There are many things that frighten us as we make our way through life. But mysterious or unknown things can make us even more afraid. In 2009, I was on a sabbatical in East Tennessee and I spent a week in a tiny cabin in the middle of the woods. This is bear country and I was very aware of that as I stayed in that cabin. One night I was awakened by the sounds of snorting and scuffling right outside my open kitchen window. I was sure it was a bear trying to get into my little cabin and get my food. I got up, carefully peered out of the window and saw something moving in the darkness. I looked even more intently and saw that the form was white. Even though it was in the middle of the night, I could figure out that black bears aren’t white. I realized that they were horses that had escaped from the barn next door. I was sure it was a bear and until I knew what it really was, it was terrifying!
The passage we look at this morning describes an event that terrified the disciples because they didn’t know what they were seeing. In this passage we learn that no matter what we may face, we can know that Jesus, the Son of God, is always there to help us not be afraid. Let’s read Mark 6:45-56.
I. First we read that Jesus dismisses the disciples in verses 45-46.
After Jesus feeds the five thousand he immediately made the disciples return to their boat and told them to go on ahead to Bethsaida. This action suggests an urgency which Mark does not explain. But from John’s account in John 6:14, we read that after this miracle the people had seen Jesus as the promised Messiah and were ready to proclaim him king. There had been several uprisings based on the hope of the coming Messiah and the location of the feeding of the 5,000 was a hotbed for such expectations. If the disciples had remained and told everyone what had exactly happened with the food, the people would have gone even wilder in their excitement about Jesus. Jesus remained to pacify and dismiss this increasingly excited crowd. Jesus refused to be the people’s national king of their own popular expectations.
Jesus will not be made into a hero for our own expectations or values either. We have a new president and many Christians are hoping that he will return good moral values to our nation and we do want that. But that begins with submitting to the fact that the reality of this world is God’s kingdom and no one else’s; not even our own. Jesus is God and King but of his kingdom and not ours.
Now Jesus goes off by himself to pray; something he often did after a momentous event. Jesus did this after he taught in Capernaum in Mark 4, after the feeding of the 5,000 here and following the Last Supper. In each case, it is night and Jesus finds himself in a moment of crisis. Jesus refused the clamoring of the multitude and instead chose a long period of prayerful solitude in order to reaffirm his obedience to the Father and his mission.
Jesus gives us a powerful example of how to handle the big things in our lives. We need to retreat to pray as well when things get crazy or hectic. Whether good or bad, let’s take the time – even if only for a few moments – to retreat and pray so we remember whose kingdom or church it is. Take the time to pause to get yourself centered on who you are living for.
By the time Jesus had finished praying it was the dark hours before the dawn and the disciples were well out in the middle of the lake. Mark points out that the boat was on the lake and Jesus was alone on the land. This is rather obvious but Mark is pointing out that whenever Jesus is absent from the disciples, they seem to find themselves in distress. Now the disciples were physically exhausted because the wind was against them and they were being blown off course. So Jesus came to the disciples across the rough water about 3:00 am because he had seen his disciples struggling and decided to come out to help them.
But in doing so, the disciples became terrified thinking that they saw a ghost walking on the water to them. Now let’s think about that for a moment. If it’s the middle of the lake at night and you see someone walking on the water out to you, your first thought is probably not, “Oh, here comes someone to help us!” People don’t walk on the water and so their conclusion was that it was a ghost.
In Exodus 33:21-23, God put Moses in the cleft of the rock and then passed by him to show Moses his glory. In 1 Kings 19:11, God encouraged a greatly discouraged Elijah and told him to stand there while God passed by in the wind, earthquake and fire. Then finally in that still small voice, all done while God passes by. This act may also refer to Job 9:8 and 11 where God is said to tread on the waves of the sea and also passes by in a way that is hard for Job to see. All of these examples show God passing by in order to reveal God in his full majesty to someone. And so in this case, Jesus is appearing to pass by them with the full hope that they would see who Jesus really is: the divine Son of God who is there with them!
However, the disciples reacted to Jesus’ divine passing by appearance with terror, convinced that they had encountered a water ghost. In those days, sailors believed that ghosts would arise out of the sea to sink ships. So the idea of ghosts was not far from their minds, especially in rough seas. Jesus must have seen or sensed their terror and so reassures them. Jesus says, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” This may simply be Jesus identifying himself: “It’s me.” But it’s possible that in light of the “passing by” intent of Jesus, he may be alluding to the divine name, “I am who I am.” But the intent is to calm their fears; however, think about this as well. What would be more terrifying to think you’ve seen a ghost or to know that you are in the presence of God himself!? But even the words “Don’t be afraid” would remind them of the words of God himself for God often said those words when he revealed himself to someone.
So in Jesus’ actions and words, he is telling them that he is indeed God and he is with them; they do not have to be afraid. This is punctuated by when he gets into the boat and immediately the wind dies down and the effect is profound on the disciples; that too just doesn’t happen! The disciples were physically drained from their experience but everything that had just happened was beyond their comprehension. But Mark gives some insight into their thinking in verse 52 for they were still trying to grasp what happened with the loaves and he says that their hearts were hardened. While the disciples certainly recognized that the multitude had been fed with 5 loaves and 2 fish, they failed to grasp that this event pointed to Jesus as being God! They just didn’t understand who Jesus really was. This is why they were terrified instead of seeing Jesus with them in confidence and joy.
Mark’s concluding explanation about their hard hearts is important to notice. He is pointing out that if the disciples had understood the miracle of the loaves they would have recognized Jesus as the sovereign Lord who can walk on the waves of the sea. They would have thought, “Oh, it’s Jesus!” The disciples’ problem is again not a lack of intellect but rather a lack of faith. This reflects an ongoing response to Jesus on the part of the disciples. They just don’t understand Jesus and don’t really have the faith that is needed. In a real sense they are no different from Jesus’ opponents who fail to understand and thus have hardened hearts.
Do we get who Jesus really is and what he has done and can do for us? We need to see Jesus and subsequently have more faith in him. Jesus had no intention of passing by his disciples but rather was showing them who he really was: he is the very Son of God come to be with them in their lives. And we need to remember that because Jesus is the Lord, we do not have to be afraid no matter how the sea may rage in our lives or the winds of trials may blow.
III. Then Mark describes Jesus’ ongoing ministry in verses 53-56.
The disciples and Jesus landed in the area of Genenesaret. Although the disciples had rowed toward Bethsaida, a short distance from the northeast corner of the lake, the strong head wind appears to have driven them southward. As soon as Jesus got out of the boat, the people in that heavily populated area there immediately recognized him even though they were not expecting him. He was well known from his ministry in Capernaum and reports of his healing power had gone through the entire region. Mark describes the people running from place to place telling others to come to Jesus. They were carrying their sick on mats to wherever Jesus was. They were determined to take advantage of Jesus the healer being there.
And then Mark wraps up this section by describing in general terms Jesus’ ministry. Whenever Jesus entered villages or cities the report that he was coming preceded him. He found the sick assembled in the marketplace, convinced that if they could only touch the edge of his cloak they would be healed. The statement that all who touched him were healed is to be understood in light of Jesus requiring faith in him in order to be healed. It is not just contact with Jesus’ clothing, but the person must have faith in Jesus. In this connection the absence of any reference to preaching or teaching is significant. The people are not prepared for Jesus’ proclamation of the word, and the public ministry interrupted in Mark 6:31 has not been resumed. Yet Jesus patiently bears with their limited insight and graciously heals those who reach out to him from the bed of sickness.
The primary message is that the kingdom of God has come and is coming more and more fully every day. The answers to prayer are not just for our own personal benefit but to show us and remind us that there is a larger and beautiful kingdom we live in. Yet we still live in the needs and problems we have now. In that same book What Was I Thinking Steve Brown quotes this prayer: “God the ocean is so very big. My boat is so very small. Have mercy on me.” Gods’ answer that he is here in all his majesty and says to us, “It is I. Don’t be afraid.”