January 6/7, 2018
Jason Meyer | Mark 6:45-52
Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 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, but 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. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.—Mark 6:45–52
One of my favorite traditions at Bethlehem is to begin the New Year with a focus on prayer and the Word. Last week, Pastor Bud Burk led us with a fresh vision of the Fatherhood of God in prayer. This week, I am asking that we would have a fresh vision of the glory of Christ in the word of God.
I want to distinguish two approaches to the Bible: Reading religiously and reading worshipfully. Why do you read the Bible? Do you read the Bible as a religious duty? Is it part of a religious resume? Reading the Bible as part of a religious resume effectively means you read the Bible so that God will see you.
Reading the Bible worshipfully means we don’t read it so that God will see us, but so that we will see God. The word of God is not a dispenser of information from God; it is direct revelation of God. God reveals himself through his word. That is what today’s passage is all about.
This is a familiar story, but there are many un-mined treasures waiting to be discovered. Let’s start with the flow of the narrative. It is a revelation and response dynamic: Divine (incarnate) revelation followed by the response of the disciples. After we move through the text and have it all in view, we will summarize the main point of the passage and then walk through some of the immediate implications.
Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 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 …
Verses 45–47 set the backdrop. Jesus dismisses the crowd and goes up to the mountain to pray alone. Four clues in the text suggest the feeding of the 5,000 led to an upsurge of messianic expectation. First, there is a sense of urgency in the word “immediately” (v. 45). Second, there is a sense of compulsion in the phrase “he made his disciples get into the boat” (v. 45). The fact that he had to make them suggests some reticence on the part of the disciples to leave the crowd. Third, the crowd did not disband on its own; Jesus had to dismiss the crowd. This reads as an action of Jesus, not a decision of the crowd—they did not disperse on their own. Jesus forced them to go. Fourth, Jesus also retreats to a mountain to pray (v. 46). I did not initially see that as further evidence for the rising fervor of messianic expectation because I forgot to look at the other places that Jesus goes off to pray.
Mark has Jesus praying at three points in his ministry: Mark 1:35, 6:45, 14:35–39. One commentator summarizes the pattern of these three texts.
Each prayer is at night and in a lonely place, each finds the disciples removed from him and failing to understand his mission, and in each Jesus faces a formative decision or crisis. Following the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus reaffirms by prayer his calling to express his divine Sonship as a servant rather than as a freedom fighter against Rome. (James R. Edwards, Mark, p. 197)
A fifth reason to read these initial verses as a response to rising messianic fervor would be the parallel passage in John 6:15 …
Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
The next verse (v.16) transitions to the story of Jesus walking on the water.
Remember that the crowds are outsiders who have eyes that see not and ears that hear not. The disciples have been the insiders, and they are given more and greater glimpses of Jesus’ glory. We move to that reality now as the story unfolds.
Verse 47 builds upon this separation between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus is praying alone, while the disciples were in the boat. Verse 48 zooms in on the plight of the disciples. They are making headway painfully, for the wind is against them. The depiction here puts stress on the painful struggle of the disciples. They are making headway painfully. Mark uses the word for “painfully” that suggests a tormenting kind of strain. This word is used elsewhere for the torment that comes from demon possession (Mark 5:70, the struggle of childbirth (Revelation 12:2), or even the torments of hell (Revelation 14:10).
We should not over-read it, but neither should we under-read this word. Mark is emphasizing the strain and pain of the disciples—a picture of suffering. It is not surprising to start seeing this pattern in Mark. It never goes well when the disciples are separated from Jesus’ presence for any length of time.
But there is hope. Mark does not simply tell us about what is happening with the disciples. He explicitly tells us that Jesus saw it: “And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them” (v.48). How I love to see the word “see” in the Gospels! When Jesus sees things, he does not turn a blind eye to them. Seeing struggle stirs up compassion to act in behalf of the struggler. This is the very heart of our God on display. Jesus sees them struggling, and so he goes to them. Do you see it? The Lord sees the struggles of his people, and in due time he comes to them!
In this story, he comes to them during the fourth watch of the night (between 3am and 6am). His coming is unique. He does not come to the shore and wait for the boat to reach him. He goes out to them—without a boat. Jesus came to them, walking on the sea.
This text has been the subject of so much anti-supernatural explanation. After the Enlightenment and suspicion of the supernatural, many commentators tried to find an anti-supernatural interpretation for what is clearly a supernatural claim to walk on the water. Many scholars proposed that this text was an optical illusion—the disciples thought Jesus was walking on the water, but Jesus was really walking on a sandbar.
Unfortunately, those with a bias against walking on the water spend so much time denying the miracle that they miss the real claim of this passage, which goes way beyond the astonishing miracle to something even more stunning. The point of this story is that Jesus is God because he is doing something that the Old Testament says only God does: He walked on the water. This phrase walking on the water occurs once in the Old Testament in the Greek translation of Job 9:8. God is the one “who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea.”
But what in the world does the next phrase mean: “He meant to pass by them” (v. 48). Commentators go all over the map on this one. Some even think that Jesus is playing games with them. It looks like I am coming to you—psych—I am going to pass by you. He is alluding to an Old Testament text. If you miss it, you will miss something massively glorious. Jesus wants to cause his glory to pass by them. This exact phrase shows up in the Old Testament for what God did for both Moses and Elijah at Mount Sinai: He passed by them so they could see his glory. He passes by Moses so that Moses would see his glory. What God did for Moses, Jesus is doing for the disciples.
The disciples did not understand his identity at all. They thought he was a ghost and they responded accordingly
2. Response #1: Terrified (vv. 49–50)
But 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.
The disciples do not recognize Jesus. They could not perceive the unique glory of God in Jesus. This is another case of mistaken identity. They thought he was a ghost and they were terrified. Jesus came out to encourage them in their struggle, but they could not understand and ended up worse off than before.
But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased.
What did God to for Moses when He passed by? He declared the divine name. Listen to Exodus 34. He told Moses that he would cause his goodness to pass by Moses while Moses was hidden in the cleft of the rock. Now it happens.
The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.—Exodus 34:5–7
What does Jesus do here? He does the same thing. You can’t see it very well, because I believe that the translation has obscured it. Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I [I am!]. Do not be afraid” (Mark 6:50). He uses the phrase ego eimi. This phrase can be self-designation, like it’s translated by the ESV “it is I.” But it can also be a reference to the divine name, “I am.” This context certainly points in this direction because the whole story is a theophany—a revelation of deity. Jesus is doing something only God can do, passing by them so they can see his glory, and declaring the divine name.
How does he help them with their fear? He is not saying, don’t be afraid because you know me—I am not a ghost. He is saying do not fear because I am God! Walking on the water is an opportunity for Jesus to pass by them and now us, as readers, so that we see his great glory. He is God, and he is with them.
This is the great revelation of God in Isaiah 43:1–2, 10–11.
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you ….
“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.
I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior.”
And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
When the Lord of the wind and sea gets in the boat, the wind ceases and the sea becomes calm. He is sovereign over the wind and sea. One would think the disciples would immediately confess his true identity. But they do not!
Mark tells us, “And they were utterly astounded.” This is not a positive pronouncement. Astonishment is not faith in the Gospel of Mark. In fact, Mark ends the story with the announcement that “their hearts were hardened” (v. 52).
This response actually fits what Job 9 says. Recall that Job 9:8 says, “who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea.”
Now listen to what it says three verses later in Job 9:11 …
Behold, he passes by me, and I see him not;
he moves on, but I do not perceive him.
The disciples keep missing what is truly happening. The story before ends not with faith, but a sense of marveling or astonishment. The same thing happened in the last story with the feeding of the 5,000. There was no light bulb, a-ha moment of recognition. Being astounded is not the same thing as faith. One can see the miracle and miss the whole point of the miracle. The last time we saw hardness of heart it was the outsiders in Mark 3:5 at the synagogue in Capernaum. They were angered that Jesus would dare heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Jesus was grieved by their hardness of heart. There is a building drama here. Are the disciples truly insiders? Do they have eyes that see and ears that hear? Listen to where this leads in Mark 8:17–21.
And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
There has been a boat miracle (stilling the storm), then a bread miracle (feeding the 5,000), now another boat miracle (walking on the water), and then another bread miracle (feeding 4,000), and it will end with bread in the boat (Mark 8:17–21). Jesus warns them against the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod—he is talking about the leaven of unbelief. They think he is talking about physical bread. He is calling for faith and warning about the dangers of unbelief.
This miracle (like all the miracles in Mark) is not the point but a pointer. The miracles point beyond themselves to something greater: Seeing the identity of God incarnate: Jesus!
Astonishment falls far short of saving faith. Someone can be astonished at the miracle and miss the point of the miracle. Hardness of heart hinders people from seeing that Jesus is God. All they see is the astonishing miracle, not the more astonishing point of the miracle. How could they miss it? Remember what we keep seeing about “hardness of heart” in Mark. It takes a work of divine intervention to remove the hardness. It takes a miracle to see beyond the miracle to the true identity of Jesus as God incarnate. Commentator James R. Edwards said it just right: “Discipleship is more endangered by lack of faith and hardness of heart than by external dangers (3:5; 4:41; 5:17)” (Mark, p. 201).
The main problem we will face as disciples of Christ is not the heat of adversity, but a heart that is cold or blind to the beauty of Christ. The disciples walked with him and saw stunning displays of glory, but their hearts did not respond rightly. Do you rightly fear the main discipleship danger of hardness of heart?
So we are back to the beginning in our introduction. Do you read the Bible as part of your religious resume—so that God will see you? Or do you read the Bible as part of the purpose of your existence—to glorify God by enjoying him forever? How are you going to enjoy him without seeing him?
This sight of Christ’s glory has implications for how we approach this book. Here is one of my favorite lines in John Piper’s book, Reading the Bible Supernaturally (p. 26):
My guess is that the vast majority of people who come to believe in the divine inspiration and complete truthfulness of the Bible come to this conviction through an irresistible encounter with Jesus Christ … How does that happen? Sometimes it is one particular word or deed of Jesus that penetrates the heart and begins to shatter the hardness that hinders the light of Christ’s beauty. But sooner or later, it is the whole biblical portrait—climaxing in the crucifixion and resurrection—that conquers us and overcomes all resistance.
This is the greatest need of discipleship: A clear line of sight of our Savior and then a heart that responds with savoring what we see. Do you fear hardness of heart? It is often expressed in a flagging interest to open the Bible. It gets crowded out with cheap competitors.
This hit me so hard this week. Why do I spend time going elsewhere? Why is it that I can easily spend 30 minutes on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or wherever? Do I really think that I am going to see more soul-captivating, satisfying glory and beauty there? One of my resolutions this year was to open my Bible before I unlock my phone. Rather than surfing on my phone, I am going to be digging into my Bible. It sounds simple, but I find that through it my heart makes a statement. It stakes out a claim: Seeing the glory of Christ satisfies more than anything ever could. Our hearts are constantly looking for the next thing to wow it or dazzle it or interest it or amuse it. Go for the greatest glory, don’t settle for cheap imitations and fillers
Sometimes our hardness of heart shows up in our reading of Scripture or lack of reading, but sometimes it shows up in the pressures of life. It is easy to give the disciples a hard time. Why couldn’t they see past the astonishing miracles to see what they were saying—the very point they were making about who Jesus is?! But how many times do we come face to face with our failure to see Jesus for who he really is in moments of crisis? He comes to us in the storm and in the struggle. Do we learn our lesson? Do we have faith the next time we have another struggle? Do we say, “Oh, I remember what happened last time. Jesus saw the struggle. He heard my cry. He came and, in rescuing me, he revealed more of himself to me.” In my experience, that is rarely the case. Suffering can feel like getting hit in the head with a club and you get disoriented and fuzzy, and you can start to panic and think you are not going to make it.
We need to resolve to remember that moments of crisis are opportunities to see more of the glory of Christ. We can pray, “Show me your glory,” when the sun is shining, but do we really mean it if the glimpse comes in the midst of struggle and storm?
We must remember that our Lord sees our struggles and, in due time, he comes to us. We are never beyond his reach. He will always come at the right time. He may delay, but we know this: Jesus sees, Jesus cares, Jesus will come with his tender and mighty mercies.
Conclusion / Communion
There is a reason that we can walk into suffering and struggle with hopeful hearts: We know the heart of the One who is sovereign over the struggle and the storm. He will come to us when he sees us struggling. How do we know? We remember what he did when we were estranged sinners and enemies and strangers to him—children of wrath.
Walking on the water looks big and impressive and sensational, something we would expect God incarnate to do. Communion celebrates something more spectacular— he purchase of our salvation with the precious blood of Christ. The strongest thing Christ did looked the weakest. The riches of God’s glory are best seen in his self-giving—the incomparable, infinite worth of himself offered as our substitute, our payment. He defeated sin and Satan and eternal torment with the payment price, the ransom price of his death. This is the power of the cross: Christ became sin for us—took the blame, bore the wrath; we stand forgiven at the cross.
We stand forgiven so he is a shelter from the storm of divine righteous wrath that is coming upon all of us. Celebrate being safe in the grace of God—our souls find rest here—shelter and safe harbor.
Main Point: This miracle (like all the miracles in Mark) is not the point—it is a pointer. The miracles point beyond themselves to something greater: Seeing the identity of God incarnate—Jesus!
Main Implication: Astonishment falls far short of saving faith. Someone can be astonished at the miracle and miss the point of the miracle. Hardness of heart hinders people from seeing that Jesus is God. It takes another miracle to see beyond the miracle to the true identity of Jesus as God incarnate.
Pray for a grace to see and savor the all-satisfying glory of Christ in Scripture in 2018 and to not fall prey to hardness of heart.