“So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn.” John 21:11 (ESV)
One of the interesting aspects of Scripture is its use of numbers. Certain digits in particular seem to repeat often. For example, the number 40 (number of days it rained during the deluge; years Israel spent wandering in the wilderness; days Jesus fasted in the desert) and the number 12 (tribes of Israel; number of Jesus’ disciples) show up several times. So there is good reason to see a pattern. Why certain numbers have more significance than others is a bit of a mystery. For the present discussion, I want to address how we view certain numbers when they show up in the text. More specifically, is there a hidden meaning behind certain numbers, which yield extra knowledge of God and his ways? With this question in mind, I want to explore an important event at the end of John’s Gospel.
In John 21:1-14 we learn about the third appearance of the post-resurrection Jesus to his disciples. There were seven present, and they had been fishing all night with no results. Toward morning a voice calls out to them from the shore asking if they caught anything. Getting a negative answer, the man says to cast the net on the right side of the boat. They do as instructed and the catch is so large that they can barely pull it out of the water. John recognizes the voice now. It’s Jesus. Peter jumps into the water to meet him. Jesus has a fire prepared on shore and invites them to eat. When the boat comes ashore the catch is counted – 153 fish. Amazingly, the net is intact. Jesus and his disciple eat bread and fish together.
A search of the internet of this passage will yield multiple interpretations of the real meaning behind the 153 fish. You’ll find references to Pythagorean theorum, cubed numbers, prime numbers, the total number of people helped by Jesus in the NT, and other even more esoteric meanings. What you won’t find is any consensus. But why would the meaning be hidden to us for over 2,000 years? If it has a deeper significance, no one can be faulted for searching it out. Wouldn’t God want us to know about it? The problem is that no one seems to have the key to interpreting the number. And we love our mysterious, cryptic codes just waiting to broken! But the question remains: Should we be searching for the deeper meaning of the number, or is there a simpler explanation?
The most obvious and straightforward interpretation of the 153 fish, is that it is meant to serve as an evidence that it truly was a large number of fish caught. Furthermore, John emphasizes that even with such a catch, the net wasn’t broken. We can rephrase it this way: “It was a very big catch. You want proof? I was there when we counted them – 153 fish! And get this – the net survived unscathed!” The event also demonstrated to the disciples that this was Jesus, and not some imposter. The huge catch, the unbroken net, the timing of it; these all worked together to demonstrate that a miracle had just taken place. That’s it. No reason to follow rabbit trails to Wonderland.
I should point out that one can find additional significance in the passage. For example, when Jesus called his disciples, he said that he would make them fishers of men. It is legitimate to see a correlation to the large number of fish in this passage, and the large number of human converts they would soon be ‘catching’. Therefore, the miracle could also be viewed as an object lesson of the soon to be realized spiritual awakening. Reading the text this way is legitimate and beneficial, whereas seeking the hidden meaning behind a number benefits us none. God desires us to be strengthened in faith and love. Yet the various methods I’ve read attempting to explain the number 153 can hardly be said to help any of God’s children in the way he wants. The myriad interpretations of the catching of the 153 fish serve as a great reminder why we must not look for hidden messages in the Scriptures. Doing so can lead us astray of the intended, plain meaning of the text. God’s message in his word is clear. He knows that we are but dumb sheep, easily led astray by false shepherds. He isn’t going to make it harder by expecting us to treat his word like a puzzle waiting to be solved. I’m not saying there aren’t difficult passages. But these are in the minority. The vast majority of the Bible is plain, and can be understood by using a solid translation and grasping the context and the literary genre.
In conclusion, we must use caution when reading the Bible. We have a tendency to look for the hidden things, mysteries, and codes to break. And we like to share our latest findings, to be the first to find what no one else has been able to locate (I’m not above committing this error myself). But doing so puts us more in line with the interpretative methods of the Gnostics and the Kabbalists, rather than the most faithful Christian interpreters throughout history. Therefore, let us rightly divide the word of truth, laying aside our appetites for secret knowledge