The Great Catch: Part I :: By Randy Nettles

Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. He had moved from Nazareth to Capernaum, which is about 20 miles farther north. Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven [God] is at hand.” A number of men heard Jesus’ message and became his disciples. “And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men. They immediately left their nets and followed Him” (Matthew 4:18-20). Soon afterward, Jesus also called John and James, the sons of Zebedee, who were also fishermen, when they were tending their nets by the Sea of Galilee. They left their father and followed Jesus.

The Pre-Resurrection Great Catch

Luke tells a similar story but adds extra details. Jesus was preaching at the shore of the lake of Gennesaret when he spotted two boats that were empty because the fishermen were washing their nets. One of the boats belonged to Simon Peter. Jesus entered the boat and asked Peter to cast off a little from the land, and he sat down and taught the people out of the ship. When he was through preaching, Jesus told Peter to launch out into the deeper water and to let down his nets. Peter told him that he had fished all the previous night and had caught nothing, but he nevertheless agreed to do it for Jesus’ sake.

When they brought the nets up, they were filled with a great multitude of fishes, and their net began to break. Peter called his partners to bring the other boat so they could load all of the fish into both boats. They were so full that the boats began to sink. “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him [John and James], at the draught of the fishes which they had taken. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from now on you shall catch men. And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him” (Luke 5:8-11).

These new disciples of Jesus did indeed become fishers of men during Jesus’ three-plus years ministry (and especially afterward). Many Bible scholars believe there is a symbolic meaning of this “fishing” experience. The men are the disciples who become “fishers of men” that cast their net (word of God) into the water (Holy Spirit). The water/Holy Spirit guided the multitude of fish (souls of men/women) into the net and then into the boat (Jesus’ ministry) and ultimately into the hands of the Lord.

Jesus and his disciples caught many souls during his earthly ministry. Some of these lost souls became followers of Jesus and were baptized by the disciples with water (John 4:2), for the Holy Spirit was not yet given. Many of these followers later became “disciples” (in some translations, “brethren”) of Jesus. They were not a part of the original twelve disciples (later called apostles) who were the core inner group that followed Jesus everywhere, but an outer group who followed him periodically or came to Jesus’ sermons and healings when he was passing through.

Many women became loyal followers of Jesus as well, although they were never called disciples. In those days, women could be followers of a teacher but not an actual disciple. Being a disciple was a privilege only reserved for men before the Holy Spirit was given to “all” (men and women who believe Jesus is Christ). Some women who followed Jesus included Mary Magdalene, Martha and Mary (sisters of Lazarus), Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary’s sister (Jesus’ aunt), Mary the mother of James the younger, Joanna, Susanna, Salome, and Rhoda.

The multitude of fish that were breaking the net and sinking the boats in Luke 5:8-11 represent the “ones that got away.” An example of this falling away is found in John 6 when Jesus was preaching a not-so-woke sermon to his “disciples.” “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will have no life in you” (John 6:53). “From that time many of his disciples went back and walked with Him no more” (John 6:66). Notice the number of this verse of apostasy from these men…666.

Jesus knew there were many unbelievers in the crowd, so he spoke in symbolic terms. Although they didn’t know it, eating His flesh and drinking His blood symbolized the communion ceremony of the New Covenant, which he later initiated during his last Passover supper with the apostles. Because the unbelievers didn’t understand Jesus’ words, many of them left him, as he knew they would. They were unwilling to learn the true meaning behind the symbolism.

“Then Jesus said to the twelve, Do you also want to go away? Simon Peter answered Him, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus answered them, Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil? He spoke of Judas Iscariot, for it was he who would betray Him” (John 6:70-71). Even one of Jesus’ hand-picked twelve disciples would break through the net and be lost, for he was never actually one of them to begin with.

The Post Resurrection Appearances of Jesus

After Jesus was crucified and then resurrected back to life, He made several appearances to His disciples and apostles. Paul spoke of His appearing to a multitude of brethren in Corinthian 15. “He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time” (1 Corinthians 15:5-8).

According to the apostle John, the first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus was to one of his unofficial disciples, Mary Magdalene, a woman who was present at Jesus’ crucifixion. This occurred on Resurrection Sunday morning when she went to the tomb of Jesus. At first she did not recognize Jesus until he called her name. She turned and said to Him, “Rabboni!” (which is to say teacher), proving that she considered herself a disciple of Jesus… and of course, she was in the real sense of the word.

The first appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the apostles occurred on Resurrection Sunday evening when He was seen by all the disciples except Thomas, who was not with them (and Judas was dead). The second appearance (John 20) occurred eight days after the resurrection. Jesus showed Himself to all of his disciples, including Thomas (Matthias hadn’t been chosen yet to replace Judas).

The Post Resurrection Great Catch

In John 21, Jesus showed himself again to the apostles at the Sea of Tiberias. This is now the third time that Jesus showed Himself to them after He was raised from the dead. This time Jesus appeared to seven of his apostles, including Peter and John. On this day, Peter declared to his fellows that he was going to go fishing. Six of the disciples decided they wanted to go with him. They fished all night and caught nothing. “But when the morning had come, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Then Jesus said to them, Children, have you any food?” (John 21:4-5). Jesus then told them to cast the net on the right side of the boat and they would find some fish. They did as this “stranger” told them and were not able to draw the net back into the boat for the multitude of fish.

John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was the first to recognize that it was Jesus they had been talking to. He exclaimed, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he jumped into the water and swam to shore. The rest of the disciples came in the little boat dragging the net with fish. Then as soon as they reached land, they saw a fire of coals there with fish and bread laid on it. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish which you have just caught.”

Breakfast by the Sea

Simon Peter went up and dragged the net to land, full of large fish, one hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not broken. Jesus said to them, “Come and eat breakfast.” Jesus then gave them fish and bread, and they did eat. There have been many theories given throughout the ages regarding the number of fish that were caught that day. Saint Jerome, the fourth-century historian and theologian, theorized that the 153 fishes caught by Jesus’ disciples represented all the species of fish. The fish represented all the races of man, and there was not enough room within the church to contain them all. Augustine also believed that this multitude of fish represented all kinds of men being saved by the gospel net.

Augustine and Gregory the Great used mathematics and (biblical) numerology to try and solve the hypothetical meaning. They both agreed that the number 17 was the main number involved within the breakdown of 153. Gregory simply multiplies 17 by 3 and again by 3 (17 x 9), and thus arrives at 153. Augustine, on the other hand, uses addition and takes the sum of all the digits up to and including 17 as amounting to exactly 153. The number 17 is the 7th prime number and is the sum of 7 and 10, two of the perfect numbers of God. So the number 17 represents the perfection of spiritual order, as does 153.

A fairly recent theory regarding the number 153 was given by Lieutenant Colonel F. Roberts, who deducted that the multitudes who received direct blessing from Christ numbered exactly 153 individual cases. Although many theologians believe the number 153 has a hidden meaning, there are others who believe it was simply a great catch of fish supernaturally supplied by Jesus and the Holy Spirit and that the number has no specific symbolic meaning. They believe that Peter or one of the other disciples decided to count them because they were curious as to the exact number. It could have just as easily been 152 or 154 fish. As a numbers guy, I find this very interesting and will comment on the number 153 a little later in the article.

This post-resurrection fishing event mirrored the pre-resurrection one mentioned earlier, with basically the same symbolism. However, there are several differences. This time, the net did not break, and so the fishermen did not have to load the fish into the boat. The boat held up, unlike the first time. Also, this time Jesus was not in the boat. Many Bible scholars see this miraculous catch of fish as a harbinger of the filling of the Holy Spirit that would occur several days later on Pentecost.

We don’t know the exact timing of this post-resurrection fishing event. We know it happened at least 8 days after the resurrection and within the next 32 days before Jesus ascended into heaven. I am going to speculate that it happened on the 33rd day after the resurrection and 7 days before Jesus’ ascension, for these numbers represent Jesus and God the Holy Spirit.

  • The number 7 is God’s perfect spiritual number. The sevenfold Holy Spirit consists of the Spirit of the Lord, Spirit of Wisdom, Spirit of Understanding, Spirit of Counsel, Spirit of Might, Spirit of Knowledge, and the Spirit of the Fear of the Lord.
  • The number 33 represents Jesus. I believe Jesus started his ministry when he was 33 years old (about 30), and he was crucified in the year AD 33. Jesus was the firstfruits of the dead that were raised to eternal life. There are 33 mentions of the word “firstfruits” in the New Testament. There are 33 mentions of the term “kingdom of heaven” in the Bible, all in the book of Mathew. These are words that relate to Jesus and his kingdom.

Jesus Restores Peter

After breakfast, Jesus took Simon Peter aside and asked if he loved him more than the others. Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus told him, “Feed my lambs (followers).” Jesus asked Peter the same question two more times, with Peter replying the same each time. Jesus then told him, “Follow Me.” This was Jesus’ commissioning of Peter to follow in his footsteps after Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times during his arrest and subsequent crucifixion.

This conversation between Jesus and Peter is the follow-up to the one they had after the Passover Supper immediately preceding Jesus’ crucifixion. Here is their earlier conversation: “The Lord said, Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren. But he said to Him, Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death. Then He said, I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me” (Luke 22:31-34).

Following in Jesus’ footsteps would also entail ‘unto death.’ Jesus was telling Peter that he would now have to do what he had originally promised but failed to do.

In part II, we will look at the events in Acts 1-2 and the greatest catch of all.

Randy Nettles