Summary: God models the spiritual dynamic for kingdom ministry as Jesus proves himself to be the Son of God raised from the dead.
153. They remained on their boat through the night, as was common. Day broke with nothing to show for their effort. Suddenly a mysterious voice shouts: “Cast out to the right,” and the net is so filled they cannot haul it into the boat. After struggling to bring it ashore, someone counts the fish – 153, a detail (if you will pardon the pun) which has spawned many fishy explanations.
153 is the “triangular number” of 17; in other words, 1+2+3+4+5…+17=153. They are called “triangular” because they are the number of points in an equilateral triangle evenly filled with points.
[Drawings showing Triangler Numbers]
Christians noted this mathematical odity at least as early as Augustine, who wrote around AD 400. He said 153 fish were caught because “the seventeenth [153 is the triangular number of 17] Psalm is the only one which is given complete in the book of Kings, because it signifies that kingdom in which we shall have no enemy.” So by catching 153 fish, Jesus shows us that in the resurrection and by the defeat of death, his kingdom now has no more enemies (Letter 40, chapter 17, section 31, “Replies to Questions of Januarius”). Augustine also thought it significant that 153 is “the number 50, three times multiplied, with the addition of three more (the symbol of the Trinity) to make the holy mystery more apparent” (ibid).
Others during church history also have seen mysterious significance in the number. Jerome (who translated the Bible into Latin, the language of the Roman empire), believed that the 153 fish point us to Ezekiel’s life-giving river. Ezekiel 47.10b says that in this river (the life-giving river flowing from the new temple), “its fish will be of very many kinds.” Jerome then cites the naturalist Oppian who supposedly said that there were 153 different species of fish, and claims that Jesus caused one of each species to fill the net.
A different idea also is connected to Ezekiel 47.10, but to the first half of the verse, which reads: “Fishermen will stand beside the sea. From Engedi to Eneglaim it will be a place for the spreading of nets.” Based on a 12th century mystical Hebrew tradition known as Kabala, numbers can be substituted for letters of the Hebrew alphabet, providing new insights to the text. Based on this system, called, “gematria,” [guh-MEY-tree-uh], it is proposed that “en-” is a prefix on both “Engedi” and “Eneglaim” meaning “spring,” leaving Gedi and Eglaim. And the gematria for Gedi is 17 and for Eglaim is 153.
The numerical relationship between 153 and 17 has also been seen as important because 17=10+7 and there are 10 commandments and a 7-fold Spirit of God (Revelation 1.4). Another commentator saw a connection at the feeding of the 5000, where five loaves of bread ended up with 12 baskets of scraps, and 5+12=17, and 153 is the triangular number of 17, so the catch of fish is about communion. Someone else said that 153 is “the number for the words, ‘the church of love,’ written in Hebrew” (quoted in Carson, 673). Andrew Knowles (The Bible Guide) claims, “The Jews of these days believe there are 153 nations in the world.” And one of my favorites suggests that 153 refers to the 153,600 resident aliens who were received into the kingdom in Solomon’s day (2Chronicles 2.17).
Those are fun (some funny), but such allegorical fish stories do not accurately pull the meaning from the text. There is meaning, however, which will seek to explore today as we read and study John 21.1-14.
[Read John 21.1-14. Pray.]
Last week we were with the disciples on a Sunday evening when Jesus showed his hands and side to “Doubting Thomas.” This verification that he had indeed risen from the dead proved Christ’s deity and showed Thomas at once that all he had said was true. He responded: “My Lord and my God” (John 20.28).
That profession of faith is the high point of John’s gospel. He wrote this accurate testimony so that you will come to the same conclusion as Thomas and make the same profession of faith. The story is finished, then, with the last words of John 20: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Today we would add, “The End,” but even without the phrase, we feel that we have arrived at the goal, the tale is complete.
In fact, so obvious is the literary end at John 20.31 that critical scholars speculate about who wrote chapter 21, and how they managed to get it stuck onto John’s book! Every Greek manuscript includes chapter 21, but how does it fit? The answer is that John 21 provides an epilogue to balance the prologue, tie up loose ends, and point the disciples and the church forward.