Have you ever been frightened by the forces unleashed in nature? When Mount St. Helens exploded and those tons of ash were billowing up into the sky, did you feel a twinge of fear? I wasn’t here in Oregon when that event occurred, but I have experienced a major earthquake, a tornado, and a typhoon, and I definitely shook with fear! In John’s Gospel, chapter 6, and verses 16-21, the disciples of Jesus also experienced the forces of nature, but that wasn’t their only source of fear.
I. THE SETTING (verses 16-17)
Jesus had just finished feeding the 5000. The sequence of events is not as clear here in John’s Gospel as it is in Mark 6, where it says that Jesus told His desciples to go by boat to Bethsaida. In the meantime He dismissed the crowd and then went up into the hills to pray.
II. THE STORM (verses 18-20)
It had already become dark, and verse 18 says that a strong wind started blowing and was stirring up the sea. The Sea of Galilee is situated below sea level in a bowl in the hills. Winds travel up the valley of the Jordan River at great speeds. The Sea of Galilee is relatively shallow, so when the winds reach there, they can cause violent storms very suddenly. The disciples were expert sailors and knew the signs of the weather. I’m sure they were hurrying to try to cross over the sea before the winds picked up speed.
Did Jesus know that the storm was coming? Definitely! Then why did He deliberately send His disciples into danger? It was all part of their learning process. The feeding of the 5000 was the lesson, and the storm at sea was the examination after the lesson. Verse 19 says that they had rowed “three or three and a half miles”. That’s only a little over half way across, and it was the middle of the night.
The disciples must have been exhausted, and they would have been at the mercy of the waves if help didn’t come soon. The appearance of Jesus must have been very startling. Since they were rowing against the wind, they probably had their backs to it and were facing the shore they had left several hours earlier. Can you imagine being in that boat, and seeing a person walking on the water, moving against the wind faster than the boat could travel, and rapidly approaching you? I think we would all be “shaking in our tunics”! In Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 14, it says that the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus at first, and thought He was a ghost.
Jesus calms their fears in verse 20 by saying just a few words: “It is I; don’t be afraid.” The words “It is I” literally mean “I am”. Jesus is using God’s covenant name, pronounced “Yahweh” or Jehovah”, and is applying it to Himself. The meaning of that name is crucial to the understanding of this passage of Scripture and its application to our lives.
In Exodus 3:13, Moses asked God, “What is your name that the people may know that you are the true God, and that you have sent me to them?” God answered, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am (Yahweh), the God of your fathers . . . has sent you.’ ” God gave them that name in order to relieve their fears.
The name Yahweh suggests, first of all, that there is no cause for God’s existence outside Himself. But the name had a much more personal meaning than that. Yahweh is the God who is near to His people, close to them and available to them in time of need. He controlled the forces of nature for them when He parted the Red Sea and when He provided the manna for them to eat.
III. THE RESCUE (verse 21)
In John 6:21 we see that the disciples’ fears were relieved. They welcomed Jesus into the boat, and then two other miracles occurred. The sea instantly became calm and the ship immediatley reached the shore. They didn’t have to row any further.
Fears come in many different forms, don’t they? The disciples probably had a fear of death and a fear of the unknown during that storm. There are other sources of fear, such as the fear of what other people might think, the fear of failure, the fear of change, the fear of being alone, and the fear of judgment if we haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord.
Proverbs 29:25 says that “the fear of man will prove to be a snare”. It can drain us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. There is a tendency to want to play it safe, and also a tendency to want to isolate ourselves. This passage of Scripture in John 6 tells us that we can banish our fears by recognizing and relying upon the faithful presence of God. Let me share a few other Scriptures with you. In Psalm 16:8 David says, “I have set the Lord continually before me; Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” Psalm 23:4 says, “I fear no evil for Thou art with me.” In Isaiah 41:10 God says, “Fear not, for I am with you; do not be anxious, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with My victorious right hand.”
An old hymn goes like this: Just when I need Him, Jesus is near, Just when I falter, just when I fear. Ready to help me, ready to cheer, Just when I need Him most.
Life can be stormy sometimes, can’t it? Sometimes we may be caught in a storm because we have disobeyed the Lord. Jonah had that experience. But sometimes a storm comes because we have obeyed the Lord. When that happens we can be sure that our Savior will pray for us, come to us, and deliver us as we look to Him. Some day the Lord will come for us, take us to His heavenly haven of rest, and the storms of life will be over forever. That is something to look forward to. And it is something to remind ourselves of when the storms of this life come upon us.