16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles,[a] they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.
As we move into our passage today, out of the miracle of verse 1-15, one commentator notes that the focus now shifts from Jesus and the crowds, to Jesus and the disciples. There may have been some who wanted to give praise to the disciples in the working of the miracle, for assisting in passing out the bread and fish; but we are shown here in verse 16-21 that without a doubt they themselves are completely inadequate and in total need of Jesus. Indeed we also see the contrast between the crowds behavior toward Jesus, and that of his disciples, no matter how immature the disciples may yet be.
When you preach back to back passages like the feeding of the 5,000 and the walking on water, it can be hard to find the connection between the two miracles, since they both stand alone so well. However, one of the things I believe the gospel writer is trying to show us between Jesus escaping the crowds that wanted to force him to be king and the walking on the water in the midst of a storm, is that Jesus will not be forced by man to do anything, because it is creation that obeys Jesus. For Jesus to bow to the demands of men would be to reverse the creation order. He is creator and creation obeys him, not the other way around. If Jesus “tells” the waves that he is going to walk on them, the waves aren’t going to say no and sink him. They are going to “hold him up,” serve, and obey their maker.
This scene after verse 15 puts sinful man in their proper place by showing the glory, power, might, and fearfulness of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is not a genie in a bottle to be used to satisfy the flesh, he is the sovereign creator to be feared. See him surrounded by the waves of a storm crashing around him in the darkness of night, and yet he is in total control. That ought to evoke a fearful awe.
The Chaos/Danger of the Sea
Throughout the Bible, and especially in the books of poetry, the Psalms namely, the sea is often an image of chaos, disorder, or danger. And of course, it is God who sits sovereignly over the waters, Psalm 89:9 for example, “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” But this is the image the sea often gives us – chaos, disorder, danger.
I saw a short video this week from someone on a ship out at sea. It was some kind of big cargo looking ship. But the video was from someone on the ship recording the storm around them looking down at the deck and out to the sea. And it was dark, and the waves were huge and crashing around them. Even from the video it was quite terrifying and awe-inspiring to see; I can’t imagine actually being on that ship. But not only is the sea chaotic and dangerous, but mankind, in all of our great technological advancements, we cannot control it. We cannot overpower it. We don’t stand a chance against it. The sea is a might that is beyond all human might. It ought to put the fear of God in us. I don’t know how anyone can be a sailor and not fear the living God.
Not only do we have the dangerous sea, but we are also told that it is dark (v. 17). Darkness is often a picture of ignorance. We can’t see in the darkness. From a spiritual perspective it is the darkness of our sin that blinds us and keeps us in ignorance.
The Danger of the Sea through the Disciples Eyes and Jesus Walking the Water
So here the disciples are. They’ve rowed out a few miles to sea. It is dark, and Jesus is not with them. As they are out on the sea in the darkness of night, a strong wind begins to blow as the sea becomes rough. Who knows the thoughts they are thinking in this moment. Where is Jesus? Why did he not come with us? Maybe they are thinking they are about to die. It’s dark and they probably can’t see very well, they can’t see the waves crashing around them, but they hear them and feel them, probably very disorienting. It’s probably loud from the strong winds and crashing waves and they can’t hear each other well, probably a lot of yelling. As they’re trying to keep things under control they see some figure, and it’s a man, walking on the water, in the midst of the storm, the wind and the waves. How terrifying this must have been: this couldn’t be just a man. They may think that it is a ghost, or a demon, or an alien – who knows! Normal people don’t walk on the water. Indeed it was not a normal person, it is a Divine Wave Walker. Then they hear a familiar voice speak to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” And oh it is a voice they love. A voice they are so glad to hear. Imagine the relief rushing over them, the assurance, the awe.
It’s crazy to think about this scene in your head. There is this storm with strong winds raging around and it’s dark, the disciples can’t see, and here’s Jesus just walking, on a rough and tumultuous sea – emphasis on walking. It’s like it’s effortless for Jesus! This certainly shows that he is in total control over it.
What we have here is the Word of God who became flesh walking on the waves, which are the words of God, spoken and created. The incarnate Word is interacting with his spoken words. The waves are no threat to Jesus because he is the one speaking them into existence. He is speaking this scene into existence.
As the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, I could almost see this as a bit of preparation for the resurrection. Jesus is walking on the water, when any other man would drown and die. Jesus is alive there when he should be dead. And he comes to his disciples saying, “It is I.” “Peace be with you.”
The storm and the figure walking on the water frightened the disciples. When Jesus revealed himself and told them not to fear, they were glad and glad to bring Jesus into the boat (v. 21). They were glad to be with Jesus. Oh how true this is for the Christian who is tossed about in the darkest night and storm, when Christ is near them, how glad they are to be with the one who loves them and holds the waves in his hands. This great Romans 8:28 doctrine that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose is not some theoretical pie in the sky doctrine. It is a doctrine of serious practical implications that when we are in the darkest of night yet know that Jesus is come to us, then we experience gladness that we are in the boat with Christ. For the Christian it is more gladdening to be in a raging storm and have Jesus in the boat, than to experience the most peaceful waters without Christ. The light of day is darker without Christ than the dead of night with him. After all he is the light of the world and the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Through Faith’s Eyes/Jesus on the Cross
Even greater gladness still, is the soul who is weighed down with the burden of his sin, in utter terror before the wrath of God, in utter darkness of sin and ignorance, and yet looks to the cross, to see a figure there, a figure that is a hard thing to bear, and a sight that is frightening, until that figure comes to him and says, “It is I; do not be afraid. Your sins are forgiven.” Oh how glad it is for that soul to have Christ with him. The greater moment of danger, the greater the gladness to have the Son of Man walking to you bringing tidings of peace. And the greatest moment of danger is the sinner before a holy God. I was reminded this week of Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and the picture that he paints of the danger that the sinner is in is so profound. In one place he describes it like this, “Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering and there are innumerable places in this covering that are so weak that they will not bear their weight and these places are not seen.” The picture he is trying to paint there is that at any moment, the ground beneath the feet of the unconverted man could give way and they could be swallowed up into the pit of hell. Or in another place he says, “You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about.” This is the danger of the sinner without an advocate, Jesus Christ. When they are thrown into hell, it will not be waves of water crashing about them, but it will be flames of the fire of God’s wrath, un-quenched. Forever burning, ever-terrorizing, yet never to drown you and end you.
We are sinners helpless in the storm of God’s wrath, and only Jesus calms the wrath of God and makes peace with God and man. Jesus comes to us in the midst of the storm and brings peace, telling us not to fear, for he is with us, and he has made peace.
As dangerous and deadly as the sea can be, it is nothing compared to the storm of God’s wrath toward sinners. A boat cannot save you from the tsunami of God’s wrath. Any other vessel that you may seek to find safety in will do no good, but only hurry to sink you and weigh you down. No boat of good works, or self righteousness, or any other boat crafted by the imaginations of men will do. But Christ only. It is a storm we cannot row ourselves out of; our only hope is Jesus coming to us with words of peace, being our mediator, making that peace with God and men.
Verse 17 told us that it was dark when the disciples set out to sea. Indeed this is an image of the darkness we are in apart from Christ. But as we look in faith to Golgotha, where the Son of God hangs, as the sun goes dark, and it seems like the night has won, faith sees the darkness defeated; John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
As the disciples were afraid in seeing Jesus walking on the water, so there is a fear which the sinner will have when he sees the Son of God hanging on the cross in the midst of the dark storm of God’s wrath. It is a fearful sight. The hymn we sung last week, Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted puts this idea so well into words. Oh what a fearful sight the cross of Christ is! On Golgotha, the place of the skull. So much blood, agony, and darkness as the Son of God hung there and became our sin, and it was all punished to the very last drop. The Father was pleased to crush his Son. How could a sinner dare to look upon such a thing? All of our sin! Your lies, your lust, your laziness, disobedience, your hatred, your addictions, your sin, the perfect Son of God is bearing and being crushed for it there on Golgotha! How can anyone look!? And yet we must look. For it is there that Christ comes to us, and speaks peace to us, our sins have been dealt with, we are forgiven. Our fears are washed away. The night is gone. Though we should have been there under the wrath of God, Christ went there in our place, for us. No way we could walk on the water and live. No way we can stand before a holy God and live. But Christ did for us.
In this, the gospel writer shows that the reason Jesus would not be crowned king in verse 15 is because he had to go down into the depths of darkness and suffer the wrath of God and bring peace between God and man first.
Practical Lessons and Application
No matter the storm that’s blowing and raging in the world or culture around us, Jesus is not sweating or in a panic. He is calmly in control of it all.
Jesus helps us in great times of need so that we will learn to trust him. It was Jesus’ breath blowing upon the waters to put the disciples into a situation of great need, so that they would see his glory and learn to trust him. So the Lord does in our own lives.
The darker the storm, the brighter our helper. If you are a Christian, the darker the trial, then the brighter your helper will be.
Jesus makes storms look bad so that he looks good. This is really the problem at the bottom of all our problems: we don’t behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But really bad storms make Jesus look that much more glorious, that we might behold him all the more and become like him.
God is never in a hurry. Notice Jesus was just walking calmly out to his disciples. This is the walk of someone who is mightier than the thunders of many waters and mightier than the waves of the sea. He is not sprinting or rushing to get there, but getting there right on time, allowing the proper length of time under duress to take place, allowing just what is perfectly good for the disciples to take place. So it is in your life Christian. Do not be afraid.