Walking on the sea, Jesus intended to pass by His disciples in their boat. Why did He seek to do this? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Mark to show how this moment displays the glory of the Son of God.
We continue this morning with our study of the gospel according to Saint Mark. We are in the sixth chapter, and today I will read Mark 6:45–56. I will ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
Immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He sent the multitude away. And when He had sent them away, He departed to the mountain to pray. Now when evening came, the boat was in the middle of the sea; and He was alone on the land. Then He saw them straining at rowing, for the wind was against them. Now about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by. And when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were troubled. But immediately He talked with them and said to them, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.” Then He went up into the boat to them, and the wind ceased. And they were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled. For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened.
When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret and anchored there. And when they came out of the boat, immediately the people recognized Him, ran through that whole surrounding region, and began to carry about on beds those who were sick to wherever they heard He was. Wherever He entered, into villages, cities, or the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged Him that they might just touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched Him were made well.
This is the Word of God—inspired, infallible, and inerrant. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Oh Lord, as we once again give attention to this record of the life, person, and work of our Savior, we pray that in understanding this episode this morning, we will go even deeper into our wonder and awe of the mystery of His person. For we ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Disciples Sent Away
There is an interesting segue in Mark’s gospel between the account of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand with the loaves and fish that we examined last week and the astonishing account of His walking on the water. The segue that links these two accounts is not without importance, so I would like to spend just a few moments looking at this transition. In verse 45, we read, “Immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He sent the multitude away.”
Mark does not tell us why immediately upon the conclusion of the multitudes feasting upon the fish and the loaves, Jesus so curtly dismissed the disciples, sent them on their way in the boat, and told them to go aside to Bethsaida while He stayed and dismissed the crowd. Though Mark does not tell us explicitly, I do not think it is difficult to speculate, particularly when we see the comment at the end of this segment of the text.
One thing that Jesus had to struggle with was that every time He performed a miracle, particularly when there were large crowds, the people would begin to press upon Him, want to anoint Him as their king, and look to Him to be their warrior-deliverer from the oppression of Rome. On this occasion, it seems the crowd’s response was so strong that apparently the disciples themselves got caught up in it, and Jesus saw this. He saw that they were as excited as the crowd, and they were looking to Him with a glaze in their eyes that maybe Jesus would be the one to drive the Romans out of the land.
So, Jesus said: “Get in the boat. I’ll see you later. Go to the other side, to Bethsaida,” which means, “the house of the fisher.” After dismissing the disciples, Jesus dismissed the crowd by Himself. In His own way, He put to rest any spontaneous moves to make Him king.
I make these speculations based on a host of events that are sprinkled throughout the earthly ministry of Jesus. Consistent with the normal response and Jesus’ response to the crowd’s response, that is my guess about what probably happened. As I said, if you can be patient for a few minutes, I think that speculation will be somewhat satisfied at the end of the text.
Withdrawal for the Mission
After dismissing the crowd, what did Jesus do? He removed Himself from the crowd and went away into a solitary place to pray. There was nothing particularly unique about that. Jesus was a man of prayer, but you may be surprised to learn that there are only three times in the Bible that specifically describe Jesus in prayer.
What I find noteworthy about those occasions is that every time the Bible talks about Jesus praying, He is alone, withdrawn into a solitary place, away from the crowds and disciples. When He is alone like this, as He was in the garden of Gethsemane, as He was when He spent the night praying before He called the disciples, there is some crisis pressing in upon Him, and it usually has something to do with His vocation, His mission.
The first time, it was the choosing of the disciples who would accompany Jesus on His mission. The third time was in Gethsemane, when the heart of His mission was directly in front of Him, with the cup the Father had filled with His own wrath. But here, Jesus withdrew, got away from the crowd and away from His disciples, and spent a long time in prayer, which was likely about His mission.
Rowing in Torment
“Now when evening came, the boat was in the middle of the sea; and He was alone on the land. Then He saw them straining at rowing, for the wind was against them. Now about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by.” There is enough in this verse to last for the next few weeks, but God willing, I will move at an accelerated pace and aim to finish it this morning.
While Jesus was coming down from the mountain of prayer, He looked out into the Sea of Galilee and could see in the distance that His disciples had made very little progress in getting to the other side because a fierce wind was blowing against them. He observed that they were straining at the oars.
The disciples could not sail across the turbulent waters with the wind behaving as it was, so they were trying to get across by rowing with oars. When Jesus noticed them, the word translated “straining” here is used elsewhere in the Bible translated by the word “torment.” The pain they were experiencing trying to row against this wind was excruciating.
It was probably an easterly wind known to the natives as the Sharqi, or in English it would be “the shark.” This is the New Testament’s version of Jaws, only the shark is a wind rather than an animal, but the result could often be the same. Jesus saw that His disciples were in trouble, and He began to leave the land to walk out to them, and He walked on the sea.
Optical Illusions and Sandbars?
Let me comment on Jesus’ walking on water for a moment. The language in the text makes no mistake about what Mark is saying. The word there means “on top of” the water. Clearly, Jesus was doing something that no mortal can do.
Last week, I mentioned the nineteenth-century assault on the integrity of Scripture by European liberals who de-supernaturalized the biblical text. These same scholars, as noted by Albert Schweitzer in The Quest of the Historical Jesus, explained this incident by saying that it must have been misty that night with the wind churning up the water, and Jesus was out there during the fourth watch, which is between three and six o’clock in the morning. So, in the fog, the disciples suffered an optical allusion. Or, possibly, there was a sandbar hidden from view, and Jesus was taking advantage of the sandbar to walk out to meet the disciples in the middle of the lake. The trouble is that they knew that lake as well as the palms of their hands, and they knew where every shoal, rock, and sandbar would be.
Nevertheless, the one thing that the nineteenth-century critic could not stomach is even the remote possibility that what Mark describes actually took place—no sandbar, no optical illusion—just Jesus walking on the water.
The One Who Passes By
Notice something strange in Mark’s description: “About the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by.” Jesus saw they were in trouble, straining at the oars. They were in physical torment. The wind was howling. The shark was loose on the sea. So, Jesus started out on the water to pass them by, to walk past the boat and say: “How are you doing? Have a nice night”? What is that about? Why would the description in the text be that Jesus purposes to walk by them?
One of the basic principles we have of biblical interpretation is that you interpret the Scriptures by the Scriptures. If we want to get ahold of what the text is saying, we must go back to the Old Testament to understand this phenomenon.
In the first place, we understand from the book of Job that the Scriptures say it is God who walks upon the waves. In the Jewish understanding, indeed in all human understanding, the only One who has the power or ability to walk on water is God Himself.
When God manifests Himself in the Old Testament in a visible way, that visible manifestation of the invisible God is called a theophany, coming from the Greek word theos, which means “God,” and from the Greek word phaneros, which means “to manifest, show, demonstrate, or display.” So, a theophany is a visible manifestation of the invisible God.
You have likely heard of other theophanies in the Bible. In Exodus 3, when Moses saw the burning bush in Midianite wilderness such that the bush was burning but not consumed, and then God spoke to Moses out of that bush, that was a theophany, a visible appearance of the invisible God. In Genesis 15, when Abraham was given the promise of his inheritance, he asked God, “How can I know these things are true?” God put him to sleep and cut up a number of animals, and a smoking torch and burning oven passed between the pieces of the animals. That was a theophany. It was God visibly moving to show Himself.
Perhaps the two most famous theophanies in the Old Testament are found in the books of Exodus and 1 Kings. First, let me look at Exodus 33. Moses is speaking to God, and he says in Exodus 33:18, “Lord, please show me Your glory.” Notice how God responds:
Then He said, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” And the Lord said, “Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.” (Ex. 33:19–23)
In this theophany, similar to the Genesis 15 passage I mentioned a moment ago, when God moves with His glory to show Himself to creatures, His glory passes by. That is what Jesus was doing: “I’m going out to the boat. I’m going to walk on the water that I might pass by them.” Jesus was self-consciously involved in a theophany.
Let us look at one more example in 1 Kings, which is another familiar text. It contains the story of Elijah as he fled from Jezebel and hid in a cave:
And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and He said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
So he said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life” (1 Kings 19:9–11)
I call this the Elijah syndrome, which many of us experience from time to time when we think we are the only ones left who are faithful. How does God respond to this expression of despair from His prophet? Listen to what God said:
Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And he said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.”
Then the Lord said to him: “Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place. It shall be that whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill; and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal.” (1 Kings 19:11–18)
In other words, it is as though the Lord was saying: “Don’t talk to Me about being alone. I always have a remnant who are faithful to Me.” In that crisis encounter, Elijah experienced a theophany as the glory of the Lord passed by.
That was what happened on the Sea of Galilee. The glory of God, bursting through the shroud of the humanity of Jesus, manifested itself to the disciples. In the middle of their distress, they saw the glory of God passing by, shining out of the Son of God.
Jesus’ Sacred Name
“And when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed it was a ghost”—or the word could mean a phantom, or even worse, a demon, because there were superstitious ideas that when the sea was churning and boiling, it was the result of the visitation of the demonic world upon this destructive force. So, when they saw Jesus, they thought, “This must be a demon.” The disciples knew it was something supernatural, but it was not a phantom, a ghost, or a demon; it was Jesus coming to them, walking by them.
The text continues: “They all saw Him and were troubled. But immediately He talked with them and said to them”—listen to this; Jesus did not just give an empty greeting—“‘Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.’”
Many of you were here when we preached through the entire gospel of John, and one of the things that we paid close attention to in our study of John’s gospel was the several “I am” statements of Jesus. For example, “I am the bread of life,” “I am the Good Shepherd,” “I am the door,” “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” “Before Abraham was, I am,” and so on.
When we looked at the structure of those proclamations by Jesus, we found something extraordinary. When a person says, “I am” in Greek, he can do it in one of two ways. He can say ego, and we get the word ego from that, which means “I am.” Or someone can say the word eimi, which is another form of the verb “to be,” meaning, “I am.” But we find a strange construction in the gospel of John when Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” “I am the door,” “I am the resurrection and the life,” and so on, He combines ego and eimi and uses that intensified form of the verb “to be” and says ego eimi. It is like Jesus is stuttering, “I am, I am.”
But Jesus is not stuttering. He is using an expression that the New Testament Greek uses to translate the ineffable name of God given to Moses from the burning bush, when God said: “My name is Yahweh. I Am that I Am.” When the Greek translates Yahweh, it is by that strange conjunction, ego eimi.
When we think of the “I am,” statements, we think of John’s gospel, but Mark has one as well. As He passed by, walking on the sea, and His disciples were terrified, He tried to calm their spirits: “Be of good cheer! Don’t be afraid. Ego eimi—I Am.” If there was any doubt earlier that this was a theophany, Jesus’ use of the sacred name to identify Himself as He walks on the water makes that virtually certain.
Hardened Hearts Do Not Understand
Now we must ask the question, Why did Jesus do what He did in this text? Here, we do not have to speculate. He got into the boat. As soon as He got into the boat, the wind ceased just like it did earlier when He calmed the storm. “And they were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled.”
Here is the verse I spoke about earlier that, if you were patient, I would get to: “For they had not understood about the loaves.” The disciples did not grasp what happened. What should they have understood? They should have understood that the One they were with was God incarnate. Who else could take a few loaves and some fish and feed thousands and thousands of people? But instead of seeing the presence of God, they saw the presence of a liberator from the military oppression of Rome. They did not understand. Why did they not understand?
Earlier in our church service this morning, we continued our reading through the book of Exodus, where Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh and said: “Pharaoh, we’re going to tell you again what the Lord God has commanded. He told us to tell you, ‘Let My people go, that they may come out into the wilderness and serve Me.’” But Pharaoh said, “No.” Why? Because his heart was hard.
Moses threw down the rod of Aaron, and the Nile turned into blood, the fish died, the river began to stink, and the water could not be drunk. This did not just affect the Nile; every well, river, brook, bowl, and glass of water in the land turned to blood. If you were Pharaoh and you saw that, what would you say? “Where do you want them to go? How long would you like to stay? Surely this is God.” But his heart was hardened.
Beloved, when people do not understand the identity of Christ, it is not because they are unintelligent; it is because their hearts are recalcitrant. Their hearts are made of stone. Sin causes such great calluses to grow upon our hearts that if Christ Himself were to walk in front of us on the water today, unless the Holy Spirit changes that heart of stone to one that can beat and pulsate with spiritual life, people will not believe.
So, Jesus made it unmistakably clear: “You didn’t understand when I fed the five thousand? You don’t understand when I tell you ego eimi? You don’t grasp it when I step into the boat and the wind stops blowing and the shark becomes a minnow? It’s because your hearts are hardened.”
Then Mark says, “When they crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret and anchored there.” They came out of the boat, and again the story repeats. The people recognized him. They went running through the whole region. They went to the Agora, to the marketplace. They brought their sick, lame, and oppressed, just in the hope that if Jesus passed by, if they could just touch the hem of His garment, they would be healed.
They understood in those villages that when Jesus went to Gennesaret, surely the Lord was in that place. When we know the presence of the Lord, we stop straining at the oars. We are removed from our torment, and we are left in a state of awe and reverence before Him.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.