Jesus Walks on the Water
Our scripture today is John’s account of Jesus walking on the water, a familiar story that Matthew and Mark also record in their gospels (Matthew 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-52). Like the other gospels, this miraculous sign follows the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 (John 6:1-13). John’s version is a condensed, concise eyewitness report. Matthew and Mark include more details. For example they both tell us that Jesus compelled the disciples to get into the boat without Him to cross the lake that night while Jesus sends the crowds away (Matt. 14:22, Mark 6:45). John says that Jesus “departed again to the mountain by Himself alone,” (6:15). Matthew and Mark tell us He went there alone to pray (Matt. 14:23, Mark 6:46). John leaves out that Jesus saw the disciples straining at the rowing because the wind was against them, that it was the fourth watch of the night (between 3am and 6am), and that Jesus would have passed them by (Mark 4:48). Matthew, in his account, focuses more on the reactions and experience of the disciples. He tells us that Peter asks the Lord to command him to come to Jesus on the water. Peter’s water-walking doesn’t go so well and Jesus has to save him. Matthew also records the disciples’ worshipful response, “Truly You are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:33).
Here in John 6 the whole rest of the chapter is devoted to unfolding the implications of the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. All of the dialogue in chapter 6 after this story goes back to the feeding of the 5000 and is about Jesus being the Bread of Life. So that makes me ask, “Why did John include this sign in his Gospel? What does he want us to learn from it?”
Remember that John wrote his gospel so that we might see the glory of Jesus and believe in Him. He wrote in John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
John’s retelling of this story is rather barebones because his concern is not especially to highlight the experience of the disciples, but to focus all of our attention on Jesus and His glory. The story builds towards the climactic statement of verse 20 where Jesus identifies Himself to the disciples in the boat. Our eyes are meant to linger there on Christ, to consider who He really is what that should mean for us.
Jesus is the Lord God who walks on the stormy sea, before whom we rightly tremble with awe. But when we receive Him by faith all our other fears are replaced with joy. David Strain outlined our text this way: in 16-19, we are shown Jesus – the reason to fear. Then in 20-21, we see Jesus – the end of fear. Jesus – the reason to fear, and Jesus – the end of fear. John wants us to see Jesus for the God that He is, and to trust in Him completely.
With that purpose in mind, let’s read today’s text. John 6:14-21,
14 Then those men, when they had seen the sign that Jesus did, said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.”
15 Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone.
16 Now when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea,
17 got into the boat, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was already dark, and Jesus had not come to them.
18 Then the sea arose because a great wind was blowing.
19 So when they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near the boat; and they were afraid.
20 But He said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”
21 Then they willingly received Him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land where they were going.
Here are some things we learn about Jesus from this account:
1. Jesus will not be used by people for their own purposes (6:14-15).
Verse 14 is the crowd’s response to the feeding of the 5000: Then those men, when they had seen the sign that Jesus did, said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” The crowd proclaimed Him to be the prophet of whom Moses spoke and as verse 15 says, “they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king.” Moses was the revered leader who had led Israel out of bondage in Egypt. Through him, God gave the law and provided manna in the wilderness. If Jesus was the prophet of whom Moses had prophesied (Deut. 18:15), then surely He could deliver Israel from Roman domination! Certainly He would now usher in God’s kingdom where Israel would enjoy peace and prosperity. So they wanted to make Him their political king.
But they only wanted Jesus if He gave them what they wanted. Jesus is going to say to these people, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled,” (John 6:26). They want Him, in other words, because they can use Him. This is a Jesus who gives them stuff, a useful Jesus who supplies needs and offers quick fixes to life’s dilemmas. They didn’t want to believe in Him as the Son of God who would take away their sin. Rather, they wanted a king who would improve their living situation. They wanted a king who would usher in peace and prosperity. They wanted to use Jesus for their own purposes. They thought those purposes were also God’s purposes, but they misunderstood God’s mission for the Messiah.
Later in the chapter Jesus will proclaim the spiritual purpose of His coming in terms of His death that gives life saying, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (6:51). After Jesus teaches these hard sayings verse 66 says, “From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.”
Verse 15 says that Jesus knew what they were thinking and planning. They were not believing in Him as their Savior. They were not bowing down to worship Him as their Lord. They were not repenting of their sin and seeking forgiveness. No, they wanted to make Him a King because all they could think about was the earthly benefits to themselves if He were their King.
But that night in the boat, Jesus reveals Himself to His disciples as the God-Man who rules the elements, who rides upon the storm and walks over the waves. He shows Himself to be untamable and terrifying. He is no one’s puppet. He is never subject to the whim and appetites of the crowds.
Jesus will not be used by people for their own purposes. He dismisses that unbelieving crowd. He sends His disciples away on a boat and He goes to the mountain alone. Jesus will not be used by people for their own purposes. You don’t use God, you worship Him. You don’t use Jesus, you believe in Him, you trust Him as Lord.
Secondly we learn about Jesus:
2. Jesus is the awesome Lord. (6:16-19)
After Jesus withdrew to the mountain by Himself alone verse 16 tells us, “Now when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea, got into the boat, and went over the sea toward Capernaum.” They would be traveling from the northeast side of the lake back over to the northwest side. The Sea of Galilee is about five miles wide at this point.
Verse 17 tells us “it was already dark,” and verse 18 says, “Then the sea arose because a great wind was blowing.” The Sea of Galilee is about 700 feet below sea level and the wind will sweep over the mountains that surround it and through the ravines and whip up violent squalls across the lake, devastating to small craft on the water. Even today when the winds whip up the storms on the Sea of Galilee, power boats are required to remain at dock; it’s too dangerous for them to venture out. And it is such a wind that engulfs the disciples in their boat that night.
John adds the statement (6:17), “and Jesus had not come to them.” As they were rowing along the north shore perhaps they expected Jesus to meet them close to Bethsaida, they would pick Him up at the shore, and they would continue on to Capernaum. But Jesus doesn’t come. So the disciples were on the lake in the dark in this storm, without Jesus.
Not only was Jesus not with them, He also let them struggle against this storm for many hours. John says in verse 19, “So when they had rowed about three or four miles…” The other gospels say that it was in the fourth watch of the night (between 3-6 a.m.) that Jesus came to them. They had been rowing for maybe 9 hours! They were probably exhausted and perhaps wondering whether they should turn around and let the wind blow them back to their starting point. But Jesus wants them to trust in His plan for them. He sent them there. Even when they feel alone, Jesus is Lord of their circumstances.
At that point of great need, Jesus came to them, walking on the sea. Verse 19 tells us, “they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near the boat; and they were afraid.”
We’re told here that fear grips them. But notice carefully what causes their anxiety and fear. It is not fear caused by the storm. These are experienced fishermen. They knew these waters well. They know when a storm is dangerous and when it threatens their boat and when it does not and it wasn’t the storm that made them tremble that night. And yet they were afraid. What made them tremble? Not the storm; it was Jesus.
It’s dark; the sea is rough. The wind is raging. The boat’s in the middle of the lake, the widest part of the lake in all likelihood, and then through the darkness, John says, Jesus comes, walking on the sea coming near the boat. The word for “walking” there commentators tell us highlights the effortlessness with which He comes to them. He was, we might say, strolling over the waves, unperturbed, totally at ease. It was eerie, uncanny and totally beyond the experience and expertise of the disciples. Boats, they knew, the Sea of Galilee, they knew, storms and winds and waves, they knew, but here is Jesus coming to them waling on the waves!
Here is the Jesus of whom Psalm 77 speaks. Psalm 77 reflects on the salvation that God provided in the Exodus story, a theme is also found throughout John 6. Reading it seems prophetic of this moment as Jesus comes walking through the storm to the disciples (Psa. 77:16-19):
16 The waters saw You, O God;
The waters saw You, they were afraid;
The depths also trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water;
The skies sent out a sound;
Your arrows also flashed about.
18 The voice of Your thunder [was] in the whirlwind;
The lightnings lit up the world;
The earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way [was] in the sea,
Your path in the great waters,
And Your footsteps were not known.
So one result of this miracle was that through it, the disciples grew to know Jesus’ person in a way that they never would have if they had not been in this storm. Jesus often sends us into storms so that we will grow in our understanding of who He is when He comes to us in a powerful way in the midst of the storm.
The disciples had just seen Jesus create bread and fish to feed the large crowd. Now they saw Him as the Lord over His creation, as He walked on the water. Our trials cannot prevent Him from coming to us, even if we can’t imagine how He will do it.
3. Jesus is the comforting Lord (6:20-21).
One of John’s main emphases in recounting this miracle is that Jesus’ presence with them in the boat got them immediately to their destination (6:21).
Jesus’ presence with the disciples calmed their fears in this storm. As Jesus says (6:20), “It is I; do not be afraid.” Words of reassurance and comfort and tenderness and understanding. And immediately they have the desired effect – fear is gone; in its place comes gladness, John says. Verse 21, “Then they willingly received Him into the boat .” They delighted to take Him into the boat. The storm, it seems, immediately becomes calm and they swiftly are able to arrive at a safe haven. When we experience Jesus’ presence in the middle of life’s storms, it calms our fears.
“It is I” is literally, in Greek, “I am.” And if you have read through John’s gospel, again and again those words appear on the lips of Jesus with profound significance. They are the Greek translation of the divine name. Exodus chapter 3 – God meets Moses, Moses asks, “What shall I tell the people is Your name?” and God tells him, “Tell them, ‘I AM,’ has sent me to you.” Yahweh, I AM, is the name of the Lord. And on that occasion we’re told that Moses was overcome with fear. He hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Later on, when Israel meet with God in the wilderness at Mount Sinai, the Lord displays His glory and proclaims His name, “The Lord – I AM” and the mountain trembles and the people are terrified in the presence of the great I AM. It is obviously Jesus’ point in John 8:58, where He says, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” Because of who He is, Jesus’ presence with us gives us comfort.
And so here in John 6, as Jesus comes through the night and through the storm and over the waves as Yahweh, the great I AM, “the Lord,” as Nahum 1:3 puts it, “the Lord whose way is in the whirlwind and the storm and the clouds are the dust of his feet.” And He comes in tenderness, calming their fears.
In Jesus, God comes to us not just in stunning displays of power, not shaking the mountains and blocking out the sun. In Jesus, God comes to us in love, united forever to human nature that we might know Him and draw near Him, at last coming close to the great I AM and call Him, Abba Father.
Charles Welsley put it so beautifully in his Christmas hymn:
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity.
Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel.”
In Jesus, God comes to us that we might know Him. The disciples understood two things about Jesus that night – they understood that He was the Lord, sovereign over the elements, and they understood that this sovereign Lord loved them and it dispelled their fear and replaced it with gladness.
Even when things do not go as you expected or hoped, you can know that Jesus is still the Lord over all. Through your trials you can grow to know Him in His power and in His compassion. You will look back and say, “The storm was worth it because I grew to know more of who Jesus really is!”
Do you perhaps need to repent of too small a view of Jesus and far too big a view of your circumstances? Have you lost sight of His sovereignty so that you rarely ever tremble before Him? And have you lost sight of His love and kindness and grace that you now find it hard to trust Him? The Lord Jesus, this morning, is calling you to look again to the One who rides over the storm and who comes to you and says, “I AM. Stop being frightened. Trust Me.”