Hard upon the conclusion of the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus ordered his disciples posthaste to take a boat across the northern end of the lake to Bethsaida. Why the rush? John adds to his record of the feeding of the 5,000 that such was the enthusiasm of the crowd after that great miracle that an effort was made to make Jesus king – who would not want a king who could provide his people with an unending supply of food! Apparently, it was to separate his disciples from this contagious atmosphere that the Lord demanded that they take to the boat and cross the lake. They were all too ready to join the crowds in their enthusiasm for Jesus as a political and military and revolutionary leader.
We must not forget that throughout the Gospels Jesus is presented to us as a man of faith. He lived by faith as we must. The proof of that is that he was a man of prayer. Prayer is what people do who count on the presence of a God they cannot see but know to be present and ready to intervene in their lives. This is one of the most powerful demonstrations of the true humanity of Jesus: God does not live by faith or prayer!
The feeding of the 5,000 had begun in the late afternoon and no doubt took some time. Night has come.
The disciples were heading east northeast and the wind was directly in their face. There is a strong easterly wind on the lake so common that it has a name, the “Sharkia.” It usually rises in the evening. There is no suggestion of danger, as had been the case in Mark 4 when Jesus calmed a storm on the lake; just rowing against the wind.
The fourth watch of the night would be between 3 and 6 a.m. Mark employs the Roman calculation of time because he is writing for Gentile readers unfamiliar with the Jewish division of days and nights.
We are told that Jesus was walking on or atop the water. The preposition is the same as that used in v. 47 to say that Jesus was on the land. You may be aware that some have proposed that Jesus was actually walking on the shore and only appeared to be on the water, or that he was walking on a sandbar. But these explanations are simply expedients employed by people who refuse to believe that Jesus worked miracles. Which is harder: to multiply food or to walk on water? If the one, certainly the other.
The problem was not that they hadn’t seen enough or that Jesus had not given him enough evidence of his power. The problem was spiritual. They should have known better but their hearts were hard, as ours are far too much of the time. By this time they should have got past the stage of instinctive astonishment to some real understanding of who Jesus is and what he can do. [France, 273]
The chapter concludes with a summary account of the Lord’s ministry of miraculous healing and the excitement it generated among the people along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Now, apart from the obvious and dramatic demonstration of Jesus’ power over nature, what you take away from this passage has a great deal to do with how you understand the last phrase of v. 48: “he was about to pass by them…” Reading the account through, this statement is the odd one in the narrative. It suggests something not obvious, really almost strange. It at least strikes us as enigmatic. Why would the Lord Jesus take the same route as the disciples across the lake – they rowing in a boat and he walking on the surface of the water – and then walk right by them. That seems unlikely, does it not?
Some commentators take the view that the statement, “he was about to pass by them,” should be taken to mean that it seemed from the perspective of the disciples in the boat that Jesus was going to pass them by. He was making better progress than they, rowing against the wind as they were, and seemed about to catch up and go past them. Taken that way, the statement is prosaic and unexceptional. It suggests only that he was walking at a brisk pace and making good time.
The problem with that interpretation is that Mark’s Greek is not faithfully rendered by the NIV’s “He was about to pass by them.” The ESV, for example, a more literal translation, renders the phrase “He meant to pass by them.” That is what Mark actually wrote: he intended, or wished, or meant to pass by them.
But why in the world would Jesus mean to pass by his disciples there on the lake? What are we to suppose: that he is lost in thought and unaware of their circumstances and would have walked by them straining at the oars not even realizing that they were there? Or did he intend to make some point by ignoring their predicament and heading on by himself to their destination? Neither suggestion makes much sense.
An answer to this question begins to emerge when we realize that the language employed to describe Jesus’ behavior here is familiar from the Old Testament. The term “pass by,” certainly nondescript in itself, gains special force from its use in several famous incidents in which God revealed himself to one of his servants. For example, in Exodus 33 and 34 the term is used three times in the famous account of Moses asking to see God and, in return, the Lord causing his glory to pass by Moses. The word used here in Mark is used three times in the LXX of Exodus 33-34, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which, of course, was the Bible of the Gentile Christians for whom Mark was writing his Gospel. Then again at Mt. Horeb, the Lord revealed his presence to Elijah by passing by. And in Job 9:10-11 we read:
He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
miracles that cannot be counted.
When he passes me, I cannot see him;
when he goes by [same word], I cannot
What makes that use of the verb “pass by” in that text still more significant is that a few verses before, in Job 9:8 we read:
He alone stretches out the heavens
and treads on the waves of the sea.
“Treads on the sea” in the LXX of Job 9:8 is the same phrase we encounter here in Mark 6:49 in the NIV’s phrase “walking on the lake,” which the ESV renders, again more literally, “walking [or treading] on the sea.”
The Job passage that contains both the “walking on the sea” phrase and the word “passing by” is describing the transcendence of God, how high above man God is, and all that he can do that is utterly impossible for man and inexplicable to man. This is God the wholly other, the ineffable, the one who lies far, far beyond the knowledge of man. And so it is in Exodus 33 and 34 when Moses is prevented from seeing the glory of God as he passes by because no one can see that glory and live, and so also in 1 Kings when Yahweh told his prophet Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by” [19:11] and Elijah covered his face in the presence of the living God.
In other words, what the wording, the special wording employed, and this strange phrase we do not expect – the Lord meant to pass by them – what all of that suggests is that we have here on the lake that night a divine epiphany. That is why Jesus meant to pass by them. He meant to make of this appearance a revelation of his divine glory as the Son of God. That is why that enigmatic sentence is found in this narrative: it tells us what the entire event means. The living God, Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses and Elijah, the God whose majesty Job described so magnificently, that God has now appeared to men in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Yahweh has come in the flesh! The man who had been praying on the hillside is the living God himself! What we have on the lake that night is a similarly remarkable instance of divine self-revelation. God is passing by once again, doing what God alone can do, what man cannot do, and displaying his glory to his servants.
This interpretation is then confirmed in v. 50 when the Lord identifies himself to his disciples. The English translation makes it sound as if Jesus meant simply to say: “It is I, Jesus, someone you know.” But the words used are literally “I am”; the phrase then is “Take courage, I am, fear not.” You know that “I am” is the origin of the name Yahweh or Jehovah in the Old Testament, a fact traded upon especially in the Gospel of John that records the Lord Jesus often speaking of himself in terms of this phrase, “I am.” “I am” means here certainly more than simply “It is I.” The one who is walking across the waters and coming to help his disciples is no one less than “I am,” the “I Am” of God.” [Edwards, 199]
Taking all of this together, then, we have dramatically and unmistakably that night on the lake, the appearance to his disciples of God the Son, of Yahweh, of Jehovah. It is another demonstration of the fact that those who walk with Jesus walk with God himself, that those who trust in Jesus are placing their trust in the living God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and that those whose help is Jesus Christ have on their side the Almighty himself.
No wonder then that being with Jesus has magnificent practical and existential consequences. When the disciples were apart from the Lord they struggled at the oars against the wind. When he got into the boat, the storm abated and they made quick work of the rest of the journey. Separation brought distress; the Lord’s presence brought deliverance.
Darkness, you remember, in the Bible is an image of danger, trouble and sorrow. The Bible speaks of “the powers of darkness.” Storms are likewise an image of the tribulations of life. “All your waves and breakers have swept over me,” the psalm writer says in describing the troubles of his life. [42:7] So the disciples struggling against the wind at night on the Sea of Galilee was very naturally seen early on as a picture or image of Christians facing the trials and tribulations of life and the Lord’s presence bringing peace as an image of the way the Lord comes to deliver those who trust in him. Here is the church historian, the 8th century British churchman always known as the Venerable Bede.
“The labour of the disciples in rowing against the contrary wind is a type of the various labours of the holy Church, which amid the waves of an opposing world…struggles to attain to the quiet of the heavenly country… But the Lord, though himself stationed on the land, beholds the toilers on the sea; for although He may seem to defer for a season the bestowal of his help on those in tribulation, none the less, that they faint not in their trials, He strengthens them with the thought of his love, and at times even by an open [display] of his aid (treading under, as it were, and allaying the surging waves), he overcomes their adversities and sets them free.” [Bede, cited in Trench, Miracles, 299n]
It was not long before Christians were singing a hymn reflecting that same view of the Lord’s walking on the water. We used to sing this hymn, but it didn’t make it into the second edition of Trinity Hymnal.
Jesus, Deliverer, Come thou to me;
Soothe thou my voyaging over life’s sea:
Thou, when the storm of death roars, sweeping by,
Whisper, O Truth of Truth, “Peace! It is I.”
How like our own lives the toil of those men on the lake that night. We find ourselves in some trouble – there are a hundred different circumstances of life the people in this sanctuary this morning could very easily liken to strenuous rowing against a headwind – and, Christians though we are, the Lord does not seem to be near. We are unaided by his power, so we think, and uncheered by his presence. We are growing weary with all the effort.
It seems to us that he has left us to our own devices. After all, it was his idea to send the disciples across the lake at night. Indeed, he ordered them to make the trip. If it hadn’t been for him, they would have been with him safely on land snoozing the night away. And where was Christ then, they thought and where is he now, we are tempted to think.
How often just these sorts of situations occur in the Gospels. This must be an important fact to come to terms with. Jesus waited until Lazarus had already died before coming to help his family. He told his famous parable of the unjust judge and the widow who had to pester him until he finally relented. Jesus often does not hasten to the aid of his disciples. He leaves them to struggle for a time.
The Lord’s ways with us are so endlessly interesting. He could, of course, have simply calmed the seas for his disciples while he stood on the mountainside far away. But he wanted them to see Him delivering them. He wanted to strengthen their faith in Him. He wanted them to know that in trusting him they were trusting in no one less than the living God, the Maker of heaven and earth. To live by faith in Jesus Christ is, finally, the only thing that matters and so he fills our lives with what reveals and tests and strengthens our faith. And how often do you suppose those same disciples thought back to that windy night on the Sea of Galilee, when they faced trials of various kinds in the years to come. And if they did not yet have von Schlegel’s great hymn to sing, how often they must have thought similar sentiments, if not in such beautiful verse:
Be still my soul: your God will undertake
To guide the future as he has the past.
Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still my soul: the waves and winds still know his voice
Who ruled them while he dwelt below.
Do you remember this powerful passage in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe? Crusoe, you remember, had been shipwrecked on a desert island. The first weeks and months of his sojourn were taken up with building a shelter for himself, providing food to eat, and protection from wild animals or men, should they appear. After some time several circumstances led him to consider God and Christ and his own sins. He had taken a Bible from the shipwreck and began to read it and came to a living faith in Jesus Christ. It is really the turning point of Defoe’s story, some would say the first great novel in the English language. It is the part that the film and television versions of the story typically leave out even though it is the central burden of the novel.
But as time passed – remember Crusoe was on the island for twenty-eight years – his lonely, lost, hopeless circumstances would press in on his mind and heart as understandably they would. Imagine yourself in the same lonely condition and the hopelessness of it.
“…as I walked about, either on my hunting or for viewing the country, the anguish of my soul at my condition would break out upon me on a sudden, and my very heart would die within me to think of the woods, the mountains, the deserts I was in; and how I was a prisoner locked up with the eternal bars and bolts of the ocean, in an uninhabited wilderness, without redemption. In the midst of the greatest composures of my mind, this would break out upon me like a storm and make me wring my hands and weep like a child.
“One morning, being very sad, I opened the Bible upon these words, ‘I will never, never leave thee, nor forsake thee’; immediately it occurred that these words were to me; why else should they be directed in such a manner, just at the moment when I was mourning over my condition, as one forsaken of God and man? ‘Well, then,’ said I, ‘if God does not forsake me, of what ill consequence can it be, or what matters it, though the world should all forsake me; seeing on the other hand, if I had all the world and should lose the favour and blessing of God, there would be no comparison in the loss?
“From this moment I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition than it was probable I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world…” [102-103]
Now what is that, really, but the Lord Jesus, once more, after seeing his disciple rowing all night against a contrary wind, coming across the water to help him and to put everything right. And how many times in the history of every single Christian in the world has the living God, in the person of Jesus Christ, walked over the troubled waters to be present with his disciple and to bring peace and calm and safety. Indeed, isn’t it true – hasn’t it been true with you – that it is especially in the midst of hardship that Jesus revealed himself as God and Savior to you?
Hardships of every kind: loneliness, persecution, the afflictions of the body, the disappointments and frustrations of life, and death itself. How many of the Lord’s saints, when being battered by the storms of life, found the Lord coming to their rescue through the storm.
I think of a man like Thomas Halyburton, the great Scot theologian and pastor, whose gravestone stands next to Samuel Rutherford’s in the churchyard in St. Andrews, who lay on his deathbed with painfully swollen limbs. “Lame hands, lame legs; but see a lame man leaping and rejoicing.” I think of my sister’s case, when the Lord came walking across the water to her, at the very end of her life, and gave her such a sight of the heavenly country and such breath to say so clearly and emphatically – though by that time her lungs were filled up with fluid so that otherwise she had been hardly able to breathe much less to speak. Hard rowing it had been for her; then suddenly to the shore!
I will always love the letter that the Covenanter martyr, Archibald Campbell, the earl of Argyle, wrote to his daughter-in-law, the morning of his execution in Edinburgh.
“What shall I say in this great day of the Lord, wherein in the midst of a cloud, I have found a fair sunshine. I can wish no more for you, but that the Lord may comfort you, and shine upon you as he does upon me, and give you that same sense of His love in staying in the world, as I have in going out of it.”
What is that but the Lord coming over the waves at the end of a long night and bringing the relief that his disciple needed?
I have seen the Lord walking across the waves to me and I know that many of you have as well. A long night of hard rowing, weariness, discouragement at lack of progress, and, then, suddenly, he was there! And, let me tell you something, my brethren. Once he is there, all the rowing is forgotten, all the waves, all the weariness, all the fear. Not only forgotten, even appreciated.
No one ever said it better than Samuel Rutherford:
“Nay, whether God come to his children with a rod or a crown, if He come Himself with it, it is well. Welcome, welcome, Jesus, what way soever Thou come, if we can get a sight of Thee! And sure I am, it is better to be sick, providing Christ come to the bedside and draw by the curtains, and say, ‘Courage, I am Thy salvation,’ than to enjoy health, being lusty and strong, and never to be visited of God.” [Letter XI, p. 52]
Did you catch that? “…visited of God! God himself visits, comes to, passes by his people. When Jesus Christ is with you – as he is with all who trust in him – the living One, Yahweh, Jehovah is with you. No one less than the Almighty, the All-knowing God. Not simply a friend, not even an angel; God himself with you!
And what then for us from this text? Well, what else but this? When you find yourself in that storm, the wind blowing against you, oars laboring heavily, you keep on rowing. Pull a little longer, that is all, however weary your arms. The Lord is on the hillside, interceding for you. If he wanted you to have calm seas you would have them. He will come across the water at precisely the right time. And when you see him walking on the water, coming to help you, you will think all the rowing a small price to pay to have been given that sight and to feel your boat rock gently as he steps into it. “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Or, in the lovely words of Clement of Alexandria,
“Christ turns all our sunsets into dawns.”
Believing that and remembering that is a very large part of being Christ’s faithful disciple. Keep looking for the Lord Christ across the tops of the waves. Before long you will see him as vast multitudes of storm tossed Christians have before you!