After Jesus rose from the dead, He appeared to the disciples on a number of occasions. John 21 records the third of those instances and includes the notable mention of 153 fish. Peter and the others had just witnessed another miracle of Jesus involving a large catch of fish, and “Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn” (John 21:11).
On this occasion Jesus appeared to His disciples on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius, as they were in their boat returning from an unsuccessful night of fishing (John 21:1–3). Jesus, whom they had not yet recognized, called to the disciples from the shore, asking them whether they had caught any fish (John 21:4–5). After the disciples responded that they had not, Jesus instructed them to cast their nets on the right (starboard) side of the boat. They did, and they caught so many fish in the net that they couldn’t bring the nets in (John 21:6). John quickly realized the man on the shore was Jesus, and he told Peter. Peter jumped in the water—presumably to swim to shore to see Jesus (John 21:7). The other disciples, meanwhile, came in the boat, being only about 200 cubits (or 100 yards) from the shore (John 21:8). When they arrived at shore, Peter went back into the boat to help them collect the fish, and they counted 153 fish—and large fish, at that. While there were so many fish, the net did not break (John 21:11).
The meaning of the 153 fish in John 21:11 is evident from the context. As career fisherman, the disciples would not have been strangers to the process of tallying their catch. These were apparently big enough fish to put strain on the fishermen and the nets (though, miraculously, the nets were not torn). That John mentions the number of 153 fish emphasizes the fact that something extraordinary had happened, because Someone extraordinary was there. The 153 fish provided further evidence to the disciples that the resurrected Jesus had power over nature just as He had demonstrated before His crucifixion. Earlier, John had recorded that Jesus turned the water into wine (John 2), healed an official’s son (John 4), healed a lame man (John 5), fed 5,000 people from five loaves of bread and two fish (John 6), walked on water (John 6), healed a man who had been born blind (John 9), raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11), and rose from the dead Himself (John 20). The 153 fish in John 21:11 might seem insignificant compared to these magnificent signs, but to an audience of fisherman who had failed to catch even one fish during an entire night of work, this remarkable catch provided more evidence that their belief in Jesus was well placed.
Just a few verses before John records the catching of the 153 fish, John explains that his purpose in writing was so that people would believe in Jesus and have life in His name (John 20:30–31). There were many signs and works of Jesus that John could have recorded, but he chose to record those included in the Gospel of John so his readers could have confidence that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:31), and that He is indeed equal with God (John 5:18).
There is no reason to understand the number of fish caught that morning as anything but 153 literal fish. They have no hidden meaning or symbolic significance. The meaning of the 153 fish in John 21:11 is straightforward: their appearance in the disciples’ net was important to these fishermen by trade and also to every reader of John’s Gospel, as we have 153 more reasons to believe in Jesus the Christ.