Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

253. Fishes - 153 of them (John 21:11)

A fishing party, which included the present writer, once caught in a fairly short time off the coast of British Columbia, six splendid salmon. Their total weight was sixty-three pounds. If the "great fishes" caught in Galilee were on a par with these, this would make the total catch now under consideration to be about three-quarters of a ton.

But why — the question may well be asked — was John so careful as to specify meticulously how many fish were caught? At different times thousands of his readers have scented a special significance here. There is a sound instinct behind this.

Here, then, is a list of suggestions (doubtless incomplete). Some of these have a good Biblical flavour; others not at all.

153 = 9x17: and 9 is the number of judgment (is it?), whilst 17 combines the ideas of "spirit" and "order": 10 + 7 (do they?). So it is said! (Companion Bible).
There were not 153 fishes, but 154—and this is 11 x 14 (or 22 x 7), again with corresponding numerical meaning. Sic!
Contemporary Greek zoologists asserted that the sea contains precisely 153 different species of fishes. So John saw this number as symbolizing men out of all nations within the gospel net (Hoskyns).
By Gematria (that is, substituting the numerical value of each letter), the Greek word for "fishes' (ichthues) gives 1224 which is 153 x 8. Thus, "fishes" suggests those caught in the gospel net according to the eighth sign.
When "Sons of God" is written in Hebrew characters it gives, by Gematria once again (par.4): 153. This result only holds true, however, if the Hebrew definite article is included: B'nei ha-Elohim, which could signify: Sons (disciples, converts) of the Mighty (the Apostles), that is, the fruits of their preaching.
2 Chronicles 2:17 gives 153 thousand and six hundred as the number of "strangers", i.e. Gentiles, in Israel who were numbered by David. And in Exodus 30:14-16, numbering of the people is associated with atonement and redemption.
And now, mathematics. For the reason made plain by this diagram, 10 is called a triangular number 4.


The next in the set is, of course, 15; and then 21, and so on.

153 is one of this family. 153 = triangular number 17.

Similarly, 120 (Acts 1:15) = triangular number 15 (and 15 = triangular number 5).

276 (Acts 27:37) = triangular number 23.

666 (Rev. 13:18) = triangular number 36 (and 36 = triangular number 8).

These are the most noteworthy, but not the only, examples to be found in the NT The odds against all the three-figure numbers in the NT being "triangular" are enormous. Has such a thing happened by "chance"? So it looks as though the early church saw special meaning in the idea of triangular numbers. But what? Possibly, but not certainly, according to Matthew 28:19, thus:



Holy Spirit

There may be some other more satisfactory explanation of 153 outside the range of the seven suggestions listed here. But it is not necessary to believe that the eighth sign has eight different meanings.

254. "Lovest Thou Me?" (John 21:15-19)

After the miraculous catch of fishes and the meal of fellowship which ensued, Jesus addressed himself to Peter in words which carry a certain ambiguity: "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?" Was the reference to these other disciples or to these fishes? i.e: 'Peter, do you love me more than these other disciples love me?' or: 'Peter, do you love me more than you love your fishing?'

Grammatically it might be either. The reader has only the context of the words to guide him. The conclusion usually reached is that Jesus was making allusion to Peter's strong declaration of loyalty that "though all shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended;" and, "even, if I must die with thee, yet will I in no wise deny thee" (Matthew 26:33,35). Nevertheless, within a few hours, Peter had thrice denied his Lord with oaths and curses. And now three times, as if with allusion to that abysmal lapse of loyalty, Jesus put the disquieting question: "Lovest thou me?"

Although with hardly an exception, the commentators prefer this interpretation, scarcely any one of them offers a reason beyond the correspondence of these three questions with the three denials and the sharp contrast between denial and love. Plumtre stresses also the mention of a "fire of coals" in John 21:9 and 18:1 8, but this seems rather pointless.

Then, in view of certain difficulties, can this conclusion be accepted with confidence? For instance, is it conceivable that Jesus would torture his apostle in this fashion, and in the presence of some of the others? True, he was about to confer big pastoral responsibility on Peter. But was a blunt, almost over-emphatic, reminder of Peter's weakness a suitable prelude to such a commission? Is it conceivable that in the Day of Judgment, before Jesus accepts those whom he sets at his right hand, he will torment them with pointed reminders of past disloyalty? This is not the Jesus of the gospels.

The Lord had already appeared to Peter on the day of his resurrection with the express purpose of comforting him in his self-torture: "Go tell his disciples and Peter..."; "The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared unto Simon." And it was doubtless with a vivid grateful memory of all that that encounter had meant to him that Peter wrote, years later: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:5). This is one of the many pointed allusions to the gospels to be traced in 1 Peter. For Peter that meeting with his risen Lord meant his own spiritual resurrection from a day of despair, self-recrimination and bitter weeping. Is it conceivable that, after the Lord had appeared to him to impart reassurance and consolation, he would then proceed to rub salt into a sore wound that was not yet closed? Again it has to be said - this is not the Jesus of the gospels!

Further, is it not difficult to imagine Jesus inciting one of his followers to assert over and over again that he does love the Lord more than the rest do? If Peter answered point-blank: "Yes, I do," would he not be inviting a yet more pointed reminder of those tragic hours in the courtyard of the high priest's palace. On the other hand, if the apostle had responded with an equally explicit: "No,"the answer would have been insincere, for none loved Jesus more than Peter did. And, either way, what was to be gained by making Peter so uncomfortable concerning the worst hour of his life? Had he not already suffered enough in his own soul because of it?

Yet another important objection, of a very different kind, is the complete lack of contextual connection between the narrative of John 21 and Peter's denials of Jesus in John 18.

A powerful alternative

This weakness—a serious one, surely—is certainly not apparent when the alternative meaning is considered: "Simon, do you love me more than you love your fishing?" The context shouts for this interpretation. In the immediate prelude to this three-fold apostrophe, there is not the smallest allusion to pastoral responsibilities, but there is emphatic reference — of a disapproving kind — to fishing: "I go a fishing... they caught nothing"... then the Lord, having rubbed in their failure (v.5 Gk.), himself provides the catch, and also the much needed meal ... the shame-faced silence of the disciples ("none of them durst ask him"). All this is followed by the Lord's insistence that there be no more "girding of thyself" (v.18) with a fisher's coat (v.7); instead, a repeated "Follow me" (v. 19,22), itself a pointed renewal of the call to be a fisher of men (Mt. 4:19), a call given immediately after the earlier provision of a miraculous net-full of fishes. The grim words: "another shall gird thee, and lead thee whither thou wouldest not" become even more grim if taken to imply: Then ought you not to get on with my work as speedily and energetically as possible?"

With such a context to steer the reader's understanding, one is left marvelling at the obsession of the commentators here with Peter's denials.

Thus, John's gospel can thankfully be read as concluding not with an encounter full of uncomfortable reproach for a lapse already much repented of, but as a necessary reminder that service of the risen Lord and his brethren must come before all else. The reader turns the page and is immediately aware in the Book of Acts that Simon the fisherman is dead. He too is risen - Peter the preacher, Peter the shepherd, Peter the rock.

This, surely, is why Jesus here addressed Peter as "Simon, son of Jonas." Almost certainly Peter was a fisherman because his father had been a fisherman before him. Such was the way of life in those days. Moreover, Peter and Andrew had their own boat — a thing unlikely with young men, unless the boat was inherited. Such, at least, is the way of things to this day in most fishing villages of Britain. Consequently, if Jesus were alluding to Peter's love for his trade, there would be much point in calling him "son of Jonas."

The question is not to be lightly thrust aside. With such a designed emphasis throughout the entire incident on the contrast between Peter's former employment and his new and big responsibilities in the gospel. It would seem to be at least possible that Jesus was pressing home in Peter's mind: Do you love me or your fishing more? Are you not willing, Peter, to say a final farewell to that old life and to become instead a shepherd of my flock?

Many years later the lesson which Peter learned that day was still remembered, to be passed on to Peter's successors facing a similar temptation: "Feed the flock of God... not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind" (1 Peter 5:2). Thus it seems by no means unlikely that "Lovest thou me more than these" was a reminder to Peter, that having been called to be a fisher of men, he must abandon his old trade altogether.

NOTES: John 21:15-19

No reference here to Peter's denials, but plenty to fishing: v.3a,c; 6,7,12,15-17,18,1 9b; Mt. 4:19.
Feed my sheep; 10:11,16; 1 Jn. 3:16; Acts 20:28. Peter can be a shepherd, but not a Door; Jn. 10:7. The Catholic application of these words is vetoed by 1 Pet. 5:1-4.
Thou knowest all things; i.e. about us disciples; 16:30,27; 1Jn. 3:20.
Walked; v.7.

Old; Ps. 37:25..

Stretch forth thine hands in crucifixion, the time when, in contrast with past failures, Peter would achieve more than he had purposed or promised (13:37). From now on he knew himself to be sentenced to crucifixion; cp. 14:27.

Wither thou wouldest not; Is. 46:4.
By what death; 10:14,15. Jesus apparently implied; 'So go on with the work whilst you can.'

Glorify God: crucifixion; 12:33.

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