Taking refuge in a nearby mountain, the Savior isolated himself from everyone for a few hours, sending his disciples in a boat across the Sea of Galilee. Matthew says he did this to "pray" (14.23).
John further explains that Jesus had "perceived that" the swooning crowds, who had just witnessed Jesus' ability to satiate more than five-thousand people with only five loaves and two fish, were "about to come and take him by force to make him king" (6.15). His separation from the people served to frustrate their misguided, carnal appetites.
Then there was the news of the execution of John the Immerser, which he had just heard only a few hours earlier. John was the Lord's beloved spiritual co-worker (cf. Lk. 1.76; Jn. 1.6-8), righteous friend (Mt. 11.11), and earthly relative (Lk. 1.36).
Due to this devastating news, Jesus resolved to isolate himself immediately (cf. Mt. 14.8, 11-13), but his compassion for the multitude (leading to the miraculous feeding of the five-thousand) caused him to postpone the fulfillment of this personal desire temporarily. McGarvey and Pendleton put it like this:
"The news of John's assignation was calculated to exasperate him in the highest degree, and also to deeply distress him. He needed the benefits of prayer to keep down resentment, and to prevent despondency. For this he started away as soon as he heard the news, but the people prevented him till night" (379).
Wondrously, the Savior always put the needs of others ahead of his own (cf. Phil. 2.1-4).
Later that evening, while Jesus remained secluded in prayer, his disciples were sailing the Sea, just as their master had commanded them (Mk. 6.45). Darkness had long since set in (cf. Jn. 6.17), and a "great wind was blowing" (Jn. 6.18), causing their boat to be "tossed by the waves" (Mt. 14.24) into the "middle of the sea" (Mk. 6.47).
Mark's account suggests that, since they were sailing against the wind, they were "straining at rowing," a word which conveys the sense of torture, or distress.
They had endured this nautical torment for "three or four miles" (Jn. 6.18), and were still no closer to their ultimate destination. Both Matthew and Mark indicate that the disciples were still enduring this hardship "in the fourth watch of the night" — somewhere between three and six in the morning (Mt. 14.25; Mk. 6.48)!
Just imagine it: you have spent all day walking and working with the Savior, only to spend a sleepless night in a sea-tossed boat, rowing to the point of exhaustion and desperation.
At this point, Jesus decided to abandon his mountain retreat, in order to meet his disciples on the other side of the sea. Still dark, the gale still galling, the breakers still billowing, Jesus charts his course on foot through the sea (cf. Mt. 14.25).
Some have suggested that the expression, "walking on the sea," merely denotes the sea-shore, and that Jesus therefore did not actually walk on water, but on sand.
Yet, this was no post-midnight stroll along the beach! Remember, Jesus met his disciples at their boat in the "middle of the sea" — some "three to four miles" in! And the disciples' reaction to Jesus' water-walk, as well as Peter's subsequent faith-testing episode of walking on the water himself, each conclusively indicate that the entire event was supernatural in character, and far from an ordinary walk on the seashore.
All that aside, there is a detail to this incident which only Mark records, that is of particular interest. He writes:
"Now about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by..." (6.48).
Can that be true? That very same passage asserts that Jesus knew of their torture — he was keenly aware of their hardship. Did he not appreciate all their hard work and dedication from the day before? And wasn't he responsible for sending them across the sea into the storm in the first place? Yet, he would have passed them by!
Actually, the original language is even more blunt. It suggests that it was his determined desire (thelo) to pass by them (parercomai, literally, to go past them). The imperfect tense suggests a sustained desire.
He had no intention of stopping at their tempest-driven skiff!
How can this be?
The Benefit of Struggle
This episode reminds us that our Lord is willing to allow his faithful disciples to endure hardship for the sake of growth.
No doubt, this sleepless night was especially hard to bear for his disciples. Yet, this was nothing compared to the many storms and sleepless nights into which Jesus was going to send them in the days ahead.
He sent them as sheep into the "midst of wolves" in order to be arrested by governing bodies, despised by their friends and neighbors, and beaten "in their synagogues" (Mt. 10.16-17; Mk. 13.9; Acts 16.22-23).
Paul endured a great deal of hardship and distress for the cause of Christ, "beaten with rods…stoned…in perils of waters…in perils in the sea…in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst…in cold and nakedness" (2 Cor. 11.25-27).
Most of the apostles lived hard earthly lives, with limited reprieves from toil and danger, only to be mercilessly slaughtered for maintaining their faith in the Savior (cf. Mt. 20.23; Phil. 1.29; Acts 12.2).
As Jesus allowed his disciples to be tortured on the sea, their resolve to continue following him must have been tested greatly. Years later, Peter, who was one of the occupants of the tempest-driven skiff that night, reflected on the value of such hardships:
"In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love" (1 Peter 1.6-8).
The struggles of faith in the Savior are like training exercises, designed to "yield the peaceable fruit of righteousness" (Heb. 12.11). Paul reminds us that "all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3.12). This persecution is meant to emphasize the gravity of the cause to which we adhere, and the need to remain stedfast in our commitment to it.
Indeed, Christianity is not a mere academic curiosity; nor is it a fair-weather, cultural phenomenon, as so many esteem it. On the contrary, it demands discipline and dedication (cf. 1 Cor. 9.27). We are called, disciples (disciple and discipline share a common root), for this very reason (cf. Lk. 14.26ff; Jn. 8.31; 15.8).
Doubtless, the disciples on the boat that night were later able to understand why Jesus sent them through that terrible torrent, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to experience the benefit of the struggle against the elements in service to their Lord.
May we approach our storms with similar fortitude.
Learning To Seek His Company
There may yet be another reason Jesus "would have passed them by."
The master was not going to stop. The winds and the waves were going to continue their onslaught. The disciples were going to remain in a helpless state.
If, then, the disciples were going to be spared, they were going to have to take the initiative themselves, and "cry out" to the Lord for aid (cf. Mt. 14.26, 28).
Assuredly, therefore, Jesus' desire to pass by them was not born of inconsiderate apathy, but stemmed from a determination to teach his disciples the habit of seeking his holy company.
After his resurrection, Jesus met with a number of disciples, including a pair traveling to Emmaus, a small village near Jerusalem. Luke says, "they drew near to the village where they were going, and he [Jesus] indicated that he would have gone farther" (Lk. 24.28).
In other words, he would have passed by their small village, and he told them as much. Yet, this forced the two disciples to be proactive in their request to remain in the Savior's awesome presence. The next verse suggests that "they constrained him, saying, 'abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent." Because of their faith, "he went in to stay with them" (v. 29).
In short, Jesus does not spoon-feed his people. He will not always do everything for us. Rather, we must learn to "seek the Lord, in the hope that [we] might grope for him and find him" (Acts 17.27).
While so many are of the mindset that they just need to wait for the Lord to provide them with some life-changing "religious experience," God desires men and women who proactively want to learn of him (cf. Jn. 6.44-45; Lk. 11.1; Acts 17.11), to worship him (Jn. 4.20-24), to call upon his holy name while breath still emanates from their lungs (Rm. 10.13), and to resolve to live holy lives for his sake (2 Cor. 7.1) — for further study, see "Faith: Active and Passive."
That night, the sea-tossed disciples began to develop the habit of leaning upon the Savior for help in time of need (cf. Heb. 4.16). Likewise, the disciples traveling to Emmaus learned to ask the Lord to be with them after their wearisome, seven-mile journey (cf. Lk. 24.13).
These are surely lessons each of us could well afford to learn too.
The Savior's Approachable Demeanor
The seeming apathy which Jesus exhibited toward his disciples as he determined to "pass them by" is starkly contrasted with his immediate willingness to cheer them up once they sought his assistance. His first words were: "Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid" (Mk. 6.50).
Though he had other plans, he was more than willing to modify those plans, listen to the needs of his disciples, and to come to their aid when doing so benefited them.
In similar vein, sacred providence is often enigmatic. It may appear as though God is passing us by, wholly unaware of our plight, or unwilling to notice our hardships. But that is not so!
We do not have a Savior "who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses" (Heb. 4.15). Nor is he one to ignore the faithful when we plead with him for relief. Unlike the kings of this earth, who generally know nothing of the desires of the common folk, Jesus, the King of kings, is approachable. He is ever nearby (cf. Phil. 4.5), walking on the same seas with us, though we may not be aware of his presence (cf. Mt. 28.20b).
It is certainly true that the Lord will not always relieve us of our hardships. Sometimes, it is better for us eternally to keep our "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor. 11.7-9) — to continue being tossed around our own Sea of Galilee.
Yet, that should not stop the godly individual from praying to the Lord with frequency about the matter (v. 8), knowing that God is an approachable God, who always has our own best interest in mind, even if that means enduring severe distress and weakness in this world.
When Peter grasped that the Lord was approachable, he immediately sought to approach him, saying, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water" (Mt. 14.28). Though he temporarily doubted, and began to sink into the Sea, when he finally got into the boat with Jesus, Peter and the other disciples "worshipped him, saying, truly you are the Son of God" (Mt. 14.33).
Truly, the demeanor of Christ makes him more than worthy to be worshipped and approached by all sincerely righteous people. Let us therefore "come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4.16).
A Final Detail
Two things happened the moment Jesus stepped into the boat.
First, the wind ceased entirely (Mt. 14.33; Mk. 6.51). The immediacy of this occurrence caused the disciples to become "greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marvel" (Mk. 6.51).
Jesus' power over the forces of nature serve as powerful proof of his divine Sonship and authority (cf. Acts 2.22; Jn. 2.11). Too, if we but "willingly receive" Christ into our "boat" (cf. Jn. 6.21), we assuredly will experience an immediate calming from the spiritual turbulence which the guilt of our sins has grievously wrought in our lives, knowing that such guilt has been washed away by his blood, no longer to torment our sin-laden conscience (cf. 1 Pet. 3.21).
Second, the instant all of this transpired, "immediately the boat was at the land where they were going" (Jn. 6.21). Yet, Jesus had met them "in the middle of the sea."
Hence, this was no coincidence of time or circumstance. One moment they were miles off shore, with much rowing yet to be performed, the next moment they had arrived at their destination. In effect, Jesus had met them half-way.
Similarly, our own spiritual salvation includes man's part (the toiling, rowing, burden-bearing of discipleship), and God's part (safely transporting us to heaven's fair shore). There are the natural elements (Learn, Jn. 6.44; believe, Jn. 8.32; repent, Lk. 13.3; confess, Rm. 10.9-10; be baptized, Mk. 16.16; and live faithfully, Rev. 2.10); and there are the super-natural elements (redemption, the forgiveness of sins, the riches of his grace, the heavenly inheritance, etc., Eph. 1.3-12). God desires "all men to be saved," taking us to the heavenly shore, but man must be "willing" to meet him half-way (1 Tim. 2.4; 2 Pet. 3.9; Rev. 22.17).
Indubitably, this marvelous account was designed for purposes beyond merely regaling readers with a tale of wondrous water-walking. It is rife with rich spiritual treasure, just waiting to be unearthed!
McGarvey, J.W. and Philip Y. Pendleton. The Fourfold Gospel: A Harmony of the Four Gospels. Cincinnati, OH: The Standard Publishing Foundation, n.d.