Here’s Peter, roughly two weeks after the resurrection, still getting used to a new, indwelling spirit – except he’s starting to get antsy for something to do, beyond mysticism. He wants a task, he wants a chore, he wants a position. With all his being, Peter still wants to serve as the Lord's loyal consigliore (so to speak). As we soon learn, Jesus wants all of this too. So Peter’s only fault in all this, aside from being confused, is feeling impatient.
And then, all of Peter's longing became focused in one moment, at the beach. Peter hears Jesus say, “Peter, do you love me?” (“Do you really care about me?”) In any language, this naturally implies, will you do something for me? And so Peter knows this is what he’s been itching for. Jesus is about to ask Peter for a personal favor. And Peter, having just lept into the sea with enthusiasm only minutes ago, is way too excited to just answer "yes". So Peter emphatically – in one word – tells the Lord he’s prepared to take on any challenge and he’s ready to finally start working for Him.
Peter says, “You know I phileo you”. This means, “I love you like a friend.” But that thought here is worth a lot more than many have supposed. If God's love in Christ means anything at all, then true friendship to Jesus must be the highest form of love there can be. And so, in effect, with one word, Peter is saying, “Absolutely I love you, Lord. You know I’m your right hand man. Just tell me what you want. Say the word, and I’ll do it. Whatever it is, I'm your guy.”
Taken this way, John 21 still has the sense of restoring Peter to something, just as everyone always thought. Only, it's not a restoration of relationship, but a restoration to service. After two weeks of exploring his new ability to find Jesus Christ in his spirit, Peter didn't need to reconcile with his Lord... he just needed some practical marching orders. Peter isn't admitting he can't measure up and being sheepish about it. Quite the opposite. Peter is expressing his own bold expectations to Jesus.
However... after Peter's response, there is still a tension that builds through the rest of their conversation. So what is that tension all about? As the end of their talk makes abundantly clear, Peter seems to have a somewhat different idea about service than Jesus does.
(To be continued...)