“Immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He dismissed the crowd. After He said good-bye to them, He went away to the mountain to pray. When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the sea, and He was alone on the land. He saw them being battered as they rowed, because the wind was against them. Around three in the morning He came toward them walking on the sea and wanted to pass by them. When they saw Him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw Him and were terrified. Immediately He spoke with them and said, “Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then He got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. They were completely astounded, because they had not understood about the loaves. Instead, their hearts were hardened.” (Mark 6:45-52 HCSB)
Has anyone ever called you hard headed? That was a phrase my mother used several times when referring to me. She said I was hard headed when I refused to listen, obey and do what she wanted. I was determined to do things my own way. Hard headed! In other words, her words and reasoning were not penetrating my “hard head” and getting into my thoughts and altering my understanding and, thus, changing my way of responding to her. My head was hard and that resulted in a hardened heart towards her requests and desires for me. I loved my mother and I trusted her because I knew she wanted only what was best for me but I still resisted it. My head couldn’t convince my heart to act in a way consistent with what my head claimed to understand. I rebelled against the love my mother had for me.
This week, we are going to consider a story that mirrors my experience with my mother. The disciples have been walking with Jesus long enough to have observed several miracles. In fact, they’ve even been commissioned and sent out to preach, teach, heal and drive out unclean spirits through His power. Given those experiences, you’d think they would understand who they are following. Like me and my reactions towards my mother, the disciples have seen and experienced Jesus power, authority, love and compassion and it should be impacting them and their decisions. They should, by now, have begun to see who He is and what He can do. But they’re a little bit hard headed, too.
In our two previous weeks, we’ve considered the story of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand men (plus women and children). This story is directly tied to that miracle by Mark as he tells us the reason for Jesus’ actions. We often want to treat miracles as something we can summon at will if we just have enough faith. Though miracles certainly engage our faith and often stretch it beyond its current limits, miracles are also dependent upon the will and purpose of God. We can’t simply summon the power of God by having enough faith if God’s will and purpose are not aligned with the need and desire for the miracle. So, Jesus’ feeding of the crowd is not simply an act of meeting a physical need but is also intimately tied to the demonstration and affirmation of His identity and His deity. Only God can miraculously provide bread for His people in the wilderness. I’d suggest you go read John’s account of this miracle in John 6 to get a broader understanding of what I mean.
Mark joins these two stories together in his usual way, “Immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He dismissed the crowd.” There is no break in the action and there is intent and purpose in Jesus’ actions. We need to recognize and remember that as we delve into this story. If you went and read John’s account, as I suggested above, you would have noticed that the people recognized the food (bread and fish) as a miracle, but they missed the point of it. They desired to make Jesus their “earthly” king because of it and completely missed the implications of who He is and what that SHOULD mean for their lives. Well, they weren’t the only ones to miss it. More on that later.
Jesus sends the disciples off to Bethsaida in the boat, dismisses and bids farewell to the crowd and then heads up into the mountain to pray. Solitude, silence and prayer. They go together. We often forget that. We fill our minds, hearts and lives with noise. But the Psalmist reminds us, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way (beneath our feet)… He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; He burns the chariots with fire. Be still, and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:1-2a,9-10a) When things are in chaos around us, when it feels like everything is collapsing beneath our feet, when everyone and everything is fighting against us, STOP! Be still! Get silent before Him. Let Him show you who He is! It continues, “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Ps. 46:10b)
Jesus steps away from the crowd and away from the disciples and goes up into the mountain to spend time alone, to be still and quiet, praying with God. With? Yes, praying with God. Prayer is a time of quiet solitude, communion and conversation with God. It is not a one-sided demand made to a distant, invisible deity or a list presented to a wish-granting genie. If that describes your prayer life then you need to schedule some time in the wilderness. Turn off the noise. Disconnect from social media. Put the world on silent and tune into what God has to say to you. Be still and KNOW that I AM God!
Next, Jesus sees the disciples out on the lake really struggling to make any headway against the wind. We aren’t told exactly how long this lasts or how long Jesus watched them struggle, but it does tell us He waited until just before dawn or in the fourth watch (3:00 – 6:00 am) to come to them. That implies that He let them struggle against the wind for a while before He came to them. Why did He knowingly send them into this situation? Why would He let them struggle all night? There’s this mistaken notion that makes its way onto our heads and hearts by way of false ideas on social media. We’ve been told that “God will never put more on you than your can handle.” Well, that’s simply untrue. God often puts more on us than we can handle so that we learn dependence on and trust in Him. It would be more accurate to say, “God will never put more on you than He can handle.”
Notice the last half of verse 48, “He came toward them walking on the sea and wanted to pass by them.” There are several ways you could interpret and understand the phrase “wanted to pass by them.” It is would be an odd statement, if you took it literally. It would mean that Jesus wanted to outrun them and arrive at the destination first. Well, that doesn’t really seem to fit the context or the intent. This is not some accidental encounter and it is certainly not a race.
However, if Jesus is wanting to address the issue that exists in their hearts then I don’t think it should be understood in that way. Let me remind you of the second Exodus theme that runs throughout Mark’s gospel and point you to Job 9 as well as Exodus 33 and 34. In Job 9, Job tells his friends that “God alone stretches out the heavens and walks on the waves of the sea.” He then continues, “if He passed by me, I wouldn’t see Him; if He goes right by, I wouldn’t recognize Him.”
Then in the Exodus story, we find the people have been camped at the foot of the mountain and have begun to doubt God and question Moses. They have Aaron make them a golden calf and they begin to worship it. God wants to destroy them but Moses intercedes and pleads for God’s mercy on them. God calls them a stiff-necked people and demands that they remove the jewelry they made and wore in worship of the calf. Moses then asks for assurances regarding God’s intent and God tells him, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Ex. 33:14) Moses then asks to see God’s glory and God agrees, but Moses will not be allowed to see His face “for no man can see me and live.” God places Moses in a rock crevice, covers him with His hand and God “passes by” and then removes His hand. Moses sees the back of God and glows with God’s glory and experiences His power and presence.
Now, let’s take those two Old Testament stories (Job and Moses) and look at Mark’s story in light of them. God has been present in Jesus and His power has been demonstrated on several occasions but nobody has recognized Him, not even the disciples. As Job said, if God were to pass by me on the waves I wouldn’t recognize Him. Also, God’s purpose in revealing Himself to Moses was NOT so that Moses would be glorified. It was so that God would be glorified and the people would recognize Him and follow Him through Moses’ leadership and guidance. Ok, now cut to the lake scene. Jesus is walking on the sea and is about to pass by the disciples’ boat. Do they recognize Him? NO! They thought it was a ghost (phantasma in Greek). They are terrified! To be fair, I’m not sure you and I would have reacted any differently. I doubt you’ve ever encountered anyone walking on water before and I know I haven’t.
I think we often encounter God in unexpected ways and we don’t recognize Him. Like Job said, God could come walking across the waves and I probably wouldn’t recognize Him. Have you ever noticed how non-believers react to this story? Just like Job says he would and just like the disciples did. Disbelieving. Fear of the unknown. It must be a ghost because it can’t be God. Like a ghost makes more sense in this situation in their minds. You go figure that one out, I can’t. Step back for a second. Go back a few hours. They’ve just witnessed an amazing miracle – feeding a large crowd with five loaves and two small fish. God was present in their midst and they didn’t even recognize Him. Why? Because their heads are so hard and that results in their hearts becoming hard and calloused, unbelieving. We don’t understand it, therefore we dismiss it or explain it away. We’re going to come back to this… stay with me.
Jesus immediately speaks into their fear, “Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” That is an emphatic statement, “Buck up!” It is intended for them to take control of their thoughts and fears. We often let our fears and anxieties overwhelm us. We are caught in a whirl of emotions that threaten to overwhelm us and drive us down into a pit of despair. STOP! But how can we just stop? How can we overcome those feelings? Well, the very next words can do it. They are translated into English as, “It is I.” It does mean that, but in light of the story and everything I’ve related to you it can also be translated as “I AM.” How can your anxiety and overwhelming fear be silenced? By the knowing that God is with you in the midst of your situation or circumstance.
How can I be so certain that Jesus wanted them to see Him as God? Because of Mark’s next words, “Then He got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. They were completely astounded, because they had not understood about the loaves. Instead, their hearts were hardened.” It wasn’t just the crowd of people who ate and were filled that didn’t understand, the disciples didn’t understand. Everything in this story points at Jesus making a very emphatic statement about WHO He is. Only God walks on water. When He does, we don’t recognize Him. Instead, He’s going to “pass by” and reveal His glory for them to see and know who He is. But He also told them, “Stop being fearful, take courage! I AM God!”
So, let me end by asking: Do you recognize Him for who He is? He doesn’t pass by just so we can look in awe or fear and know we’ve seen something incredible but unexplainable. When God reveals His glory it is so that you KNOW who you’re dealing with. So that you know who is standing before you. The presence, provision and power of God are not put on display for us to simply enjoy, marvel at and then walk away. They are on display so that we can “take courage!”, recognize God is in our midst and have our fears driven away by that fact. The Apostle John tells us, “There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. So the one who fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 Jn. 4:18) If we know God and let His love mature and develop us into faithful, obedient and trusting disciples then our fear will be driven out by His perfect love.
I began by talking about being hard headed. You might wonder how being hard headed can lead to being hard hearted. We are hard headed when the presence, provision and power of God are on full display and we dismiss them as either irrelevant or inconsistent with our perception of reality. For instance, some look at this story and reason that the Bible must be some fanciful fable because man can’t walk on water. Actually, they’re right and that’s precisely Mark’s point. Man can’t walk on water but God can. The crowds and the disciples had not understood about the miracle of the loaves. God had been in their presence and they had completely missed it. Instead of seeing God, their hearts were hardened.
How had they missed Him and why? They were focused on the wrong aspect of the story. They were focused on the moment, the meal. The crowd was focused on their hunger and the disciples were focused on their resources, enough money for bread and fish. In the meantime, they completely failed to see God and His glory in their midst. Jesus sends them onto the lake and into the midst of a struggle so that might notice the glory of God as He passed by, walking on the waves. Maybe they could miss Him in the miracle of the loaves and fish, but can they miss Him when He passes by them on the water? Will their hearts be softened to His real identity?
Better yet, will you see Him? Will your heart be softened towards Him? Maybe you’re still tripping over that whole “walking on water” thing. Just not possible, right? Well, it’s possible if Jesus is God. Isn’t it?
In his book, “Mere Christianity”, C.S. Lewis said, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Are you going to be hard headed so that your heart is also hardened towards Him, or will you let your pride slip away? Will you let your mind embrace a seemingly impossible concept that causes your heart to be softened towards Him? That’s entirely up to you…