45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. – Mark 6:45-52 ESV
Three of the four gospels include this story and all three indicate that it happened immediately after the miracle of the bread and the fish. The context is essential to understanding what takes place and helps provide much-needed insight into Mark’s rather condemning conclusion: “they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in.” (Mark 6:52 NLT).
Mark’s harsh-sounding critique seems to paint the disciples in an unflattering light but, when taken in context, it provides the reader with a fair and honest assessment of their ongoing spiritual transformation. They were works in process. Their comprehension of Jesus’ true identity was in a constant state of flux and it was complicated by their own personal agendas and expectations. Their concepts of the Messiah had been formed by their Hebrew roots and highly influenced by the religious indoctrination they had received as young boys at the local synagogue in their hometowns. Their unique experiences with Jesus were informative and instructive but were also confusing and contradictory to their preconceived notions about the coming Messiah.
Jesus was not operating according to their expectations. His miracles, while powerful and impressive, didn’t seem to be ushering in the Kingdom the disciples, as Jews, had long anticipated. His words, while spoken with authority and filled with interesting stories and fascinating parables, didn’t always make sense. He spoke cryptically and about subjects that seemed out of keeping with someone who had come to be King of Israel.
So, this particular story must be viewed within the immediate context of the surrounding events. Mark indicates that as soon as the disciples had finished gathering the 12 baskets of leftover loaves and fish, Jesus instructed them to head by boat to the village of Bethsaida. Jesus then dismissed the crowd and headed to a secluded spot for some alone time with God the Father. Mark provides no details concerning this divine conversation between Father and Son, but it is safe to assume that it mirrored the other prayers of Jesus recorded in the gospels. These moments of isolation and intimate communion with His Heavenly Father were important to Jesus. It was during these occasions that Jesus shared His heart and received instructions. Perhaps Jesus prayed for the disciples, sharing with God the Father His frustration with their inability to grasp the meaning of His messages and miracles. Jesus knew these men had been given to Him by God, but He also knew that they were having difficulty understanding who He truly was and the real purpose behind His incarnation.
When Jesus had completed His time in prayer, He made His way back to the shoreline, where He spotted the disciples “making headway painfully, for the wind was against them” (Mark 6:48 ESV). John indicates that “they had rowed about three or four miles” (John 6:29 ESV).
Don’t minimize the circumstances surrounding this scene. It is somewhere around 3:00 a.m. The sky is pitch black, the wind is howling furiously, and the white-capped waves are pounding against the sides of the small fishing boat. The disciples, four of whom were professional fishermen, were struggling to keep the boat afloat and headed to their final destination. And Jesus witnessed all of this from the safety of the shoreline.
But then He did something extraordinary and unexpected. He stepped out into the sea and began to walk on the top of the water. And Mark adds a very important detail to his narrative.
Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. He intended to go past them… – Mark 6:48 NLT
Jesus walked toward the disciples but was fully intending to walk right past them and on to Bethsaida. He wanted them to see Him and take hope and confidence in Him. If He could walk on the waves in the midst of the storm, they had no reason to fear. Just the sight of Jesus, walking calmly and confidently on the tops of the waves, should have instilled a sense of peace in the hearts of the disciples. But instead, they reacted in fear.
…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. – Mark 6:49-50 NLT
They had not been looking for Jesus. And when He suddenly appeared. they didn’t recognize Him because they were not expecting Him to show up in that inhospitable context. It’s interesting to note that the disciples had shown no fear until Jesus appeared unexpectedly. There’s no indication that the disciples had feared the storm. They were simply struggling against the wind and waves, attempting to make their way to Bethsaida as Jesus had instructed them. But their demeanor quickly shifted from focused determination to abject fear when they spotted this strange figure walking toward them in the midst of the darkness and violence of the storm.
Sensing their terror, Jesus quickly identified Himself to the frightened men.
“Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” – Mark 6:50 ESV
They had not recognized Him because they had not expected Him. No one in the boat had been calling out to Him. In the midst of their difficulty, they had forgotten all about Jesus. They had become so consumed with the task at hand that they had neglected to think about the very one who had sent them on this storm-tossed and ill-fated excursion. Seeing Jesus walking on the water in the midst of the storm should have been enough to remind them of the power and authority of the one they served. They had just witnessed Him feed more than 10,000 men, women, and children; using nothing more than five small loaves and two fish. They had just recently returned from their own missionary journey where they had cast out demons and performed other miracles of healing. But in the wee hours of the morning and in the middle of a storm-tossed sea, any thoughts of miracles or the Messiah were nowhere to be found.
And in a characteristic act of mercy and grace, Jesus altered His plans and joined the disciples in midst of their struggle. Rather than walk by, He entered into. And as soon as His foot touched the deck of the boat, “the wind ceased” (Mark 6:51 ESV). His presence brought peace. And the disciples “were utterly astounded” (Mark 6:51 ESV). They were blown away. The Greek word Mark used is existēmi and it literally means they were beside themselves. And one has to ask why this particular miracle made such an impact on them. Had they not seen Jesus do other incredible, mind-blowing miracles? What was it about this one that left them beside themselves in wonder?
And Mark provides the answer: “for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:51 ESV). They had not connected the dots. It is likely that the bow of the boat contained the 12 baskets full of leftovers they had gathered. But they were not yet able to understand the significance of the miracle that Jesus had performed. By transforming five loaves and two fish into enough food to feed an army, Jesus had clearly demonstrated His divine power and authority over the creation. He had done the impossible. And yet, the disciples did not understand. Oh, they fully grasped the reality of the miracle because they had seen it happen. But they were blind to the message it was intended to send: Jesus was God.
And Mark notes that their hearts were calloused and hardened. In their fallen human state, they were incapable of discerning the message contained within the miracles of Jesus. They were unable to connect all the dots and complete the picture that was being revealed right before their eyes. But step by step, miracle by miracle, Jesus would continue to disclose Himself to these men. He would patiently and persistently display His power and authority so that, eventually, their beliefs about Him would line up with God’s will and not their own.
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.