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Let’s pray once again as we come to God’s Word.
O, great God of heaven, wherever we are right now, help us to hear Your Word. We may be a block from this church or somewhere in Mecklenburg County, or in South Carolina or Colorado or Michigan or Britain or Lebanon or Nepal. Speak through all the distractions, all the anxiety, all the noise, figurative or literal. We know Your Word is not bound. Pour out Your grace. Show us Your power. Edify our hearts. Equip us for mission in the world. In Jesus we pray. Amen.
Our text this morning comes from the Gospel according to John, John chapter 21. Lord willing we will be finishing John’s Gospel this month. I had a couple of trips planned. Well, actually, I had a lot of trips planned for this spring but I had two preaching conferences in the month of May. Of course, I’m not doing those now, but that means that we have Pastor Derek and Pastor Dave coming up next week and then later in the month, and look forward to having them deliver the Word and I will be in town, but they will be preaching, and then after that we will be in Habakkuk for a short series, that’s the plan on Sunday morning in June, which I’ve not preached through that book verse by verse before and it’s very fitting for these times. And then we will be laying out a plan for the summer, morning and evening.
But this morning we are in John chapter 21, verses 1 through 14.
“After this Jesus revealed Himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and He revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.”
“Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, do you have any fish?’ They answered Him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.”
“When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared ask Him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after He was raised from the dead.”
A good story often has layers of meaning. Now when I say layers, I don’t mean contradictions. It means X and it means Y. I don’t mean secret codes, but layers. There may be an initial layer that you can read through and on a first reading of any one of who’s literate can get the basic gist. It’s obvious and it’s important. The big idea is there for all to see.
But there are often other themes, other insights, that you only see as you grow more or as someone teaches you or as you simply read more or read more carefully. This is true with all sorts of books. I remember earlier in the spring, I guess winter, February, seems like eons ago, but here at RTS Charlotte Phil Ryken came in and did the Harold O.J. Brown lectures and he did it on “Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings” and Phil Ryken has a book on that same subject, and it was a fantastic presentation. And even if you’ve seen the movies umpteen times, and you’ve read the books, he still pulls out these themes. Now, he’s careful to say that Tolkien did not see himself as providing some elaborate Christian allegory, and yet it’s very clear from the text and from various other things and letters and things that there are layers upon layers of themes, and so Ryken pulled out this theme of the threefold office of Christ that Gandalf is the sort of prophet, Frodo the priest laying down his life, and Aragorn, of course, the king. So there are layers in a good story.
And so there are layers in John’s gospel. It’s like a good, you know, 14-layer Jello. My mom is famous at Thanksgiving for, I forget, Mom, if it’s 14 or 17, but it’s a lot of layers and it takes days to do this layer and let it harden in the refridge and this layer and it is fantastic and you bite through and there’s another and another and another and that’s strawberry and that’s banana and that’s orange. It’s very good.
So as you have a rich story and you bite into it, you have new layers, new experiences, new tastes, new things you didn’t know were there, and so I think we will see that with this story here in John chapter 1 [sic]. There are at least four layers to this story.
First, most obviously, this is a story about the resurrection. We read in verse 1, “after this Jesus revealed Himself again to the disciples and He revealed Himself in this way.” So clearly this is being set up as another occasion post resurrection where Jesus has revealed Himself to the disciples, yet another appearance of Christ. That’s how the story begins, that’s how it ends. Verse 14: “Now this was the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after He was raised from the dead.” So that’s the most obvious significance. Three times.
Now, it’s not counting His appearance to Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday morning because she is not in the official, the 12, or now the 11, disciples, but first appearing to them on Easter Sunday evening and then a week later when Thomas was with them and now this is the third time He has appeared to them. And we have a number of hints telling us that this is an eyewitness account of a historical event. This is not some fairytale. It is set in a real, geographic region by the Sea of Tiberius, another name for the Sea of Galilee, where much of the gospels take place.
We have the names of the disciples; there are seven of them. Some of them by name, and then others not given, but seven of the disciples.
We also have this little hint. Did you notice this, because the one who Jesus loved, that’s John, one of the sons of Zebedee, the author of this book, when Peter throws himself into the sea and swims ashore to find Jesus, the action doesn’t follow Peter there. It’s just a little hint there again, an indication that this is eyewitness testimony. We’re not dealing with someone making up a story like you might have in a fiction book, which is written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, but rather John wasn’t there swimming with Peter, so the action sort of picks up when they’ve reached the shore again.
And you have the number of fish. Now we’ll come back to the 153 fish at the end and see if there is more to that number than meets the eye, but at least, most obviously, most significantly, it’s a lot of fish. Now, this is not the normal practice when you are a fisherman by trade. If you’ve fished like three times in your life like I have, then if you catch a fish, you count it – I caught one fish. If you caught three, you might count your three fish. But when it’s your livelihood, you don’t bring in and count every individual fish, so surely this was a special occasion where they had this miraculous catch and you could just imagine them saying, “Look it all these large fish. The net didn’t break. Somebody’s got to count them. How many fish did we get?” They got 153. This is an historical event.
Last week we looked at Thomas, doubting Thomas. The book of Jude says “have mercy on those who doubt.” And there’s lots of kind of doubt. When you doubt, and I’m a pastor, that doesn’t mean that, you know, you go to seminary and when you graduate or when you get ordained, then God says “never again shall you have any unanswered questions, never again shall you have any doubts, have any struggles.” Of course that doesn’t happen. And whenever I’ve had occasions of doubt, I come back to the resurrection. And you should come back to the resurrection. Yes, you may ask the question “Well, is the Bible true? Is it inspired? What if I’m in the wrong religion? What, you know, is this a fairy tale?”
Start with, “Is the resurrection true?”
Now, there’s other ways to get at your doubts, but this is just one salutary way, and it’s been helpful to me. This is a historical event with all of the earmarkings of eyewitness account. You say, “Well, how do I know? How can I really trust anything?” Well, how do you know anything about the pharaohs? How do you know anything about Alexander the Great? How do you know anything about Julius Caesar? How do you know anything about George Washington? Someone was there with an eyewitness account and has written it down and it has been preserved and that’s how you know.
And so it is with Jesus. It wouldn’t have made sense for the disciples to lie about the resurrection. To lie about these appearances. You notice how, how obvious John is making it: “This is the third time He appeared to the disciples.” Paul will say famously in 1 Corinthians 15: “He appeared to more than 500 people at one time.” I mean, that is putting it out there to say there are people still alive who saw the resurrected Jesus. Go to them. Not just, not just one person somewhere in a cave had an ecstatic experience and you need to trust him, but dozens and hundreds of people, some multiple times. So it’s putting out there, this was not done in a corner. Go ask people. This was not a group hallucination one night with bad mushrooms. This was history.
And of course the disciples, tradition tells us, all but John lost their lives for faith in Christ. And so you don’t go and die for something you know to be a lie.
So, no, no, no. We can trust the resurrection.
And here we have yet another incident where Jesus has appeared to them, because it’s not just an empty tomb. There can be all sorts of explanations for an empty tomb. You have an empty tomb and you have appearances, both of those things. Well, if the tomb’s not empty and you see Jesus, well, then, who’s in the tomb? Who really died? Or the tomb is empty but there’s no appearances, then somebody stole His body, we don’t know. Tomb is empty, He appeared and now for the third time post resurrection to the disciples.
So on the most basic level, layer of this story, we are meant to see the third occasion where Jesus revealed Himself to the disciples as the resurrected Lord.
There’s a second layer. It’s a story about the resurrection; it’s a story about Jesus. That should be obvious. You notice again He seems to appear out of nowhere, verse 4, “just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore.” It’s the same word there for “standing” that’s used several times, three times in chapter 20 when they saw Him standing there in the midst of the room. So we don’t know if this is another mysterious occasion where Jesus with a resurrected body appears out of nowhere or, a more natural explanation, is, you know, it’s been dark and it’s the break of day and there’s the mist of the lake and they’re just now making out that there’s someone on the shore. However the case, what’s more important than how Jesus got there is was Jesus has to say.
Now they don’t know that it’s Jesus initially. And again, other stories like Mary in chapter 20 in the garden or the disciples on the road to Emmaus, sometimes there’s sort of a veil of ignorance. Now it doesn’t seem to be the case here, but just naturally you’re 100 yards off at the break of day and you’re not quite sure who it is that’s yelling at you.
Jesus shouts to them from the shore, far enough way they can’t make out who He is, but close enough that they can hear Him. He says, “Children,” or we might say, “Hey, boys” or “You guys” or down here, “Y’all.” Or in Scotland, “Laddies, have you caught anything?”
Now I’d like, I’d like to know what the disciples were feeling at this point. Were they, were they hopeful? I tend to think that they probably were rolling their eyes in the boat. “Um, no, we didn’t catch anything.” And then He says, “Have you tried the right side of the boat?” And you can just imagine the disciples saying, “Who is this guy? He wants us to try the right side of the boat. We’ve got a left side, we’ve got a right. You don’t think we tried the right side? Okay.” And they look at one another, “All right, all right. What have we got to lose? We’ve been doing this all night, we caught nothing. Okay, guys, sons of Zebedee, get the net, put it on the right side. Let’s see what joker on the shore has for us.” And they cast the nets, whether out of despair or hope or cynicism, and the catch is unbelievable.
Now it’s not strictly a sign in the Johannine sense. We saw in chapter 20, verse 30, “Now Jesus did many other signs which are not written in this book,” and seven or eight of those signs, depending how you count the resurrection, are there in John’s Gospel. They are, it’s sort of a technical term to prove the identity of Christ.
So this is after that, so it’s not a sign in that technical sense, but it is another miracle. It may be a miracle of omnipotence that Jesus as the Son of God makes 153 fish appear, or it may be a miracle of omniscience that they’ve gone all night and now Jesus as the Son of God knows that right there at this moment on that side of the boat there are a lot of fish and He knows it 100 yards away, whatever it is, it demonstrates to the disciples pretty quickly this is not just a guy having an early morning cookout on the beach. John says, “It is the Lord.” It’s the Lord. He’s putting two and two together, this miraculous catch of fish. It’s Him!
Amazingly, when they come to the shore, they find in verse 9 a charcoal fire in place. Fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus is there to make them breakfast.
Interestingly, there’s two different words for fish here, “opsarion” in the Greek is in verses 9, 10, and 13, fish as food. Icthus, which is the word you may be familiar with, Greek word for fish as a living animal is in verse 6, 8, and 11, kind of like we might distinguish between cow and beef. You don’t say you want to go and pet the beef. No, it’s a cow when it’s a living thing, it’s beef when you eat it.
So they have two different words for fish here. But what’s amazing is this is such an ordinary, earthly, human scene and that’s what makes it absolutely remarkable. If it wasn’t in the Bible, you would almost think that it couldn’t be in the Bible.
Verse 12: “Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.'”
Why is this so remarkable? You have the Son of God, everything we’ve been building to with John’s Gospel, we saw explode in the prologue, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” monogenes, the only begotten from the Father, all of these signs, and now He’s the resurrected One. Thomas has confessed “Lord and God” and this same Jesus says “I’ll make you breakfast.”
He is always a King who serves. Even as the resurrected Lord and God, He came not to be served but to serve. He is ever the host. He is ever for us. He is ever ready to come to our aid. He is ever ready to beckon us and say, “If you would but listen and come, I’ll provide a meal for you. Come on over to my house. Come on over for breakfast. I’m making you fish and bread. Do you want to eat? I’m the Lord and I want to feed you.”
I just love what we see about Jesus here. It’s a story about the resurrection. It’s a story about Jesus.
Third, it’s a story about the disciples.
Now it’s hard to know what to make of the disciples. They’re growing, they’re changing. They’re not quite everything they’re going to be, fully endowed with the Holy Spirit. The question that many commentators ask is “Were the disciples sinning by fishing?” and some people make a big deal of this and say, “Look, they, they have left their discipleship, they’ve left following Jesus, oh, ye of little faith. They’ve gone back to their old jobs. Peter says forget it, we’re done with this. Let’s go fishing.” And some people make a big deal out of that. I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think we are meant to judge them for fishing. Certainly the text doesn’t suggest they had done something wrong.
And when Peter says “let’s go fishing” it’s not “hey, guys, you want a vacation?” This is their livelihood. That’s why it says later he was stripped for work. This is what they have to do. I mean, they do have to eat. They’re going to do something. There are seven of them here, and it’s, we can’t know for sure, but it’s likely seven who lived in this area. We know Peter was a fisherman. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were fishermen. Nathanael, it says, is from Cana in Galilee nearby, and then there are two others mentioned, and it’s just speculation, but I would guess that it’s probably Andrew, who’s often with Peter, and then Philip, who earlier in John is with Nathanael, and so you have these seven Galilee men and boys, going out to do what they know how to do. They know how to fish.
And besides that, Jesus told them to go to Galilee. Matthew 28, verse 7: “The angel says go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead and behold He is going before you to Galilee. There you will see Him.”
Jesus Himself says, Matthew 28:10: “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee and there they will see Me.”
It’s hard to know the chronological order of all these appearances, or how close they are on the heels of one another, but certainly there was instruction from Jesus and from the angel, “At some point you’re going to go to Galilee and I will appear to you there.”
So I don’t think they’re doing anything wrong by being back in Galilee and fishing. They’ve not abandoned Jesus.
And yet clearly they’ve not been filled with the Spirit in the way they are in Acts. They don’t seem like the Apostles we see in the book of Acts. They’re still a bit discombobulated, sort of lacking in clear purpose. So you could say these are not the disciples as you find them before Easter, but they’re not the disciples as you’ll find them after Pentecost. They haven’t yet been filled with the Spirit, so they’re confused, but they’re eager.
John and Peter once again figure prominently as they often do in John’s Gospel. Peter again appears to be a kind of first among equals, the de facto leader. Verse 3: “Simon Peter said, ‘I’m going fishing.'” Probably one of the older ones in the group and so they follow him and they go fishing.
And then Peter, were so used to, if you’ve studied the Bible, Peter being the impetuous one, the bold one, the sort of shoot first, ask questions later, and we see another example of it here. Peter with his boldness and impetuous faith.
John says, verse 7, “It is the Lord, and when Simon Peter that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and he threw himself into the sea.” He’s going to go swim the 100 yards, he doesn’t have time to get the boat there. He’s, he’s all in to get to Jesus. And it’s hard to know exactly what it means, “he put on the outer garment.” Maybe it means he sort of cinched up the outer garment that he was wearing. When it says he was stripped for work, the Greek is actually “gymnos,” from which we get our word gymnasium, which in Greek means “naked” or “nearly naked.” So he probably just has some very small sort of loincloth on, as you would as you’re a fisherman. It’s not anything inappropriate. There’s a bunch of guys out and they’re doing dirty, stinky work in the water fishing all night, and so he’s not exactly, you know, dressed for church in the morning.
And it’s just like Peter. There’s Jesus 100 yards away. How do I? I’m going to put on clothes, most people would take, I’m going to put on clothes and swim to the shore because, well, I’ve gotta cover myself up when I have breakfast with Jesus.
They’re eager, but they’re confused. There’s a genuine, heartfelt enthusiasm for being with Jesus, and yet they have a very important lesson to learn. This is undoubtedly Jesus’ way of reinforcing the lesson of John 15:5: “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.”
We just saw in chapter 20, He’s sending them out, but before they go, they need to learn this most critical lesson: “I’m the vine, you’re the branches, apart from Me you can do nothing.”
And listen, it’s easy for us, us, me, all of us, to forget this. Surely one of the good things that the Lord is doing with COVID-19 is to remind us how frail we are, how much our plans are really in His hands. We may have known for, through Bible study, that in James, you know, we’re supposed to say with our plans “if the Lord wills,” so sometimes people say that and “well, if the Lord wills.” You even see sometimes people will put DV on their calendar or after their plans, Deo Volente, it’s Latin for “if the Lord wills.” We know that as a theological concept, and yet haven’t we all been reminded again and again. No, that’s really true. It’s all if the Lord wills. We, we, all the plans we thought we had are gone. All the plans we’re trying to make to be wise, we hold tentatively.
So again, the Lord is reminding us how utterly dependent we always have been on Him: Apart from Me, you can do nothing. And how quickly we forget it.
And I hope it’s not the case, but it’s likely that it won’t be long after this is over and most people will again believe in the myth of self-sufficiency. Don’t you make that mistake. That right now when you know that you need God in your life, you need God, you’re praying for health, for safety, you know you are in His hands, and months from now, years from now, life seems normal again and we will fall into that myth of self-sufficiency.
Don’t waste this global pandemic. If we learn this one lesson and never forget it, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing,” then this whole ordeal will not have been in vain. Keep casting your net in the waters. Who knows what God may provide, what miraculous catch of fish.
I can tell you right now, there are not 153 people in here. This is a big, empty room. And so each week it’s, it’s by faith that the Word of God is not bound and that God is doing something through His Word to go out. And so sometime we will, we will gather again, but it’s still a ministry that’s built on faith. Should I share the Gospel with this friend? It’ll never work. Should I, should I pray this prayer with my child? It doesn’t seem to be doing anything. Should I have this conversation? I don’t know. It’s never seemed to matter before.
Cast your net, cast your net. Jesus says just, just give it one more try. Cast your net to the other. Who knows when Jesus will give to you or to us that miraculous catch? Who knows but that you might be in that miraculous catch this morning.
So it’s a story about the resurrection, it’s a story about Jesus, it’s a story about the disciples, and then the last layer, it’s a story about the mission of the Church. The miraculous catch is a symbol of the miraculous ingathering of the children of God through the Church’s mission: “I will make you fishers of men.”
Remember the context here, post resurrection, is “as the Father has sent Me, so I send you.” Jesus is saying, “Listen to Me. Do as I say. Trust me. Depend upon me. Don’t give up. There is an ingathering that is coming.” And the fish are a sign of the miraculous ingathering of people.
Now you say that sounds good. Do we really know that’s what’s going on? Well, there is almost certainly a connection to be made between this passage and Ezekiel 47.
Just keep a finger here and turn to the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, before Daniel, after Isaiah, Jeremiah… Ezekiel 47. Ezekiel is a strange book. It’s a prophetic book. It’s got lots of unusual imagery. By the end of Ezekiel, we have this picture of this sort of cosmic end time temple. A picture of God’s kingdom to come, when His temple fills all and all, and from the temple is flowing streams of living water. We see that at the beginning of Ezekiel 47. You may remember, if you’ve been here through this series on John, that there is a connection already in John’s Gospel to this chapter. And that was with the feast in John chapter 7, when Jesus says “streams of living water will burst forth.” That was an allusion to this prophecy here in Ezekiel chapter 47. The water was a symbol of life, symbol of life for the crops and a symbol of life coming from the water of blessing, and Jesus says “come to Me and drink, whoever believes in Me will have rivers of living water coming out of him.” Well, that was John 7.
Well, here there is a fulfillment of Ezekiel’s vision of a supernatural haul of fish. Look at Ezekiel 47, verse 7: “He led me to the bank of the river. I saw in the bank of the river very many trees.” Verse 8: “He said, ‘The water flows to the east.'” Verse 9: “Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live.”
And then verse 10. So we’re in a scene with this river flowing, creatures teeming, verse 10: “Fishermen will stand beside the sea. From Engedi to Enegliam it will be a place for the spreading of nets. Its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea.”
So here in Ezekiel is this prophetic word with this end time temple and the streams of living water and the teeming with creatures and it will be an occasion for the spreading of nets and a great haul of fish, speaking to the vitality, the life, the abundance of this river coming from the temple.
And so in the same way Jesus is fulfilling this with the miraculous haul of fish, which is but a foreshadowing of what will come when the Spirit arrives and the miraculous ingathering of the people and of the nations.
Now we’re almost done. Just if you can stick with me for a little bit of math. I know that’s exciting. Because 153. Commentators since the beginning of the church have written about what is with this number 153. Now you may not be convinced by this. You may just say it’s a big number, they counted it and that’s all there is to it, and that is completely possible. But we know that the church fathers already were speculating about why this number. It does seem strange that you would give this number. I mean, there’s a lot of biblical numbers that kind of get rounded to 40 or we know 12 disciples, but 153?
There’s a scholarly article by Richard Bauckham, who is one of the most well-respected New Testament scholars today, called The 153 Fish and the Unity of the Fourth Gospel. It goes down a lot of tangents. It involves a good deal of speculation. I’m not convinced by every number. It starts making your head spin, all the numbers that he pulls together in this article. But I do think he makes a good case that we should not ignore the importance of special numbers in the Bible, especially in Johannine literature, that is, the Gospel of John and Revelation. There’s lots of important numbers: 144,000, and 7 this and 4 this and 666 is the number of the beast. These numbers meant something.
Think about it. We have special numbers. If someone, you know, ages from now were to unearth something and some story and some sports progeny was given by his coach the number 23, you know, we would understand, well, 23, that’s Jordan, and 23 is important. Or if someone looked back and was talking about a road and it was going to be called 66, we now Route 66. Or when the twin towers fell and it was September 11, everyone put together 9-11, that’s the number we call for help. People get free pies on March 14 because it’s pi day. So we have numbers that are sort of part of our, our cultural knowledge.
Well, Bauckham says triangular and perfect numbers were known to everyone in the ancient world with a little education and were widely regarded as significant numbers.
Now, don’t worry about what a perfect number is here for a moment, but just let’s, triangular numbers. A triangular number is a number that is the sum of all the numbers in that sequence. So the triangular number of 10 is 4, because 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10. The triangular… See, you got the sequence, add them up. The triangular number for 153 is 17, so it’s a triangular number and people in the ancient world, they know, they knew these sort of things. Oh, that’s a prime number, that’s a perfect number, that’s a triangular number. So, we’re not talking Bible code, this isn’t going to reveal when Jesus comes back or who you should marry, but these were numbers that were familiar to them.
So hold that. I need to introduce another concept. And this is going somewhere. Gematria. Gematria was, in the ancient world, the idea that each letter of the alphabet had a numerical value. This was very common. This is how you count things; this is how you add things up. I don’t have, you know, Arabic numerals, you have your letters and those letters are representative also of numbers. So in Hebrew, there are 22 letters plus 5 variations of certain letters when they are in the word, so 27 letters, and they were assigned a value. The first 9 were 1 through 9, the second 9 were 10, 20, 30, etc., through 90, and then the third 9 were 100, 200, 300, etc., through 900. So you put those together, 27 letters, and it allows you to count whatever you want.
Graffiti has been found in Pompeii which says “I love the girl whose number is 545.” Just like today some people say, you know, I’m from the 704, or the 616, whatever your area code is. Well, this is “I love the girl who’s 545.” Try that for, you know, Mother’s Day, anniversary, it will just be so romantic to just give them a number.
Well, the numbers were representative of words. So what does this have to do with Ezekiel 47? Well, many people have pointed out that 153 is the triangular number of 17. Augustin pointed that out. People have noticed that for centuries.
Well, if you go back to Ezekiel 47:10, with the great haul of fish, you have two place names. Engedi, which means the spring of Gedi, and Enegliam, which means the spring of Egliam. And in this article Bauckham points out that Gedi in Hebrew, add up those letters, is 17. Egliam in Hebrew is 153. He also notes that the word “Gedi,” and I’ll just have to take his word for this, I didn’t count myself, is the 153rd word in Ezekiel 47 in Hebrew. And he goes on. The Hebrew phrase “children of God” has the value of 153. So there’s lots of things you can do, and I’m not convinced that all of it has to be convincing to you, but when you see the connection to Ezekiel 47, and you have a number staring you in the face like 153, and you know that people in the ancient world liked to pay attention to these sorts of numbers, it seems too much of a mere happenstance that Gedi is 17, Egliam is 153, and Ezekiel 47:10 is about a great haul of fish.
So what’s the takeaway other than saying, “Huh. Math. Who knew?”
Well, it reinforces the mission of the Son of God as He has given to the disciples and through them to the church. So that’s why I said layers.
Do you need to know anything about triangular numbers to make sense of this passage? No. But it’s another layer. And you don’t have to be convinced of every numerical connection, but it is so out of the ordinary to have a number like 153 that I think we are meant to see this connection to Ezekiel 147 [sic], and the importance of the connection is this: John 21 is the in-breaking of this end time vision of the holy temple, streams of living water, health, strength, vitality, a miraculous catch of fish from the spring of Gedi and the spring do Egliam, and now it’s happening with the disciples. Go, put your net to the right side of the boat and see what you get.
It’s not mainly about fish. It’s about what Jesus said at the very beginning of the gospel story: I will make you fishers of men.
So is John 21 a promise that your church or this church will grow fantastically? No, it’s not that promise. Is it a promise that your evangelism will automatically bear fruit, that all of our missionaries will be wildly successful? No. But it is a promise that Jesus Christ Himself will build the church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. It is testimony to the Lord’s continuing power and presence with the disciples and now with us as we prepare for the mission, and we live out the mission that He has given to us. He’s promised, in time, a great haul of fish. So would you keep preaching? Would you keep praying? Would you keep serving? Would you keep sending out your missionaries? Would you keep serving faithfully where you are, near or far?
It reminds us of this great truth which we need to hear in these days as much as in any, the Church is in the midst of a battle it will not lose. And we are engaged in a mission that will not fail.
So keep casting your nets and see that the Lord does.
Let’s pray. Our gracious heavenly Father, we give thanks for Your Word. We give thanks for the layers of meaning in Your Word. Help us to be faithful students of it that we may see all that you have for us. And encourage us now, in this week, though limited by the size of gathering or places to go, yet give us creative ways to sow our seed, to cast our net, and to see what miracles you may do. In Jesus we pray. Amen.