? 

The Gospel of Luke begins like that.  There is to be a child born in the household of Zacharias who hath prepared a way for the coming of the Lord [Luke 1:5-17].  And then to Mary, "You shall be the mother of this prophetic Child" [Luke 1:26-38] – a Child, a Child.  The preaching of the gospel was like that.  Paul writes, "In the fullness of the time, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman" [Galatians 4:4] – a Child, a Child. 

And the great consummation is like that.  In the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse:


And I saw a great wonder in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and her crown made up of twelve stars. 

And she being with child

– a child, a child, a child –

she being with child cried, travailing in pain to be delivered. 

And she brought forth a man Child, a Child who shall rule the nations with a rod of iron.  And He was caught up to God and to the throne.

[Revelation 12:1-2, 5]


The whole revelation is like that: the Child, the Child, the Child. 

Our experience corroborates what we know and have seen and have felt ourselves.  When I was in the seminary in Louisville, I heard Stanley Jones.  I have never been sympathetic with his philoso – with his theology – but he was one of the great missionaries of all time:  spent his life in India; he wrote many books: Christ at the Round Table – those books.  I heard him say before a vast audience in Louisville – I heard him say, "When I was a little boy" – a little, little boy – "When I was a little boy, I saw a picture of a little Indian boy" – not an American Indian, the India of the subcontinent under China.  "I saw a picture of an Indian boy standing by the side of a tiger, and underneath was the question, the caption, `Who will tell me about Jesus?’"

And Stanley Jones says, "As a little boy" – as a little boy, as a small child – "when I looked at the picture of that little Indian lad standing by the tiger, `Who will tell me about Jesus?’" He said, "I answered in my heart, `I will.  I will.’"  And he gave himself to be a missionary when he was a small, small, small child. 

Our destiny, and our life, our nation, the Kingdom of heaven lies in the life of that little Child.  This was written in a day that you’ll recognize.  I quote: "If Christians had ever taken their children as seriously as do the great modern collectivist states, such movements as Nazism and fascism would never have appeared" [author unknown].  If I take that sentence – that quotation – and apply it today, I would add Communism, the modern collectivist faith.  They would never have appeared. 

How do they move those totalitarian collectivist states?  Well, it is as apparent as the daylight itself.  When I was meandering around Russia, every city – there, there, there and everywhere – you’d see the state kindergarten children.  They were hanging onto each other by the coattail, or by the shirttail, or by the belt; and the little kids were marched through the parks and through the streets and all around.  You’d see them for the state takes the child from the time it’s born and trains it and educates it and teaches it.  You see those little kindergarten children everywhere. 

Then after they reach the age of six, they become Octobrists; and from the age of the age of four – from the age of four through nine – they are Octobrists, and they wear a red star.  And then after they reach the age of nine, they become Young Pioneers, and from the age of nine through fourteen, they wear a red kerchief around their neck – a neckerchief.  They are Young Pioneers; and then after they reach the age of fourteen, they belong to the Komsomol; and from age fourteen to twenty-eight, they belong to the Komsomol. 

The state takes the child and trains the child, and they train him in atheism: anti-God, and anti-church, and anti-Christ.  And they succeed:  They have practically swept away religion from the face of the earth in the Communist world.  You have a little handful left – a little handful left. 

When you go to church in those cities such as Leningrad, a city larger than Chicago, there’ll be one Protestant church, Baptist church, on the edge of the city.  There those dear people are practically all of them old, old, old.  Where are the children?  They belong to the kindergarten of the state, or the Octobrist, or the Young Pioneers, or the Komsomol; and they’re brought up in atheism.  They have practically destroyed religion from the face of the earth.  We could almost say with Isaiah, "Had God not left us a remnant," we would have been lost all together [Isaiah 1:9]. 

Don’t go there.  You don’t need to go there.  Look at it here in America.  In a southern city in the Bible Belt – in a southern city, a group of teenagers made a survey, a face-to-face confrontation with their peers.  Now, this isn’t somebody on the outside.  This is a bunch of kids talking to a bunch of kids and making a survey with them, and here’s what they found:


Subject:  Cheating on examination:

Number interviewed: 290 

Number approving cheating on examination: 210 out of 290 if you can get by with it. 


Number interviewed: 1

Number approving: 101 


171 interviewed

142 approving

Using drugs – getting high on drugs: 

182 interviewed

116 approving 

Drinking liquor:

260 interviewed

190 approving.

Sabbath desecration:

190 interviewed

160 approving 

Reading pornography:

159 interviewed

109 approving


You want to know where America is?  You want to know where it’s going?  Look.  Look.  Look!  Where did these high school students get that?  They got that down there, down there.  They didn’t get it in high school.  They’re already in high school.  They got it down there.  The decision is made down there. 

A long time ago when I was able to think, I felt that our religious leaders had this thing of education turned around.  We build these great colleges – and I’m in favor of that – but by the time that child gets to college, he’s formed his character.  He’s formed his opinions.  He’s formed his ideas.  He’s formed everything he’s going to be in life. 

Where did the college come from to begin with?  Our Christian forefathers established them in order to train ministers and then a little later leaders for the church. Mel Carter grew up in Boston – born there, educated there; but Mel Carter, after the 8:15 service said, "You know, I made a study of that in school writing a thesis on it."  And he said, "When you read the charter of Harvard College and when you read the charter of Yale College, the charter reads, ‘This school is founded for the education of minsters.’" 

It was never the fault of our Christian forefathers that we were gonna build great Texas university systems to educate these children.  You can’t do it.  We don’t have the money.  We never would have, never shall have.  It’s a tax-supported program, and we’re not able to do it.  The Christian college was founded for one purpose: to educate the ministry and the Christian leadership of the church. 

Where should the education be?  I’ll tell you exactly where it should be, and I felt that ever since I’ve been old enough to think.  I think our Christian education ought to be down there with that child – right there, right there – right where God says it is.

 "Simon Peter, the prince of My apostles, and the preacher of the Kingdom of God, boskō ta arnia.  Take care of My little lambs" [John 21:15-17] – "My little lambs. My little lambs." 

"And that from a brephos thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, that are able to make thee wise unto salvation" [2 Timothy 3:15].  Right there.

That’s why the dedication of your pastor to that school.  It’s been a dream for thirty years almost – since I’ve been here in Dallas.  It’s been a dream of a lifetime as I gave my life as a child to be a minister of Christ.  And that’s why this Sunday School – needing men, needing men; the little children needing men – that religion is a man’s affair too, needing men, and that all of us as families bring our children up in the love and nurture of the Lord [Ephesians 6:4].

I go back to a story in the [first] chapter of [First] Samuel; and Hannah, when she weaned the child, brought him to the Lord’s house at Shiloh [1 Samuel 1:20-25], and said to Eli, the old pastor, "For this child I prayed.  For this child I prayed.  Therefore now I have lent him" – I have loaned him – "to the Lord all the days of his life" [1 Samuel 1:27-28].  And the next sentence: "And little Samuel worshiped the Lord there at Shiloh" [1 Samuel 1:28].  Just to say it is to see it and to feel it.  Just to say it: "For this child I prayed . . . Now, therefore I have lent him to the Lord all the days of his life.  And he worshiped the Lord there at Shiloh" [1 Samuel 1:27-28]. 

That’s everything of the whole Kingdom of God.  There’s nothing else to be added.  There’s nothing else to be done.  That’s the circumference, the center, the whole outreach of all of it.  That’s the high prerogative and privilege that God has given us in this dear church: freedom to teach the child; freedom to raise the child even in a weekday school.  It is glorious.  It is incumbent. 

We must sing our song of appeal and while we sing it, a family to come, you, a couple to come, you, or just one somebody to come, you, make the decision now; and on the first note of the first stanza, "Here I am, Pastor.  Here I come."  Down one of these stairwells, on this lower floor, in one of these aisles: "Here I am, Pastor.  I’m coming now.  This is my wife.  These are our children.  All of us are coming," or just one you. Make the decision now in your heart; and when we stand to sing, stand up coming down that aisle.  God love you.  God bless you as you respond with your life while we stand and while we sing.




Dr. W.
A. Criswell




I.          Introduction

A.  The word used for

      1.  In definite
contradistinction to "sheep" in 21:16-17

B.  Paul speaking to
Timothy (2 Timothy 3:15)

      1.  Brephos
– "babe" (Luke 1:41, 44, 2:12, 16)


II.         The small child and the Lord

A.  Moses (Hebrews 11:24-25, Exodus 2)

B.  Samuel (1 Samuel 3:20)

C.  Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-8)

D.  John the Baptist (Luke 1:15)

E.  At the triumphal
entry (Matthew 21:26, Psalm 8:2)


III.        The whole Book – a child

A.  A
child coming (Genesis 3:15, 2 Samuel 7:12-16, Genesis
15:1-6, Isaiah 7:14, 9:6-7)

B.  The
birth of a Child (Luke 1, 2, John 1:1, 14,
Galatians 4:4, Revelation 12:1-2, 5)


IV.       Destiny of life in the little child

A.  Stanley Jones called
as a child

B.  The shaping of the
soul, life in education

C.  Our dedication

      1.  Begin with the

      2.  Poem, "The soul
of a child…" (1 Samuel 1:27-28)