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?
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
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
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.
Peter was not yet reconciled with Jesus. He was fishing in the dark (requiring grace), naked (sin exposed) and on the left side (in the flesh) ... all not good signs.
Jesus asks if they have meat, an invitation to a meat offering, which is a fellowship offering. He is offering reconciliation to Peter.
Jesus always served bread and fish. The bread is his body, on the cross. And since "man does not live by bread alone", the fish represent "every word which proceeds from the mouth of God."
Peter was instructed to feed the sheep. What was he to feed them? Jesus had Peter alone pull the 153 fish to shore, when all the other disciples together couldn't handle the net. Peter was to feed the sheep "every word which proceeds from the mouth of God".
So why 153? It is a fellowship meal. 144 is for the dual-natured bride of Christ (Israel and the church). The remaining 9 are for the fellowship of the persons of the Godhead with each other. 144 + 3x3 = 153. Each person of the Godhead is fully God as represented by 3.
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.
 Mt 14:17, Mt 15:34
 Mr 14:22 And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body.
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.
Lu 4:4 And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.