A Tale of Two Fishermen: Peter, Jesus, and the Meaning of 153 Fish

people standing on brown wooden dock

If you have ever fished, or known someone who has, then you know the temptation to embellish. What began as a small catch, becomes a medium catch, becomes a large catch. Maybe this is a stereotype, but fishermen are notorious for letting their stories grow over time.

The same can be true with Scripture, especially in books like Revelation, Daniel, or John. When a biblical author uses symbolism to portray his message, the true words of God can be enlarged, exaggerated, or embellished over time.

This method of embellishment often is often associated with something called allegory, as interpreters of Scripture take something in text of Scripture and interpret it by something outside of Scripture. This extra-biblical ‘thing,’ might be a philosophy, a moral imperative, or a doctrinal truth. But what it is not is something that immediately comes from the text of Scripture.

Historically, this allegorical method of interpretation has taken a number like 153—the number of fish in Peter’s catch (John 21:11)—and turned the fish into a symbol for something else. For instance, Augustine, who is at times helpful and at other times allegorical, derived from this number a proof text for the Trinity (See Klink, John, 902). How so?  

Well if you add 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 all the way up to 17, you arrive at the total of 153. One hundred fifty-three is a perfect triangle number for 17. Even more, when you add the 10 Commandments to 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, you get 17, which gives you a triangular number of 153 that symbolizes the Trinity.

It’s as simple as that. Can’t you see it? No? Neither can I.

Beware of Allegory and Let the Scripture Speak

That said, this method of allegory infiltrated the church for generations, and as a result, it created a caste of priests who had to interpret the Word for the people. Clearly, you had to be trained by experts to misread the Bible like this.

In the Protestant Reformation, such allegory was largely rejected and the Bible was put into the hands of the people. Meaning, the authority of the Bible, as well as its interpretation, came not from an allegorical approach to the Bible, or from a class of mystical priests. Instead, biblical interpretation came from a grammatical and historical approach. Discovering the author’s intention led to understanding God’s Word.

In the Reformation, Scripture once again possessed its full and final authority, and with that authority, faithful pastors, theologians, and layman alike interpreted Scripture by reading it in context and comparing it to the rest of the Bible. To be sure, the church then, like now, needed teachers, creeds, can confessions. Sola scriptura never meant and shouldn’t mean solo scriptura. Rather, in the Reformation  and today, faithful teachers submit themselves to the Bible. And more, points of doctrine or application must come from points in the passage, not from flights of fancy or any kind of allegorical method.

Beware of Overreaction and Let the Symbols Speak

At the same time, fear of allegory has also plagued the church. Due to the faulty ways allegory has been employed in church history, many have refused to see any symbolism in Scripture. Confusing allegory with typology, they have thrown out the good fish with the bad. And as a result, when they come across a number like 153, they cannot see how John is using this figure symbolically. And so, we to follow John’s lead, we should return to the tale of two fishermen in John 21.

In this passage, John leads us to the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus will make his third resurrection appearance (John 21:14). And based upon the context, there is a special focus on fish, fishing, and two fishers of men. In fact, supporting this point, there may even be a chiasm in vv. 4–14—a chiasm of fish!

In these 11 verses, various words for fish are used seven times. And if we count the number, we find the following pattern.

A The disciples did not know it was Jesus (v. 4)

B Do you have any [1] fish (to eat)? (v. 5)

C The net heavy with “the quantity of [2] fish” (v. 6)

D The disciples are “dragging the net full of [3] fish” (v. 8)

X A [4] fish on the charcoal fire (v. 9) 

D’ Peter “haul[s] the net shore, full of large [5] fish” (v. 10)

C’ The net is filled with [6] 153 fish (v. 11)

B’ Jesus gave them the [7] fish (v. 13)

A’ The third revelation of the Lord (v. 14)

If you are not inclined to see chiasms in the Bible, I would not start with this one. But if you have been reading through John, seeing the way he employs chiasms throughout, then you may find this outline compelling.[1]

Either way, what I am arguing here is not allegory, but a close reading of the literary structure of the passage. I may be wrong in seeing this structure—it is a bit fishy!—but it is not an allegorical approach to Scripture. Rather, it is an attempt to see how John is using symbolism—in this case the fish—to explain his restoration of Peter and his re-commissioning as a fisher of men.

Seeing the Fish of John 21 through the Eyes of Ezekiel 47

On Sunday, this is what I preached, when I explained how Jesus was the great fisher of men. Indeed, earlier in Peter’s ministry, he along with the other disciples, were called to be fishers of men in that very same lake (see Matt. 4:19). And so again, Jesus is fishing Peter out of the water—don’t miss the way Peter threw himself into the sea (John 20:7)—and restoring him and them to their mission of proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom (cf. Jer. 16:16).

Importantly, in this post-resurrection commissioning, Jesus is using this place and this time of day (the breaking of dawn) to show Peter (and us) what the mission of the church will be. Just the same, when John writes his account of this event, he does so through the prophecy of Ezekiel 47. Indeed, in that chapter, the prophet tells of a day when the waters of the temple will be poured out, many fish will be enlivened by those temple waters, and fisherman will stand on the shore.

As I understand John 21, that is exactly what is happening. John has told us that Jesus is fulfilling the words of Ezekiel 47, down to the very number of fish. In other words, the number 153 does have a theological purpose, but it is not the number for the Trinity. Instead, it is the number of Eneglaim, one of the two place-names listed in Ezekiel 47:10.

Fishermen will stand beside the sea. From Engedi to Eneglaim it will be a place for the spreading of nets. Its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea.

According to the standard practice of gematria, Eneglaim totals 153.[2] And based upon the way John uses Ezekiel in his Gospel, the way that Ezekiel 40–47 speaks of the new temple giving life to the world, and the way Ezekiel 47 speaks of day when living water will flow into the earth bringing life to many fish, I have every confidence that John includes this number to connect John 21 to Ezekiel 47.

Indeed, this what I argued in my sermon on Sunday, and I think it provides an example of rejecting fanciful allegory (153 = the Trinity) and lifeless literalism (153 = 153). Indeed, by following John’s use of symbolism that centers on the fish and the charcoal fire, we come to see that Peter, as a fisher of men, needs to be caught and released by the true and better fisher of men, Jesus Christ. Indeed, in John’s Gospel, the charcoal fire is the place where Peter denied Christ (John 18:18), and now at the Lord’s charcoal fire, this fish is the one who will be restored to life and service.

Indeed, that is what Jesus does with all of us who are caught by him and go out fishing for him. And so, if we are going to serve Jesus and speak for him, we should learn how to speak his language, see his symbols, and savor the fish he feeds us. John 21, read with Ezekiel 47, helps us do just that. And if you’d like to hear more about that, you can listen to this week’s sermon.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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[1] N.B. The connections are not in the Greek words for fish, which change through these verses. The logic of the chiasm is found in the actions related to the fish. Compare, for instance, level C/C’ where the quantity of fish in v. 8 mirrors the number of fish in v. 11.

[2] While Klink offers a wide history of the ways 153 has been interpreted (see pp. 901–03), Gary Burge, John, is most helpful when he points to the work of J. A. Emerton (1958) who suggested the connection between John 21 and Ezekiel 47.

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