John 21:11 Simon Peter went up and dragged the net to land, full of large fish, one hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not broken.
Verse 11 has always intrigued me because it gives the exact number of large fish which were caught in the net. It’s an exact number; an intriguing detail. I have yet to come across a detail in scripture that wasn’t there for a reason. That being said, the reason isn’t always mind blowing or so deep that it’s hard to grasp by all but the most brilliant Bible scholars. In fact, sometimes the more scholarly you are the more ridiculous an explanation you are willing to accept.
I’ve heard it said that these 153 fish were representative of 153 species of fish known to exist in that day. This could then be understood as a picture that the gospel is not only for the Jews but is for all people. But that fact is something that God would later explain to Peter in the book of Acts using a detailed vision rather than this seemingly unassociated number. There are all kinds of holes in that theory, the biggest being that nowhere is there any indication that there were 153 known species of fish. Even if this catch was representative of 153 species found in the Sea of Galilee, there was no common knowledge of that, so the significance would not have been understood. So, while we know that the gospel is for all people, getting that from the number of fish that was caught seems like a stretch.
I’ve also heard that the Tetragrammaton, or the four letter Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey name of God occurs 153 times in the book of Genesis. This seems to bear itself out, but what the connection is between this catch of fish and the name of God in the book of Genesis, I can’t explain.
Mathematicians have even weighed in on this and posed solutions based on gematria, the numerical value of the Hebrew letters, taking the square root of integers, multiplying by the width of a circle and dividing by the current price of milk (not really.) But none of what comes from that seems within any realm of likelihood. None of the mathematical explanations are even worth bringing up because they are quite far fetched.
The fact that there were 153 fish might mean that fish number 154 got away, or it may be that fisherman like to brag and a net containing 153 LARGE fish gives them some bragging rights … Fishermen count their fish.
But the theme of this final chapter in the Gospel of John is redemption and restoration and so I tend to think that if the number has meaning, it is to emphasize the state of the net. You see, in Luke 5 (at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry), a very similar miracle took place, except on that occasion the net was breaking under the strain of the haul of fish. I ask you to consider that perhaps the reason the haul of 153 LARGE fish is mentioned is to emphasize the condition of the net. You see, the net that lost fish in Luke 5 had been mended, just as the relationship between man and God that was once broken had been mended by Jesus’ death and resurrection. In addition, perhaps fishermen of that time would have recognized that a net that could hold 153 large fish without breaking was a very strong net thus reminding us that once Jesus has caught you in His net of redemption, you are not thrown back … Just as Jesus had previously said in John 13, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me.”