Mark 6.45-52 (Jesus Walks on Water)
Immediately after this, Jesus insisted that his disciples get back into the boat and head across the lake to Bethsaida, while he sent the people home. After telling everyone good-bye, he went up into the hills by himself to pray. Late that night, the disciples were in their boat in the middle of the lake, and Jesus was alone on land. He saw that they were in serious trouble, rowing hard and struggling against the wind and waves. About three o’clock in the morning* Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. He intended to go past them, but when they saw him walking on the water, they cried out in terror, thinking he was a ghost. They were all terrified when they saw him. But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage! I am here!” Then he climbed into the boat, and the wind stopped. They were totally amazed, for they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in.
Today I have the privilege to pick up where Brad left off in Mark as we continue to talk about the theme of “following Jesus”. After Mark tells of Jesus’ miracle of feeding the 5000, he turns to narrate another incredible miracle: Jesus walking on water. In this second miracle at sea (see also 4.35-41), Mark continues to deliver the answer to the main question of the first half of Mark’s gospel: Who is this man? (4.41; 6.14-16) Thus, one of the main thrusts of this narrative is to show that Jesus is in fact the Son of God by showing that he has power over nature.
After the feeding miracle (6.32-44), the disciples immediately got back into the boat and headed across the lake towards after this Bethsaida, while Jesus sent the people home (v. 45) After telling everyone good-bye, Jesus went up into the hills by himself to pray, while the disciples were still at sea (v. 46-47). However, that wasn’t all—Mark says that the disciples “were in serious trouble, rowing hard and struggling against the wind and waves”. (v. 48) Seeing the disciples struggling, Jesus comes to them—walking on water!
This action clearly carries divine significance, since God alone “treads on the waves of the sea” (Job 9.8). This episode also has clear parallelism with when God “made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters” (Isa. 43.16; 51.10) when the Israelites were led through the Red Sea on dry ground. Jesus is acting with divine authority, doing only what God can do. Mark also says that Jesus “intended to go past them” invoking fear in the disciples for they thought “he was a ghost” (v. 49).
When reading this we have to beg the question:
If Jesus was coming to help, why would he pass them by?
The most likely explanation is that this is an intentional echo of Old Testament language where God reveals himself to his people by “passing them by” (see Exodus 33.18-23; 1 Kings 19.10-12). Therefore, by “passing by” the disciples, Jesus is revealing his divine glory. After Jesus passes them by, seeing them afraid he says “ “Don’t be afraid… Take courage! I am here! ” (v. 50), then climbed in the boat and the wind immediately stopped.
Although I find the narrative up to this point awe-inspiring, I find the next two verses the most interesting and challenging of all.
Mark tells his readers that after this whole experience,
“They were totally amazed for they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in.” (v. 52)
Although the disciple’s amazement is a common theme throughout Mark’s gospel (1.22, 27; 2.12; 5.20, 42; 12.17), there is an astonishing twist. While amazement is often regarded as a positive response, in this case it is negative, representing unbelief. He connects this amazement with a lack of understanding of something they just experienced: the great miracle of feeding the 5000.
So, what is it the disciples misunderstood?
I am in agreement with Hooker, that the disciples failed to recognize that the one greater than Moses is here and that an event even greater than the Exodus has dawned (Hooker, Mark, 169). This is reinforced again by Mark’s assertion that the disciple’s failure to comprehend was related to their hard heart, which is another possible Exodus allusion since it was Pharaoh’s hard heart that led to the Exodus (Ex. 7.3). Interestingly, it is the same characteristic that Jesus’ opponents carry (Mark 3.5).
When looking to find us in the story, I think one of the most obvious places is here in the disciples. In stark contrast to Jesus’ mastery over nature stands the disciples’ failure to respond to this revelation. From a human perspective, it is pretty natural response to seeing Jesus walk on the water. However, these are the same guys who have also seen Jesus heal the sick, cast out demons and even raise the dead. They have witnessed Jesus feed multitudes of people! Yet, even seeing these things, the disciples still have little faith.
As followers of Jesus, we need to remember that we are not expected to be fearless in every situation, but we should learn from God’s faithfulness in the past and grow in our faith.
When we begin to doubt that God will come through for us, a good faith building exercise is to ask God to bring back to our memory all of the instances that he has come through for us in the past! Today, let us allow God to build our faith by remembering all that He has done for us.
Father, Son and Spirit–thank you for your faithfulness!