Dismissing the Crowds
Pp Mark 6:45-52, John 6:15-21
Jesus walks on water
Peter walks on water
Bethsaida, Capernaum and Gennesaret
The Gospel of Mark follows the chronology of Matthew very closely at this point and has done from Mark 6:14 where began the record of Herod’s attention directed towards Jesus and of the death of John the Baptist. This continues through the next few chapters, even though both writers add information not available in the other’s accounts and decide to skip certain incidents that the other includes.
This is the case here, also, for Matthew is the only writer of the Gospels who records the incident of Peter walking on the water towards Jesus and of sinking like a stone when he begins to look around at the waves that were being tossed up by the wind (the Scripture actually says that Peter ‘saw the wind’ which seems to infer this). Why Mark should have chosen to omit the event - if, indeed, Mark knew the story and therefore made a decision not to include it - is difficult to even conjecture about let alone to be certain as to the reasoning, for it’s normally asserted that Mark, writing as Peter’s companion, represented the Gospel from the apostle’s viewpoint with personal recollections as he was instructed. It seems altogether very unusual - if this was the case - that Peter should have chosen to forget the incident for inclusion in the account or to instruct Mark that it shouldn’t be committed to writing.
Why would Peter have wanted such an incident to go unrecorded? Perhaps because it demonstrated the disciple’s own lack of faith and his inability to believe Jesus in one simple command? But Mark records the rebuke that he suffered from Jesus after he tried to rebuke Him for suggesting that He had to die at the hands of the religious leaders (Mark 8:31-33) where Mark could have simply talked about ‘one of the disciples’ making the statement rather than positively identifying him as Peter.
While it’s true that Peter’s identity is kept secret in Mark 14:47 (Cp John 18:10), both Matthew 26:51 and Luke 22:50 also both fail to mention that it was Peter who had taken the ear of high priest’s slave off when Jesus was being arrested.
The disciple’s categorical denial is also mentioned specifically both by Jesus before the incident (Mark 14:26-31) and as it happens (Mark 14:66-72), the writer recording that Peter ‘broke down and wept’ - something which could have been phrased differently had the disciple been spared further embarrassment.
In all, it would appear that Mark’s omission of the incident of Peter walking on the water is more likely to have been a case of either him not knowing the incident or that, while he had a record of it, he chose not to include it perhaps because of space - after all, the important issue here is more the fact that Jesus had command over the natural world than it is that Peter was able to follow in His footsteps - albeit for the briefest of moments.
Luke, surprisingly, doesn’t record the incident at all and jumps from the feeding of the five thousand to the record of Jesus asking the disciples who it was that people were saying that He was (Luke 9:18-22). John, on the other hand, doesn’t appear at first glance to have needed to have recorded the incident at all (John 6:15-21) seeing as it represents a parenthesis around which the feeding of the multitudes and the spiritual teaching is presented to the reader.
But John 6:25, the opening question from the crowds who finally caught up with Him, presupposes a miraculous or secret departure from the area in which they were eating and the incident is wholly warranted to explain the context of the question. John’s record is very brief at this point and he describes the incident with a sparsity of words even though he alone tells us the distance that the disciples had already rowed before Jesus came to them (6:19) and points out that they were attempting to make for Capernaum (6:17) when they had been specifically instructed by Jesus to row to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45).
In the following notes, I will attempt to harmonise all three passages so I shall not go here into most of the points which add to the overall picture that the reader gets.
Dismissing the Crowds
Mtw 14:22-24, Mark 6:45-48, John 6:14-18
The feeding of the multitudes had presented Jesus with a problem for, looking for a leader that they could set over them, the crowds had seen the miracle which had been done and turned to raise up Jesus over them (John 6:15). It doesn’t appear that it was the previous acts of healing and deliverance which had brought them to this position but the multiplication of food to meet the needs of those gathered which now made them consider Jesus to be ‘the prophet’ (John 6:14) presumably spoken of by Moses in Deut 18:15-19.
There, Moses was careful to assure the people that, after him, there would come one who would be raised up who would guide them into further truth by relating the will of God to them. Although this must initially have thought to be fulfilled by the figure of Joshua, he was hardly a prophet in the classic OT meaning of that word and first century Israel began to think of the Messiah who was to come in these terms, enquiring of John the Baptist whether he was the one who was expected to appear (John 1:21) and associating Jesus again with the figure when He spoke in the Temple concerning the outflowing of the Holy Spirit from believers (John 7:40).
It may be significant, however, that Edersheim, in his list of OT passages that were Messianically applied in Jewish writings, doesn’t mention this one. This may indicate that the title ‘the prophet’ was more a label that was attached to a kingly figure by the ordinary people rather than by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day for John 1:21 makes a clear distinction between ‘the prophet’ and ‘the Christ’ in the minds of the priests and Levites who were sent to John the Baptist to enquire as to who he was. The DSS also seem to make a distinction between the Prophet and more than one Messiah (the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel making at least two and, perhaps, even more) in IQS 9.
The association with Moses’ ‘prophet’ in John’s Gospel appears to be because they associate the providing for them of bread in wilderness with Moses himself who did a similar miracle (Exodus chapter 16). This ‘sign’, therefore, causes them to link Jesus with the prophet promised them and who they continued to expect to arrive as king over them.
Although there’s the possibility that the title might be reminding them of II Kings 4:42-44 where Elisha fed a hundred men with just twenty loaves of barley and some fresh ears of corn, that prophet wasn’t thought to be a Messianic figure who was to come - though, if it had been Elijah who had performed the miracle, there would, indeed, have been the association.
Johncar notes a third century Rabbinic record (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:9) which comments that
‘...as the former redeemer caused manna to descend...so will the latter redeemer cause manna to descend’
but, although this at least provides some substance to the title which is being thrust upon Jesus, three hundred years is too great a time to be able to prove that the same association amongst the rabbis is a valid assumption. Perhaps the best we can assume is that there were numerous beliefs as to where the Messiah would come from, what He would do and which Scriptures He would be a fulfilment of but, to the Galilean crowd, there appears to have been the thought that Moses’ prophet was none other than the Christ Himself. Johncar is probably correct when he notes that
‘The desires of the crowd do not constitute evidence for a well-formulated theological structure’
and their pronouncement of accepting Jesus as both King and a fulfilment of the Prophet may have been something which occurred on the spur of the moment, an association with Moses who delivered Israel from the bondage of Egypt with His spiritual successor who was expected to be able to do the very same thing with the Roman Empire.
What seems fair to say here is that the multitudes are prompted to make the association of Moses’ prophet with Jesus and this because they are first hand witnesses of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. But their perception of who the Messiah will be and what He will do is also shown to be deficient here, thinking in terms of a physical deliverer rather than of a suffering servant who would deal with their own shortcomings rather than those of the people who were set up over them.
Jesus perceives their intentions and takes steps to remove Himself from their attentions by, firstly, sending the disciples away from the area in the boat with which they’d already crossed the Lake (Mtw 14:22, Mark 6:45), an action which it would appear, from reading John 6:16, that they delayed in performing. John may not actually be indicating this and it’s quite possible that Jesus’ insistence that they get into the boat and their departure from the land took place together almost simultaneously.
Jesus’ reason for doing this was possibly to remove the disciples from being set upon to minister to the multitudes when He withdrew from them (possibly also because He didn’t want them to be caught up in the crowds’ expectations of Himself as being the King they had been waiting for to deliver them from their political superiors). I mentioned above that the reason for their departure to this lonely place had been partly because the disciples were getting no rest from the crowds which were flocking to them to be ministered to (Mark 6:31) so that, if Jesus had suddenly disappeared from view, there was the likelihood that they may be set upon to meet the physical needs of the people. By taking them out of the situation, Jesus saw to it that they also got the rest that they needed.
And there was a very real and great danger in what the crowds had intended to do for Jesus could have found Himself having to confront the same Herod who was beginning to regard Him as a resurrected John the Baptist (Mtw 14:1-2), something which He’d just fled away from His territory to prevent. Johncar comments that the crowds
‘...were more than willing to force the issue by fomenting a rebellion, crowning Him King and daring the authorities to respond - thus forcing Him to assume the mantle they had in mind for Him’
It’s from a potentially dangerous situation, then, that Jesus is now concerned to remove Himself - but, first, He turns His attention to remove the disciples from the situation. Having got them away and instructed them to go to Bethsaida a few miles up the coast (see below on their disobedience to Jesus’ command), Jesus dismissed the crowds (Mtw 14:22, Mark 6:45) something which may have been more dramatic and sudden than either Matthew or Mark record seeing as He perceived that there was an imminent danger that He was to be raised up as King over them (John 6:15).
Whatever, Jesus removes Himself from the immediate problem and ascends the mountain side to pray (Mtw 14:23, Mark 6:46) and is alone there even into the night (John 6:17) and on His own (Mtw 14:23). Jesus’ prayer life is repeatedly mentioned in the Gospels and, apart from the times when His prayers are actually recorded, the Gospel writers also note times and places where Jesus just ‘prayed’.
For instance, after being baptised in water by John, Jesus stood with those who had also been immersed and is noted as praying (Luke 3:21) and that He continued through the night in prayer before naming the twelve disciples (Luke 6:12). We also find Him praying at His greatest hour of need in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mtw 26:36, Mark 14:32, Luke 22:45) and each of these three constitute a turning point in the life and ministry of Jesus.
But to think that Jesus only prayed when some dilemma came upon Him or when a decision needed to be made is inaccurate. We find Him also being recorded simply as praying while the disciples were with Him (Luke 9:18) and that He was praying ‘in a certain place’ (Luke 11:1). Even on the mountain where Jesus was transfigured, Luke 9:28-29 records that He went up on the mountain with Peter, James and John in order to pray.
We should note, therefore, that Jesus is likely to have prayed consistently and repeatedly throughout His missionary work and, though we have some prayers recorded for us (such as John chapter 17), we shouldn’t think that we can accurately define the sorts of things He said and the subjects He covered when He spent all night in prayer to the Father.
Although there are tantalising hints, we are also left somewhat in the dark and, though we know that Jesus spent many hours in prayer, the words He used aren’t recorded in any great detail as, for instance, His healings are.
But, being alone on the mountain, Jesus prayed - and prayed for some time seeing as He came to them on the water about the fourth watch of the night (Mark 6:48 - the Romans divided the period of darkness into four watches of equal length beginning with the first which fell between 6-9pm. The Jews divided it up into three equal periods but, as it’s the ‘fourth watch’ we can immediately see that the Roman system is being used) approximately 3-6am when the darkness of night begins to make way for the pre-dawn light - at such a time, there may have been sufficient illumination for Jesus to have been seen by the disciples with more than just the night light of the stars and moon. It’s difficult to determine precisely how long it would have taken Jesus to have descended the mountain in the darkness and to walk out to where they were but John 6:21 notes that the boat harboured on the other side of the Lake immediately Jesus came to them and this distance from the lonely place to Gennesaret is approximately 7 miles as the crow flies.
John’s note that Jesus came to them (John 6:19)
‘...when they had rowed about three or four miles [twenty-five or thirty stadia]...’
is not contradictory here for the writer isn’t determining the distance they were from the eastern bank from where they’d departed - only the distance which they’d been rowing against the wind. It would appear that, although perhaps calm, they were making headway across the lake until an adverse wind fell upon them, at which time they tried to propel themselves forward by brute force rather than with their sails.
Whatever time Jesus decided to make for the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee via a direct route across the water is impossible to determine but the boat remained visible to Him while He was there on the mountainside (Mark 6:48).
One of the frustrating things about the Gospels (for me, at least) is that they tend to remain silent on issues which I’d love them to give at least a few bits of information. For instance, was Jesus told by the Father as He was praying that He should walk across to the other side? Or did He request that He might do this to save Himself from having to travel via the northern coast of the Lake and risk being spotted by the multitudes that had dispersed to their homes?
If the reader accepts my understanding of Jesus that He operated as a man (while being fully God) totally dependent upon the provision of God the Father for all the things which He did, then it would appear that Jesus must have had some inner witness that this was the right thing to do.
Adam doesn’t appear to have been granted the ability to overcome the natural tendency of a human body to sink like a stone when He was first created (Gen 1:26,28) so Jesus shouldn’t be thought of as moving within the realms of what it meant to be a ‘perfect and sinless man’ by this miraculous journey.
But it may be going too far to think that, as it was in the transfiguration shortly afterwards (Mtw 17:1-8), Jesus’ divinity was being displayed even though the disciples respond with such a proclamation once they receive Him into the boat (Mtw 14:33).
Whatever the exact ‘physics’ of the journey across the Lake, Jesus had originally had no intention of allowing the disciples to see Him (Mark 6:48) and perhaps was only drawing near to the boat to make sure that they were safe from harm before continuing to the shore to meet them. After all, the storm which had descended upon the lake was a threat to the safety of the craft but it was nonetheless a very common occurrence and the disciples, able fishermen, would have possibly have had some experience of such storms - see my brief notes on these sudden storms which spring up on the Lake in my introductory comments on my previous web page. Johncar’s summary of the meteorological problems associated with the Lake is a good one here, however. He writes
‘The Sea of Galilee lies about six hundred feet below sea level. Cool air from the south-eastern tablelands can rush in to displace the warm moist air over the lake, churning up the water in a violent squall’
This may not actually account for the problem that the disciples were experiencing for both Mark and Matthew inform us (Mtw 14:24, Mark 6:48) that
‘...the wind was against them’
implying a westerly (maybe north-westerly is to be preferred here as this would have been the final direction of the boat as it came in to land at Capernaum) gale rather than an easterly one. Unfortunately, I’m not too conversant with whether or not the type of storm which can break out on the Lake can produce strong westerly winds so I am unable to say one way or the other whether this was the cause of their dilemma. Whatever, the point is that they appear to have been going nowhere due to the strong headwind rather than just to the size of the waves which were beating against the boat.
That Jesus could see the craft probably implies that the night was fairly light and even that a fair proportion of the moon was visible which lighted up the lake. John 6:4 has already noted that the Jewish feast of Passover was at hand, a time of the month at which the full moon would have been visible.
That the Jews were obligated to attend the festival in Jerusalem is certain but how long before the festival they would have had to have travelled down to the city is not easy to determine - even if Jesus stuck to the generally accepted time.
We may not be too far wrong, however, if we see this incident taking place at the previous full moon to the Passover, some four weeks previously, which would allow the it to have lit up the Lake for the boat to have been more easily visible to a lone figure high up on the mountainside.
But it was certainly important that Jesus observed the craft for it showed Him that, even though He’d instructed the disciples to journey to Bethsaida, they’d chosen instead to set off across the Lake for Capernaum (see below).
Jesus walks on water
Mtw 14:25-27, Mark 6:48-52, John 6:19-21
I have dealt with some of the points which would naturally need to be discussed here in the previous section, such as how we’re to consider that Jesus walked on the water (as a man or as God), the time at which the disciples noticed Jesus approaching the boat (between 3 and 6am) and how it may have been close to a full moon in order for Jesus to have been able to see the boat on the lake.
The exact physics of how Jesus might have been able to have walked on the water has apparently been too much for many commentators who see Jesus as miraculously (note my word!) being able to locate the existence of a sandbank in the Lake or of skirting the shore of the Lake and being so close to them that it only appeared as if He was walking on the water at this point. None of these lines (along with a whole host of other various expositions) will I be taking as the reader will, no doubt, already have spotted!
Even before Jesus had appeared to them, the disciples must have been frightened that they would ever reach dry land safely just as they had been on a previous occasion when Jesus was in the boat (Mtw 8:23-27) and they were attempting to cross the Lake (on this occasion it was in the opposite direction). That journey was a mirror image of this one now before us for they were travelling east and it also represents a new situation for them for, if they’d learnt from that first experience (which they were slow to do on occasions - see Mtw 15:32-33), they could have woken Jesus to rebuke the storm for them. Not having Him in the boat with them, however, was a distinct disadvantage to this plan of attack.
Some of the disciples must have realised that the bread and fish had been multiplied and had gloried in the fact that their Master was displaying miracles that would secure the movement of which they were an integral part - but all that would have been far from them and they would more likely have only had in their thoughts the rising waves, the difficulty of rowing to shore and the boat which was in danger of being either overturned or filled with water.
John 6:19 comments that the disciples had already rowed
‘...about three or four miles...’
which is a good indication that they could still see the land and were able to measure how far they’d come since the wind had begun to be against them. We should consider the storm which falls on them not as a rain storm with accompanying clouds but as a buffeting from a strong wind, whipping up the sea. If rain had been associated with the phenomenon, it’s unlikely that Jesus would have been able to witness the craft on the Lake (Mark 6:48) and the clouds would have obscured what natural light there was and would have had the effect of making the boat invisible to the human eye from where Jesus was praying.
This was a particularly important thing to do seeing as Jesus had instructed them to sail to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45) whereupon they’d set sail rather for Capernaum (John 6:17).
It would a natural thought for us to assume that Jesus came to them to save them in their peril but this appears not to have been His intention. Mark 6:48 plainly mentions that Jesus
‘...meant to pass by them’
and His approach towards the boat (John 6:19) seems to have been to make sure that they were alright and not in any immediate danger that they couldn’t handle, before He was to continue to the western shore to await their arrival. This, I know, is supposition but, if Jesus had known already that their lives were in no great danger, there would have been no real reason for Him to approach the boat and He could have distanced Himself from them as He made for land. That He came towards them suggests that there was some purpose in His actions.
Whether I’ve assumed His intentions correctly or not, Jesus wasn’t expecting to board the boat as He ended up doing (Mtw 14:32, Mark 6:51, John 6:21) and the least we can say is that He was going to make the shore before they ever reached it had not they seen Him walking on the water. Markcole, however, interprets Mark 6:48 in a different way, writing that
‘It was not that the Lord intended to pass them by, for it was because of their need that He had come; but they must be brought to realise the need for themselves’
In this way of looking at the passage, Jesus’ intention of drawing near is primarily thought of in terms of making Himself available to the disciples if they will respond to Him but that Jesus was fully prepared to walk passed the boat had they not recognised Him and called upon Him to help them in their immediate need.
However, with fear already present in the crew’s heart that they might never reach dry land before they were all drowned, they see a lone figure of a man walking on the sea which they immediately take to be a spirit (Mtw 14:26, Mark 6:49). That the Gospels record that they saw Jesus approaching them shouldn’t force us to interpret their words that they recognised the form to be Jesus. That they saw Jesus is certain but that they were alive to the fact that it was Him must have been far from their minds. After all, although Jesus had already calmed a raging storm (Mtw 8:26), it’s quite another matter to expect Him to be able to walk on the water in the midst of one!
The problem with Markcole’s interpretation, therefore, is that they neither recognised Jesus for who He was and neither did they call upon Him to help them. It seems best to take Mark’s statement of Jesus’ intention as being a straightforward one and that Jesus had no original intention to come to their aid.
That the disciples must have been in fear of their life is fairly certain but now that fear is heightened as they see the lone figure approaching them and they (Mtw 14:26)
‘...cried out for fear’
The sea appears to have been believed to have been the home of demons and evil spirits (perhaps an indication in the disciples’ minds when the pigs threw themselves over the cliffs that the evil spirits were returning to the place from which they had come - Mtw 8:32) but commentators are somewhat lacking in proof positive that this was how the Galilean fishermen regarded the Lake and that they thought that the ghost they were witnessing was coming to them to do them harm.
The point of the Gospel record seems to be that the disciples acted irrationally when they were confronted with the illogical, not that they were accurately confessing a belief in the presence of evil spirits ‘below the waves’. It wasn’t natural for a man to be seen walking on the water and therefore they must have tried to grasp in their own minds what it was that was happening - their instant conclusion was that it had to be supernatural and the only attributable source for this was to declare it to be a spirit.
Neither should we develop a theology from this one incident that sees spirits as being capable of appearing to men who sail the seas. The point of the passage is not to lay down teaching on spirits but to accurately record the disciples’ response.
All three Gospel records note that Jesus simply announces Himself and instructs the disciples to have no fear from what their eyes are seeing (Mtw 14:27, Mark 6:50, John 6:20) rather than for them not to not be afraid because of the storm that was buffeting them.
Both Mark and John end the incident here with Jesus getting in to the boat, the wind ceasing and calm being brought into the situation (Mark 6:51, John 6:21), John additionally recording that the boat arrived immediately on the west side of the Lake. However, Matthew continues to record a unique incident in his Gospel of Peter’s response to Jesus’ statement that the disciples were to
‘Take heart, it is I; have no fear’
Peter walks on water
From the outset, it appears as if Peter doesn’t believe it’s Jesus who’s walking on the water. His reply to Jesus’ statement that they were to have no fear is one which seems to presuppose doubt in his own mind when he says (Mtw 14:28)
‘...if it is you...’
rather than to simply say
‘Lord...bid me come to You on the water’
This response is typical of impetuous Peter (see my notes on ‘The Break’ for a fuller description of the character of Peter) and we should note the logic of his words in the context in which they were uttered - or, rather, the illogic. For, if Peter was still unsure as to the identity of what they were seeing before their eyes, the only way He could prove whether it was indeed Jesus was to get out of the boat and begin walking on the water - but, if it wasn’t Jesus, he was doomed to immediately sink like a stone in the raging sea!
Either way, a simple command for Peter to ‘Come’ (Mtw 14:29) was in no way conclusive proof that the lone figure was Jesus. However, Peter seems to have jumped over the side without a moment’s hesitation and found that the water supported him - much to his own astonishment, no doubt!
Although this appears to be a possible interpretation of the event, Mathag wonders at the reason for Peter’s request to Jesus and writes that
‘It may be that Peter wanted to participate with Jesus in this miracle as he had in the preceding one. Perhaps it was no more than impulsiveness or the desire to do something exceedingly dangerous - to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience - which appealed to him’
and goes on to note that a positive identification of the figure with Jesus is presupposed in his response to Jesus’ statement. Matmor also states that the construction of the text indicates that Peter has accepted what’s been said by Jesus rather than that He’s wanting positive proof, while Mathen would rather read the word ‘since’ for the RSV’s ‘if’ which would bring home to the reader Peter’s belief that the figure was none other than Jesus Himself.
We shouldn’t forget that Jesus had already granted the disciples authority over all sicknesses and the power of the enemy (Mtw 10:1) and that they had just recently returned from the outworking of their ministry trip into the towns and villages of Israel (Mark 6:30). If these events were still alive in the disciples’ minds (and they had only crossed to the other side of the Lake for one part of a day), it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that, in the same way as Jesus had delegated His authority to the disciples in healing, Peter assumed that Jesus would be able to do the same when it came to walking on the water.
To try and be as true to the event as possible, I have to say that there was probably nothing too much going through Peter’s mind when Jesus spoke His calming word to those in the boat but that His impetuosity was what won the day rather than a conclusion to a logical thought process that made the request. Peter was Peter - and that made him more than likely to come out with the most unusual statements (see, for instance, Mtw 17:24-27 where Peter’s pronouncement is not the result of any great logic on his part but said in the heat of the moment when pressed for an answer).
But Peter believed the word and, without thinking, jumped out of the boat (his impetuosity seems to require this but the other disciples may have helped him over the side. Perhaps they were glad to get rid of him - only kidding!).
And things went fairly well, too. Mtw 14:29 states that Peter
‘...walked on the water and came to Jesus’
and was probably not a little bit amazed at how he didn’t sink like a stone in the sea. However, Peter had one serious problem - he began to look around at his circumstances and soon realised that it wasn’t natural for him to be doing what he was. Matthew records (Mtw 14:30) that he
‘...saw the wind’
by which is meant that the effects of the gale were being made apparent in the waves which were rising and falling around him and probably the spray which was crashing into him. How Peter - and Jesus for that matter - must have been able to walk through a billowing sea is difficult to envisage unless it was the case that a path was made for them through the rolling waves that remained calm - otherwise, that they would have had to have walked through the water would have been necessary. Whatever we’re to actually see in our own minds as happening, it’s clear that Peter, although starting out positively, begins to realise that the storm hasn’t actually abated and that the same problem they had before Jesus came to them was still present and threatening not just the craft which had been protecting them but his own life because he was standing on the outside, probably in the line of the approaching waves. Instead of regarding solely Jesus and His word, the disciple begins to take his attention off them and onto his position. Matmor summarises Peter’s problem well when he writes that
‘He was learning that problems arise when doubt replaces trust’
Peter also immediately forgets about Jesus’ position and authority and begins to look at his own, more fragile, situation, and begins to find that his feet are being swallowed up by the sea, crying out as he begins to sink
‘Lord, save me!’
probably louder than the wind could be heard blowing! Peter’s deliverance comes, then, not because he is confident in Jesus’ authority to give him the authority to continue to walk on water but in Jesus’ own authority over the elements regardless of Peter’s faith.
We may well criticise the disciple for ever venturing to think that he could walk upon the water in the first place and that, perhaps, think that his request to Jesus was simply presumption on his part. We may also take Peter’s failings as an example of impetuosity that isn’t grounded in a firm faith and use him as an example to believers not to place themselves in a position which they aren’t already been certain that they’ll be able to continue in until the end.
But all these seem to belittle what qualities in Peter we should recognise and desire. For no other disciple even thought that they could do what Jesus was doing and translate that into a request. Even when they’re both received into the boat, John or James, for instance, don’t spring forward and ask for ‘Walking on the water lessons’.
Peter, therefore, is a character to be emulated who, when He knows Jesus is present, responds with the most outrageous requests and gets them! After all, what did walking on the water actually prove to Peter except that He had authority over the natural Created order (something which he already knew from Mtw 8:23-27)? The incident from Peter’s perspective appears to be entirely superfluous to what he needs but it’s an event which he still experiences because he asked for it.
Ultimately, though, we do have every reason to justify criticism of Peter if we ourselves have actively walked on water but haven’t sunk where he did!
When he found himself sinking, however, he knew who to cry out to and Jesus’ question as to why he doubted after having rescued him (Mtw 14:31) must have been a mild rebuke rather than anything which could have been remotely regarded as a stern rebuke. The disciple, after all, had been where the others hadn’t - what Peter needed was more faith, it wasn’t that he was lacking any.
All three Gospel writers record that Jesus entered the boat (Mark 6:51, John 6:21) while Matthew, unsurprisingly, notes that both Master and disciple got in (Mtw 14:32). Matthew and Mark also record that the wind immediately ceased once Jesus came on board (Mtw 14:32, Mark 6:51) something which they would have had previous experience of (Mtw 8:26) though, in this case, there’s no rebuke from Jesus’ lips. Marklane is probably correct to note that
‘...the abatement of the wind may be ascribed to natural causes [and] it is unnecessary to find here an additional demonstration of Jesus’ sovereignty’
There’s enough of the miraculous in the narrative not to have to interpret the calming of the storm as being another miracle in the chain of events without denying any of the other incidents. Besides, storms on the Sea of Galilee can disappear as quickly as they arrive and this fact isn’t unusual. It is unusual, however, in Mtw 8:26 where the word of command is what immediately brings calm onto the Lake.
While John ignores the disciples’ reactions, Mark simply notes (Mark 6:51) that
‘...they were utterly astounded’
a description which could also be used to summarise the previous miraculous Sea of Galilee miracle in Mtw 8:27. Matthew, however, goes much further than either of the other two writers and notes (Mtw 14:33) that the disciples
‘...worshipped him saying “Truly you are the Son of God”’
a title which has only previously been uttered from the lips of satan (Mtw 4:3,6) and from the lips of a demonic crowd which were speaking through a human (Mtw 8:29). Before such evidence of Jesus’ authority over nature, a confession which elevated Him to a position over the created order was only logical. They don’t appear to have come to this realisation during the first event on the Lake but, since then, they’ve just witnessed Jesus bring into being something from nothing (the multiplication of the bread and the fish - Mtw 14:15-20) which implies the ability to create and now, that Jesus can rule over Creation, leads them on to arrive at their conclusion which they back up by worshipping Him, a correct response to the presence of God.
There seems very little doubt, therefore, that some of those present had come to terms with the divinity of Jesus even though they still hadn’t come to a correct realisation of His Messiahship (Mtw 16:21-23). Commentators are correct in pointing out OT Scriptures which speak of God walking upon the face of the waters (Ps 77:19, Job 9:8) but it’s unlikely that these were the main reason for the disciples’ association of Jesus with God Himself - rather, because of the incidents which have been personally witnessed, they reach a conclusion which they are fully willing to embrace.
However, this is only half the story!
There were others in the boat that seem not to have grasped the implications not only of what had just transpired but of the previous afternoon’s feeding of the multitudes for Mark 6:52 (my italics) states that they were astonished at what had taken place
‘... for [because] they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened’
There would appear to have been a split in the company present and that, while some immediately jumped to the conclusion that Jesus was divine, others failed to reach that conclusion, their hearts being hardened in a similar way to that of the Pharisees who saw the truth before them but who couldn’t and wouldn’t be led into an inevitable conclusion (see my notes on their association of Jesus’ acts of deliverance with Beelzebul).
The entire incident is often taken to be a picture of the Church tossed about on the waves of the world without Jesus inside the boat. Though this is certainly one truth which can be gleaned from it by a spiritualisation of the passage, it seems strange that any group of people could ever be thought of as the ‘Church’ if Jesus isn’t in their midst in the first place! The only thing which makes any group of people different from another in this respect is the presence of God amongst them.
Therefore, if the passage is to be spiritualised, it’s best to see it as a picture of the world without Christ in their midst and the effect which Jesus has upon people when He enters their situation of bringing a solution to their problems.
The only way it appears to be able to be attributable to the state of the Church is if it’s realised that the disciples have found themselves in this position by a direct refusal to obey the word which Jesus has spoken to them to go to Bethsaida (see the section below). In this case, their arduous headway to make land at a point to which they’ve headed becomes impossible (they were aiming for Capernaum but arrived at Genessaret) through the buffeting of a storm which gives no indication that it’s about to abate and allow them to row to shore.
That some churches have gone out on a limb against the clearly revealed will of God is certain (I’ve been in a fair few in my time!) and the application may be particularly attributable to congregations in similar circumstances. Even so, it’s much better to see the story - if spiritualised - as speaking to the believer of the need for Jesus to be present in the world rather than to see it as indicative of trials and tribulations which are of our own making being calmed and brought under His sovereign control.
Bethsaida, Capernaum and Gennesaret
Mtw 14:34, Mark 6:45, 6:53, John 6:17, 6:21
Seeing as there are a few locations specified in the three separate records of both the feeding of the multitudes and the journey across the Sea of Galilee back into the region of Galilee, we need to take a little time to attempt a harmonisation of these statements.
Firstly, though, we should note the comments I made on the previous web page where I noted that, although the correct Greek would cause a translation of Luke 9:10 to read, as the RSV renders it
‘And He took them and withdrew apart to a city called Bethsaida’
the AV follows a different manuscript here and so renders the verse
‘And He took them, and went aside privately into a desert place belonging to the city called Bethsaida’
which is instantly seen to be better, for the area is regarded as a ‘lonely place’ (Mtw 14:13) which was away from the main hub and activity of city life seeing as the disciples observe that there were only ‘villages’ around them into which the crowds could have gone to get bread (Mtw 14:15). This area is more likely to have been south and east of Bethsaida than it would have been west due to the close proximity of Capernaum around three miles away and the fact that they would have needed to have been close to the sea for Jesus to have been able to see the disciples’ boat as it made its way back across the Lake (Mark 6:48).
It would appear that, while He was dismissing the crowds (Mark 6:45)
‘...He made his disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida...’
a provision for the disciples that they would be kept away from the need to minister as the crowds dispersed. As I previously noted, the disciples had been brought across the Lake so that they could find some time to rest and recuperate from their extensive missionary activity in Israel (Mark 6:31) and, when the crowds came to Jesus, it appears that He took it upon Himself to minister to them and that all the disciples had to do was some manual tasks such as distributing bread and fish to those present.
For now, then, Jesus compels them to go across the sea to Bethsaida (an indication that the city was some way away from where they were even though the area belonged to them) to avoid them being set upon by the dispersing crowds for spiritual ministry which they were supposed to be resting from.
However, although Jesus has commanded them to make for the city of Bethsaida, we find in John 6:16-17 that, having gone down to the sea and acquired their boat, they
‘...started across the sea to Capernaum...’
Whether this was a decision which they arrived at once they found themselves headed into the storm is something about which it’s difficult to be certain but, if the storm had hit them as they went out onto the Lake, it would seem more likely that they would have attempted to land at a nearer point to where they were rather than risk journeying even further through it.
Although they may have made the city of Bethsaida before the storm hit by skirting the coast and heading slightly west of north, a journey to Capernaum meant that they were obliged to head out into open water. Indeed, although it’s not specifically stated in the text, it would appear that because they decided to journey to Capernaum rather than Bethsaida they were caught in a storm which they otherwise would have found no difficulty with when it hit.
Once Jesus has been taken into the boat, however, they appear to been almost immediately on the other side of the Lake (John 6:21) but, instead of Capernaum (Mark 6:53, Mtw 14:34)
‘...they came to land at Gennesaret, and moored to the shore’
which is around three miles further west than their home city. In all, they’ve found themselves some seven miles away from where Jesus originally commanded them to go! While it’s possible that the label ‘Genessaret’ could be used here to refer to the coastal strip which extended from Magdala in the south to a point just south of the city of Capernaum (and which is favoured by commentators), that they landed here is still enough to make the assertion that they failed to hit their own target of Capernaum even if the village of Genessaret was not actually arrived at.
There’s two other verses which need to be harmonised into the locations mentioned above. The first is Mtw 14:22 which reads that Jesus
‘...made the disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side...’
which represents no real problem - even small trips could be said to be ‘to the other side’ and the trip to Bethsaida was certainly considered as such here. But John 6:21 reads that, after they’d taken Jesus into the boat
‘...immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going’
John has previously noted that the disciples had been making for the city of Capernaum (John 6:16-17) and it could be argued that they had, in fact, not made it at all to that city, having arrived, rather, in Genessaret a few miles down the coast.
But we should take John’s statement to mean that they’d reached ‘the other side’ of the Lake to which they’d set out numerous hours before.
This would then bring all the verses into a harmony.
Summarising, Jesus appears to have commanded the disciples to skirt the coast of the north-eastern part of the Lake and to go to Bethsaida and wait for Him there. However, for whatever reason which is now lost to us, they decide rather to set out across the Lake towards Capernaum and, having been buffeted by the wind and waves, arrive, instead, on the shores of Genessaret, blown off course some distance from where they had originally been aiming.
It would appear that, if the disciples had obeyed Jesus’ command to make for Bethsaida, they wouldn’t have ever found themselves in the position of having their lives threatened from the sudden storm that fell on the Lake. This certainly isn’t commented on in the text of the Gospels but the reader should note, firstly, that disobedience to a known command of God can sometimes lead the follower into a situation that becomes a threat to their own safety.
This disobedience had brought Jesus into a place where the need to minister (Mtw 14:35) and where additional conflict (Mtw 15:1-20) occurred. The reason for His withdrawal to a lonely place had been both to give the disciples a rest (Mark 6:31) and to remove Himself from Herod’s attentions (Mtw 14:1-2,13).
Although it appears that it was only Jesus who ministered when they landed at Genessaret, He found Himself back in Herod’s jurisdiction before journeying to Tyre and Sidon (Mtw 15:21). His intention of visiting Bethsaida may have been to journey north to Caesarea Philippi earlier than He eventually arrived there (Mtw 16:13) so as to be removed from Herod Antipas’ attentions longer than the brief day of the previous withdrawal into the ‘lonely place’ (Mtw 14:13).
Secondly, although we could spiritualise the incident and say that, even though they disobeyed Jesus, they still found Him coming to their aid when they most needed Him, Mark 6:48 actually states that
‘...He meant to pass by them’
and, presumably, to wait for them on the other side of the Lake to which they would arrive shortly. It doesn’t appear, then, as if Jesus was initially intending to meet up with the disciples until after their voyage across the water but that He came to them simply because they noticed Him some distance away but approaching the place they were.
Mtw 14:34-36, Mark 6:53-56
John’s account of subsequent ministry following the landing of Jesus and the disciples in the area of Gennesaret is detailed in John 6:25-71 and deals with Jesus drawing out the spiritual significance of the feeding of the multitudes and of its relationship to Himself and the purpose for which He’d come in to the world.
Both Matthew and Mark, however, are more concerned to present a summary to the reader of more ministry which was undertaken upon His arrival back in the territory of Galilee (and which I’ve listed under my summary of these passages which recur throughout Matthew under the heading ‘The Asides of Matthew’).
As soon as Jesus arrived back on the western edge of the Lake, the people recognised Him (Mtw 14:35, Mark 6:54), rushing to gather as many sick people together to Him that each and every one might receive healing (Mtw 14:35, Mark 6:55). Mark makes it plain that another short time of ministry is being meant here before the opposition takes place in Mtw 15:1-20 and the subsequent withdrawal once more away from Galilean territory, this time into the area around Tyre and Sidon (Mtw 14:21). Mark 6:55’s statement that they brought those sick
‘...to any place where they heard He was’
certainly seems to imply this. Mathag is rather cynical in his alternative suggestion that the people would have told others where Jesus was because
‘...it was good for business’
but there remains the likelihood that the arrival of masses of people into one’s own area necessarily meant that inns became full and that local food sellers could sell out of their produce in a short space of time. Some probably did benefit from such masses of people arriving in their region but their proclamation would appear to have been primarily humanitarian.
We’ve met up with healing coming about through the touching of the fringe of Jesus’ garment before in Mtw 9:20 (Pp Luke 8:44) where the woman with the flow of blood secretly did the same when there were crowds pressing around Him, hoping that she might not be noticed.
She was immediately cleansed of her ailment at that time and it’s perhaps possible that the story of her deliverance had been so widely circulated that it had generally come to be accepted that this was a relevant way in which a person might receive healing!
This is supposition, I know, but there appears to be significance in the ‘fringe’ of the garment that is not altogether obvious to us today. I noted in my web page dealing with the previous mention of the fringe (under the heading ‘The physician, the illness and the tassel’) that it seems more likely that the tassels commanded by the law to be sown into the Israelite garments is being referred to (Num 15:37-41, Deut 22:12) because they would have been at waist height and more easily reachable to the woman than the outer hem at the bottom of a person’s garment (corresponding to the position of the bottom of a person’s trousers or jeans, today).
However, Mark 6:56 speaks of the sick being laid in the market places and that their request was that they might touch the fringe to be made well. In this case, the very bottom hem is the more likely to have been meant.
Whatever the exact significance and the exact location of the hem or fringe, it appears that Jesus’ fame had already reached the point where even a word of command was not necessary for healing to take place but that the incapacitated person had sufficient belief in the power of Jesus to reach out and touch Him to receive healing.
We may consider such a ministry as inherently mystical or magical but Jesus doesn’t appear to have objected to such a practice. Nevertheless, Jesus is definitely the centre of the people’s interests even though the disciples had been a day before (Mark 6:30-31).
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