Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.
Is there any significance to the number 153? Or was it counted simply to quantify the miraculous catch?
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Short Answer: Many have come up with various numerological interpretations of the number 153 in John. I believe this to be reading into the text things not intended by the author.
As the two previous answers to this questions illustrate well, this numerological method allows for several different interpretations of the same passage. Each of the words in the Bible, both Greek and Hebrew, adds up to a number. It is no wonder that of these over 10000 words (most with several different tenses/forms), one can use arithmetic to derive one word/number from other words/numbers as one sees fit, and read meanings into it.
To illustrate my point, here are some other numerological interpretations of 153:
Jerome claimed there were 153 species of fish, thus the catch became a symbol of a fruitful mission as fishers of men.
Emerton notes that the streams of living water flowing from the temple in Ez 47:9-10, will have fishermen standing along the shore, from En Gedi to En Eglaim. "Gedi" has the numerical value 17, and "Eglaim" has the numerical value 153, and 153 = 1+2+3+4+.....+17. Thus the number represents all the fishermen.
Augustine also noted that 153 = 1+2+3+4+.....+17. 17=10+7, which is the ten commandments + the seven spirits of God.
Gregory the Great reaches 17 the same way, but multiplies it by 3, the number of the trinity, to get 51, and by 3 again, unto perfection, to get 153.
Others break 7 further down into 4+3, the number of walls in the new Jerusalem + the trinity
Yet others observe that 17 is the number of loaves of bread in the feeding of the 5000 + the number of baskets picked up after (=12+5).
Others note that 153 is the numerical value of the phrase "The church of love" or "the children of God" or "Cana G" (+ "Cana in Galilee").
Some see the number made up of "Simeon, Bar, Jonah, Kephas".
Thoma finds 153 to be a reference to ICTHYS (a common early Christian acronym, standing for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior").
As D. A. Carson observes,1
"Large quantities of ink have gone into explaining why there should be 153 fish. At the purely historical level, it is unsurprising that someone counted them, either as part of dividing them up amongst the fishermen in preparation for sale, or because one of the men was so dumbfounded by the size of the catch that he said something like this: ‘Can you believe it? I wonder how many there are?'"
I agree: this event made such a lasting impression on John, that he remembered the exact number of fish they picked up. Just as he remembered the name of Malchus, whose ear Peter severed. I read no more into 153 fish, than I do into the 2000 donkeys in 1 Chr 5:21.
1 D.A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Pillar NT Commentary; Eerdmans, 1990), p. 672.
While some have argued for some kind of symbolism in the number shown here, there is no direct support from the text. The notes from the Net Bible indicate the following direct implications:
Given John's background as a fisherman, details like this would probably have been natural observations.
As far as I can find out, this is the only time "153" appears in the Bible. I searched through some of the apocryphal books too.
Here's Wikipedia's page on the biblical number 153.
I don't really care for all the square-root-of-the-triangular-circle-number woowoo stuff, but the fact that
It has also been noted that the Tetragrammaton occurs 153 times in the Book of Genesis.
As noted by Richard Bauckham among others, it is clear that John (or whoever one may think is the final author/editor of John's Gospel and of Revelation) used the total quantity of occurrences of key words as a mathematical reinforcement or "signature" of the message of the text. Thus, Revelation contains the words Christ 7 times, Jesus 14 times and Lamb 28 times, each quantity of occurrences being a multiple of 7 and their sum being 49 (= 7 x 7) , facts which can hardly be the result of chance. For the purpose of this answer, I will call this composition feature "logonumerical structure", from "logos" = word.
Let us now note that the catch of 153 fish (Jn 21:1-13), which can be viewed as sign #9 of John's Gospel (sign #8 being the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus), comes after the 1st stage of the Gospel's conclusion (Jn 20:30-31), which contains the last occurrences of the following 4 significant words, next to each of which I indicate within () its total quantity of occurrences :
zoe: life in the sense of supernatural and eternal life, partaking of divine life (36).
Thus, if we accept the notion that John provides logonumerical structure to his works, we can understand the quantity of 153 fish right after the 1st stage of the Gospel's conclusion as providing "the one who has understanding" (Rev 13:18) with the key of the logonumerical structure of the Gospel, as:
153 is the 17th triangular number, with 17 being the total quantity of occurrences of the word "sign";
153 = 9 x 17, corresponding to the catch being the 9th sign;
153 = (98 + 19 + 36), the sum of the total quantities of occurrences of the other key words which appeared for the last time in the 1st stage of the Gospel's conclusion.
Finally, 153 is the gematria value of "sons of God" in Hebrew ("benei haElohim") , so that the catching of 153 fish can be additionally understood as adding a textual signature to the 1st stage of the Gospel's conclusion as I indicate below within :
"Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name" [and thus be counted among the sons of God].
 Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, Cambridge University Press, Mar 4, 1993. https://books.google.com/books?id=So0hIAMtTs0C
Text on word frequencies quoted and commented in: Steve Moyise (2005), Word frequencies in the Book of Revelation. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/3133/fc31ad6a2df1ceb73ea480ea07dc04c81e89.pdf
 Richard Bauckham, The 153 fish and the unity of the fourth Gospel, Neotestamentica Vol. 36, No. 1/2 (2002), pp. 77-88. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43049111
Summarized in: Keith L Yoder (2013), Gematria and John 21. https://www.umass.edu/wsp/publications/alpha/v1/a1-33-gematria.pdf
 Brian Pivik, Gematria and the Tanakh, Lulu.com, Jul 13, 2017. P. 164. https://books.google.com/books?id=E9ItDwAAQBAJ
As noted in a comment to the original question, Richard Bauckham has a chapter regarding the 153 in his book, “The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple.” I will provide quotes from an article in Neotestamentica, Vol. 36, No. ½, (2002), pp. 77-88, which goes by the same title “The 153 Fish and the Unity of the Forth Gospel.”
Point 1 – 17 and 153 Connection:
According to Bauckham, Johns entire Gospel is structured around the numbers 17 and 153. So the mention of this number is John 21 is not a coincidence. In his article, Bauckham notes a number of other examples within John that also fit the 17 / 153 pattern. To Bauckham, the 17-153 connection provides unity for the entire gospel.
Of the number 153 – it is a “triangular number.” If you start adding 1+2+3+4….+17 = you will arrive at the number 153. Bauckham notes that “triangular” numbers are quite rare and attracted great interest:
“both types of numbers – triangular and perfect – are quite rare and they were of considerable interest for ancient mathematics and numerical speculation”
This is not “reading into the text.” Scholars are well aware of the unique use of numbers, counting, etc. within the text of the Bible and other ancient writings.
“153 is a triangular number, the triangle of 17. This is unlikely to be accidental. There are not very many triangular numbers (153 is the 17th of the series) and they were well known to ancient people interested in such things. One other triangular number appears explicitly in the NT: the number of the beast 666 (Rev. 13:18).”
666 is also a triangular number. The 36th of the series. 1+2+3+4…+36 = 666.
Point 2 – Ezekiel’s Vision with En Gedi and En Eglaim:
Bauckham, as well as others, connect the 153 in John 21 to Ezekiel 47 and Ezekiel’s vision of the river of water flowing from the Temple. The water flows east into the desert and brings the Dead Sea to life:
Then he led me back to the bank of the river. When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river. He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. (Ezekiel 47:6-9)
The next verse is the most important for this question:
Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading of nets. The fish will be of many kinds” (Ezekiel 47: 10)
The word “En” (Ein), in this context, means spring. So, this verse would read “Spring of Gedi” to the “spring of Eglaim.” (Ein is also the Hebrew word for eye and fountain).
As mentioned above, biblical authors regularly use numerical techniques within their writing for emphasis or connection. One of the best known is called Gematria.
“involving the calculation of the numerical value of a word written in Hebrew or Greek letters. (In Hebrew and Greek, the letters of the alphabet also serve as numerals, and so every word has a numerical value which is the sum of the numerical values of its letters).”
In this case, the numerical value of the word “gedi” = 17 and the numerical value of the word “eglaim” = 153.
Point 3 – Eglaim?
Here is an important point about the word “Eglaim.” Scholars don’t know where “En Eglaim” is. There is speculation, but nothing is certain. The location of En Gedi is known and is a popular place for tourists to visit. I discussed this matter with my professor, Dr. Carl Rasmussen, who himself has published a Biblical atlas, and he said nothing can be identified for certain about the location of En Eglaim.
This is perplexing because water in the desert is life. Everyone knows where the springs are because it is a matter of life and death. It seems unlikely that if “En Eglaim” were a prominent spring that we would not be able to identify it.
We must remember to read Ezekiel’s vision as a “vision” which is full of symbolism. Symbols must be understood properly. We don’t assume the river flowing from the Temple is literal – it represents the Spirit of God flowing out from Jerusalem in the Messianic age to bring life to the world – even the Dead Sea (except the salt marshes, those are good). John also uses this imagery from Ezekiel 47 in Revelation 22.
Since Ezekiel is describing a mystical vision where symbolism speaks loudly it is possible that the name “Eglaim” is chosen for its symbolic value – the number 153. This would be a numerical connection to “gedi” - rather than a specific geographical location. This would stand out to the ancient readers who would not be familiar with that spring but familiar with the literary use of numbers. The meaning of this would be to communicate the completeness of the river of life bringing life to the world.
Point 4 – John’s other references to Ezekiel 47 in his Gospel
If the 153 were the only allusion to Ezekiel 47 we may be able to dismiss it more easily, but it is not. In John 7:38 we find Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles making a comment on “living water.”
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. John 7:37-39.
The central theme of the Feast of Tabernacles is “water” and the Temple. (See Raphael Patai, Man and Temple)
What is the meaning of “the Scripture has said?” This is not a direct quote of a passage of Scripture, but as Bauckham notes, to two different texts: Ezekiel 47 and Zechariah 14:8
8 On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter.
Additionally, Jesus uses the Temple imagery of Ezekiel 47 to connect this fount of living water to himself.
Point 5 – Fishermen and Nets
An obvious connection between Ezekiel 47 and John 21 is the mention of fishermen spreading their nets to fish. The disciples are engaged in fishing when they see Jesus in John 21.
The 153 fish in John 21 is an allusion to Ezekiel 47 and the vision of the Spirit of God going out to water the earth. This is not another of the seven signs of John. Jesus has been brought into his glory. What is the evidence of this glory? The 153 fish.
The OP asks:
Is there any significance to the number 153? Or was it counted simply to quantify the miraculous catch?
John 21:12 NIV
So 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.
Given the paucity of detail in John’s account of the event, the mention of 153 is to be noted. And, in context of John’s apparent inclusion of sacred numerology elsewhere in writings, the OP question seems reasonable.
One answer lies in ancient sacred geometry, specifically in ancient biographies of Pythagoras, and in articles by Euclid, Archimedes c 350-250 BCE.
A fish story about Pythagoras is recorded in both Porphyry (234-305 CE) and Iamblichus (250-330 CE), of notable similarity to the account about Christ in John 21:4-11 (though differing in ending). In ancient times, legend and lore was pervasive, so we can’t consider Greek lyrical writing as historical record. But these writings are evidence of what ancient peoples perhaps heard and believed as context to Christ’s life and the miracle of the fish.
Iamblichus’ [Life of Pythagoras Ch 8] tells of Pythagoras’ walk along a shore from Sybaris to Crotona. He meets fishermen drawing their nets heavily laden with fish and tells them that he knows the exact number of fish in their nets. The fishermen respond that if he can tell them that, they will do whatever he asks. Pythagoras tells them the exact number, which is verified by a count. Pythagoras asks the fishermen to return all the fish to the sea. Miraculously, no fish are dead, though out of water for some time, and all return to the sea alive.
The number 153 first becomes significant in the legacy of Pythagorean mathematics. The height of an equilateral triangle is length x √3 . In ancient geometry (and so in building) it is incredibly useful to calculate √3 , and that by Greek method is very close to the ratio of 265 divided by 153.
Euclid [Elements c 300 BCE] devised a geometric method to construct a perfect equilateral triangle, within a shape known as Vesica Piscis, or ‘bladder of a fish’. Within it lies the perfect circle, triangle, square, hexagon, symmetry, and consequently it was held to have deep sacred meaning – combining 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 12 in perfect form, and with symmetry. It has within it the exact shape of the Christian Icthyus, pervasive in early Christian artefacts dating to at least as early as 2nd century AD, and earliest origin of Ichthyus is unknown AFAIK.
Archimedes [Measurement of A Circle c 250BCE] demonstrated that the ratio 265/153 lies within the length and width of the Icthyus, and within Vesica Piscis.
A seemingly plausible answer to the OP question then might be that Vesica Piscis is symbolically implied by the number 153, as would have been understood by people of the time. And within the Vesica Piscis lies wider Christian symbolism, specifically conjunction of the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 12 – along with the Icthyus.
A Mathematical Study of a Symbol: The Vesica Piscis of Sacred Geometry [Amelia Carolina Sparavigna & Mauro Maria Baldi, 2016]
Many scholars have noted John’s use of symbols. Craig R. Koester says:
The significance of numbers has long fascinated and frustrated interpreters of John’s Gospel. The evangelist seems to have structured some, though certainly not all, aspects of the narrative in groups of seven: seven signs, seven “I Am” sayings, and sometimes seven scenes in a given episode. More problematic, however, is the symbolic value of the numbers specifically cited in the text, such as the Samaritan woman’s five husbands, the invalid’s thirty-eight-year illness, and a catch of 153 fish. Interpretation is difficult because even in the ancient world a given number might be given many different meanings in a single context; Philo’s treatment of the numbers in Genesis 1, for example, shows how easily interpretations could proliferate. Moreover, larger numbers were usually treated as the sum or product of smaller numbers; and since various combinations could produce the same result, the interpretative possibilities expanded accordingly. 1
Koester goes on to say the 153 fish, the 38-year illness, and the 5,000 who were fed are probably not symbolic; they just happen to be the number of fish, years, or people. I believe this reasoning fails to give proper consideration to the uniqueness of John’s work.
Seven is recognized as symbolic because seven has previously been identified as a symbol. If the number of the fish had been a recognizable symbol like 70, the size of the catch would be taken as symbolic. The potential flaw in failing to study 153 as symbolic is really based on works of others, not what John has done. It rejects symbolic meaning to 153 in John (despite John's use of numbers symbolically) primarily on the basis of other's works.
One may dismiss 5,000 as just a number especially since it is used in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in a similar context. In this case John can be seen as affirming the number and its prior use. But 38 and 153 are specific suggesting they are not chance numbers and since these numbers are hardly (if at all) used elsewhere in Scripture, prior use contributes little to the question of how John uses these numbers.
If it can be demonstrated John uses unique numbers in a symbolic manner, then it follows the number 153 should be examined for its symbolic use.
The healing of the invalid at the pool of Bethesda and the blind man at the pool of Siloam can be used to demonstrate the number of years is symbolic in both cases. First the healing at Bethesda:
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. (5:2-3,5 ESV)
John begins by describing a scene at the "House of Mercy" (the meaning of Bethesda) with five colonnades, or porches. Augustine and others saw five as symbolic, representing the Mosaic Law. [Commentaries on John 5:2] Jesus chose a man who had been unable to walk for 38-years (not one who had been blind) in the House of Mercy with a representation of the Mosaic Law. In this case, the number 38 takes on additional significance since it corresponds to the number of years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness after rebelling when they heard the report of the spies (Numbers 14). Now the healing parallels the history of Israel: just as the nation waited 38-years with the Law in hand, the invalid had been waiting 38-years to enter the pool first. Jesus told him to rise and take up (ἆρον) his mat just as Joshua told the people to move out to enter the Promised Land when they saw the Levites take up (αἴροντας) the Ark of the Covenant (Joshua 3:3 LXX also vv. 6,8,13,14,15,17). There are other connections to the Old Testament:
But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not walk in my statutes but rejected my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; and my Sabbaths they greatly profaned. (Ezekiel 20:13 ESV)
For 38-years the house of Israel did not walk in His statutes and they greatly profaned His Sabbaths. Arguably, they did not have correct knowledge of the LORD God, yet were not utterly destroyed because of His mercy. Now Jesus heals a man who could not walk for 38-years and who does not know Him. This takes place in the House of Mercy on the Sabbath and Jesus is accused of profaning the Sabbath. Clearly 38 is more than "just a number" of years and has been used to support the meaning of the overall passage. It is a unique symbol.
Next, consider the man “born” blind whose age is never stated. The sign comes after Jesus spits on the ground, makes mud, and tells the man to go wash in the pool of Siloam. He does and can see. Like the invalid of 38-years, this healing occurred on the Sabbath.
John chose signs for a specific reason:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (20:30-31 ESV)
This means he not only selected the specific sign, he chose the number (seven), and determined their arrangement. Any seven-fold pattern recalls the seven days of creation and John’s choices may be compared to the events of creation: The creation of man took place on the sixth day. The use of water and dust describe how man was created 2 and a later opening of the eyes is also part of the story of the first man (Genesis 3:7). Both the healing and the creation of the first man share common elements. This is reinforced when this sign is arranged as the sixth of seven signs. Stating the man was blind from “birth” is the “number” which fits the symbolic meaning. In this case the failure to use a number is symbolic.
Note the symbols only work if they described and arranged in the manner found. If the man had been blind 38-years and the invalid paralyzed from birth, the symbolism dissolves. If the invalid of 38-years was sent to Siloam where there are no colonnades, there is no corresponding significance to the number 38. Likewise, if the man blind from birth was not the sixth sign, the symbolism fades. All of these taken together shows John has a symbolic use in view.
Since John uses numbers as established and unique symbols throughout, it is appropriate to consider the symbolic meaning of 153 fish. In his book Koester sets forth his guidelines for understanding symbols:
Our approach has been to distinguish core from supporting symbols, so that if numbers do function symbolically, it is in a supporting capacity. Numbers may acquire significance through association with the central images, persons, and actions in an episode, but the primary meaning of an episode never depends upon a number. 3
The number 153 may be a unique symbol, but it does not determine or change the message of the overall passage. 153 may be an obscure symbol, but it cannot obscure the meaning found without understanding the symbolism.
Since John was written last the Gospel of Jesus Christ is brought to a close with the disciples making a great catch of fish, recalling an event at the beginning of the call to discipleship:
And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But 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 and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:4-11 ESV)
For Peter, John, James, and possibly others, their place within the collective Gospel narrative ends in a similar fashion to how it begins: with a miraculous catch after an unsuccessful night of fishing. There are common and different elements. Specifically John notes the fish remained in the net and were dragged to shore, not put into boats.
The Gospel makes a third mention to a large catch of fish:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age… (Matthew 13:47-49 ESV)
The Kingdom of Heaven parable is drawn from the catching fish used in the context of judgement found in the Old Testament:
The sovereign LORD confirms this oath by his own holy character: “Certainly the time is approaching when you will be carried away in baskets, every last one of you in fishermen’s pots. (Amos 4:2 NET)
Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the LORD, and they shall catch them... (Jeremiah 16:16 ESV)
The catch in John has been constructed with parallels to the Kingdom of Heaven parable; in particular it is men who drew the full net ashore where the fish are counted. These similarities suggest the significance of the number 153 is to be found in the roles men will have in the judgement process.
In John the main element is the exchange between Jesus and Peter where Jesus asks Peter three questions. After Peter responds Jesus gives Peter three different instructions:
A symbolic use of the number should follow this pattern and be divided into three parts. Peter's instructions contain two types of work, feed and tend and two different animals, lambs and sheep. This suggests the three parts are not identical. Rather two of the three should be the same. Of course all three numbers must have significance to judgment and relate to 153.
The ideal candidate for the two alike is the number 70. It was the number of years the people were exiled to Babylon and is symbolic of judgment. The simplest use of a pair of 70’s is to add them together to make 140. This leaves a remainder of 13, a number which can be connected to both the disciples and judgement:
Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19:28 ESV) [also Luke 22:30]
There will be 13 thrones for 12 apostles and Jesus to sit in judgement.
The symbols also work to support the three instructions Peter receives. Tend My sheep alludes to Peter’s leadership position relative to the other disciples; feed My lambs and feed My sheep alludes to Peter’s role in sharing the Gospel. The two different groups may represent Gentiles and Jewish people or new and mature believers. Since Peter has fed them, he is better able to judge them.
In fact there is a present tense sense of the meaning of judgment: judge whether someone is a lamb or a sheep and now feed them accordingly. If they do not know the Gospel, share with them; if they have believed, continue and make them into disciples of Jesus. Similarly "tend My sheep" refines the interpretation when seen in the context of Peter's role as the leading disciple. Peter must also tend his fellow disciples. The distinction may be seen in the context between Christian witness and fellowship. The current disciples have already been fed by Jesus and have received the Spirit of Truth. Their biggest need is “tending” not “feeding.”
The number 13 is amenable to other interpretations. As Jesus is standing on the shore, He can be removed from the 13 and Paul could be added. Also the 2 70’s can be arranged in the same sequence of Jesus instructions to Peter:
All of the symbolism “works” and serves to support the primary meaning of the passage.
1. Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, Augsburg Fortress, 1995, p. 264
2. Both water and dust are implied: "and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground..." (Genesis 2:6-7 ESV)
3. Op. cit. p. 266
Yes, the number 153 used in John 21 has a special meaning: God’s complete victory over sin via two means, judgment and forgiveness. No, it is not obvious. As far as I can tell, the answer given here has never before been suggested. Other solutions are strong on mathematical imagination, but weak on textual support. The proof to follow relies on thematic and symbolic correspondences between John 21 and Genesis, Habakkuk, Psalms 34 and 119, Jeremiah 32, 2 Kings 17, and two chapters in Revelation. To remain concise, this answer will not be able to go deep into all those related passages. (I shall fill the argument out in an upcoming book.)
If 153 has a numerological meaning, it has been well hidden. If there is such a meaning, that hiddenness must concern a prophecy of an event in John’s future. When prophecies include symbolic numbers, the numerological meaning of the number is usually known, like seven for completeness or forty for suffering. It is the other elements of the prophecy that typically are coded, such as the time period being multiplied. If a fish is a time period, is it a day, a month, a year, a week of seven years, a jubilee cycle, or something else? Using a number whose numerological meaning has not been obviously defined, like seven was with the creation account, means that extra secrecy was intended by God.
Thus the first order of business is finding out where in the Bible 153 is defined, then see what new things that definition tells us about John 21. An important principle here is that numbers should not inject foreign meaning into the text. They should reinforce or add nuance. That will be the case in what follows.
Scholars going back at least as far as Augustine have noted that 153 is a triangular number. It equals the sum of the first seventeen counting numbers. This connects 153 to 17. It suggests that 153 has the same meaning as 17, but carried to an extreme.
Seventeen means victory, a meaning many before me have accepted. Genesis 7:11 tells us that the flood of Noah began on the seventeenth day of the second month. That was the beginning of God’s victory over the wickedness of the antediluvian world. Then Genesis 8:4 tells us that the Ark came to rest on the seventeenth day of the seventh month. Thus the number seventeen is associated with both the start and end of the flood.
Duration of Noah’s flood
If you read the text straight, how many days long does it give the impression the flood lasted? Both Genesis 7:24 and 8:3 mention 150 days as the time until the waters abated. However, that is not how long it was until the ark came to rest! The flood lasted exactly five months. How long is that?
To answer precisely, we would need to know what calendrical system Noah used, but we don’t. We do not know whether his years began in spring or autumn. Others have observed that it could not have been a lunar calendar. Such a calendar has a mixture of months of length 29 and 30 days because the lunar cycle is 29.5 days long. Five months would therefore be less than 150 days. The best we can do is use a modern calendar and try every possible pair of start and end months. If we do that, then we get these results:
Since the Ark came to rest after the waters began to abate and the abatement started on the 150th day, that rules out possibility one. The likelihood that the duration was 153 days is therefore 7/11 or 63%. The start months that yield that result are March, April, May, June, July, August, and September. Those who propose theological reasons for a start month often give March or September as likely start months, to line up with Passover or a Jewish Fall festival.
With the flood lasting 153 days, we have found the text that defines the number’s meaning. It is not an obscure passage that counts obscure things. It is the duration of one of the greatest works of God. This passage also connects the number seventeen to 153 in more than an areligious, mathematical way.
Calendar Arithmetic and the Psalms
If it made this connection in only one way, we would have grounds for skepticism. Consider the start and end dates.
What if we sum the products?
(17 x 2) + (17 x 7) = 34 + 119 = 153
Does such arithmetic seem suspect to you? Consider the intermediate values of 34 and 119. What is special about them? The Bible book with the most references to fear, and specifically the fear of the Lord, is the Psalms. The two chapters that mention that fear the most are Psalm 34 and Psalm 119. The Flood of Noah was intended to teach mankind the fear of the Lord.
Psalm 119 has another connection. The last stanza ends with these words:
Psalm 119:176 ESV
I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.
John 21, the passage we are trying to understand, reaches its climax when Jesus calls upon Peter to feed and tend his sheep.
One more observation about the number seventeen. If you add the ages from the genealogies in Genesis, you will find that the flood occurred in the second half of the seventeenth century following the creation.
By century, by month, and by day, Seventeen means victory over sin.
Reinforcing fear: Luke 12 and 2 Kings 17
Only two chapters in the Bible speak of fear more than Psalms 34 and 119, and they are also relevant.
Luke 12 has six uses of fear. Jesus speaks of fearing the one who can send body and soul to hell more than those who can only kill the body. It talks about the unforgivable sin of grieving the Holy Spirit and also instructions about not being anxious. But Jesus also has this encouraging word:
Luke 12:32 ESV
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
2 Kings 17 takes the cake. It uses the words feared and fear a dozen times. This chapter describes the fall of Israel to Assyria, which for the northern kingdom was as devastating as Noah’s flood. Note that this falls in the seventeenth chapter of that book. When God fights against you, He will be victorious.
An inversion of meaning
Seventeen speaks more than judgment and destruction. One glimpse of hope is found in Jeremiah 32.
Jeremiah 32:6-17 ESV
6 Jeremiah said, “The word of the Lord came to me: 7 Behold, Hanamel the son of Shallum your uncle will come to you and say, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.’ 8 Then Hanamel my cousin came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.’ Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. 9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from Hanamel my cousin, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions and the open copy. 12 And I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch the son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of Hanamel my cousin, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. 13 I charged Baruch in their presence, saying, 14 ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware vessel, that they may last for a long time. 15 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.’ 16 After I had given the deed of purchase to Baruch the son of Neriah, I prayed to the Lord, saying: ‘Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.
Jeremiah paid 17 shekels for property in a land about to be conquered. He believed that nothing was too hard for the Lord to accomplish. That is a turning point for the number seventeen. But Jesus had an even better seventeen in store.
The marvelous thing about John 21 is that God is victorious over the sins of desertion and denial committed by the disciples and Peter. But that victory was won on the cross. That victory purchased more than a plot of land. It bought their forgiveness and ours. That victory restored Peter, calling him a second time and for a second time appointing him head of the church.
The larger story of John 21 is about more than fish. It combines many images to convey its meaning. By casting our own net, we can find other Bible passages that make use of the same images. Because they share those images and themes, we know they are connected. Here are some of those ideas:
Which Bible book tackles all these? Habakkuk.
Habakkuk: The Lord keeps his promises
Habakkuk cries out in distress and the Lord promises action. One of the most significant purposes of the story in John 21 is to show God keeping some of the promises he made to Habakkuk. Habakkuk is interesting in another way: it is built upon another triangular number, the seventh, which is the number twenty-eight.
Though Habakkuk is divided into three chapters, it has seven sections:
Each section counts out one more example of the thing being discussed than the previous section, 1+2+3+4+5+6+7 = 28.
Thus Habakkuk has its structure built upon the seventh triangular number. This proves that triangular numbers were recognized by the prophets and factored into their writings. Now consider a few of the themes.
The prophets often speak of wicked people catching people in a net, or God doing the same thing to the wicked. No chapter in the Bible speaks more about using nets, dragnets, and hooks to trap people than does Habakkuk 1. When Jesus turns the apostles' nets into tools of miraculous grace, this is an answer to Habakkuk’s complaint.
Habakkuk 1:17 ESV
Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?
Jesus is now sending out fishers of men to save the nations, not kill them!
The second section of Habakkuk is more profound and detailed than most people realize. In the first section, Habakkuk wants to know this:
Habakkuk 1:2 ESV
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
How long? It would be a long time, but God actually told him how long! He also told them how many empires would oppress them.
The prophecy seems on the surface to indicate but one invading empire, the Chaldeans (which ruled Babylon) but in reality it lists five. This is consistent with Daniel (which lists four) and Revelation (which counts seven, then describes an eighth and its Allies). Daniel speaks of a statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly, and thighs of bronze, and legs of iron with feet of iron and clay. Thus Babylon, the golden head, collectively represents all four of Daniel’s beasts, which are associated elsewhere with different beasts. Specifically, Greece is the leopard (Daniel 7:6). In this passage, Rome is the evening wolves since the legend was that Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were raised by wolves.
The second beast is harder to spot. It says “their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.” That is a polite way of referring to the Persian empire. When Cyrus came to power, he freed many slaves, permitted the Jews to rebuild their temple and city, and practiced religious tolerance. Towards the Jews, he projected more justice and dignity than the Babylonians.
The Romans are not merely wolves, they are the evening wolves. This is our clue as to when they would capture Jerusalem, and hence when Jesus would come, for it was to be in the days of the fourth empire that God would establish his kingdom and send Messiah. The evening of a millennium is its end. Rome captured Jerusalem in 60 BC. My research suggests a creation date of 4020 BC (because I correct for a rounding error of half a year per generation that is present in most people’s interpretation of the chronologies). Thus the fourth millennium of history ended in 20 BC, just forty years after the capture of Jerusalem.
Then Jesus was born at dawn on the fifth day, the fifth millennium of history. In Habakkuk 3:4, God comes down to defeat his enemies, and “His splendor is like the sunrise”.
By these statements, we see a coded message that a wolfish empire would come at the end of the millennium followed soon after by the sunrise, an analogy used elsewhere, such as in Malachi.
This leaves one last empire, the eagle. Eagles feed from daybreak to about 11 a.m. The eagle empire is tricky. Roman soldiers marched under the banner of an eagle, and many empires have used the eagle as their mascot. But since we already have Rome represented as wolves, the logical alternative is the Islamic empires, which followed Rome. Many Islamic nations have lions on their flags, and their great hero, Saladin, the scourge of the Christian crusaders, had an eagle on his banner. Also, it says that “their horsemen come from afar”. At its largest extent. The Islamic Empire was vast. Its soldiers came from a farther distance than any enemies the Jews faced before.
Shortly after the Ottoman Empire, the last Islamic empire to possess Jerusalem collapsed, Israel was reborn as a nation. Thus there were four civilizations before the messiah and five before God would restore the Jews’ nation. He answered Habakkuk’s desperate questions and then kept His promise.
One more observation about Habakkuk: the shepherd. The final section lists six agricultural failures. They were both literal and symbolic.
So altogether, John 21 tells us that Jesus’ first coming was to supply a shepherd and our daily bread. Other aspects of restoring the other aspects harvest from Habakkuk 3 such as the nation of Israel would have to wait.
One last word on Habakkuk. It has three chapters and each has a seventeenth verse.
Habakkuk 1:17 ESV
Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?
No, God will stop the wicked. In his parable of the net, Jesus says that the final judgment will be like drawing in a net, and the wicked and righteous will be separated.
Habakkuk 2:17 ESV
The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, as will the destruction of the beasts that terrified them, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.
Already five of the beasts have been destroyed, as prayed for. The others will be dealt with at the proper time.
Habakkuk 3:17 ESV
Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls,
The Lord provided food and shepherds as needed. The rest will come later.
So these three 17th verses capture the core problems that Jesus addressed in John 21 or in his ministry in general.
Revelation 9 & 17
Since Jesus’ first coming did not fulfill all promises, the rest await the times spoken of in Revelation. For example, in Revelation 17 (again that number of victory), we learn of the Seven-headed beast with ten horns whom God will defeat. Seven plus ten is seventeen.
Revelation 9 is where we see 153 again. In 9:5 we learn that after the fifth trumpet is blown, demonic locusts will torment people for five months. Remember that Five months is 153 days. Note that that plague is against unbelievers. It is part of God’s war against the wicked, as promised.
What this plague really means and when it will happen is open to debate. One thing I am sure of: God will keep all his promises, those to Habakkuk and to all the other peoples who fear him.
Overwhelming victory belongs to the Lord. That victory is destruction for the ungodly and a fruitful harvest of righteousness for those who fear God.
In the context of John 21:11, the significance of the 153 fish has been a subject of discussion and interpretation throughout the centuries. The passage describes the miraculous catch of fish that occurred when Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection. The disciples had fished all night without success, but Jesus instructed them to cast their net on the right side of the boat, resulting in a massive haul of 153 fish.
There is a special symbolism in the number 2 and the division of 22:
Perfect Division (22): The 153 fish represent a perfect division among the seven disciples. The total catch of 154 fish, divided among the seven disciples, would result in 22 fish for each. This number, 22, is remarkable because it is twice 2. The repetition of the number 2 suggests a divine pattern and spiritual symbolism related to the Witness, also related to the bread that came down from heaven, representing Jesus as the Bread of Life.
2 fish: Furthermore, when Jesus asked for one more fish to be cooked, He emphasized the number two once again. These two fish can be interpreted as a symbol of testimony and the multiplication of grace and Jesus' message.
Mission to Fish for Souls: Within this context, the disciples' mission to fish for people for the kingdom of heaven is also relevant. The disciples were called to catch souls and spread the message of Jesus, and the number 2 can be seen as a reflection of the dual nature of their calling and testimony.
Some of the previous thoughts on numerological interpretations are very good ones; as someone else has said “there is no direct support from the text”. I believe there are numerous times in Scripture where certain numbers are used symbolically, to emphasize, and those include 10’s, 12’s, 100’s, and 1000’s being used in calculations.
At this point in John’s last chapter, Jesus having died at the calculated age of 33, the new 12 need to take over for him, with Simon Peter leading.
Within a few verses is John 21:15-17
John 21:15-17 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these? “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” (KJV)
I think the 153 might symbolize the total of 120 (12, just 10 times) with Jesus’ 33 added.
Jesus was having breakfast with seven disciples, soon to be apostles who were among the only eleven men told that they would be the ones to get the ball rolling prior to Jesus's ascension. Why 153? There is only one other place where that exact number is used, 2 Kings 1. Three sets of fifty and their captains of fifty. 153 exactly. I believe Jesus pointed to that part of the Scriptures to basically "dump" the disciples at the place where they should begin to fulfill their commission; a place that surrounds them in "before" and "after" chaisms between Elijah and Elisha, the center of the huge chain or chaistic structure being 2 Kings 2:11, something easy to miss but incredibly important; "as they were walking along and talking together..."
The contrast between Elijah and Elisha are quite stunning. Elijah was a prophet of God's judgments against the northern kingdom. Except for the Gentile widow's son's resurrection, Elijah was an instrument God used to execute judgment or deliver bad news prophesies to kings, mostly to Ahab; the very last being the Ahaziah death episode in 2 Kings 2. Two sets of 51 were judged, but the last set were shown mercy; 153; two judgments and one act of mercy; the hairy guy WENT DOWN with the last set of 51 to prophesy to Ahaziah that a dirt nap was in his immediate future.
That's where I think Jesus sent the disciples, specifically to that location in Scripture. The very next chapter after the untypical act Elijah performed (mercy) begins the "this is how you do it now" contrast between the law, obedience to it and judgment (Elijah and the old way) and continual demonstrations of undeserved grace to mere, scant demonstrations of others' faith (Elisha and the new way).
And look at how the new way began, right off the bat at Jericho. Salt (covenant) in a NEW bowl, hint, hint thrown into the source of cursed water makes the water pure. Isn't that what we have now in this age? A new covenant, a new age or as Paul says in Ephesians, a dispensation of grace.
As the life of Elisha is followed, more and more examples of grace are demonstrated (axe head floating, poisoned pot fixed, Naaman, the barren woman plus her son's resurrection, resurrection of the enemy soldier who simply touched Elisha's bones); all very different than Elijah.
Anyway, that's just a tiny example of why I believe Jesus used that number specifically. The disciples, especially the seven (and most certainly three of the seven) met intimately with Jesus shortly before His ascension and session. Although it isn't mentioned in John, I would imagine there was a pregnant, "So now what do we do Lord?" And like Jesus, he makes you think it out for yourself like He did so many times throughout the gospels. "153 fish? Hmmm, I wonder why that exact number popped out of the net? I wonder if that number means anything to the only eleven people in the world who were told to make disciples? Hmm, I wonder. I wonder if Jesus is trying to tell us something and where would we find what He is trying to tell us? Where else is that exact number, if at all, is used in the Septuagint?" Well, I wondered for years myself and by studying and looping 1 Samuel through Esther in my GoBible for almost three years during my daily workouts, I think that's why 153 is significant. The new covenant is illustrated and contrasted between Elijah and Elisha in that part of the Scriptures and the seven disciples (and we now) need to know and understand the differences.
What is the significance of 153 fish?
The account is about Peter's reconciliation to Jesus. Jesus was about to ask Peter to be the doctrinal leader of the new church. 
Peter was not yet reconciled with Jesus.
This was the third time that Peter had seen Jesus since his resurrection. 
Peter had previously been a fisherman and was going back to his old life. 
He was leading 6 others (total 7) into the dark.  Seven representing 'all', he was leading all of the disciples into the dark.
He was fishing in the dark all night(requiring grace) 
Jesus had already told him that he should live in the light.  his was a sign that he was returning to his old life.
6.At the first light, Jesus appears to them. This is reminiscent of the resurrection (a new beginning) 
Peter was naked (sin exposed) 
And fishing (making his livelihood) in the flesh ; on the left side  (in the flesh)
Peter begins his repentance by clothing himself and casting himself, like Jonah did, into the sea.  He is placing his judgement in God's hands.
Jesus begins the reconciliation with a meat offering, which is a fellowship offering. Jesus asks if they have meat.  He is offering reconciliation to Peter.:
Jesus had already prepared bread and fish before they had even returned to shore without their great catch. 
Bread and fish represent everything man needs to live in Christ.
2a. Bread represents the cross  and 'every word which proceeds from the mouth of God'.
2b. Man lives by the cross and every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.
Mt 4:4 But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.
2c. Jesus fed the 4000, the 5000, and now the disciples on the shore, bread and fish.
2d. Fish represent 'every word which proceeds from the mouth of God'.
2e. Jesus did not wait for the catch to prepare the meal. The fish, the 'every word' that he fed them, came from him.
2f. The act of eating together is an act of forgiveness, because in that culture (even today) one does not eat with an enemy. The 23rd Psalm reflects the peace that God has caused between enemies. 
Jesus emphasizes Peter's role with a special miracle. The other six disciples could not pull in the catch of fish, but Peter did it single-handedly.  This was a reminder of the position Peter had before Christ, when he had previous experienced the special miracle of walking on water.  It reminded him that he could walk on water when he had his eyes on Jesus. 
He finishes the reconciliation with the dialog with Peter. Not only does he ask him if he loves Jesus, but Jesus indicates his trust in Peter, three times, to feed his sheep.
This was the third appearance of Jesus after the resurrection to the disciples. The first one he was heard, the second he was seen (examined his scars), and the third one he walked with Peter down the beach. This is the same hearing, seeing walking theme we see so often.
With that background we can see the 153 fish. Peter first had to be reconciled to Jesus before he could do the special miracle of teaching; feeding the lambs and sheep.
Peter could not even feed himself through his old occupation of fishing, but Jesus was asking him to feed his sheep. What would he feed them?
There were still 153 fish from the catch that had not been eaten. Jesus had provided the meal.
Previously we discerned that the fish represent 'every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.
Eating is a metaphor for learning. The clean animal ruminates (meditates) on teh word of God and it produces a separated/holy (split hoof) walk/life.
Peter would teach 'every word which proceeded from the mouth of God.
There are 144 (12 x 12) for the dual-natured 12, God's people in the flesh and spirit, and 9 (3 x 3) more for the duel-natured 'fullness of God incarnate'; Christ in flesh and spirit. The fellowship meal for the sheep would be enjoyed by Christ and his church together.
Paul teaches that marriage represents Christ and the church. 
Paul says that the woman should learn from her husband. 
Therefore Paul teaches that the church should learn form (eat with) Christ, and we receive 'every word which proceeds from the mouth of God'.