This Sunday is the 3rd Sunday of Easter. Our gospel describes the Apostle’s encounter with Jesus at the Sea of Tiberias. This after the Resurrection and, as instructed, the disciples have returned to Galilee – and it seems, taken up their former profession as fishermen:
4 When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” 6 So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish.
The Sea of Tiberias (v. 1) is a Johannine locale (6:22–23), and the fishing companions are, in general, already known to us, with the exception of “Zebedee’s sons,” who here make their only appearance in the Fourth Gospel. Among the “two other disciples,” seemingly, is the Beloved Disciple (v.7). The lack of success during the night, followed by enormous success with the daylight presence of Jesus (vv. 3–6), is a practical application of John’s frequent comments about night and day, light and darkness. The appearance of Jesus [w]hen it was already dawn echoes the scene in the garden with Mary Magdalene – the disciples’ fail to recognize Jesus as did Mary (20:14), and similarly, the Beloved Disciple is the first to recognize the Lord (v. 7).
Jesus reinitiates contact with the disciples addressing them as children (paidia). The form of address is unique to the fourth gospel and points to an authority rooted in intimacy. This authority must have been intuitively sensed, for even after a fruitless night of fishing, tired and ready to “call it a night”, the disciples dutifully cast the nets again. On their own they had caught nothing, but in response to Jesus’ command, there is a phenomenal catch of fish (cf. 4:50, 53; 5:8; 11:43).
The mention of precisely 153 fish (v. 11) has led to symbolic interpretations of all kinds. And indeed, there must be symbolism involved (unless one assumes that the disciples took time out to make a count). Saint Jerome believed that the zoology of his time taught that there were 153 different kinds of fish; and the number, as a result, reflected universality. Jerome was probably incorrect about the zoologists of his own day, but his idea about universal symbolism was probably correct. Augustine of Hippo argued that the significance lay in the fact that 153 is the sum of the first 17 integers with 17 representing the combination of divine grace (the 7 gifts of the Spirit) and law (the Ten Commandments). Augustine goes farther and notes that “153” is the “triangular number.” He arrives at this conclusion noting that 153=1!+2!+3!+4!+5! (math refresher: factorials). When the factorials are arranged (see diagram), one sees an image of the Trinity. (Sorry: I was a math major undergraduate, and just had to include this…!)
Over time there have been a host of theories, but the scholar D. A. Carson discusses this and other interpretations and concludes “If the Evangelist has some symbolism in mind connected with the number 153, he has hidden it well.” Perhaps we can let Carson have the last word.