Saturday, May 25, 2019

Calvin on the 153 fish and unbroken nets of John 21:11: A Rationalizing Trajectory?

Note: I’ve been preaching through John’s Gospel on Lord’s Day mornings over the past two years or so [and am nearing the end of that study]. Along the way, I have been reading the corresponding commentary by Calvin, and I have been struck by Calvin’s usual aversion to mystical or allegorical interpretation, no doubt a reaction to the excesses of the RCC of his own day. The text below is taken from my sermon last Sunday on John 21:1-14 and focuses on v. 11 which includes two details seemingly ripe for spiritual interpretation: the meaning of the 153 fish and the unbroken net. Calvin, as usual resists the allegorical. We happened to have a brother OPC pastor visiting with us last Sunday and over lunch we were discussing Calvin’s interpretation of this passage. I shared with him that while on one hand I greatly appreciate Calvin’s "plain sense" take, on the other I wondered if this rationalizing tendency in Calvin set a trajectory for the rise of the modern historical critical method, especially in Protestant lands, that eventually led to the exclusion nearly altogether of the spiritual, supernatural, and mystical understandings of the text. Here is the excerpt from my sermon manuscript:

John 21:11: Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, and hundred and fifty three: and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken.

In v. 11 we read that Simon Peter went up drew the net to land “full of great fishes.”

There are two intriguing details which are shared here:

First, John says that the number of the fish was one hundred and fifty-three. On one hand, we might take this simply as a vivid detail provided by the inspired evangelist to show the historicity of this event. It really happened and he recalls the exact number of fish caught in that net that day.

Interpreters of this passage, however, have been prone to find spiritual significance in this exact number.

One commentator I read notes, “Some Greek zoologists held that there were 153 kinds of fish, thus this catch fulfilled Ezekiel 47:10” (William E. Hull, John, Broadman Commentary, 373).

Ezekiel 47:10 And it shall come to pass, that the fishers shall stand upon it from Engedi even unto Eneglaim; they shall be a place to spread forth nets; their fish shall be according to their kinds, as the fish of the great sea, exceeding many.

The same commentator adds: “Further 153 represented the sum of the first seventeen numbers (1 + 2 + 3 …. + 17), and so may be represented by an equilateral triangle with 17 units in the base and one each side…. This ideal figure could stand for “the full number of the Gentiles” (Rom 11:25), to be brought in by the apostolic mission.”

Another commentator suggests the passage fulfills Jeremiah 16:16a: “Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the LORD, and they shall fish for them…” (Orthodox Study Bible).

Augustine apparently managed to take the number 153 as denoting the law and the gospel (so Calvin says).

Calvin offers the sensible conclusion: “As to the number of fishes, we ought not look for any deep mystery in it.” Instead, we ought simply to receive it as an evidence of Christ’s divine power.

The second intriguing detail: “and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken.” Remember that in the earlier episode recorded in Luke 5, their nets had broken under the load of the great catch (v. 6). But now we have the miracle of the unbroken net.

It is hard not to see this as pointing to the unity that will be shared among genuine disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. They will come from many times, many nations, many cultures, many languages, and they will have differences among them, but they will have a genuine unity among them that will come from Christ himself.

Think again of Christ’s prayer for us in John 17:21: “That they all may be one….”

Though many, the net will not be broken.

Again, I tend to see in these actual “physical” events a “spiritual” foreshadowing of what will happen in evangelism.

Calvin, however, sees it much more pragmatically. His insights are worth considering.
He says that the spiritual lesson to be gleaned here is the importance of perseverance in laboring for the kingdom even we see little with respect to visible results. The disciples fished all night and caught nothing, but it due time and at Christ’s direction, they received a great and unexpected result.

He observes:

“In the same manner , also, God often tries believers, that he may lead them the more highly to value his blessing. If we were always prosperous , whenever we out our hand to the labor, scarcely any man would attribute to the blessing of God the success of his exertions, all would boast of their industry, and would kiss their hands.”


“Now if we dislike our calling, because the labor which we undertake appears to be unproductive, yet, when the Lord exhorts us to steadiness and perseverance, we ought to take courage; in the end we shall obtain a happy result, but it will be at the proper time.”

This could be applied to many circumstances:

To a parent despairing at not seeing spiritual fruit in a wayward child.

To a believer meeting hostility for Christ’s sake in his workplace.

To one bearing witness that seems fruitless to an unsaved friend or family member.

To a pastor laboring without the outward signs of progress he might earnestly desire.

It may seem you have fished all night but caught nothing. Do not despair, for so did the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias till Christ did intervene and direct.


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