16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. – John 6:16-21 ESV
According to the gospel accounts of Matthew and Mark, after Jesus performed the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, He told the disciples to travel by boat to the city of Bethsaida, located on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. He told Him He would join them there after he had dismissed the crowds. But Jesus delayed His departure until that evening because He went needed time alone with His Heavenly Father.
So, once again, the scene is set for yet another display of His divine glory. The disciples had just witnessed the power and authority of Jesus as He miraculously transformed five loaves of bread and two small fish into a feast that fed 5,000 men, plus their wives and children. Everyone ate as much as they liked and yet, the disciples collected 12 baskets full of uneaten leftovers.
This incredible demonstration of Jesus’ power brings to mind the words of Paul, written to the church in Ephesus.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. – Ephesians 3:20-21 ESV
God’s power is unlimited and He had displayed that power through the hands of His own Son. Jesus had taken the bread and fish, miraculously multiplying what had been deemed insufficient by the disciples and turning it into abundantly more than anyone in the crowd could have ever imagined. In doing so, Jesus demonstrated the kind of power at His disposal. But His actions were also meant to encourage the disciples and let them know that, as His followers, they would have access to that same divine power.
It seems that the disciples had followed Jesus’ instructions and had sailed to Bethsaida. But when Jesus failed to show up, they decided to sail on the Capernaum, assuming that Jesus would meet them there. But Matthew indicates that things did not go well for them. By the time Jesus arrived in Bethsaida, it was somewhere between 3:00 and 6:00 o’clock in the morning, and the disciples were caught in a storm.
…but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. – Matthew 14:24 ESV
Due to the strong wind, the disciples had only made it about three miles, and they were struggling to make any further headway. There is no indication that they were in fear for their lives. Many of the disciples were seasoned fishermen and they would have been very familiar with these kinds of storms, which were a common occurrence on the Sea of Galilee. But they would have rarely traveled by boat after dark. It seems likely that they were tired, having just recently returned from the mission Jesus had sent them on, and from the long day of feeding the 5,000. They were probably a bit put out with Jesus for having delayed their departure by not showing up when He said He would.
So, in the midst of their difficulties on the lake, they were shocked to see what looked like a ghost, walking on the water towards them. Matthew indicates that “they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’” (Matthew 14:26 ESV). And Mark adds that “they all saw him and were terrified” (Mark 6:50 ESV). Whether it was due to the darkness or the wind and the blowing mist, they were unable to recognize Jesus. This boat-full of grown men responded like a group of frightened adolescent girls.
But despite the roar of the wind and the cries of the disciples, Jesus spoke and they were able to hear Him.
“It is I; do not be afraid.” – John 6:20 ESV
Once again, this scene brings to mind the 23rd Psalm. The feeding of the 5,000 was a demonstration of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, caring for His helpless sheep.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake. – Psalm 23:1-3 ESV
Jesus had demonstrated His compassion for the people by meeting their physical need for food. He had restored their physical stamina by feeding their bodies. But He had come to do so much more.
And now, we see His disciples, caught in a storm and struggling to make their way to safety. They were expending great amounts of energy but were making little progress. And there were probably a few of the disciples who wondered if they would make it Capernaum at all. And this is where David’s psalm comes in.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me. – Psalm 23:4 ESV
Jesus spoke into the chaos of their situation, and He simply stated, “It is I.” But Jesus was doing so much more than announcing Himself to His disciples. In a sense, He was indicating to His disciples that the entire circumstance in which they found themselves was His doing. It was all part of His plan for further demonstrating to them His divine power and authority. In spite of what they saw and were experiencing, He was still Jesus, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world.
And Mark indicates that as soon as Jesus spoke to them, He got into the boat, and the wind immediately ceased. His very presence calmed the storm. And then Mark adds, “and they were utterly astounded” (Mark 6:51 ESV).
If you recall, the disciples had displayed no reaction to Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000. None of the gospels indicate any kind of response on the part of the disciples after having witnessed this incredible demonstration of Jesus’ power and authority. The crowd had reacted with awe and wonder, declaring their belief that Jesus must be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy spoken by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15 ESV).
“This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” – John 6:14 ESV
But the disciples appeared to remain strangely silent. And Mark provides some insight into what was going on.
And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. – Mark 6:51-52 ESV
These men were completely blown away by what they had just witnessed. They had just witnessed Jesus doing the impossible, by walking on water and defying the laws of nature. But Mark indicates that their astonishment was due to the fact that they had not understood what Jesus had done earlier that day. In His miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus had already demonstrated His power over nature. As the Son of God and the co-creator of the universe, Jesus held absolute authority over the entire creative order.
And what is amazing about this entire story is that the disciples had already been eyewitnesses to Jesus’ power over the wind and waves. Mark and Matthew both record an earlier occasion in which Jesus and the disciples were caught in a severe storm on the Sea of Galilee. As the storm raged, Jesus slept. But the disciples, in fear for their lives, had awakened Jesus, demanding that He do something to save them. And He had responded to their fear by rebuking the winds and waves and calming the storm. And the disciples, awed by what they had just witnessed, stated, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:27 ESV).
And yet, here they were on the same sea, facing similar circumstances, and they still could not understand what sort of man Jesus truly was. Mark indicates that their hearts were hardened. They were not yet capable of seeing and understanding the true nature of Jesus’ identity. Yes, they had seen Him turn water into wine. They had witnessed Him perform signs and wonders. They had watched Him feed more than 10,000 people with nothing more than five loaves of bread and two small fish. Now, they had just seen Him walk on water. But while they were shocked by all that they had seen, their hearts were still hardened by disbelief. They just couldn’t bring themselves to see Jesus for who He truly was.
John indicates that they were simply relieved to have Jesus back in the boat with them.
…they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. – John 6:21 ESV
With Jesus in the boat, things were back to normal. The wind had died down and they found themselves back in the safe and more familiar surroundings of Capernaum. But little did they know that their lessons were far from over. Jesus was far from done when it came to teaching His disciples about His identity and preparing them for their ultimate role as His apostles. They had much to learn and Jesus was going to continue softening their hearts and enlightening their minds so that they would be ready for the task that lie ahead.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.