God Doesn’t Waste Words
God doesn’t waste words, but sometimes it seems like he does. The Bible contains plenty of information that seems superfluous to us, information we tend to breeze over too quickly.
Take, for example, the fact that the apostle John tells us that the disciples caught 153 large fish the morning they encountered the resurrected Jesus ( John 21:11 ). That’s a bit of trivia only first-century readers with knowledge of Galilean fishing would appreciate. If John had a good editor, this detail might have been cut. The precise number of fish doesn’t really add anything essential to the story.
Or does it? Actually, John 21:1–14 contains a number of odd things that leave us scratching our heads. Until it hits us. Then we see that John had a good Editor after all.
Pay attention to the odd things in the Bible — and there are a lot of them. Like we used to think of tonsils and appendices and “junk DNA,” these details might not seem at first to serve any real purpose, but this isn’t at all the case.
The “Essential” Story
First, let’s look at the story in summary. Seven disciples, including Peter and John, are tired of sitting around doing nothing. Peter decides to do something productive, something he knows well: fishing. And as a first-century, Middle-Eastern commercial fisherman, he knows the time for fishing is at night, so that he can sell fresh fish at market in the morning. The other six figured they’d join him. But fishing turned out to be unproductive too. They got skunked. They caught nothing all night, except sleep deprivation.
That is, until a stranger showed up on shore at dawn. He, like most people who come upon other people fishing, asked how the fishing was going. And like most fishermen who’ve been skunked, the reply was curt. The stranger then tells the veteran fishermen to try the other side of the boat. They do, and their nets fill to bursting with fish. John then announces to the others that the stranger “is the Lord” ( John 21:7 ). Peter dives in and swims to shore, leaving the others to drag in the motherload.
When everyone finally gathers on the beach, they find that Jesus has already prepared them a fish-and-bread breakfast. And then Jesus goes on to give Peter some instructions.
That’s the basic story, with no superfluous details.
The “Nonessential” Details
Now, let’s go back and pick up the “nonessential” pieces off the editorial cutting floor and see what we find.
The first piece is a list of names: “Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee [James and John], and two others of his disciples were together” ( John 21:2 ). What’s missing in this list? Two names. John counted seven disciples, but only names five, leaving two anonymous. Why? Good question — it’s not like James, Nathanael, and Thomas are vital to this story; only Peter and John are mentioned again. Interesting.