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Why 153 Fish? (Part One)
In Psalm 12:6, David compares God's Word to silver that has been purified seven times. His revelation contains nothing superfluous, and thus each detail, no matter how seemingly insignificant, holds something of value for us.
One of Jesus Christ's post-resurrection appearances contains one such detail. Seven of the disciples go fishing, and Jesus performs a miracle allowing the previously unsuccessful fishermen to haul in a catch of large fish—153, to be precise—without the nets breaking (John 21:11).
Why did Jesus provide exactly 153 fish? It is a specific number. The disciples did not catch "a lot of fish" or "about 150 fish," but exactly "153 fish." Apparently, the number stuck in John's mind for decades, from the time of the miracle until he penned his gospel. This number must hold some significance, but what is it?
Unraveling this mystery requires understanding something about John's gospel. Written much later than Matthew's, Mark's, and Luke's gospels, the gospel of John not only details Jesus' life and works but also builds the ironclad case that Jesus is the Messiah. John's gospel highlights eight signs Christ performed, giving it a sturdy structure. These signs were not just demonstrations of divine power but also specific acts that pointed to Jesus as the Messiah, particularly Israel's Messiah. While He is the Savior of all mankind, these eight signs had great relevance for the floundering physical nation in dire need of the promised Seed.
As with other collections in God's Word, John arranged his eight signs in a structure called a chiasm: The first corresponds to the last, the second corresponds to the second to last, and so on. The first to notice this structure and correlation appears to be E. W. Bullinger, who wrote his thoughts on the eight signs in Appendix 176 of The Companion Bible.
The remarkable catch of 153 fish is the eighth sign in John's gospel, and it corresponds to—and in many ways answers—the first sign, Jesus' turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana.
John 1 portrays the overall environment in which Jesus manifested the eight signs and why the people of Judea and Galilee needed Him so much. John 1:11 records that the Word came to His own—meaning, His own people—but they did not receive Him. The physical nation was spiritually blind, such that the people could not recognize their divine King when He stood before them. In verse 31, John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus, says, "I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water." Of course, John was aware of his cousin, but he did not grasp the magnitude of who He was until the events surrounding His baptism. Thus, John proclaims that Jesus' baptism was to reveal Him to Israel. Somewhat later, in verse 49, God gives Nathanael the spiritual comprehension to recognize that he was in the presence of the Son of God, who was also the King of Israel.
Christ, then, came to His own people, and His baptism revealed Him. Though a few people recognized Him for who He was, most did not. This environment sets the stage for grasping many features of His ministry. Immediately after this, John introduces the first sign:
These events begin with a condition of lack—something was missing. As Mary says, "They have no wine." Such a lack would pose an embarrassing problem for a wedding feast, and Jesus exhibited mercy in intervening to allow the joyous occasion to continue. But we should not forget the highly symbolic nature of John's gospel, for the circumstance portrays a spiritual reality. Whether or not she knew it, Mary described not just the wedding feast but also the physical nation—its citizens had no symbolic wine, whose significance we will explore in Part Two. Instead of wine, the wedding party (and the nation) had only water.
John points out that this water was for purification "according to the manner of the Jews." The purification rituals sprang from the minds of men rather than from Scripture. During His ministry, Jesus regularly encountered Jewish tradition making the Word of God of no effect. Not every Jewish tradition undermined God's Word, and washing itself constitutes no threat.
However, the overall effect of both the Oral Law and all the rabbis' opinions was that Jews of that time pushed God's pure Word into the background. In part, their skewed priorities underlay the nation's inability to see their King in their midst. Their minds, having formed wrong habits of thinking, had become accustomed to focusing on the wrong things, following the wrong patterns of understanding, and arriving at the wrong conclusions in spiritual matters.
As John records, there were six waterpots, and biblically, six is the number of man. Carnal men added the purification rituals to the worship of God. God's law only specifies ceremonial washing for the priests when they served in the Tabernacle and later the Temple, not for the individual or on occasions other than Tabernacle/Temple service. In addition, the six waterpots made of stone may symbolize the people's hearts since vessels often represent people. Because of their hearts of stone, the people could not change and so could not have a meaningful relationship with their Creator. They needed to replace their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh.
To summarize, the Jews had their own approach to ceremonial cleanliness. They had this tradition in abundance, as shown by the waterpots containing between 120 and 180 gallons of water for their purification rites. What they lacked, and what they needed for this occasion, was wine. We will explore the symbol of wine in Part Two and begin tying this first sign to its chiastic partner, the enigmatic catch of 153 fish.
David C. Grabbe