What about the 153 Fish and the Perseverance of the Saints?

by Jared Wellman

John 21 is one of the richest passages in all of Scripture.  Acting as an Epilogue, the chapter details the redemption and restoration of the Apostle Peter.  The chapter pairs the physical with the spiritual and the literal with the symbolic in order to convey an incredible account of the redemption offered through Jesus Christ.  One of these combinations is found in John 21:11 when Peter hauled a net full of 153 fish to shore:

"Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn."

Peter is one of the seven disciples present on the Galilean beach.  The text says that he and the disciples went fishing in the night and that they didn't catch anything.  When Jesus - initially unrecognized - showed up, however, he and the disciples caught such a great number that "they were not able to haul it in (6)."  This was enough for John - the beloved disciple - to recognize Jesus: "[John] said to Peter, 'It is the Lord'" (7).  Hearing this, Peter "threw himself" (Grk, to plunge; to fall without caring where) into the water to get to Jesus.  This was because he had denied his association and allegiance to Jesus in John 18 and desired redemption.

This idea of redemption is the theme of John 21 and is seen all over the chapter.  The following is a list of some of the physical/spiritual and literal/symbolic combinations in the text:

  1. Seven Disciples = Spiritual Completion
  2. Night = Spiritual Darkness
  3. Caught Nothing = In the Gospels, the Disciples Never Caught Fish Without Jesus and Only Caught Fish With Jesus
  4. Day Breaking = Jesus Penetrating the Darkness
  5. Peter Clothing Himself = Standing in Reverence Before Jesus
  6. Charcoal Fire = A Parallel Between the Charcoal Fire in John 18 (Peter's Denial and the Darkness of an Evil Night) and the Charcoal Fire in John 21 (Peter's Redemption and the Dawn of a New Day)

Of these combinations, none are as intriguing as the 153 fish in verse 11.  The question is begged as to what the significance of such a distinct number might be.  A plethora of answers have been given.  The following details some of the more popular suggestions:

  1. A representation of the Tetragrammaton which allegedly appears 153 times in the book of Genesis.
  2. A representation of each species of fish in the Sea at this time. 
  3. The argument that 153 is the 17th triangular number, and that since 10 (Law) + 7 (grace) = 17, that this is a picture of the Law and grace.
  4. That the 154th fish got away!

While these are all interesting suggestions, they all seem to be somewhat stretches.

Since the theme of John 21 is redemption, it would make sense that the 153 fish somehow speaks to the theme.  Not counting the obvious suggestion that John had an incredible eyewitness account of Jesus' resurrection manifestation here - the kind that could account for every fish in the net - it is not unreasonable to suggest that the 153 fish in John 21:11 testifies of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.  That is, when Jesus "catches" (redeems) you, He never lets you go!  You are forever accounted for in a net that will "not be torn."

This is true even when we - like Peter - deny Him.

The perseverance of the saints is a doctrine that teaches that once you are saved, you are always saved.  It is most commonly known as the "P" in John Calvin's TULIP acrostic.  This doctrine is clearly outlined in the Gospel of John:

  • John 6:39 - "This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day."
  • John 10:28-30 - "and I give eternal life to them and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one."
  • John 18:9 - "Of those whom You have given Me I lost not one."

When paired with the symbolic meaning behind the seven disciples (completion, perfection), the meaning is even more emphasized.  Jesus perfectly redeems everyone the Father gives Him.  He doesn't miss anyone!

Another argument suggests that the Hebrew gematria for "Sons of God," which is Beni Ha Elohim, equals 153: B - 2, N - 50, Y - 10, H - 5, ) - 1, L - 30, H - 5, Y - 10, M - 40 = 153.  The phrase is said to exist 7 times, with one version existing slightly different.  If this is to be taken legitmately, then it further emphasizes the idea of redemption because it testifies of the ability to become a "son of God," and that we will be perfected through it in Christ.

Many suggestions have been offered as to why the distinct amount of fish in John 21:11 is 153.  It is important to know that of the many answers given, the most important is that it testifies of the power of Jesus to hold on to what He catches.  We can never be the fish that got away!  The net cannot tear.  We cannot grab the bait and run.  The line cannot break!  This is both the literal and symbolic, physical and spiritual message found in John 21.  The 153 fish testify of this great doctrine that we call the perseverance of the saints!

This glorious message is summed up in Jesus' thrice redemption of Peter to account for each of his three denials.