What is the meaning of 153 fish in John 21?
In John 21:11, John records the number of fish caught miraculously by the disciples when they obeyed the voice of Jesus. One hundred fifty-three fish lay in the unbroken nets of the fisherman turned disciples. There are many allusions in this passage of John 21:1-14.
The illusions are to signify the return of Jesus to the disciples, a new call to go and preach the gospel, and even allusions to the time right before his death on the cross. The whole chapter focuses on restoring the disciples to the rightful work that Jesus called them to do originally.
For instance, they first do not recognize Jesus along the shore as they are fishing (John 21:4). Jesus tells them to cast the nets on the right side of the boat and they obeyed him. Then they caught so many fish they couldn’t haul the nets in on their own (John 21:6).
It is only after this miracle of fish that John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, recognize that Jesus was the one on the seashore (John 21:7). Peter then recognizes him and swims to shore instead of waiting to arrive in the boats.
Why don’t the disciples recognize Jesus right away? Why does it take this miracle? Part of this chapter reminds the disciples of who Jesus is and the call he has placed on their lives to catch men rather than fish.
If you recall, there was an incident similar to this in Luke 5:1-11 when Jesus first called the disciples. Jesus commandeered Simon Peter’s boat so he could preach the gospel from it (Luke 5:3).
After teaching, Jesus tells Peter to go out and do some fishing (Luke 5:4). Peter tells him that they fished all night and caught nothing, much like the passage in John 21 (Luke 5:5). One difference is that in Luke, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, they caught so many fish that the nets were breaking (Luke 5:6).
In a sense, this account in John 21 reminds the disciples of the first time they met Jesus. They are reminded that he told them to become fishers of men. They remember Jesus the moment the miracle happens.
But why does John mention that there were 153 fish? Some who love to figure out numbers in the Bible, a practice called Biblical Numerology, try to postulate all kinds of answers to this question. They suggest everything from 153 being the number representing every species of fish to the adding up of people’s names.
The thing is that John does not always use symbology or numerology in his writings. Sometimes he does, as is often the case in the book of Revelation. But it could be that as a fisherman himself, he was impressed by the amount of fish produced by the miracle.
He may have mentioned it purely to tell us how many fish they counted when they divided them up among the fishermen there. This may have been a way of explaining that Jesus provided a miracle that would take care of their fishing businesses and families.
But the bigger picture is that Jesus is restoring all of the disciples, especially Peter (John 21:15-19) to the ministry he called them to originally. He reminds them of who he is and what he can do with this miracle. And what fisherman doesn’t like to tell of his great catch? Sometimes a number is just a number.