Last Sunday, when looking at the Feeding of the 5000, I thought it would be helpful to harmonize all four Gospel accounts of this event so that we could fully understand the context of what was happening and why it was so significant. The section of Scripture we’re going to be working through this morning demands the exact same approach.
This account of Jesus walking on the water recorded in John 6:14-21 can also be found presented in Matthew 14:22-26 and Mark 6:45-56. Our plan this morning is to tackle this text in much the same way we did the Feeding of the 5000. As we read through John’s account I’ll add the additional details from the other authors where it’s relevant.
John 6:14, “Then those men (the 5000 hungry men who’d just been miraculously fed bread and fish by Jesus), when they had seen the sign that Jesus did (the multiplication of the elements), said, ‘This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.’”
Back in His exchange with the religious leaders Jesus said of their unbelief in John 5:45-47, “Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; there is one who accuses you - Moses, in whom you trust. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?”
Please notice the reaction of the multitudes believing Jesus to be “the Prophet” (written about by Moses) intended to contrast the unbelief of these religious leaders. In Deut. 18:18 the Lord promised to “raise up for them a Prophet like Moses from among their brethren.”
This Prophet, seen by the Jewish people to be the promised Messiah, while being greater than Moses, would be “like Moses.” It may be that seeing Jesus supernaturally provide bread reminded them of Moses doing the same in their wilderness wanderings. Either way…
John 6:15-17a, “Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone. Now when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea, got into the boat, and went over the sea toward Capernaum…”
How interesting that “Jesus perceived” that this great multitude of men and women, in response to this amazing miracle, were about “to come and take Him by force to make Him king.” The Greek word “by force” implies they were about to act without consideration of Jesus’ will. Basically, Jesus knew if He didn’t act quickly “mob-mentality” was about to set in.
It would appear the fundamental issue for Jesus was not the intention of the crowd, but instead the timing. Don’t forget that according to John 5:18 the Jewish establishment was actively looking for a way they could justify killing Jesus. While they rightfully knew blasphemy was a charge the Roman’s were unlikely to sanction corporal punishment, fostering political unrest among the people and revolution was an entirely different situation.
Understand, it wasn’t that the conclusion or reaction of the crowd was wrong (Jesus was “the Prophet” and as such the desire to “make Him king” was appropriate). The problem was that Jesus had much more to accomplish before the crowd got their wish.
Keep in mind, when Jesus comes to Jerusalem to begin His Week of Passion, the multitude cries out, “Hosanna, Hosanna the King.” What’s interesting is that not only does Jesus do absolutely nothing to deter or restrict the adulation of the crowd, but He’s completely willing to accept their praise. Jesus even says “the rocks would cry out” if the people were silent.
You see Jesus knew that before He’d become their King, He’d first have to be their Savior… Before He’d mount the throne, He’d first have to bear a cross. To accomplish this Jesus also knew His death wished by the Jews and sanctioned by the Romans was necessary.
Matthew and Mark’s accounts provide a bit more context than John’s Gospel. Apparently, before “Jesus departed to the mountain by Himself” He does two things in the context of the crowds desiring to make Him their King: First, Jesus “immediately made His disciples to get into the boat and go before Him to the other side” of the Sea “towards Capernaum.”
This word “made” literally means Jesus compelled them by force to board the boat and set sail. They didn’t want too, but Jesus made them! We’ll get to this more in our travels through John, but the disciples were hoping Jesus would lead a revolution against the Romans and be King. As such this scene was the exact thing these men had been longing to see happen!
Secondly, after getting His disciples into a boat, we’re told Jesus “sent the multitudes away.” While we have no idea how Jesus was able to corral such an unruly mob, the word “sent” is quite complex. In the Greek language the word was most often used in divorce proceedings when a spouse was forcibly dismissed from the house. Basically, Jesus kicked them out!
Well… After sending the disciples across the Sea of Galilee and these multitudes away, John tells us that “Jesus departed again to the mountain by Himself alone.” Matthew and Mark add that His intention for getting alone was “to pray.” What was Jesus praying about?
To answer this question it’s important to mention Mark’s account provides us a detail neither John nor Matthew include. Mark writes that “Jesus was alone on the land” watching the disciples make their way across the Sea of Galilee. This is the very reason Jesus made His way to higher ground. It’s safe to assume Jesus was praying for His disciples!
You see there was an important lesson these men needed to understand if they were to be effective in carrying forth His work in this world following His physical ascension to heaven… Sadly, this was a lesson they’d yet to learn despite His previous attempts to teach them.
As we set the stage for the scene to switch from Jesus on this mountain praying to these disciples in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, you need to know Jesus was watching them and praying for them though they didn’t know it. Jesus knew the difficult situation these men were about to face. And while He’d sent them into this very circumstance, He was praying for them. In Hebrews 7:25 we’re told Jesus “lives to make intercession” for us.
John 6:17b-19a, “And it was already dark (they departed in the “evening,” but now it was in the middle of the night), and Jesus had not come to them (once again John is writing to an audience already familiar with the story). The sea arose (literally the sea was awakened) because a great wind was blowing. So when they had rowed about three or four miles…” (Matthew and Mark tell us this places the boat in the “middle of the sea.”)
For context, both Mark and Matthew add that the conditions on the Sea of Galilee had grown so severe because of this “contrary wind” (against them) that the boat was being “tossed by the waves.” While many of these men were experienced fishermen who’d spent the majority of their lives on this body of water, this “great wind” proved to be a formidable adversary.
Mark tells us these 12 men were “straining at rowing.” The Greek word “straining” means to test by the touchstone and described actual torture. You could translate this as their rowing vexed them to the point of experiencing grievous pains. No matter how hard they “rowed” they couldn’t escape the mercy of these natural forces “tossing” them around.
Before we get to far into the story, I do want point out none of the Gospel writers say this was a storm. Unlike an earlier occasion recorded in Matthew 8, Mark 4, and Luke 8 when they were caught in a “great tempest” on the Sea of Galilee (in this story Jesus was sleeping in the bowels of the boat), this is not the kind of situation facing these men on this night.
Instead of a storm (which has its own unique applications), in this instance, these men seem to be facing a natural occurrence… This was a great “wind contrary” to the direction they were seeking to row - a force opposing the destination Jesus had told them to pursue.
While nothing more than a small lake approximately 14 miles long and 7 miles wide, it’s been said the Sea of Galilee gets its name because “it’s a lake that behaves like a sea!”
Uniquely located 600ft below sea level and surrounded almost entirely by mountains, it’s not uncommon for these kind of violent and unpredictable winds to swoop in unexpectedly. With the cold air coming down off the mountains mixing with the warmer air emanating off the water, low pressure zones can cause swells on the Sea of Galilee up to 6ft tall.
How long these men had been “rowing” we really don’t know other than the fact Matthew and Mark tell us what happens next occurs during “the fourth watch of the night.” Because of this detail and the traditional understanding of “the fourth watch” we know it’s around 3 AM.
Consider… If Jesus sent them away as the sun was setting (when it was “evening” - 6pm), it means these men have been rowing for 9 hours against this wind! Because of the headwind they find themselves at the point of exhaustion and they’re only half the way across the Sea!
I don’t want to get to far ahead of ourselves, but there are two things you need to keep in mind as we seek to understand the deeper lesson and larger purpose behind this story. First, there is no doubt the disciples are determined to obey Jesus.
The Master personally put them in this boat and commanded they get to the other side. Jesus’ directions and destination had been clear. Yet, because of the wind in their face, they can’t use the sails, but that doesn’t deter them… They pull out the oars and begin to row.
Even when these winds grow so strong that the boat is now being tossing around making it virtually impossible to row with any type of effectiveness, instead of hoisting the sails and heading back to shore (back to Bethsaida), these men are determined to press onward. There is no question they are absolutely determined to row against these natural forces.
Secondly, I think it’s safe to assume these disciples are likely to fail in their own strength. Honestly, nine hours of rowing this boat against a “contrary wind” would have left every one of these men utterly spent. Even though they knew what they were doing as experienced boatsmen, their strength would give out eventually. If such a dynamic continued much longer there is no way they were going to be able to make it to the other side.
John 6:19b-20, “The disciple saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near the boat; and they were afraid. But Jesus said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’”
Mark tells us that “Jesus came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by” until He, as Matthew records, heard these “troubled” men “crying out for fear.” Not only are they struggling against the wind, but they now think they’re seeing “a ghost” or a phantom walking on the water! While all three writers tell us “Jesus said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid,” Matthew and Mark record this followed His command to “be of good cheer!”
It’s interesting these two commands “be of good cheer” and “do not be afraid” are issued off Jesus’ declaration, “It is I!” His very presence was supposed to calm their fear and bring them joy! In the Greek this phrase “It is I” is actually “eimi ego.” What makes this significant is that the only other place we find this phrase used by Jesus is in John 8:58.
In another contentious spat with the religious leaders, Jesus makes one of His most radicle declarations. He says, “‘Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.’ Then the Jews said to Him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’”
In the context of Exodus 3, this statement “I AM” was a direct reference to when God introduces Himself to Moses as “I AM who I AM.” Most amazingly, the singular Hebrew word found in Exodus (“hayah”) is then translated into Greek as “eimi ego.” A better reading of this verse would be something to the effect of “Be of good cheer! I AM! Do not be afraid!”
Please note that Jesus is emphasizing His deity (the great I AM) as the singular reason these twelve tired, exhausted, and now frightened men needed to take “cheer” and “not be afraid!”
It should be pointed out the magnitude and significance of what Jesus said to these men was not lost on them at all. In actuality, it’s at this point in the story, Matthew tells us that “Peter answered Jesus and said, ‘Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.’ So Jesus said, ‘Come.’ And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me!’ And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’”
John 6:21, “Then they willingly received Jesus (and Peter) into the boat,” (Matthew and Mark add that it’s in this moment the “wind ceased”) and immediately the boat was at the land where they were going.” (The vessel was teleported across the remaining 3.5 miles!)
While Matthews tells us that, in response to these things, “when they had crossed over” and “came to the land of Gennesaret” most appropriately “those who were in the boat came and worshiped Jesus, saying, ‘Truly You are the Son of God’” Mark closes his narrative in such a way that we begin to see what the underlying purpose of this story really was.
In Mark 6:51-52 we’re told, “They were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled. For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened.”
Please don’t miss what Mark (and by extension Peter) is telling us about this story… The great amazement of the disciples came not at the miracle of Jesus walking on water, the fact the wind ceased, or the reality they were teleported to dry land when Jesus entered the boat… “They were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled. For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened.”
Here’s the point… Jesus’ original command had nothing to do with these men getting across the Sea of Galilee in spite of a contrary wind. Instead, the entire exercise intended to teach them a lesson they’d missed in the Feeding of the 5000! This explains why, as soon as the lesson was realized, the journey ended and their final destination reached!
So… What lessons had these men missed that demanded a second test? First… Human strength and abilities are no substitute for God’s empowering and presence.
Once again the entire story begins with Jesus asking these men to do something they were naturally equipped and more than able to accomplish. Jesus gave them a task and He provided a destination. A boat trip to the other side of the Sea was no big task.
We already know at least a quarter of this group of twelve were professional fishermen. Before encountering Jesus, the Sea of Galilee provided the likes of Peter, Andrew, James, and John a way to earn a living. These men were born and raised on these waters. They grew up fishing on the Sea, spent sleepless nights in the deep, had even navigated storms.
Even when this headwind forced them to row instead of sail, they were more than capable. Then when the waves rose and the boat was tossed making rowing absolutely vexing, these men grew all the more determined. Jesus had given them a command and a destination to reach and they were going to make it no matter what. They knuckled up and hunkered down.
Sadly, after nine long hours, the best their efforts had yielded was the half way mark. At this point their strength was beginning to fail. These natural forces had driven them to the limit of their natural abilities. The disciples were trying to obey Jesus’ commands, but were presently finding this task impossible to accomplish on their own strength.
Can you sympathize with this? I know I can! Here you are trying your best to obey Jesus, to live the life He’s called you too, to run the race set before you; but if you’re honest you’re tired, worn out, and know you’re failing. Life seems to oppose you. The daily grind. You feel as though there is this constant headwind working against you at every turn.
Maybe you’re even here this morning thinking to yourself, “Pastor Zach, I can’t do it any longer because my strength is failing.” Well, I’d respond, “Good. You can’t do it! And your strength has been the very thing keeping you from fully relying on Jesus and His strength!” Jesus never calls us to pull up our bootstraps and follow Him. Instead, it’s a cross we bear.
The truth is that, like these disciples facing this contrary wind on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus will very often use the natural forces of life in a sinful world to oppose us specifically to reveal our inability to make the journey He’s called us to in our own strength.
Do you think it’s a coincidence the very moment the disciples reached their breaking point Jesus (who’s been watching and praying for them) came to these men walking on the sea? What a stark contrast! These men are “straining at rowing” and Jesus is “walking across.”
The contrary wind and waves were opposing these men at every turn. Forward movement in their own strength demanded every single iota of energy. And yet, there was Jesus effortlessly walking across the Sea as if it were no big deal. Mark adds that Jesus was walking in such a way He “would have passed them by” if they hadn’t cried out for help.
Imagine what it must have been like for the disciples the very moment Jesus entered the boat. You’ve been fighting against these natural force doing your best to obey Jesus and get yourself to the destination He determined. You’re tired, warn out. Your strength is failing. And then, the very instance you “willingly receive” Jesus into the boat, these contrary winds you’ve been battling instantly cease and you find yourself immediately at the destination.
Understand, the entire purpose of sending these men across the Sea of Galilee to face this contrary wind they would not be able to overcome was to stripped them of their self-reliance and illustrate how desperately they were in need of Jesus all the time! Think about it…
“You feed these people” was an impossible command the disciples couldn’t accomplish on their own strength or ability. On the other hand, as experienced fishermen, the command to “row to the other side” was something they felt they could do on their own. Jesus’ entire point was for them to realize that apart from His involvement they could do neither!
There is never a moment in your Christian experience you can ever turn to Jesus and say, “Bro, I’ve got this!” The options simply boil down to your strength or His presence.
Friend, you need to know there will always be a contrary wind grinding against your ability to go to the places Jesus had called on your own strength. Or, in the presence of your weakness, you can surrender to the mighty wind of His Spirit more than able to carry you to the desired destination. You can strain in your rowing or you can walk with Jesus!
Not only does the Apostle Paul declare in Acts 17 that “in Jesus we live and move and have our being,” but he writes in 2 Corinthians 3:5 that “we are not sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God.”
In Hebrews Jesus is described as “the Author and Finisher of our faith.” This means the work Jesus begins in us can only be completed by Him. He not only sets the destination, but it’s only through His strength and involvement we’re able to reach the destination He set.
You see Peter understood the lesson before the others… How am I going to get to the other side? First, I need to quit trying to do this on my own strength. Secondly, I need to follow Jesus even if that requires getting out of the boat in the middle of the Sea and walking on the water. To his credit Peter got out of the boat, but it was then he quickly learned the final lesson… The only way to follow Jesus is to keep your eyes on Jesus!
So… What lessons had these men missed that demanded a second test? First… Human strength and abilities are no substitute for God’s empowering and presence, and Secondly… Failing to rely fully on Jesus is foolish because He’s God!
The truth is these men should have recognized “with the loaves” the divinity of Jesus. Everyone present to witness the Feeding of the 5000 should have seen this miracle as the ultimate fulfillment of Exodus 16. Frankly, most everyone missed this point which is why the Apostle John segues from this story to Jesus’ teaching on the Bread of Life.
The disciples were also complicit in their ignorance - which is why Jesus specifically sends them into a “contrary wind!” Not only does He want to use the situation to demonstrate their need for Him, but Jesus also wanted to reveal Himself to them as God… “It is I” - “I AM!”
Ultimately, this is why Matthew tells us “everyone in the boat worshipped Jesus” and Mark says they “were greatly amazed beyond measure, and marveled.” In the Greek this means they were thrown out of position into wonderment. Literally, they were besides themselves… Insane, mind-blow! Jesus was not only the great “I AM,” but He’d proven it!
As we close we need to consider… If the “Feeding of the 5000” was supposed to declare Jesus’ divinity, how did the disciples tragically miss it? Once again… Mark tells us, “For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened.” In the Greek this word “hardened” is a medical term meaning to harden by covering with a callus.
The disciples missed one of the most radicle revelations of Jesus (Feeding the 5000) because of the callousness of their heart. So… Why was their hearts callused? I’m convinced they missed Jesus’ divinity, because they refused to accept their weakness. Again, in their book “The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb” co-authors Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel write that “operating from our strengths is practicing atheism.”
You see it not only makes no sense to attempt a life in our power that fundamentally necessitates His strength, but the attempt itself reveals a lack of faith in who Jesus is.
The refusal of my insufficiency means I’m subsequently rejecting the need for His sufficiency. To refuse the admission I’m unable is to doubt the reality of His enabling. If you really believe Jesus is God, then submitting yourself to His strength is the only logical outcome.
Friend, if you came this morning tired and warn out, Jesus has allowed such a dynamic not to do you in, but to get you to accept a most liberating reality… His strength is made perfect in your weakness! Why continue straining against that which is designed to resist you? Jesus is more than able to get you to the very place He’s been calling you to go! The key centers on whether or not you’ll humble yourself and invite Him into the boat!
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