The significance of the 153 fish

For centuries experts have been fascinated by the story of the miraculous catch of fish in the gospel of John chapter 21, in which exactly 153 fish were found in the nets.

The story takes place just after Jesus resurrection from the dead. He revealed himself to seven of his disciples by the sea of Tiberias (otherwise known as the sea of Galilee). Jesus stood on the banks and asked the disciples who were in the boat, if they had anything for him to eat. The disciples had fished all night and caught nothing. Daybreak had come and it was too late now to catch anything. Jesus instructed them to throw out their nets on the other side of the boat, the right hand side, and promised them that they would catch something. They comply and haul in a huge catch. Jesus was wearing a cloak, and it was still early and not yet fully light, so the disciples didn’t really recognise who he was. John was the first to realise that it was Jesus who had spoken to them, and called out to Peter – it is the Lord! Peter immediately undressed, leapt into the water and swam to Jesus. As their fishing boat docked, they were able to count 153 fish caught in their nets. Jesus broke bread by a coal fire and gave them fish to eat with it.

The disciples had learnt that they could no longer do without Jesus. They weren’t even capable of practicing their old profession properly without him. His word was necessary for them to catch fish, and he was the one waiting for them with bread and fish to eat.

When the things in our lives take a different path than the one we expected, we sometimes tend to want to fall back on the things we used to know, our old certainties. This story has a number of things to teach us.

First of all, we need to be careful of grabbing hold of the things we used to rely on. We cannot find nourishment and guidance anywhere other than from Christ. But there is another message in the 153 fish.

The Bible tells us explicitly that there were 153 fish in the net. That may have had a very special significance for the apostles. Firstly, in that time, there were only 153 known species of fish. Jesus had already called the disciples ‘fishers of men’ (Mark 1:17) but they focused initially exclusively on Israel. The number 153 represented every possible, known people group in the world at that time, in other words, the whole world.

Numbers have a special significance for Jews[1]. In both the Hebrew and Greek alphabets the letters served as both letters and numbers[2] and every; word can also be a number. In writing and explaining the Bible, Jews regularly make use of the numerical values of words. This is evident in various places in the Bible. The book of Proverbs contains exactly 375 proverbs from Solomon (Proverb 10:1 and 22:16) which exactly matches the numeric value of his name ‘Solomon’ in Hebrew. Proverbs 25:1 to 30:1 consist of 140 proverbs gathered and edited by the appointment of King Hezekiah. The numeric value of Hezekiah’s name is 140. The number 666 from Revelations is probably one of the most well known examples of the numeric value of a word or name.

It is interesting to note that 153 is the numeric value of the expressions: ‘The Passover (Ha Pesach),’ and also of the words ‘Sons of God (Bene Ha Elohim).’ We are the ‘sons of God’ who need to take the message of Jesus our Passover lamb to all the peoples of the world. It’s also amusing to note that the numeric value of the Greek words ‘fishnet’ and ‘fishing’ are also both exactly 8 x 153. In the Bible, the number 8 always refers to the Anointed One (Christ or Messiah) and to the anointing of the Holy Spirit. I wonder if this is a hint.

Sometimes, for all kinds of reasons, we loose sight of our first calling. There is no time like the present to take it up again, to cast our nets out and to teach people of every ethnic group to be disiciples. Instead of trying to hold on to the familiar things of the past, God is longing to reveal to us the future He has for us, through His presence and anointing. When we choose to leave the safety of the hiding places we made for ourselves and allow Jesus to be our place of safety, He will feed and equip us and let us know exactly where we need to spread out our nets.

[1] This is not what is known as Kabala, as is sometimes wrongly claimed. The use of numbers is not wrong. We use them everyday to calculate and trade, and in olden times they were also used in writing texts. The numbers or numerical values have no intrinsic power or worth of their own, and are neither evil or occult, although they are sometimes used in the occult or in teachings like Kabala. The same can be said of music. We can make music that honours God, but music can also be used to worship idols. The notes themselves have no inherent power, it is the way in which they are used that determines whether something is good or bad.
[2] The numbers we use every day originate from India and have only been in use since the 13th Century. Before that time, Roman numerals were used in Europe. These are made up of letters from the Latin alphabet. None of the three alphabets (Hebrew, Greek or Latin) have a number or letter that represents zero.