Jesus is Calling

Mark 6:45-56

There is a saying we have to describe someone who is really good at what they do.  Someone who faces obstacles but moves forward unhindered.  Someone who seems to be untouched by the everyday issues of life.   We describe this person as one who “walks on water.”  This saying of course finds its origin in the gospels where Jesus actually walked on water.  This was not a way to describe a personality trait — this was an historical event that actually happened.  So many of Jesus’ miracles besides displaying his power served a secondary earthly purpose: the hungry were fed, the lame walked, the blind regained sight, storms were calmed.  Yet in the miracle of Jesus’ walking on water it is difficult to spot a secondary reason for the miracle.  There was no problem to be solved — Jesus was simply walking on water.  His power — his glory — was on display.

Not surprisingly some disbelieving readers of the Bible have suggested many explanations for what really happened in this account.   This is part of an attempt to de-mythologize the Bible by telling us what really took place.  Yet what actually happens here is that first century “myths” are replaced by twenty-first century myths.  Albert Schweitzer in his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus lists a number of possible explanations of what really took place in this account*.  Perhaps Jesus was on shore the entire time yet because of an optical illusion and the low light of the early morning he only appeared to be walking on water.  Or perhaps Jesus had found a sandbar and was simply walking in shallow water.  This is not the perspective of Mark — or the disciples for that matter!  Jesus actually walked on water.  As one pastor used to say, he water-skied with no boat.  This actually happened.  Let’s look at this miracle in its original context.

* Cited in The Gospel According to Mark, James Edwards, p.196

#1 Jesus sees the distress of his disciples.

45Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them.  Mark 6:45-48a

Not only does Jesus see the distress of his disciples, we are reminded that they are in distress in part because of him!  He was the one, after all, who insisted that the disciples get into a boat and row to the other side.  Some of the disciples were professional waterman likely growing up on the water.  And suddenly they find themselves caught in a storm.  Mark does not tell us they are in danger (though perhaps they are) but that they are making slow progress against a very strong headwind.  Often we face opposition like this, we quickly assume we have drifted from God’s will.  We blame ourselves or others for the predicament we are in.  But we should be reminded that just because we face opposition does not mean we oppose God’s will for our lives.  The disciples are exactly where Jesus wants them to be.

Mark makes a point of telling us that Jesus “saw” their predicament.  Whether this was the result of some supernatural vision or what could be plainly observed by anyone, we are not told.  Yet it is important to note that Jesus did in fact, see his disciples.  We have a tendency, don’t we, of assuming that God does not see our distress.  When we struggle and struggle, as the disciples had been doing here, and there is no immediate help, we can be quick to believe that God does not see our plight.  But God does see.

#2 Jesus responds to their distress by presenting himself.

And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Mark 6:48b-50

Jesus sees the distress of his disciples and responds.  He responds to them in the very same way he responds to us in our distress: by presenting himself.  And the disciples miss it.

The juxtaposition of the disciples and Jesus is very striking.  The disciples, some of whom were professional watermen, are struggling to make any forward progress on the open water.  Jesus glides past them as if he were on an evening stroll.  The phrase Mark uses here that Jesus “meant to pass by them,” is understood by many commentators not as an expression of Jesus’ evasiveness, as if he wanted to slip by unnoticed, but rather describes how his approach would have appeared to the disciples.  He was passing by them.

Many commentators point out, as well, there is something more at work here than Jesus simply walking past the disciples.  Jesus meant to “pass by them.”  This is same phrase in Greek used in the Septuagint (the 2nd century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament) to describe the glory of the Lord passing by Moses in Exodus 33 (c.f.  Exodus 33:19).  Further, when Jesus says “it is I” (Greek, ego eimi) this is the same phrase used in the Septuagint when God reveals his name as “I am.”

In response to the disciples’ distress, Jesus presents not a life raft, not a rock, not a shelter from the wind, but rather he presents himself.  This is exactly what we need as well as we weather life’s storms.  We need a proper vision of Jesus.

#3 The disciples fail to recognize Jesus because their hearts are hard.

51And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.  Mark 6:51-52

The disciples turn from being afraid of their situation to being afraid of Jesus.  While their fear arises from a hard heart, we should note that there is a good and proper place for fear in our relationship with the Lord.  For instance, in Matthew’s Gospel we read, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).”  As is the case numerous times in the New Testament, the Greek word used here is not the word for “reverent awe” or “respect” but straight up fear.  A proper fear of the Lord drives out lesser worldly fears.  If the disciples hearts were soft, they should have beheld Jesus’ glory passing by, been full of awe and fear which would have properly focused their attention not on their situation but on Jesus.  This actually is the end result — they do eventually recognize that it is Jesus but not before they conclude it must be a ghost passing by.

Jesus had been testing them.  There was a lesson for them to learn in the feeding of the 5000.  They did not learn it.  Jesus tests them again as he passes by them on the sea. The disciples again do not get it.   They are more ready to call Ghostbusters than to acknowledge who Jesus must be.   Their hearts are hard.  Now Matthew’s gospel tells us that at some point their hearts are softened as they do come to recognize Jesus.  Matthew tells us that the disciples ended up worshiping Jesus saying “Truly you are the Son of God (c.f. Matthew 14:33).”

#4 The crowd recognizes Jesus.

53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. 54And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him 55and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. 56And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.   Mark 6:53-56

This final section brings the trip across the Sea of Galilee to a conclusion and includes another summary report of all that Jesus had done (c.f. Mark 1:35-39 and Mark 3:7-12).  Their boat is perhaps blown off course coming to land at Gennesaret rather than their intended target of Bethsaida.  If they are still headed for Bethsaida, it seems they will be traveling on foot.  We see here that while their boat may have been blown off course, the crowds are not.  It is interesting to note that the crowds “immediately recognized” Jesus.  This is in contrast with the disciples whose hearts were hard and failed to recognize Jesus.  To be sure, the crowd had the benefit of the light of day and of seeing Jesus in a recognizable setting.  But nevertheless in an ironic twist it is the crowds who recognize Jesus and the disciples who do not.

As we’ve seen throughout Mark’s account, the response to Jesus is zealous enthusiasm.  People are flocking to him from the entire region that they may be made well.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think Jesus made his disciples go ahead of him to the other side?  What do we learn about the role of prayer in the life of Jesus?  What are the dangers of relegating prayer to the margins of your day?
  2. This is the second time the disciples have had trouble on sea.  Compare this account with the earlier account of the disciples being caught in a storm (Mark 4:35-41).  What is similar?  What is different?
  3. Although the disciples are alone in the boat Jesus sees that they are struggling.  Do you ever have a tendency to believe that God does not see (or does not care) when you are having difficulty?  How might this passage encourage someone who thinks God does not see their suffering?
  4. Jesus could have spoken a word and calmed the wind from where he was on land.  He chooses instead to come to the disciples in a very surprising way.  Why do you think he walked on water?   What were the disciples supposed to gain from seeing Jesus walking on water?
  5. Why do you think the disciples conclude that Jesus is a ghost?  How might you have responded if you were there with them?
  6. What reason does Mark give for why the disciples failed to recognize Jesus?  What do you think was the lesson they were supposed to have learned from the loaves (v.52)?
  7. How can having a clear vision of Jesus sustain you through difficult times?
  8. After the boat comes ashore how do the people respond to Jesus?   What do we learn about the crowd’s understanding of who Jesus is?
  9. Are there any other ways you can apply this passage to your life?


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