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.

Second, Peter’s wardrobe. Why do we need to know that when Peter realized it was Jesus on the shore, “he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea” (John 21:7)?

The third is the “fish” piece: “Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn” (John 21:11). Obviously John was impressed by this number. But since almost all of the story’s readers would lack the context to find this number impressive, why would God want it included?

If we look close enough, the “nonessential” pieces are telling an important story of their own. The idiosyncratic details, like who gets named, what Peter does with his clothes, and how many fish were caught, are the idiosyncrasies of an eyewitness report — of someone who actually saw the events. Isn’t this the way we all tend to report things that really happened? We include some details and not others — often details our experiences have conditioned us to notice. These details are not nonessential. They may not directly contribute to the main point of the story, but they tell us important things about the human author of the story.

The Oddest Detail

There’s one more detail I’d like to pick up and examine. When Jesus invited the guys to breakfast, John inserted a very strange comment: “Now none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord” (John 21:12). What an odd thing to say! They didn’t recognize him?

Yes, they did, but not because of his voice or appearance. Let’s remember, these were men who had spent the better part of three years living and working with Jesus. Yet they hadn’t recognized his voice from the shore, though they had heard him preach many times. Now up close, even though they had encountered him twice before since his resurrection (John 21:14), there was something different about the way he looked and sounded. What clued them in to who this was? The fish! When John saw the nets fill with fish, it hit him: “It is the Lord!” (John 21:7).

John doesn’t elaborate at all on why Jesus was hard to recognize. So why is it important?

Let me just give one reason: the disciples’ experience of not recognizing Jesus corroborates other independent post-resurrection reports. Think of Luke’s account of Jesus’s appearance to Cleopas and another unnamed disciple on their way to Emmaus in Luke 24:13–35. Jesus walks and talks all afternoon with these two men, who also knew him well, yet they didn’t recognize his voice or appearance — not until he revealed himself in a familiar act: the breaking of bread.

Do you see the connection? What happened in John 21 is similar. The seven disciples didn’t recognize Jesus until he revealed himself in a familiar act: filling empty fishnets. They are two independent, different reports that corroborate testimonies, increasing the credibility of both reports.

Pay Attention to the Oddities

Pay attention to the oddities in the Bible — and there are a lot of them. Seemingly extraneous things are not extraneous at all. What they have to say is important because God chose to include them.

The odd details in John 21:1–14 are not the main points of the chapter. Nor are my observations the only things to see in these details. But they do illustrate that God is not sloppy in what he includes in Scripture. The details are there for a reason. Look carefully. Ask questions. See more.

Tonsils, appendices, and “junk DNA” are not anatomical nonessentials. And God doesn’t waste words.