Last Lord’s Day, I preached on the post-resurrection appearance of our Lord recorded in John 21:1-14, in which the gospel writer transcribes the precise number of fish miraculously caught by the disciples in the Sea of Tiberias. The strange number of 153 fish strikes both the casual bible reader and the scholar as peculiar and has caused some to wonder if there is some deeper significance to John’s use of the number. Because I didn’t take the time to double-click on the numerological significance of the number 153 in my message, I did promise a blog post to attempt to explain the possibilities.
Today, we don’t typically think about numbers having any meaning apart from their apparent arithmetic representation. But in pre-Christian antiquity going back to Pythagoras and his students, who were described by Aristotle as “the first to take up mathematics, not only advanced this subject, but saturated with it, they fancied that the principles of mathematics were the principles of all things,” numbers were widely believed to have deep symbolic meaning as the ground of everything and there was a great deal of interest in numerological speculation. During the time from the 500s BC through the 5th Century AD numbers carried deep symbolic meaning which would have influenced Jesus’ communication to the first century culture and certainly would have influenced the gospel writers. Because of this background, Jesus could have sought to communicate something in the specific number of fish in the miraculous catch or John could have used 153 as an approximate number to communicate a deeper symbolic meaning. Here are some possibilities for the symbolic meaning of the number 153:
1) Some have noted that the Hebrew name for God “YHWH” occurs 153 times in the book of Genesis.
2) In the fourth century, it was assumed that there were a grand total of 153 species of fish, so an early church father named Jerome saw that miraculous catch represented ALL fish so he interpreted the number symbolically as a reference to the universality and completeness of the church which embraces all kinds of people from every tongue, tribe and nation.
3) Augustine thought the number 153 was significant because it is the sum of the first 17 integers (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+12+13+14+15+16+17=153). And this is only significant because the number 17 is the combination of God’s grace in the 7 gifts of the Spirit plus the law summarily comprehended in the 10 Commandments (7gifts +10 laws =17) Augustine wrote in Letter 55 to Januarius,
In the number of fish that after his resurrection our Lord orders to be caught on the right side of the boat, to show this new life, we find the number 50 multiplied by 3. If one adds 3 (the symbol of the Trinity) to that, the holy mystery is still more apparent. Then the new man, perfected and come to rest, purified in body and soul through the pure words of God, which are like refined silver that has been purified seven times, will receive his reward-the coin. With this reward the numbers seven and ten are met in Him. For in this number (17) we find- as in other numbers that represent a combination of symbols- a wondrous mystery….And when will his body finally be liberate from all its enemies? Will it not be when the last enemy, death, is annihilated? Until that time, therefore, the number of 153 fish will suffice. For if the number 17 is taken as the side of an equilateral triangle…the sum total of the units is 153.
4) Evagrius Ponticus, a very gifted 4th century Christian monk, likely had the most complex interpretation of the significant and unique mathematical properties of the number 153. His interpretation makes sense only in light of Pythagorean numerical symbolism which distinguishes between triangular, square, octagonal, hexagonal and circular numbers. He wrote in his introduction to his 153 chapter book on prayer that 153 is the sum of a square number (100) + a triangular number (28) + a circular number (25) . (153=100+28+25). The Triangular number symbolically represents the Trinity and the Hexagonal number symbolically represents the 6 days of Creation. Essentially the number 153 tells the story of the gospel of The Triune God of Heaven who has intervened in time coming down to His Created Earth to enact His plan of redemption. It is this very God who stands before the apostles on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias giving them a miraculous catch of exactly 153 fish. Evagrius Ponticus writes in the introduction to 153 Chapters on Prayer, a manual on contemplation,
I have divided this treatise on prayer into 153 chapters. With them I am sending you a tidbit of the Gospel, so that you can rejoice in a symbolic number that joins together a triangular and a hexagonal figure. The triangle stands symbolically for the Trinity, the hexagon for the orderly creation of the world in six days. The number 100 describes a square, the number 53 a triangle and at the same time a circle. Why? Because it is the sum of 25 and 28. 28 is the triangle and 25 the square, since 25 is five times five. Thus this sum represents a square figure since it represents the fourfold qualities of the (seven) virtues. Through its round form the circle expresses the river of time and is simultaneously an appropriate symbol for true knowledge of the world. In the river of time week follows week, month follows month, year follows year, and season follows season, as the movement of the sun and moon, spring and summer, etc., show. The triangle, which is expressed in the number 28, stands for knowledge of the Holy Trinity… So much on this number.
Triangular number are the sum of consecutive numbers beginning with 1 and Hexagonal numbers are the sum of numbers beginning with 1, from which three numbers have been left out. So the number 153 is, according to Pythagorean interpretation, “triangular” (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+12+13+14+15+16+17=153) and at the same time hexagonal (1+5+9+13+17+21+25+29+33=153)
I’m not sure what this says about you if you’ve made it this far in the blog post? What does it say about me that I am even writing about this? So is the number 153 arbitrary? Is it simple precision? Or is it symbolic? After my study, I think there might be something substantive to these numerological interpretations. However, I am very satisfied and have even taught that John gives the number 153 in order to accurately record the details of the encounter to give proof for the authenticity of the resurrection. He is very detailed, particularly in that passage because he has a theological point to prove: Christ is risen from the dead! There is no real need to look for mysteries in the bible codes and create exegetical fallacies via hyper-exegesis of greek or hebrew nouns, verb tenses and syntax when the scriptures are characterized by perspicuity (being clear and plain). A preacher said once, “If you want to know what the text means, ask a third grader.” I can go with that. But the third grader in me still wonders about the number 153.
(153 Chapters on Prayer, cited from a translation by Andreas Ebert in his co-authored book with Richard Rohr, The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective)
We may call it a crisis, but the Lord calls it an opportunity. From His perspective it is an opportunity to bring a deeper consolation to our souls so that we can find ourselves more satisfied in Him; so we can experience the God who is Enough for us! But we are only transformed to this deeper place of Christ as our sole satisfier if our false rests and pseudo-saviors breakdown. This is at the heart of the disorientation of midlife. Through our 20s and 30s our souls find temporary satisfaction in relationships, roles and results. But as we approach our 40s all the way through to almost our mid- 50s, those relationships, roles and results begin to disintegrate or drain of their power to fulfill. This becomes a catalyst to expose our exaggerated needs for security, control and affirmation creating anxiety, disorientation and anger. And though we search to resolve our new undefined feelings in many places sometimes creating even greater problems, the solution is a spiritual one.
Midlife reveals to many of us that we have not allowed our initial introduction to Jesus to deepen into a deep intimate knowing. We talk about having a personal relationship with God, but the reality is that many of us have less knowledge of God than we have of our casual acquaintances. J.I. Packer says, “a little knowledge of God is worth more than a great deal of knowledge about Him.” Too easily we have settled for knowing about God which is not a substitute for deep personal knowing. So midlife becomes the opportunity to step out into vulnerability and uncertainty and be met by the Lord who wants to satisfy your deepest needs and answer your most personal queries. So….
When We Ask: Who am I? “What’s wrong with me?” “Why am I feeling this way?” and “Why am I talking to myself?”
He Answers: “You’re my Child. You belong to me. I have taken away your shame and given you a new identity filled with eternal value and dignity! Talk to me.”
When We ask: “Where am I?” “Will I have to face the future alone?” “Will everyone abandon me?”
He Answers: “I have a plan for you, and I will go with you into a certain future to provide comfort and courage to you. You will never be alone! Just hang onto me and trust me.”
When We ask: How am I doing? Why aren’t my strategies to control working? Why do I feel so angry and resentful?
He Answers: Because I have conquered death and hell, life is no longer a struggle to be won. The battle has been won and the enemy has been defeated! So, do you really have any right to be angry? I’m in control, I’ve got this! Nothing in your life is wasted and all will be redeemed for your benefit.
Why is it that the middle of everything is the most difficult? The beginning is usually filled with excitement, anticipation and expectation and the adrenaline usually carries you for a while. While the end has its own celebration of patience, endurance and perseverance and the satisfaction of a job well done! It is the middle where all of the battles are fought, all of the decisions are made and challenges, obstacles and hurdles are faced. And some of these take us off guard, surprising even the most prepared among us.
The middle presents us with questions we were never forced to entertain before. Questions like “Now what?” and “What does all of this mean?” In the beginning we entered with certainty and confidence, but the middle throws us for a loop and we experience uncertainty, fear, frustration, disappointment anger, shame, and doubt. From the initial perspective in the beginning, the future was always bright, but the middle is ruled by the dankness of the mundane and ordinary. This sometimes produces disorientation in identity and direction and we wonder internally, “Is this all there is?” or “Has my life been a waste?” In the middle, we interact with our own thoughts asking deeper questions about ourselves and our lives while rarely admitting them aloud:
Who am I?
In the beginning, I thought I knew who I was. I was able to define myself based on the job I performed, the important role I played, or the special relationship I had. But in the middle, I don’t feel as valuable and worthwhile as I once did by defining myself as I did. Things have changed. Now I wonder, “What’s wrong with me?” “Why am I feeling this way?” and “Why am I talking to myself?”
Where am I?
In the beginning, the future seemed clear, secure and filled with exciting probabilities. But in the middle, the support system that once provided security hasn’t proven reliable. Now I’m left to find a safe way forward to a uncertain future. As I try to figure things out in my head thinking up strategies to be safe, I’m filled with anxiety and dread. Now I wonder, “Will I have to face the future alone?” “Will everyone abandon me?”
How am I doing?
In the beginning, life felt like a struggle to be won and my efforts to control relationships and circumstances through my own strategies helped me to stay on top. Fixating on my assessment and judgment of things has helped me to prevent being dominated, tainted or upset. But in the middle I’ve exhausted my abilities to be able to control everything and everyone in my life and now I’m just resentful or angry. At who? At everybody!
The Middle is part of a Divine Conspiracy
In the middle, all of our exaggerated needs are exposed, the sinful passions that have always ruled our lives fail us and our shallow heart commitment to the Lord is exposed. But the middle sets us up for a deeper encounter with Christ to have our deeper personal questions of identity, significance and direction answered and to experience God’s goodness and favor at a level never before grasped. The middle is the opportunity for the Lord to impart hope to our souls as we learn to be satisfied in Him. In the middle we learn that God is Enough!
What is being a Christian all about? Sometimes even Christians imagine that being a Christian means to have a certain ideology which contains a political or social agenda that would solve the country’s problems. Others consider Christianity the best way to attain Your Best Life Now as if believing certain Christian-like truths will make them more successful, more popular and give them more control over their lives. Some think that being a Christian gives them an intellectual upper-hand that they can enjoy because it makes them feel smarter than everyone else. While others find Christianity as the pathway to financial independence and wealth so that they don’t have to ever rely on anyone else.
But the Scriptures teach a different substance and meaning of the Christian Life that does not consist in a political agenda, an economic solution, nor does it impart a pathway to success, popularity or financial independence. And it certainly is not the way to put you more in control of your life or to give you power over others. So then what does it mean to be a Christian? Being a Christian is about an ongoing intimate encounter with The Risen Savior who will progressively intertwine your heart with His so that you love what He Loves and grieve over what grieves Him. Jesus Christ is about making “little Christs” (Christians) whose hearts are so captured by the grace of the gospel that Christ becomes their who? what? where? when? and why? For Jesus the meaning of being a Christian is that He would become your identity, significance, destination, direction, and motivation. He becomes your Everything.
So if you’re looking for Peace with the Righteous Judge of the Universe, if you want to be washed of your guilt, and given a new identity to replace your shame, if you’re willing to live dependently passing the control of your life to another, and if you want to live forever in the full enjoyment of God for all eternity, then Christianity is for you!
Is there an afterlife? What happens when we die?
At death, the souls of Christian believers are made perfect by the power of God and immediately pass into heaven while their bodies rest in the grave awaiting the resurrection on the earth’s last day. When Christians die their soul immediately enters into the presence of God experiencing great comfort, rest, celebration and worship of God. During the resurrection at the last day, all Christian believers are raised up by the power of Christ and He will openly acknowledge that they belong to Him and that they are to be relieved from all charges of fault and sin because of His payment of their debts then they will be made perfectly happy in the total enjoyment of God throughout eternity.
To Recap the Historical Narrative of that first Easter Weekend, it was on Good Friday evening that a wealthy Jewish Disciple of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea along with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish Sanhedrin wrapped Jesus’ lifeless body in clean linen and laid him in his own new tomb which he had cut in the rock and rolled a giant stone down a slope to cover the tomb’s entrance. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary sat and watched with great emotion. Later several Roman soldiers would be posted to lock down and seal the tomb to prevent body theft and resurrection fraud.
As the sun rises on that first Easter Morning, the women emerge from the darkest 30 hours they have ever experienced, an empty void, a Black Sabbath. The gospel writers give us few details about the day between Good Friday Sunset and Easter Sunday Sunrise it is just empty space and dead air. After a Good Friday of despair, darkness, defeat and hopelessness and before an Easter Sunday of joy, light, victory and hope, the women and the disciples endured the longest day of their lives. A day of stark emptiness. A day of dead intermission between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ when His body lays in the tomb. A parenthesis when they reflect on reflect on their cowardice, their denials, and their desperate flights in fear.
For the disciples it would be a dark season of emptiness, wondering what would become of them as they hid from the authorities. The women, not feeling the same guilt as the apostles, would still feel empty, lonely, grieved and without hope. They would spend the better part of these two nights laying on their beds soaking their pillows with tears. And so the story continues in Matthew’s Gospel, “Now after the (Black) Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.” And what they would find was completely unexpected…
What were the disciples looking for on the first Easter Sunday Morning?
On that first Easter morning, there was a band of women and a group of disciples who were hunting. But they weren’t hunting for Easter Eggs, they were hunting for their best friend, Jesus the Christ, the Promised One…
But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”
The gospel accounts testify to the physical, literal, bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because the Resurrection of Christ is so crucial to the Christian faith, gospel writers Matthew, Mark and John are very careful to record the details of what they saw with their own eyes. Luke, another gospel writer, includes eyewitness testimony from as many as 500 people who saw the Risen Christ in order to assure us that Christ is risen from the dead. He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!
Holy Saturday is the time in between John 19:41-42 and John 20:1: Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there…(INSERT HOLY SATURDAY HERE)…Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb…
Holy Saturday is the day between the Good Friday Dusk and Easter Sunday Morning Dawn. It consists of over 30 Sabbath hours of time between Friday Sunset and Sunday Sunrise in which the gospel writers give us no details, it is just EMPTY SPACE and DEAD AIR. We know what Good Friday feels like: despair, darkness, defeat and hopelessness. We know what Easter Sunday feels like: joy, light, victory and hope. But does Holy Saturday have a feel?
Recognizing that the Passion Week represents a continuous historical narrative, churches typically pause to enter into emotion of Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday or Tenebrae) and some pause to remember the journey of our Lord on the Via Dolorosa on Good Friday. But then we enter into Holy Saturday, a time when the sanctuaries of the old churches are stripped bare and lay in darkness. No services are scheduled, no sermons are preached, no one gathers for fellowship and there is no Lord’s Supper in order to commemorate the non-event of Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is a dead intermission, an empty void between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ when His body lays in the tomb. I’ve never heard a message preached about Holy Saturday and I don’t recall singing a Hymn where Holy Saturday is given more than a sentence. But in the sentence of Holy Saturday (or more accurately, the parenthesis) there is an eerie feeling of familiarity to me.
I see that we live every day in a similar yet post-resurrection tension as we wait for the King to come back to consummate the Kingdom he inaugurated 2000 years ago. In between His two advents, we sin, we feel guilt, anxiety, shame, restlessness, we deny Him, sometimes betray Him, life sometimes feels dark and we often wonder what to do next just like the disciples on that First Holy Saturday. The difference living parenthetically on this side of Easter is that we can always turn back with understanding to the significance of the Cross to find forgiveness and mercy and embrace the life and certain hope imparted to us through the Resurrection.
(Inspired by Alan E. Lewis: “Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday“)
O Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered death upon a cross for our sakes; We look upon You whom we have pierced and we mourn for our sins with godly sorrow; teach us how to forgive as you have forgiven us; display to us that we are to suffer as you suffered and prove to us that just as you have overcome that we shall overcome.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace. Lord, in Your great mercy, remember us when You come into Your Kingdom. Amen.
Just days before He cleansed the temple again, before He hosted the Last Supper complete with foot-washing, before He predicted Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s thrice denial, before He went to Gethsemane and caught a glimpse of the imminent cup of wrath, before He was arrested, interrogated, flogged, and nailed to a cross like a criminal; Jesus was praised and welcomed into Jerusalem in a manner befitting the return of the King of Kings. In fact the songs that were sung by the crowds are those which we will sing when the King Returns again. Psalm 118 is a song for the promised redemption of God’s people placing their hope in the coming Son of God so they sang, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” See Psalm 118:19-29 for the part of the Psalm which the people gathered along the road sang to Jesus as He entered into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey:
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
This is the LORD’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Hosanna (Save us), we pray, O LORD!
O LORD, we pray, give us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
We bless you from the house of the LORD.
The LORD is God,
and he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords,
up to the horns of the altar!
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God; I will extol you.
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!