Understanding John 21
To be upfront, I believe that this passage reflects the building of the third temple, the one that exists in the body of Christ’s believers.
The New Testament can be hard to grasp even for someone who has read the entire Bible in full, but out of context it’s virtually impossible to understand. One chapter I often get questions about is John 21. In John 21, the disciples are fishing, and cannot catch any fish. Christ appears to them and tells them to cast, they do so and catch 153 large fish. Christians often wonder why the details that were included were included. In addition to the specific number of fish, there are details such as Simon Peter being naked and clothing himself, the fact that the fish were eaten with bread over coal, and more. As it says in this chapter:
There are many other things that Jesus did. If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
So since the writers of the Gospel had to pick and choose exactly what to include, excluding many details, then why did they mention the specific details they did? Many believe that the choice was random, but on the contrary, there is not one word out of place in the New Testament, and there is meaning and symbolism in every description.
For those who have not read the Bible, here is some background information you need to know to understand.
Jesus in the Bible uses fish as a metaphor for Christians. Examples include:
Matthew 13:47 – “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind.
Matthew 4:19 – And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
It’s important to know Jesus also used a fish as a metaphor for his death and resurrection:
Matthew 12:40 – But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.
The name Peter, Πέτρος, means Rock, or rather Rock-Man. Jesus uses Peter’s names for metaphors, such as in:
Matthew 16:18 – And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.
This should be enough information, now let’s explain this chapter’s significance verse by verse. We will copy and paste the entire chapter in the course of this explanation, using the LEB translation although any translation says the same. I do not edit Bible verses, all italics and parentheses are from the Biblical text itself, the italics are used to show when the translator has added in a word for easier reading in English, and parentheses in this chapter are how the translator chooses to show the underlying Greek text.
After these things Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. Now he revealed himself in this way: Simon Peter and Thomas (who was called Didymus) and Nathanael from Cana in Galilee and 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 also are coming with you.” They went out and got into the boat, and during that night they caught nothing.
We have here 6 disciples fishing in the Sea of Tiberias, or Sea of Galilee in modern usage. It’s of note that Didymus is Koine Greek for “the twins,” and as all details this should not be ignored.
Simon: The natural name of Simon Peter, Peter being the name given to him by Christ. Simon’s brother was called Andrew and their last name appears to have been Barjona, which suggests that either their father or a patriarchal ancestor was called Jonah. Not to be confused with the other apostle named Simon, Simon the Canaanite, or what is translated as Christ’s brother Simon.
Peter: The name given to Simon Peter by Christ, explained above.
Thomas: Means “the twins,” which in Aramaic תְּאוֹמָא and Hebrew תְּאוֹם means twins.
Didymus: This means twins in Greek, a translation for the Greek speakers given in the Greek texts.
Nathanael: Considered to be named Bartholomew in the other Gospels. It’s specified he is from Cana in Galilee. Name means God has given. In 1 Chronicles 17 in the Old Testament, it says “the word of God was to Nathan, “Go, tell my servant David: ‘This is what the Lord says: “You must not build me a house in which to live.” ….. “I declare to you that the Lord will build a dynastic house for you! When the time comes for you to die, I will raise up your descendant, one of your own sons, to succeed you, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build me a house, and I will make his dynasty permanent. I will become his father and he will become my son.” Of course, Jesus was of the line of David.
Sons of Zebedee: James and John, according to Luke 5:10 and Matthew 4:21. Jesus nicknames these brothers Boanerges, translated as Sons of Thunder in Mark.
Two other disciples, not named.
They go out fishing, with no luck throughout the night.
Now when it was already early morning, Jesus stood on the beach. However, the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. So Jesus said to them, “Children, you do not have any fish to eat, do you?They answered him, “No.” And he said to them, “Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they threw it, and were no longer able to haul it in from the large number of the fish.
Then that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” So Simon Peter, when he heard that it was the Lord, tied around himself his outer garment (for he was naked) and threw himself into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net of fish, because they were not far from the land, but about two hundred cubits away.
Now we have the struggle of trying to catch fish without Jesus, that is to say, introduce people to the Kingdom of God without going through Christ. Here we get the first and least explicit hint of temple imagery – Peter, Rock, wrapping himself up and throwing himself into the water among the fish. Solomon built his temple with what is called in the Talmud, Midrashim, and Quran a Shamir. The Shamir was Solomon’s tool to build his temple, but since “any other vessel would burst and disintegrate under the Shamir’s gaze” the Shamir had to be stored and used when wrapped in wool. The Shamir’s purpose was to cut materials without using force, as Solomon did not want the temple’s materials to be made of violence, even the stone that was cut was cut in the Quarry so that the sound of cutting could not be heard in the Temple, as in 1 Kings 6:7. As the Shamir wrapped in wool shapes the materials of the first Temple, Peter/Rock jumps into the fish/Christians.
So when they got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire laid there, and a fish lying on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just now caught.” So Simon Peter got into the boat and hauled the net to the land, full of large fish—one hundred fifty-three—and although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come, eat breakfast!” But none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew that it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and the fish likewise. This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he had been raised from the dead.
We have here 153 large fish being caught. Why 153, why are they large, what does this mean? I did struggle to find that number in the Bible to understand the reference, but eventually the two occurrences were found, and I am happy to share them with you today.
The first reference to 153 is found in the amount of money David collects for the temple to be built, I believe I am the first person to notice this so enjoy. The second more easily spotted reference to 153 is found in the laborers of Solomon who actually built the Temple. So we have 153 in the number of materials, and 153 in the amount of laborers who used those materials to build.
David, 1 Chronicles 29:
Now, to show my commitment to the temple of my God, I donate my personal treasure of gold and silver to the temple of my God, in addition to all that I have already supplied for this holy temple. This includes 3,000 talents of gold from Ophir and 7,000 talents of refined silver for overlaying the walls of the buildings, for gold and silver items, and for all the work of the craftsmen. Who else wants to contribute to the Lord today?”
The leaders of the families, the leaders of the Israelite tribes, the commanders of units of a thousand and a hundred, and the supervisors of the king’s work contributed willingly. They donated for the service of God’s temple 5,000 talents and 10,000 darics of gold, 10,000 talents of silver, 18,000 talents of bronze, and 100,000 talents of iron. All who possessed precious stones donated them to the treasury of the Lord’s temple, which was under the supervision of Jehiel the Gershonite. The people were delighted with their donations, for they contributed to the Lord with a willing attitude; King David was also very happy.
Adding up 3,000 + 7,000 + 5,000 + 10,000 + 10,000 +18,000 +100,000 = 153,000 talents of gold, silver and iron to build the first Temple.
Then we have three more references in Solomon’s building, one in 1 Kings 5 and two in 2 Chronicles 2.
1 Kings 5, – Solomon also had 70,000 common laborers and 80,000 stonecutters in the hills, besides 3,300 officials who supervised the workers. By royal order they supplied large valuable stones in order to build the temple’s foundation with chiseled stone. Solomon’s and Hiram’s construction workers, along with men from Byblos, did the chiseling and prepared the wood and stones for the building of the temple.
So we have 153,300.
2 Chronicles 2 – Solomon ordered a temple to be built to honor the Lord, as well as a royal palace for himself. Solomon had 70,000 common laborers and 80,000 stonecutters in the hills, in addition to 3,600 supervisors.
Now we have Solomon’s workers estimated at the beginning of this chapter as 153,600.
His foreign workers have a similar tally at the end of the same Chapter:
Solomon took a census of all the male resident foreigners in the land of Israel, after the census his father David had taken. There were 153,600 in all. He designated 70,000 as common laborers, 80,000 as stonecutters in the hills, and 3,600 as supervisors to make sure the people completed the work.
So now we have 153,600 given as the foreign workers working on the temple in Israel.
153,000 talents to pay for the temple, and estimates of Solomon’s workforce to build the temple are 153,300 and 153,600 and 153,600 respectively. Christ, being of the lineage of David and obviously very well versed in Judean scripture as he constantly sparred verbally with the educated Jews of his time, would have been very well aware of these figures, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he choose 153 large fish to be caught in the net as symbolic of how the Third Temple, the body of Christ through his believers, would provide all that is needed to build the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ.
As recalled in John 2:
The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days? But the temple he had spoken of was his body.
Also of note is that the word LEB translates as charcoal is translated in most other translations as coal, rightfully so, and coal was used to burn incense at the altar of God in the First Temple. By giving the disciples bread, his body, which we already know Jesus said was the new Temple, and fish, new believers, all while the coal burned we have a beautiful metaphor given to the disciples:
God is granting them his body, the Third Temple, in the form of the bread which, as we know from Christ in Luke 22:19, is his body. They are to combine the fish, new Christians, with the bread, his body, and instead of sacrificing lambs onto the coals of the altar of God, the new altar of God will be used only to prepare Christians to be combined with the Body of Christ. Instead of a human preparing the coals for a lamb, the Lamb of God* prepares these coals for a representation of a Christian, but not to be sacrificed, rather to be brought to eternal life.
* John 1:29, John 1:36, 1 Corinthians 5:7
Christ giving them bread and fish parallels Isaiah 44:19:
And none considereth in his heart, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say, I have burned part of it in the fire; yea, also I have baked bread upon the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh, and eaten it: and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? shall I fall down to the stock of a tree?
To wrap up these particular verses I would like to give the KJV translation, verse 14, only removing the words that they themselves have marked as being added by themselves for clarity, ie, not in the original text, leaving only what was originally there:
This now third Jesus was revealed to the disciples had been raised from the dead.
I find that Jesus manifested this scenario on his third appearance somewhat fitting for the building of the Third Temple.
Now when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs!” He said to him again a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Shepherd my sheep!” He said to him a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed because he said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything! You know that I love you!” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep! Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young, you tied your clothes around yourself and walked wherever you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will tie you up and carry you where you do not want to go (Now he said this to indicate by what kind of death he would glorify God.) And after he[r] had said this, he said to him, “Follow me!”
Here we have Christ asking him three times, if Peter loves him. Each Temple was a symbol of dedication to God, but this Third Temple is required, which is why Jesus asks Peter three times, even though he knows he will get the same answer every time. Christ says Peter is the rock who he will build his church upon, a cornerstone. Three cornerstones have been laid, Peter is the third, which is why Christ asks Peter three times, symbolizing the cornerstone having to repeat it’s purpose three times.
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.
Peter turned and[s] saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them (who also leaned back on his chest at the dinner and said, “Lord, who is the one betraying you?”) So when he[u] saw this one, Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, but what about this one?” Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” So this saying went out to the brothers that that disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is testifying about these things, and who has written down these things. And we know that his testimony is true. Now there are also many other things that Jesus did, which—if they were written down one after the other—I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written.
In this last verse, Peter asks about John, somewhat cryptically asking “What about this one?”
Christ replies to Peter that if he wants John to remain until he comes, what it is it him? I have no explanation for this passage so I will not comment, but it’s a mystery to dwell upon.
This, for the moment, ends my analysis of Chapter 21 of John, I will add more to this text in the future.