Q&A: Fish and "These" in John 21

Fish and "These" in John 21

Question

Is the large number of fish in John 21:11 significant? Also, what was Jesus talking about when he asked Peter, "Do you love me more than these?"

Answer

The number 153 is probably not intended to carry any symbolic meaning. More likely, it is simply a very large number of fish. John's comment that the net did not tear (John 21:11) seems to indicate that tearing normally would have occurred with such a large catch. It also recalls the event in Luke 5:1ff. when the disciples caught so many fish that their nets broke and their boats began to sink. In John 21, the catch may not have been quite as great, but it was still very large. Also, that Peter single-handedly dragged the net and the fish to shore (some estimate that the combined weight of the fish and net would have been around 300 pounds) indicates that he was quite a strong man.

Jesus' question "Do you love me more than these?" is as ambiguous in Greek as it is in English. It is impossible to know from the grammar what or who "these" are, and whether Jesus meant "Do you love me more than you love these?" or "Do you love me more than these love me?" The most natural understandings are "Do you love me more than these others who are here with us?" and "Do you love me more than you love these others who are here with us?"

It seems to me that the best way to interpret the text is in light of the broader context of John's gospel and of the New Testament. Specifically, in John 13:36-38 Peter had professed his willingness to die for Jesus, and Jesus had informed Peter that Peter would deny Jesus three times that very night. In fact, Peter did exactly that (John 18:15-27). As we learn from the parallel passage in Matthew 26:33ff. Peter's claim of willingness to die for Jesus was also a claim to love Jesus more than the other disciples loved Jesus: "But Peter said to Him, 'Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away'" (Matt. 26:33).

With this background, it is significant that in John 21 Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, giving Peter the opportunity to profess his love for Jesus three times as if to take back his three denials. This connects the two episodes in the reader's mind. And with this connection established in the reader's mind, it makes most sense to understand Jesus' words to have meant "Do you love me more than these others love me?"

If this is correct, it is quite significant that Peter does not answer, "Yes, Lord, you know I love you more than they do." He is no longer so proud. Rather, he humbly answers, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." He is honest in his profession of love for Jesus, but no longer exalts his own love for Jesus above the others' love for Jesus.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.