Why 153 Fish?

Whenever I read the story of Jesus and the miraculous catch of fish in John 21:1–14, I wondered why John specified that 153 fish were caught. Why not 150? Or 111? Or 666?

The story began with Jesus’s third postcrucifixion appearance to his disciples at the Sea of Galilee (which is really a lake). Peter and some other disciples spent the night fishing with zero results. In the morning, Jesus appeared and asked, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” (John 21:5, emphasis added). Then Jesus told them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some” (21:6, emphasis added).

The disciples did as they were told, and the net—full of 153 large fish—was so heavy that they couldn’t pull it in. (I need Jesus to fish with me.)

The story then mentions that Peter was naked, but he put on some clothes once he realized the helpful stranger on the shore was Jesus.

The disciples beached the boat and found a charcoal fire “with fish on it, and bread” (12:9, emphasis added). Jesus told the disciples to “bring some of the fish that you have just caught” (12:10). Peter did, and the net did not break. Then Jesus asked Peter, Thomas (who some claim was Jesus’s twin), Nathanael of Cana, the two sons of Zebedee (James and John), and two unnamed others to “come and have breakfast” (12:13), which was bread and fish, of course.

This story has an I-was-there-and-saw-this format, but for me, it only raises questions. How did Jesus know where the fish were? Why was Peter naked? Why exactly 153 fish? So what if the net didn’t break? Why did Jesus only appear to these disciples? What was wrong with eating the fish already on the grill? Who cares if this is Jesus’s third appearance after his death?

Remember, the Gospel of John’s is religious history, which demands that we look deeper to find the truth of a story. But what could the number 153 possibly mean?

I’m enrolled in the Israel Bible Center’s online course on the Gospel of John, which interprets at the New Testament through a Jewish perspective. In this course, I learned about gematria, the art of finding the numeric symbolism of a word or phrase. The number 153 translates to sons of God.

Now the meaning is clear: this story is not about fish but about Jesus. Let’s look deeper:

  • When Jesus calls the disciples children, it signifies a deep truth. Ready? I promise this is not condescending.
  • The right side symbolizes truth and power. (Jesus sits at the right hand of God.)
  • The sons of God, the disciples to whom Jesus appears, are the chosen.
  • Peter is naked and vulnerable. With clothes on, he is ready to hear the truth.
  • The net is not torn because Jesus’s message (agape) is the unbreakable foundation stone.
  • The fish on the fire are old. Jesus wants his disciples (you and me) to feed on the new fish: agape.

The bottom line is that the number 153 is no longer a mystery but the key to this tale. We sons of God (Followers) must demonstrate agape if we want to live life to the fullest.

How do you interpret this story?


Image courtesy of David Stanley (CC BY 2.0)

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