21:1-14 After these things Jesus again showed himself to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. This was the way in which he showed himself. Simon Peter, and Thomas, who is called Didymus, and Nathanael, who came from Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples, were together. Simon Peter said to them: "I am going to fish." They said to him: "We, too, are coming with you." They went out, and went on board the boat, and that night they caught nothing. When early morning had come, Jesus stood on the seashore. But the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. So Jesus said to them: "Lads, have you got any fish?" They answered: "No." He said to them: "Cast your net on the right hand side of the ship, and you will find a catch." So they cast the net, and now they could not haul it in for the great number of the fishes. The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter: "It is the Lord." So, when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his tunic (for he was stripped for work) and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came to shore in the boat (for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards) dragging the net full of fishes. When they had disembarked on land, they saw a charcoal fire set there, and fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them: "Bring some of the fish you have just caught." So Simon Peter went on board and hauled the net to land, full of large fishes, one hundred and fifty-three of them; and, although there were so many of them, the net was not broken. Jesus said to them: "come and have breakfast." None of the disciples dared to ask him: "Who are you?" because they knew that it was the Lord. Jesus came and took bread and gave it to them, and he gave them the fish in the same way. This was the third time Jesus showed himself to the disciples after he had been raised from among the dead.
It was certainly someone who knew the fishermen of the Sea of Galilee who wrote this story. Night-time was the best for fishing. W. M. Thomson in The Land and the Book describes night fishing: "There are certain kinds of fishing always carried on at night. It is a beautiful sight. With blazing torch, the boat glides over the flashing sea, and the men stand gazing keenly into it until their prey is sighted, when, quick as lightning, they fling their net or fly their spear; and often you see the tired fishermen come sullenly into harbour in the morning, having toiled all night in vain."
The catch here is not described as a miracle, and it is not meant to be taken as one. The description is of something which still frequently happens on the lake. Remember that the boat was only about a hundred yards from land. H. V. Morton describes how he saw two men fishing on the shores of the lake. One had waded out from the shore and was casting a bell net into the water. "But time after time the net came up empty. It was a beautiful sight to see him casting. Each time the neatly folded net belled out in the air and fell so precisely on the water that the small lead weights hit the lake at the same moment making a thin circular splash. While he was waiting for another cast, Abdul shouted to him from the bank to fling to the left, which he instantly did. This time he was successful.... Then he drew up the net and we could see the fish struggling in it.... It happens very often that the man with the hand-net must rely on the advice of someone on shore, who tells him to cast either to the left or the right, because in the clear water he can often see a shoal of fish invisible to the man in the water." Jesus was acting as guide to his fishermen friends, just as people still do today.
It may be that it was because it was the grey dark that they did not recognize Jesus. But the eyes of the disciple whom Jesus loved were sharp. He knew it was the Lord; and when Peter realized who it was he leaped into the water. He was not actually naked. He was girt with a loin cloth as the fisher always was when he plied his trade. Now it was the Jewish law that to offer greeting was a religious act, and to carry out a religious act a man must be clothed; so Peter, before he set out to come to Jesus, put on his fisherman's tunic, for he wished to be the first to greet his Lord.
Now we come to the first great reason why this strange chapter was added to the already finished gospel. It was to demonstrate once and for all the reality of the Resurrection. There were many who said that the appearances of the Risen Christ were nothing more than visions which the disciples had. Many would admit the reality of the visions but insist that they were still only visions. Some would go further and say that they were not visions but hallucinations. The gospels go far out of their way to insist that the Risen Christ was not a vision, not an hallucination, not even a spirit, but a real person. They insist that the tomb was empty and that the Risen Christ had a real body which still bore the marks of the nails and the spear thrust in his side.
But this story goes a step further. A vision or a spirit would not be likely to point out a shoal of fish to a party of fishermen. A vision or a spirit would not be likely to kindle a charcoal fire on the seashore. A vision or a spirit would not be likely to cook a meal and to share it out. And yet, as this story has it, the Risen Christ did all these things. When John tells how Jesus came back to his disciples when the doors were shut, he says: "He showed them his hands and his side" ( John 20:20 ). Ignatius, when writing to the Church at Smyrna, relates an even more definite tradition about that. He says: "I know and believe that he was in the flesh even after the resurrection, and when he came to Peter and his company, he said to them: 'Take, handle me, and see that I am not a bodiless demon.' And straightway they touched him, and they believed, for they were firmly convinced of his flesh and blood.... And after his resurrection he ate and drank with them as one in the flesh."
The first and simplest aim of this story is to make quite clear the reality of the resurrection. The Risen Lord was not a vision, nor the figment of someone's excited imagination, nor the appearance of a spirit or a ghost; it was Jesus who had conquered death and come back.
There is a second great truth symbolized here. In the Fourth Gospel everything is meaningful, and it is therefore hardly possible that John gives the definite number one hundred and fifty-three for the fishes without meaning something by it. It has indeed been suggested that the fishes were counted simply because the catch had to be shared out between the various partners and the crew of the boat, and that the number was recorded simply because it was so exceptionally large. But when we remember John's way of putting hidden meanings in his gospel for those who have eyes to see, we must think that there is more to it than that.
Many ingenious suggestions have been made.
(i) Cyril of Alexandria said that the number 153 is made up of three things. First, there is 100; and that represents "the fullness of the Gentiles." 100, he says, is the fullest number. The shepherd's full flock is 100 ( Matthew 18:12 ). The seed's full fertility is 100-fold. So the 100 stands for the fullness of the Gentiles who will be gathered in to Christ. Second, there is the 50; and the 50 stands for the remnant of Israel who will be gathered in. Third, there is the 3; and the 3 stands for the Trinity to whose glory all things are done.
(ii) Augustine has another ingenious explanation. he says that 10 is the number of the Law, for there are ten commandments; 7 is the number of grace, for the gifts of the Spirit are sevenfold.
"Thou the anointing Spirit art,
Who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart."
Now 7+10 makes 17; and 153 is the sum of all the figures, 1+2+3+4..., up to 17. Thus 153 stands for all those who either by Law or by grace have been moved to come to Jesus Christ.
(iii) The simplest of the explanations is that given by Jerome. He said that in the sea there are 153 different kinds of fishes; and that the catch is one which includes every kind of fish; and that therefore the number symbolizes the fact that some day all men of all nations will be gathered together to Jesus Christ.
We may note a further point. This great catch of fishes was gathered into the net, and the net held them all and was not broken. The net stands for the Church; and there is room in the Church for all men of all nations. Even if they all come in, she is big enough to hold them all.
Here John is telling us in his own vivid yet subtle way of the universality of the Church. There is no kind of exclusiveness in her, no kind of colour bar or selectiveness. The embrace of the Church is as universal as the love of God in Jesus Christ. It will lead us on to the next great reason why this chapter was added to the gospel if we note that it was Peter who drew the net to land ( John 21:11 ).