An Unexpected Encounter with God

Do you sometimes feel like you’re giving all you have but don’t seem to make any measurable progress? I do.

This is why I chose to study the account of Jesus walking on water. It’s true that this was a school assignment, but God used it powerfully in my life and I thought I’d share it with you. If it’s ok with you, I’ll put in hyperlinks to the books I used. (They’re not affiliate links.) If you’d like a full resource list, feel free to email me.

Mark 6:45-52 is the account of Jesus walking on the water. It omits Peter stepping out of the boat to meet Jesus (John 6:15–21), but it emphasizes the difficulty the disciples had struggling to row against the storm. They missed out because in their struggle they did not see who Jesus showed He was. (Boy! That sounds like me sometimes.)

I thought I knew and understood this oft-repeated story. What I found through deeper study surprised me. Let’s see if it surprises you too. I think it will change your view of God and how you talk about this story with others.

Setting

Mark 6:45–52 nestles snugly between the feeding of the 5,000 and additional healings in Gennesaret. The preceding verses tell the miracle of the loaves and fish. These two stories are very closely linked with the reference to “the loaves” in verse 52, but there is a sharp transition in verse 45 with Mark’s favorite word: immediately (euthus in Greek).

The action begins “in a secluded place” off the Sea of Galilee (Mk 6:31–33; Jn 6:1 specifies Tiberias which is south of Gennesaret on the western edge of the Sea of Galilee). Click here to see a map.

It is about a year before Jesus’ crucifixion. John the Baptist was arrested and later beheaded because he worried Herod the tetrarch with proclamations of the coming Messiah (Mt 14:3–12; Elwell & Beitzel 1988, 1203). Unfortunately, the Messiah he proclaimed was misunderstood.

The Jewish people, presumably including the disciples, expected the coming Messiah to overthrow the Romans and rule on the throne of David (2Sa 7:12, 13, 16, 25, 26; Ps 89:3, 4, 36, 37; Is 9:7; 1Ch 17:11–14, 23–27; RW Research, Inc. 2005, 86). Mark highlights repeatedly the crowds following Jesus and pressing in to the point where Jesus and His disciples escaped by boat as “a secluded place by themselves” (Mk 6:32). John adds that, following the feeding of the 5,000, the people intended to make Jesus king by force (6:15). Perhaps this gave Jesus cause to “make” His disciples get in the boat immediately following this miraculous feeding (Mk 6:45; Guelich 1998, 349).

What Happened

Jesus sent the large crowd away while the disciples set out by boat for Bethsaida, an ancient harbor city on the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee (RW Research, Inc. 2005, 113). Once the crowds left, Jesus went up by himself on the mountain to pray.

The feeding of the 5,000 was probably in the late afternoon, making this early evening. Mark uses the same idiom meaning “late afternoon/early evening” for both (compare 6:35; Guelich 1998, 349). Jesus spent several hours in prayer because the next time reference is “the fourth watch,” between 3–6 AM according to Roman time (v. 48; Guelich 1998, 349).

While alone on the mountain, Jesus sees the disciples struggling, rowing against the wind (v. 48). In the literal translation of the original Greek text, Jesus saw they were “harassed in rowing, for the wind was opposite.” Picture it. The disciples rowed hard for hours and still found themselves in the middle of the lake (v. 47). So much for a relaxing get-away!

Then something amazing happens.

Jesus walks out on the water to them. He intends to pass them by, but the disciples cry out thinking He’s a ghost. Jesus immediately tells them, “Take courage; it is I, do not be afraid.” Then He gets in the boat and immediately the wind stops. The disciples are “utterly astonished.” Mark adds editorially, “they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their heart was hardened” (v. 48–52 NASB).

Verse 53 explains that they landed in Gennesaret. Scholars disagree on why it is Gennesaret rather than the initial goal of Bethsaida (Brisco 1998, 225; Garland 1996, 265; Guelich 1998, 348), but the wind probably threw the boat off course (Garland 1996, 265).

Did you miss the amazing part? I did the first time through.

It’s all about Jesus

The main character in this passage is Jesus. It is not about the storm, the disciple’s struggle, the miracle of walking on water, or about fear. See for yourself:

  • Jesus made His disciples leave.
  • Jesus dismissed the crowd.
  • Jesus went up on the mountain.
  • Jesus prayed.
  • Jesus was on land while the boat was at sea.
  • Jesus saw the disciples struggling to row.
  • Jesus came to them.
  • Jesus intended to pass by them.
  • The disciples saw Jesus walking on the water.
  • The disciples thought Jesus was a ghost.
  • Jesus spoke to them.
  • Jesus got into the boat.
  • Jesus stopped the wind.
  • The disciples were “utterly astonished” because of Jesus.

See what I mean? This emphasis on Jesus leads us to ask, what we should learn about Jesus from this passage?

The “Wow!” Part

Jesus’ words to His disciples contain the crux of this passage. It loses its punch without a deeper look, which may be why the disciples missed it. The actual words Jesus uses are ego eimi. These Greek words may be translated “it is I” or “I am.” “I am” in Hebrew is Yahweh or Jehovah (Lord in modern Bibles). This is the name God gave Moses in Exodus 3:13–15 (Guelich 1998, 351, 353). Jesus is God!

Many elements parallel Mark 6:45–52 with God’s revelation to Moses. First, Jesus talks to God the Father through prayer on the mountaintop (v. 46). Moses ascended Mt. Saini to talk with God (Ex 19:18–20). This comparison also explains why Jesus would want to “pass by” His struggling disciples.

Translations differ on the translation of the phrase. The NIV says Jesus was “about to pass them by.” But I think the NASB comes closer to the original meaning with “He intended to pass them by.” Here’s why.

While scholars and translators differ on what this phrase means, seen in light of Exodus, Jesus was clearly demonstrating that He is God (Guelich 1998, 350–351). In Exodus 34:5–8, the glory of the Lord passed by Moses (Ex 33:18–20; 34:5–8).

Interestingly, the disciples’ reaction differed greatly from that of Moses. Moses “made haste” to bow low and worship (Ex 34:8). The disciples, who were not distressed during the high winds, panicked at the sight of Jesus (Mk 6:49–50; Garland 1996, 261–264). That leads us to today.

So what?

God will not fit in the boxes we try to put Him in so we can understand Him better. What we think we understand is only what we want God to be.

Do we see Jesus as He really is: God almighty, the Great I am, who inspires worship and controls the wind? Or do we not yet understand because of hardened hearts (Mk 6:51–52)?

La Bible du Semeur translates this “Leur intelligence était aveuglée” which means “Their intelligence was blinded” (Mk 5:52). This describes modern culture well.

Garland explains, “This spine-tingling, knee-buckling reality cannot be captured by a jaded Hollywood and may be overlooked by modern Christians who have lost their sense of awe before the holy” (Garland 1996, 266–267).

Mark 6:45–52 should arrest believers with the power, wonder, and majesty of Jesus Christ who is God Almighty. That changes the way we approach life and live it.

We cannot hope to compare to or fully understand the Great I am. It is our privilege to bow down and worship Him with all we have and all we are. Every act should be one of worship.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” Romans 12:1 NIV

We need to open our hearts and minds to what God reveals to us though Scripture and His work in our lives.

Take a moment to ask God to reveal ways you’ve tried to make Him fit what you thought He should be. Ask the Lord to powerfully reveal Himself to you through your Bible reading and the ways He works in your life.

Pass it on

I hope this has blessed you as it’s blessed me. Now it’s your turn to share.

The next time you share the story of Jesus walking on water with your family, take a moment to stop and talk about the ways this compares to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  Then pray together, asking God to show you the powerful ways He still works today.

What has God been teaching you lately? Please share it with us below.

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