52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #15. Walking on the Water
by Travis Bookout
Jesus has just done something remarkable (again!). He just miraculously fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish. John 6 is primarily about this sign and its meaning. John 6:1-15 is about the sign and John 6:26-71 is about the sign’s meaning and the crowd’s response. Shoved right in the middle, however, is this incredible moment where Jesus defies every human ability and expectation; he physically walks on water.
After feeding the 5000 several thoughts had entered into the minds of those who saw it. They said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). This is a likely reference to Deuteronomy 18:15-18 where God promises to raise up a prophet like Moses. When Moses was leading the people, they had bread miraculously provided. When fleeing from Egypt the Red Sea parted and they crossed over on dry land; the sea was no longer an obstacle. When the disciples see that Jesus is this prophet like Moses, “they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king” (John 6:15). It makes sense they would want a king like Moses. Moses was favored by God, performed mighty signs, destroyed the enemy Egyptians, and gave bread to the people.
They want Jesus to be this type of king. They know He is favored by God, He has already performed mighty signs, and He just gave bread to the people. Perhaps He can also destroy the Romans and establish peace in the land? But as they come to make Jesus king, He does a very unkingly thing. He left His people behind and escaped and ran off to the mountains alone (John 6:15).
Were the disciples wrong? Is He not the prophet like Moses? Is He too cowardly to lead a charge against the Romans? The timing is perfect! He just fed an entire army! A Roman centurion has charge over 100 men (a century). A Roman cohort was generally made up of 5 or 6 centuries. And a Roman legion was made up of 10 cohorts. A legion was roughly 5000 men. Do the math! Jesus has a legion at His disposal right now! He could destroy the Roman occupying forces and establish Himself as king right now! The successful Jewish Maccabean revolt which gained independence from their Greek oppressors and established the Hasmonean dynasty was relatively recent history for these people. They could do it again. They could do it right now! But instead, their Hope, their Prophet, their Leader, their Savior, fled to the mountains and abandoned them.
The daylight began to wane and evening came. His disciples were still alone, confused, and depressed. It became dark and Jesus was still gone. What to do? Is He coming back? They can’t just stay there forever. Without waiting any longer, they decide to get in the boat and go back home to Capernaum, leaving Jesus behind on the other side of the sea. As it turns out, this will not be any ordinary seafaring journey. Soon the winds pick up and the waves begin to rise. A storm is brewing and their lives are in peril. They are too far from land (3 of 4 miles out) to disembark. They must ride the storm and hope and pray for the best.
Then all of the sudden, while they are struggling with wind and the waves on the sea, crushed with disappointment and lost hope, something appears on the horizon. Something, miles away from shore is coming towards them. It can’t be another boat. It doesn’t look like anything ever seen on the water before. It looks like, a human form? It is! It’s Jesus! He’s walking out towards them. And terror grips them. How would you respond? The guy you just abandoned on the other side of the sea is coming out to you, walking through a storm on the water.
But then they hear a comforting voice and words of assurance, “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20). What an amazing moment. After feeding the 5000 they saw a connection between Jesus and Moses. Jesus can provide miraculous food just like Moses did! Now again, just as Moses couldn’t be stopped by the Red Sea, Jesus makes His way through the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has no need to split the sea though, He has no need for dry land, He can walk for miles right on top of the water. He has that much control over the creation around Him, which is why Jesus is so much more than just a prophet like Moses. He controls even the winds and the seas (Psalm 107:23-32).
When Jesus introduces Himself, it’s translated as “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20). But that translation alters an important aspect of this declaration. He does not literally say, “It is I”; He says, “ἐγώ εἰμι· μὴ φοβεῖσθε”, literally, “I Am; do not be afraid.” This is the same phrase He utters in John 8:58, “Before Abraham was born, I Am.” It is regularly used by Jesus in John and is a direct reference to the divine name of God described in Exodus 3:14.
Jesus comes in an unprecedented way to His disciples, not only confirming to them that He is like Moses, but so much more, He is the I Am who sent Moses. He is so much more than an earthly king who can defeat the Romans. He is so much more than they could have ever expected.
So what do they do? “They were willing to receive Him into the boat” (John 6:21). That might not be as simple and straightforward a statement as it seems. John likes to word narratives in a way that brings about theological truths in the story. To “receive Him” is a really important phrase and idea in John: “As many as received Him, to them He have the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12; c.f. John 5:43, 12:13 [meet is literally receive], 13:20, ironically 19:6 [take is literally this same word]).
Jesus was not what His disciples were expecting. He crushed their dreams as an earthly king. But when they saw who He truly was, they received Him on those terms. Are we willing to do the same? Can we receive Jesus as He is, rather than just what we want Him to be?