Cleopas said that Jesus appeared to Peter on Easter day, so John 21 is not about restoring Peter in his relationship to Jesus. But it is about restoring Peter to a position of serving the Lord. Since Easter night, Peter has been trying to get used to the indwelling spirit of Jesus inside him. But after the last supper, Peter had been excited about his promotion from “servant” to "friend". The friend of a King is a strong right hand man, trusted with great responsibility, and Peter had been very much looking forward to that. So after two weeks or so of ‘practicing the Lord’s presence’ since Easter, Peter’s got to be thinking “This is nice, but when are we gonna DO something and what’s it gonna be?”
We actually can tell he was thinking something along those lines because Peter antsily gets up and goes fishing. He tries to go alone but some disciples manage to keep it a corporate outing. Either way, Peter is just a man looking for something to do, at this point. He’s killing time until the Lord gives him some new orders. And as it turns out, the moment Jesus shows up he gives him a practical command. “Throw your nets…” And Peter gets excited and runs to him through the water. Then Jesus cooks breakfast, and they eat. And Peter knows that Jesus knows everything that's going on inside of him at this moment.
So Jesus says, “Simon son of Jonah, do you love me more than these [fish?]?” It’s a playful question, probably teasing him for leaving Jerusalem, but it’s serious too. There's a point to this question. When Peter says yes, Jesus doesn’t go, “Oh. Okay, good. Cause I just really wanted to know if you did.” He’s not a teenager in courtship. He’s a man on a mission. And “Do you love me” is a set up for asking a favor. (Now, you can believe the word “agapao” may mean “do you care for me” or “do you love me with God’s love”, but either way, it’s a prelude to making some kind of a request.) The point is, Peter knows this. Peter knows Jesus is about to ask him to DO something. And Peter is as excited in this moment as he was when he jumped off the boat.
So Peter says, “Yes Lord, you know I love you.” And the word “phileo” means “I love you like a friend” but this is NOT necessarily less than what “agape” means. In fact, given the context laid out thus far, it is most likely to read Peter as making reference to the speech when Jesus said, “You are my philos if you do what I command. My command is this, agape one another. Greater agape has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his philos.” So in this case, Peter is responding enthusiastically in the affirmative. Reminding the Lord he is his friend is the same as saying, “Whatever you need, you know I’ll do it.”
But then Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.” And Peter doesn’t respond. We don’t know why Peter doesn’t respond, but we know Jesus feels the need to ask again. And the second time it would be natural for Peter to expect a new favor on the second request. But Jesus repeats the same basic command. “Feed my sheep.” And again, Peter doesn’t respond. So Jesus feels the need to ask a third time, but this time the Lord challenges Peter precisely on his confident affirmation to be God’s right hand man. Jesus says, “Do you love me like a friend?” The implication for us in reading, now, is that Jesus doubts Peter’s implied claim to do whatever the Lord asks. This is the point at which we can tell Jesus wasn’t impressed with Peter’s response to “Feed my lambs.” and “Feed my sheep.”
Now Peter is grieved, because Jesus is questioning his status as a friend of the King. On top of this, Peter is probably confused as to what “Feed my sheep.” means. Was Jesus rebuking him for going fishing to try and feed his human family? Was Jesus saying he had to fish a lot more to feed all Jesus’ followers from then on? Or was Jesus speaking in some metaphor that implied some larger sense of care taking for the spiritual family? A few more weeks from now, Peter will take to his role in Jerusalem with gusto and vigor, but on the beach by the Sea of Tiberias, Peter doesn’t seem to like the way this conversation is going at all. And still he protests, "You know everything. You know I love you like a friend." Peter knows the Lord can see right through him. He means it sincerely. But - for whatever reasons - he's struggling sincerely, too.
That last point is all we need to set up the conclusion of the story. Well, Peter? Do you only want to be my friend when we’re sword fighting and setting up Kingdoms? Or will you also love me like a friend and do what I ask of you when it’s something you don’t want to do? Or maybe when it's something you don't think is so exciting? “When you were younger you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to. But when you are old you will stretch out your arms and someone else will dress you and carry you where you don’t want to go.” Can you die on that cross, Peter? Because that’s what being my friend and loving me is really all about.
And that's what John 21 is really all about. IMHO. Love to hear your thoughts...
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and "The Fishy Part"