Now if you would, take a Bible in hand and open it to Mark’s gospel, Mark’s gospel chapter 6, verses 45 through 56 in the church Bibles. Page 842 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. We come tonight to the famous story of Jesus walking on the water, coming to the disciples who had begun, you will remember, to cross the Sea of Galilee in a boat ahead of Him, leaving Jesus behind them on the shore. And we’re going to notice three things in the text. First, this is a story about revelation – God revealing Himself in Jesus Christ to His disciples. We learn about who Jesus is. He reveals Himself here. Revelation. Secondly, it’s a story of rebuke – the disciples’ hardness of heart. Their unbelief is exposed. It’s a word of rebuke. And thirdly, it’s a word of rescue. Despite their hardness of heart, despite their unbelief, Jesus climbs into the boat with them and brings them safely to the far shore. Revelation, rebuke, and rescue.
Before we read the passage, let’s bow our heads as we pray together.
O God, Your Word can change everything. It can change everything. We live in a time when talk is cheap, and so now we pray for ears to hear what the Holy Spirit says to His church in the conviction that this Word calls the dead to life, speaks peace to troubled hearts, brings light into the darkness. And so, we ask that You would do that now among us, for the glory of the name of Jesus in whose name we pray, amen.
Mark 6 at verse 45. This is God’s holy Word:
“Immediately he,” Jesus, “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.
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. And 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.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy, inerrant Word.
Jesus walking on the water has become proverbial for the miraculous, for the impossible. Hasn’t it? Let me give you an example. One news report I read recently complained that principals working in local high schools were expected to be able to “walk on water.” That is to say, they felt they were being asked to do the impossible. That’s how we think of that phrase, “walking on water.” It’s sort of the quintessence of the miraculous, of the impossible. In fact, the apparent impossibility of this event, this famous event of Jesus walking on the water, has led scholars to attempt all sorts of naturalistic explanations for what Mark records here. Some suggest Jesus was actually walking on a sandbar, you know, just below the surface of the water. Others say, “Well, it was late. The disciples were tired. There was a fog, you know. Jesus was walking along the shore and it was an optical illusion.” One story I read has an oceanographer who suggested that there was a period actually of cold weather in this part of the world at the time so that Jesus was actually walking on ice hidden just below the surface of the water.
The problem is, of course, that explanations like that arrogantly presuppose that the disciples in the boat were too stupid to see what was really going on, and so they naively and superstitiously resort to the miraculous as an explanation. But we, you know, we who are far more scientifically informed, we’re not so easily convinced by allegations of the supernatural. But that really won’t do, will it? It’s very clear from Mark’s account that the disciples in the boat that night were as full of doubts as the most skeptical among us. The fact that they thought they were seeing a ghost tells us that other rational explanations for what they were seeing altogether alluded them, not because they were backwards or superstitious, but because as experienced fishermen who knew these waters well, they understood exactly how deep the water around them was, what the conditions were, and thus how utterly impossible what they were seeing really had to be. The fact is, all the naturalistic explanations for these events miss the point entirely. They don’t really see what Mark is really up to in reporting this story to us. The story of Jesus walking on the water, Mark wants us to understand, is not a record of the disciples’ mistaken superstition. It is, instead, an account of divine self-disclosure.
It is a word of revelation, first of all – God revealing Himself in Christ to the disciples. The whole account, actually, is designed to teach us about Jesus, not just about His deity but also His humanity. You see this note at the beginning of the story of Jesus going up on the mountain alone to pray. The disciples, in verse 45, Jesus urges them to go ahead of Him in the boat to cross over the Sea of Galilee while He dismissed the crowds who had gathered around Him that night while He preached to them and fed them with the five loaves and the two fish. And verse 46 tells us after He had taken His leave of the crowds, “He went up on the mountain to pray.” Now remember who He is. He is the divine Son without beginning of life or end of days who has dwelt in the glory and blessedness of triune fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit forever. But here now on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, we meet the Son, united to human nature. He is man, and as a man, Mark now highlights for us His need to pray. As God He doesn’t need to pray, but as man He could not neglect to pray.
It’s actually an interesting study to trace the moments in Mark’s gospel when Jesus comes apart by Himself to pray. He does it at the very beginning of His ministry – chapter 1 verse 35 – and now He does it here, right in the middle of His ministry. And He does it again on the night of His betrayal – He retreats to pray. At the climax of His ministry, chapter 14, twenty-six and following. Mark wants us to understand and see Jesus as a man of prayer whose human consciousness demanded purposeful, disciplined, communion with God in prayer at every point in His life and His ministry.
And just as an aside, if our sinless Savior needed to pray, if faithfulness to the call of the Father upon Him demanded that He pray, how could any of us who follow Him in our daily combat with indwelling sin ever afford to neglect to pray? If Jesus needed to pray, who here can say they do not need to pray? Christ is a man. Mark shows us a glimpse of that reality but of course he’s going to show us He’s not only man but also Himself the infinite, eternal and unchangeable God.
And so that night we are told the disciples were struggling badly to make progress against the wind that had blown up across the Sea of Galilee. And verse 48 tells us it’s about the fourth watch of the night. That means that this is all taking place about three o’clock in the morning. And in that moment, the disciples see Jesus walking out to them across the surface of the water right up to the boat. And notice carefully that Mark says that He meant to pass them by. Isn’t that a fascinating expression? It’s an odd comment if you think about it. What does it mean that He meant to pass them by if the very reason He came out to them in the first place was because He saw they were struggling to make progress? Surely, He’s come out to them to help them, so why does He mean to pass them by? Well certainly from the disciples’ point of view in the boat, it must have looked like to them that Jesus was about to pass by, at least at first.
But I think Mark, it’s an odd comment, and I think Mark puts it there to clue us in to the real significance of what is happening. It’s a phrase that actually appears at a couple of critical moments in Old Testament history when God reveals Himself dramatically to His people in what’s called a theophany – when He shows up, as it were. You remember, for example, Exodus 33:19-22, Moses on Mount Sinai has prayed, “O Lord, who me Your glory!” and God told Moses in reply, “I will make all My goodness pass before you,” or “pass by in front of you, and I will proclaim before you My name, the LORD,” I AM. Or something similar happened to Elijah on Mount Horeb. God was not in the strong wind, you remember. He was not in the fire or in the earthquake, but in this low whisper, this still, small voice. And that was where, as 1 Kings 11:19 puts it, “Behold, the Lord passed by.” The Lord passed by in order to reveal Himself, not to leave His servants in ignorance about who He was but to show Himself to them.
And that’s very much what is happening here too. Isn’t it? Jesus has come to the disciples in the dead of night, precisely because they do not yet understand as they ought. And so, He has come to show who He is to them that they might believe and trust Him. Mark clues us in to all of that by setting up the story in a way that alludes to those theophanies, those moments of divine self-revelation in the Old Testament scriptures. And this time too, just like back then, the Son reveals to them His name. Look at the text. “When the disciples saw Him coming, they were terrified.” The Greek actually says something like, “They were very exceedingly afraid.” Terrified will do, I suppose. And who can blame them? Let’s be honest. It’s three o’clock in the morning, they’ve been pulling oars all night – no doubt they’re exhausted, cold, wet, spray, perhaps rain from time to time. They’re frustrated. You know, “We’ve been at this all night long and we haven’t made more progress than we have already!” And then all of a sudden, amidst the shrieks and moans of the wind, looming out of the darkness comes this figure, walking effortlessly across the surface of the water. Did the waves part before Him? Did they become flat right in front of His feet? Did He rise and fall with the swell as He came towards them? It was a terrifying sight, to be sure, and no wonder, no wonder they thought they were seeing a ghost.
But verse 50 says, “Immediately He spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’” “It is I,” in Greek, you may know, is the phrase, “Ego eimi.” It’s a word famously laden with double-meaning. “Ego eimi” – two words in Greek. “I AM.” It can mean simply, it’s translated here as, “It’s me. Don’t worry, it’s me. It’s me.” But it also means, “I AM.” I AM – it translates the divine name. And just to reinforce that point, it’s not insignificant, you know, that again and again in the Old Testament scriptures when God showed Himself to His servants in self-revelation was accompanied by the same instructions that accompany Jesus’ words to the disciples in the boat – “Fear not! Don’t be afraid! I AM! I am with you!”
It really is so important that we understand this. Jesus’ word to the disciples that night was not, “Don’t worry about the winds and the waves because I’m here now.” That’s not what He’s saying. That’s not the message. No, Jesus was saying, “Take heart. Don’t be afraid because of Me. Even though now, at last you see revealed in Me something of the glory of the great I AM Himself, the Lord of the wind and the waves.” Whatever else they did not understand – and there’s plenty the disciples misunderstood – they got this much. That the glory of the divine Son revealed to them in this moment was far, far more terrifying than anything that might happen to them as a result of the gales that were blowing around them in the boat that night.
Far too often we find it hard to make sense of Jesus’ need to pray because we have very little place in our theology for His full, true humanity with all its attendant limitations and weaknesses. We struggle with that. And yet ironically, at the very same time, we also struggle to comprehend the overwhelming dread that the disciples experienced in the presence of Jesus when they glimpsed something of His divine glory. Probably because, while we confess Christ’s deity with our lips as an article of faith, we have typically tamed God. We’ve so domesticated Him that our Jesus could never pose any kind of threat to our comfort or our ease. And the result is that we far too easily end up spiritualizing this story. We end up reading it as an illustration, you know, of the way Jesus calms the storms of our lives, or something along those lines, instead of seeing the real point Mark is making – that to be in the presence of the man who could call Himself, “I AM, the LORD,” that is far, far more unnerving than the wind and the waves raging all around the disciples late that night.
However problematic the storm was, when Jesus came to them that’s when things got really scary. We need to check our doctrine of Christ not only to be sure we confess the orthodox faith. You can recite the catechism question – “The only redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ who, being the eternal Son of God, became man and so was and continues to be both God and man in two distinct natures and one person forever.” What a great summary of the true faith and Biblical teaching about who Jesus is. And Mark is teaching us some of those same truths here. We can get all of that right, we can be right on the bull’s eye with all of that, but let’s also check to be sure that the power of the truth is felt in our hearts as we confess it with all its gravity and its weight. If your Jesus never has to say to you, “Don’t be afraid,” when you’re in His presence, you do not yet have a Biblical vision of the Christ who sits now at the right hand of the majesty on high. This is a story about revelation, and it challenges our tame, domesticated Jesus. To be in His presence is a solemn and fearful thing.
But then secondly notice it’s also a story of rebuke. It’s a word of rebuke, not just for the disciples as it turns out, but for our own hearts and lives also. The whole episode certainly is designed to expose the disciples’ unbelieving heart. They were scared stiff when Jesus appeared through the squall that had blown across the Sea of Galilee. And that was the case. That’s not really the surprise. But when Jesus announces Himself to them and He climbs into the boat and the wind and the waves immediately cease to blow, look at their reaction then. Verse 51, “They were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” This is more than just amazement at the miraculous. That was astounding, to be sure. This is astonishment at Jesus. It’s almost like they’ve never met Him before.
Just think about that for a moment. Think about the story so far in the gospel of Mark – what they’ve witnessed, what they’ve been privileged to see. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law healed of her fever. A leper cleansed. A paralytic healed. A man with a withered hand restored to wholeness. A legion of demons cast out. A woman with a flow of blood for twelve years made clean. Jairus’ daughter raised from the dead. Not to mention the fact that the disciples had already been in a boat in the middle of a storm with Jesus and He calmed the wind and the waves with a word! And now only a few hours earlier they had witnessed Him multiply five loaves and two fish to feed more than 5,000 people. He showed them that He is the greater than Moses who gave them manna from heaven, greater than David their greatest king, the Good Shepherd Himself who leads His people to green pastures and quiet waters and restores their souls. They’ve seen all of that and they still don’t get it. They don’t understand.
And as we see that in them, we should ask ourselves, “How is that even possible?” I mean when you line it all up like that it’s really not that difficult to get the point Mark is making. Actually, it’s hard to miss the conclusion about the identity and mission of Jesus that Mark wants us to see. So, what’s the explanation for the disciples’ unbelief? The end of verse 51 – “their hearts were hardened.” And that is a chilling word. Their hearts were hardened. This isn’t pagan pharaoh at the exodus whose hardened heart would not let God’s people go. This isn’t even recalcitrant Israel making their way through the wilderness whose hardness of heart at Massah and Meribah caused them to rebel against the Lord so that they did not enter the Promised Land. This is Jesus’ inner circle now. They’ve been with Him every day. They’ve seen His mighty works. They’ve heard Him preach. To them, Mark says, “Jesus made known the secret of the kingdom.” He explained to them privately the meaning of all His parables. These are the ones Mark calls “apostles” back in verse 30. Jesus had entrusted the work of mission to them back in the first part of chapter 6. They were preachers now, and evangelists in their own right. And their hearts are hardened.
There is a warning for us there, those of us who profess to be disciples of Jesus Christ. There’s a warning for us there that we ought not to pass over. It is possible to be a true believer in Jesus, a disciple in reality not just in profession and still have your heart hardened for a season. Like the apostles gathered around Christ, exposed as they were to the clearest revelation of the divine truth ever seen or heard, right there in the person of our Savior Himself, like them, we too, though ever so familiar and comfortable with sound doctrine and Biblical truth, we too can have our hearts hardened. In fact, it may actually be our very exposure to the truth that we enjoy, if that truth isn’t embraced and believed and rested in, if it doesn’t produce good fruit, if it’s not obeyed, it may be our very exposure to the truth that leads to a kind of spiritual anesthesia. We’ve heard it all a thousand times before, and yet our sin has not been rooted out, our unbelief has not been mortified, we haven’t taken steps to address the issues even when God in His Word has put His finger upon our hearts. And nothing happened to us. There were no negative consequences so far as we could see. And so gradually we stopped trembling at the sound of God’s warnings. Our hearts cease to be warmed at the display the Gospel makes to us of the beauties of His grace. Our consciences stop stirring when sin gets exposed. And the Word becomes little more than spiritual white noise, something we easily just tune out. What a terrible condition to be in. How close to making shipwreck we’ve come in that moment.
Perhaps like the disciples in the boat that night, it may take actually terror and astonishment prompted by a fresh encounter with Jesus Christ clothed in the Gospel to shake you from that and to bring you back to tenderness of heart and receptivity to His Word that you may believe everything that the Scriptures say to be true. It’s a word of revelation. It’s also a word of rebuke, exposing our hard hearts. How easily it can happen. The disciples had every privilege imaginable, such access to the Son of God Himself, and still their hearts were hardened. Be warned. Don’t let the same happen to you.
And then finally, this is also a word of rescue – how welcome this is. We see the marvelous grace of Jesus in this story. The disciples’ unbelief and their hardness of heart, it wasn’t hidden from Christ. Their terror at His appearance was written large on every face in the boat. In verse 48, Mark tells us when Jesus was coming out toward them, He made as though to pass them by. And we would all understand, wouldn’t we, if when He got near to the boat and He saw the sheer terror, the frank and plain unbelief written on all of their faces, if He continued right on. After all, who would want to get into a boat with a crew like that? They don’t trust Him. They don’t get it. They don’t believe. They should, but they don’t!
But He doesn’t walk on alone. Does He? He’d be quite justified to leave them toiling for a while on the boat, see if they learn their lesson. But He loves His disciples, their hard hearts notwithstanding. And so, He climbs in and He stills the wind and He brings them safely to the shore. He rescues them. He loves to rescue even hard-hearted disciples. This is really important. Mark isn’t minimizing the need for repentance. He doesn’t tell us that the disciples were so grieved and sorry and pled for Jesus’ forgiveness. Perhaps they did when He got into the boat. That’s really not Mark’s focus here. Mark simply wants us to see, regardless of any response in the disciples, Jesus’ initiative is what rescued them. How grateful we should be that the cardinal truth of the Christian Gospel is not that we believe. We must believe. It’s not that we have repented. We must repent! But it is that He has loved us first. He climbs into the boat, He rescues us, even in our hard hearts, even in the midst of our unbelief, He rescues us because He loves us. And because He first loved us, so also now we love Him. He rescued them. He loves to rescue us, even in our waywardness.
And actually, haven’t you found it to be true – sometimes it’s the hard rebuke of the Word that awakens us to our spiritual backsliddenness and our hardness of heart and brings us to repentance, but sometimes it’s seeing the mercy and the love of God in Jesus for us, despite our hardness of heart, that melts our hard hearts and causes a spiritual thaw. Thomas Watson, the great Puritan, once said, “Grace dissolves and liquifies the soul, causing a spiritual thaw.” I love that. Like a block of ice left out in front of the sun, our hard hearts just melt before the loving kindness of King Jesus. Brother and sisters, Jesus loves you. He loves you. Backslider, hard hearted disciple, He loves you and He rescues you. He’s committed to you. And there will be words of rebuke and words of tenderness as He seeks to draw you back and bring you to the far shore, safely at last. He’s going to rescue you, but I wonder if you’re listening as He calls to you, as You hear His overtures of love and grace, as He pleads with you to understand who He is, to tremble before Him, to trust in Him, to rest upon Him. There’s an invitation.
Some of you have been wandering away. Perhaps for a few days now you’ve been neglecting to seek the Lord. Perhaps there’ve been cherished secret patterns of willful sin and disobedience. Perhaps, like a dog that returns to its vomit, you’ve been returning to your sin again and again and you know you ought not, but you’ve been indulging yourself. And you’ve felt your heart growing dull and cold, your conscience no longer stinging, just anesthetized, numb. Now the Lord Jesus is inviting you to come back. He wants to climb into the boat and to rescue you, to restore you. Will you hear His voice? Don’t harden your heart. Today, if you hear His voice, bend the knee, repent, turn to Him and you will find mercy and grace upon grace in our wonderful Savior. He is the awesome God-Man before whom we ought all to tremble in reverent awe, but He is a God-Man who comes close to us, even our spiritual stupidity, and rescues us, and we praise Him for it. Let’s pray together.
O Lord, we, all of us no doubt can acknowledge moments as we think back when we didn’t see the consequences of our own foolishness and You rescued us from it. Our stupid mistakes, our willful rebellion would have led us down into dangerous paths, and You spared us. You rescued us from the worst consequences of our own foolishness. And You do it again and again because You love Your people. How grateful we are that You love us! That the great central truth, the foundational truth upon which we rest, upon which all our security is founded, is not that we believe or that we have our doctrine straight. Help us to believe and to get our doctrine straight. But our security rests not really on anything that we say or do or feel or think but on the glorious truth that Jesus saves. Thank You so much that Jesus climbed into the boat that night and rescued His hard-hearted disciples, not because they were worth rescuing but because He is a God who loves to save His people. And thank You that that’s still the case. Our Jesus is the God who rescues His people. Please help us to turn back to Him, without delay, right now, tonight, to turn back to Him, for we ask this in His precious name. Amen.
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