Coal Fires and Fish


The physical presence of the Lord Jesus, alive after the resurrection just as He promised He would be, transforms everything. We can see this very clearly in the fall and restoration of the apostle Peter after the resurrection of Jesus.

The Text:

“And the servants and officers stood there, who had made a fire of coals; for it was cold: and they warmed themselves: and Peter stood with them, and warmed himself” (John 18:18).

“And the other disciples came in a little ship; (for they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits,) dragging the net with fishes. As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread” (John 21:8-9).


These two verses are just a few pages apart, and the Greek for the charcoal fire is identical (anthrakian). The apostle John is a very careful writer, and the contrast that is built in here is no accident. We are being invited to compare and contrast the two settings.

The first fire was built by the enemies of Christ (18:18), and the second was built by Jesus Himself (21:9). Peter was present in both settings, and he was present because of something that had been said by the apostle John (18:16; 21:7). Jesus was present in both settings. In the first He was on trial for His life (John 18:27; cf. Luke 22:61), and in the second He has conquered death (21:1). In the first, Peter denied the Lord three times, just as Jesus had predicted (18:17, 25, 26), and fell into sin. In the second, he affirmed his love for the Lord three times, more humbly than before, and was reinstated to ministry (21: 15, 16, 17). In the first, Peter received something from wicked men (warmth), and in the second he received something from the Lord (food, and forgiveness). In the first, Peter does not compare favorably with the disciple that Jesus loved—John was more influential “at court,” John didn’t deny the Lord, and John didn’t run away. In the second, Peter has all such comparisons put to rest for him (John 21:21-22). “What is that to you?”

153 Fish, and Big Ones Too:

Paying attention to the number of fish caught is not a mystical or spooky reading of the text–— it is a literary reading of the text. It is reading with your eyes open. The issues are placement, foreshadowing, parallelism, conventions, and so on. To illustrate the difference, consider another detail from this text—when Jesus called out to His disciples fishing about 100 yards offshore, He told them to put their nets down over the right side of the boat, which they did. When they had done so, the result was a huge haul. This was a way of Jesus identifying Himself. When He had first called them to ministry, He had called them away from their nets (Matt. 4:18-22) so that they could become fishers of men. And when Jesus had done a similar miracle like this one before, the response that Peter had had was that of being overwhelmed with his own sinfulness (Luke 5:8). The first time the miracle had made him aware of his sinfulness; the second time he was living in an awareness of his sinfulness, with the memory of his denials and blasphemies still raw, and this same miracle calls him out of it.

This scene in John has a return to both elements—Jesus deals wonderfully with Peter’s sin and fall, and Jesus recommissions him to ministry as a fisher of men. He tells him three times to “feed the sheep” (21:15, 16, 17). We should also have no trouble seeing the fish as emblematic of the coming haul at Pentecost. The nations were to be brought into the boat, and Jesus indeed made His disciples fishers of men. In this case, Peter had jumped out of the boat, and the others had brought the fish in. But Peter is soon to rejoin them in the work. I like to imagine Peter standing on a wall in order to preach at Pentecost, and to see him cast his gospel net over the right side.

But what is it with the specific number of fish? This is a good place to illustrate the difference between a careful literary reading and mystical reading. This number has had a goodly amount of ingenuity to be spent on it. Some of it has been fanciful, some of it pretty pedestrian, and some of it sober. But the sober reading is still astonishing.

Bear With Me:

The pedestrian reading is that 153 is mentioned because that’s how many fish there were, darn it, and John was simply interested in adding an irrelevant little detail. He put that in for “local color.”

A fanciful reading is that when you add the ten of the commandments to the seven of the seven-fold Spirit, as Augustine urged, you get 17, and 153 is the triangular of 17. (Triangular means that if you add the numbers 17 to 16 to 15 to 14 and so on down to one, the sum is 153). The problem here is that you can also get 153 from Seventeen magazine, and that doesn’t mean that John is talking about the challenges of adolescence in a secular age. This is the kind of thing that John Calvin called “childish trifling.”

But 666 is the triangular of 36 (and 36 is 6 times 6). It is a number we instantly recognize. The biblical writers often did make some of their points with numbers, and John particularly did. The fact that it is unusual to us doesn’t make it unusual or odd to them. We already have solid grounds for understanding the fish as representing the Gentile nations. We have that “fishers of men” call that Jesus gives Peter and Andrew, James and John. We have the fact that throughout Scripture, the sea represents the Gentiles and the land the Jews. No one in the Old Testament is shown eating fish, but in the New Testament fishing (and the eating of fish) comes to the front and center.

On the day of Pentecost, how many nations are listed? Well, 17 actually (Acts 2:7-11). And we have to remember the practice of encoding numbers in names (called gematria) was common in the ancient world. They could do this in a way that we cannot because they used the same symbols for letters and for numbers. We have Roman letters and Arabic numbers. But in Hebrew, the first nine letters corresponded to 1-9, the next nine were 10-90, and the last five were100-400. So?

Well, as one biblical scholar points out, the prophet Ezekiel promised that the time of the New Covenant would be a time of glorious fishing.

“And it shall come to pass, that the fishers shall stand upon it from Engedi even unto Eneglaim; they shall be a place to spread forth nets; their fish shall be according to their kinds, as the fish of the great sea, exceeding many” (Eze. 47:10).

The prefix En simply means spring, and so there are two words we should consider here—Gedi and Eglaim. If we look at the numerical value of Gedi in Hebrew, we find that it is 17, and the value of Eglaim is 153. Now try reading through Ezekiel 47, with its living water from the Temple of the Church, and trees on both sides of the river, with leaves for medicine, for the healing of the nations, and see how fishers of men shall stand there, from “the Spring of 17” to “the Spring of 153.”

Ezekiel was talking about the salvation of the Gentiles under the figure of fish, and he uses these numbers. John refers to this, and it has the same meaning as the explicit meaning given to it by Jesus in Luke (fishers of men). This means that 153 is a symbolic number for the Gentile nations who will be brought into the kingdom of God.

Back to the Charcoal Fire:

Remember that Peter is being restored. The antithesis is very clear here. The charcoal fire built by the enemies of Christ is not really a good place to warm yourself—and it ends with snarling, cursing, devouring, bitterness, and tears.

The charcoal fire built by Christ is built in order to feed the disciples, and then, as Peter is being restored, he is commanded (in his turn) to feed the Christians who will follow him. Post-resurrection, the Lord who feeds His disciples is as humble as He was in the upper room when He washed their feet. They come to the beach, and He is cooking their breakfast. “How do you want your eggs?”

The resurrected Christ forgives and feeds. Our responsibility is to be forgiven, to be fed, and then to forgive . . . and feed. The first charcoal fire is the fire of betrayal, treason, sin, blasphemies, crashing pride, and humiliation. The second fire is the fire of free and full forgiveness, a fire of complete reconciliation.

After Peter denied the Lord, and went out to weep bitterly over it, how many times do you think he wished he could do everything over? How many times do you think he lamented his self-confidence and bluster? How many times do you think he wished he could go right back to the beginning of his discipleship, and follow Christ faithfully this time? And what does Jesus give him? In the miracle of the fish, this is exactly what He gives to Peter. He takes him back to the moment he was first called, and is graciously given an unspeakable gift. Here, follow me again. All is forgiven. This really is a do-over. Come, follow me.

And what about you? Do any of us need to experience this kind of reconciliation? The answer is yes for all of us. The Lord is not more gracious to Peter than He is to you. Do not ask about Peter what Peter asked about John—you will get the same answer. What is that to you? You follow me—but you follow Him cleansed and forgiven. As though you had never denied Him.

This sermon is modified from a sermon first preached in 2007.

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Great stuff. Also, the first coal fire was about the Bronze Altar – the sacrifice offered on earth. The fire on the beach (i.e. above the laver) was the Golden Altar – the elders in heaven. Jesus basically does for Peter what the seraphim did for Isaiah, with a coal from the altar: He would send Peter to preach to Jerusalem with tongues of fire, thus putting the city under the ban.


Thank you.


I’ve often heard the agape/phileo conversation explained as “Peter’s still being an idiot. He doesn’t really love Jesus.” It makes much more sense to hear it explained as “Peter’s finally being humble, confessing the smallness of his love rather than boasting in its greatness.” Thanks.

Chris Barrowman

Absolutely brilliant, much needed, thank you.