Have you ever been frightened by the forces unleased in nature? Can you remember hearing lightning cracking overhead, and then “KA-BOOM!”, the thunder was deafening and the ground vibrated under your feet”? Did you shake for a moment also? When Mt. St. Helens exploded and those tons of ash were billowing up into the sky, did you feel a twinge of fear as you watched it from a distance or on your television sets? I wasn’t in the Pacific Northwest when that event occurred, but I have experienced an earthquake in Southern California, a tornado while going to school in Iowa, and a typhoon while stationed at an Air Force base on Okinawa, and I trembled with fear on all three occasions! I can imagine that you have some stories that you could tell about instances in your life when the forces of nature caused fear in you also.
In John 6:16-21, the apostles also experienced the forces of nature, but that wasn’t their only source of fear. Let’s examine the experiences of the disciples that evening, and their responses, in the light of what preceded it.
I. THE SETTING (verses 16-17)
Jesus had just finished feeding 5000 men, together with their wives and children, with five barley cakes (“tortillas”) and two fish (“dried sardines”), and His disciples gathered twelve baskets full of leftovers (one basket apiece). They saw the power and the provision that only God could provide in such a miraculous way, and were reminded of God’s faithful provision of the manna to their ancestors in the wilderness for forty years. Another lesson was taught them by Jesus, and now it was time for another examination to determine whether the lesson was learned and would be put into application.
You might call this a “stress test” or a “distress test”. I like to think of it as a “practicum” – putting into practice the things they had learned. Immediately after the disciples came back with the baskets of fragments from the meal, John writes, in verses 14 and 15, that the people were saying that Jesus must be the Messiah. Jesus realized their intent to take Him by force and make Him king, so He “withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone.” Mark’s gospel fills in a few details that are missing. Mark 6:45-46 says, “And immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side to Bethsaida, while He Himself was sending the multitude away. And after bidding them farewell, He departed to the mountain to pray.” The Lord Jesus told His disciples to get in the boat and leave immediately because He didn’t want His disciples to get caught up in the frenzy of the crowd to make Him king. It still wasn’t clear in their minds that Jesus was the Son of God.
Jesus’ purpose for going up on the mountain was to pray. Jesus was truly a man of prayer. As you read through the Gospels you will find that He often spent time communicating with the Father in prayer, sometimes spending the whole night in prayer. His disciples recognized this and asked Him, “Lord, teach us to pray”.
Going back to John’s gospel, verses 16 and 17 tell us, “Now when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea, and after getting into a boat, they started to cross the sea to Capernaum. And it had already become dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.” During the time of the Passover celebration in Jerusalem, sunset was at about 7:00 p.m. So the stage is set: Jesus is on the mountain, they are in the boat on the Sea of Galilee, and it’s dark.
II. THE STORM (verses 18-19a)
Verse 18 says, “And the sea began to be stirred up because a strong wind was blowing.” The Sea of Galilee is situated below sea level in a bowl in the hills. Winds can travel up the valley of the Jordan River at great speeds. Not only that, but I’ve read that cold air can suddenly come rushing down from the mountains surrounding the Sea of Galilee and collide with the warm, moist air rising from the surface of the water. The Sea of Galilee is also relatively shallow, so the waters can become stirred up very quickly. Add up all those factors and you have “Trouble with a capital T!” This storm must have taken the disciples by surprise. Was Jesus surprised by the storm? Not at all! Sending them into the storm was their exam. He was testing their faith to see if they learned the lessons He was teaching them, and had come to a true understanding of Who He was.
Several of Jesus’ disciples were expert sailors and they knew that they had better get the boat to the other side of the lake as soon as possible. They had been in a similar situation recently, but on that occasion Jesus was with them in the boat, sleeping. This time He’s on the mountain. What were they going to do?
Rather than calling upon God and trusting in Him to provide for their need, they keep on rowing. They’re going to get themselves out of this situation on their own! This wind and these waves aren’t going to get the best of them! They are failing the test but they’re not ready to give up yet! Does Jesus know that there is a storm on the Sea of Galilee? Yes, He certainly does. Mark 6:48 begins with the words, “and seeing them straining at the oars, for the wind was against them”. How can Jesus see them if it’s dark and stormy, and they are in the middle of the lake? Good question! It’s the Passover celebration. The Passover is also called the new moon celebration. When God sent Moses and the people of Israel out of Egypt, He provided a full-moon to light the way for them. From His vantage point on the top of the mountain, Jesus could see them by the light of a full-moon. Then, why doesn’t He do something about it? He is: He’s praying for them! As a wise and caring Teacher, He’s also giving them extra time to complete and pass the test!
Let me give you a mental picture of the examination scene at this time. The apostles are in the boat rowing with their backs to the wind and their faces pointed in the direction of the dock where they had embarked for their cruise across the lake. Little do they know that Jesus is looking at their faces and watching them as He continues to pray for them.
Have you ever run on a treadmill or an elliptical machine? If you have, I imagine that you’ve thought about the fact that you’re running hard and are becoming exhausted, but you aren’t going anywhere. You’re still in the same place where you started! There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ve talked to people who have those machines but still like to run outdoors in good weather. They do so not only because they like the change in scenery, but also because of a greater sense of accomplishment that comes from arriving at a destination rather than reaching a time limit or going the distance based on the odometer reading. If you compare this illustration with the situation of the disciples, it’s as if they’re on a rowing machine, rowing hard and steadily, but going nowhere! The boat they were in was probably one of the boats used for carrying passengers across the Sea of Galilee. If so, it would normally be large enough to hold 12 passengers and had oars rather than a sail. The Greek word refers to a “small boat” These boats could easily become swamped in a storm because they were not as high above the water and as sturdy as many of the fishing boats.
From Matthew, Mark, and John’s gospels we learn that they are in the middle of the lake and it’s now the fourth watch of the night. The fourth watch begins at 3:00 in the morning. They started crossing the lake at about 7:00 the previous evening, so they’ve been rowing for eight hours or more! Mark 6:48 states that Jesus “saw them straining at the oars”. They must have been completely exhausted but they hadn’t learned the lesson from the feeding of the 5000. They failed another test because they failed to bring their need to God in prayer and trust Him to meet that need. They failed to follow the teaching and the example of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This brings back to my mind a course I took in college as a Business major. The course was Business Communications, and it was taught by a professor who had been a journalist. As he gave us our first business letter to compose, he told us his grading system. Then he said, “There is no excuse for misspelled words or wrong punctuation. A misspelled word is an automatic F (a failing grade). Each punctuation error would reduce the grade for the paper by one letter-grade.” Most of the students, including myself, didn’t pay heed to his words, and over half the class failed the first assignment because of misspelled words and wrong punctuation. Needless to say, we students got out our dictionaries and brushed up on our English grammar for the remaining assignments! We learned the hard way to heed his warning, follow his advice, and not be overly confident in our own abilities!
III. THE RESCUE (verses 19b-22)
The examination is now over. When I was in high school, several of my teachers were in the habit of leaving their desks when the bell rang, walking down the aisles in the classroom, collecting the tests, and then taking them back to their desks. In this case, Jesus was going to collect His disciples and bring them to the other side of the lake, but in a very unusual and miraculous way.
The second half of verse 19 says, “they beheld Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat; and they were frightened.” Mark’s gospel gives more details: “He came to them, walking on the sea; and He intended to pass by them. But when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed that it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were frightened.” Jesus’ timing is perfect, as always. He comes to them at the moment when they have finally given up hope. They were in the middle of the lake and all their efforts were getting them nowhere. They were physically exhausted, emotionally drained, and spiritually unreceptive. They weren’t prepared for what was going to happen next. Suddenly, they see something that their minds refuse to believe. Jesus is walking toward them against the wind as if there were no wind at all, and walking on top of the water as if the water was dry ground! The wind and the waves are having no effect on Him. Their response was to cry out in terror, imagining that Jesus was a ghost. The Greek word is “phantasma”. We get our English word “phantom” from that word.
Why did they respond in such a way to Jesus? For one, they weren’t expecting Him because they failed to pray to God and trust in the power and authority of His Son to meet their need and rescue them. The second reason is given in Mark 6:52, which says, “their hearts were hardened”. They hadn’t learned the lesson from the loaves and fishes. They tried to overcome the storm their way, and now they concluded that it was an impossible and hopeless situation. It was impossible alright, humanly speaking, but it wasn’t hopeless!
Why did Jesus choose to walk to them on the water? He could have saved Himself a lot of time and effort if He had just appeared in their boat, or called out to the wind and waves in a voice loud enough for them to hear, telling the wind and waves to quiet down. That’s what He did in the previous storm (see Mark 5:39). Jesus walked to them on top of the water in order to give them a visual demonstration that the things they now feared, (the wind and the waves), were completely under His control. Jesus was showing them something that only God could do; and in response to their terror, He said, in John 6:20, “It is I, do not be afraid.” Jesus spoke those words to them in Hebrew, and He was literally saying to them, “I AM, do not be afraid”. The Lord Jesus was using God’s covenant name, pronounced “Yahweh” or “Jehovah”, and was applying it to Himself.
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 Moses with these words: “Say to the people of Israel, ‘I AM (Yahweh), the God of your fathers . . . has sent me to you.” 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, provided manna for them to eat, and stopped the Jordan River so that they could enter the promised land.
During the previous storm, when Jesus was in the boat with them, He rebuked the wind and the waves, telling them to become calm, and they immediately obeyed His voice. In response, His disciples asked the question, “What kind of man is this that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (Matthew 8:27) Now, after seeing Jesus walking on water and hearing those words from His mouth, the disciples answer their own question when they say, “You are certainly God’s Son!”, and they worshipped Him. (Matthew 14:33). This is the first time Jesus is called the Son of God by His disciples.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to walk on water? Other than Jesus, Peter is the only one who knows, and his experience didn’t last very long (Matthew 14:29-31)! When the two of them got into the boat, it was apparently close to the shore – another amazing occurrence! The rescue was now over.
LESSONS TO LEARN AND APPLY:
Before we consider the fear of the disciples, and our own fears as well, I think we should all thank God for giving us the emotion of fear. He has given us, as well as many of the animals He created, a built-in alarm system to warn us of danger. It was designed by Him for the purpose of protection and preservation. It’s natural for us to be afraid in times of danger, and there are times when we, as human beings, should choose to follow our fears. There are also times when we should choose to overcome our fears by the power of God. A question we need to ask ourselves honestly is “What do I fear, and why do I fear it?” Then write those fears and the reasons for them on a sheet of paper so that we can sort them out and think about them. Only then can we ask the question, “How should I respond to those fears, in the light of God’s Word?”
The first lesson given in this passage of Scripture is one on prayer. Jesus was up on the mountain praying. I think His first request to the Father was that the apostles would realize their helplessness and turn to the Father in faith, asking Him to rescue them. When they failed to do so and they were about to drown, I believe that Jesus’ second request to the Father was that the Father might use Him to rescue them and show them that He was truly the Son of God. His request might have been something like this: “Father, give me the power and authority to walk on the water to rescue them so that You and I might be glorified.” Or maybe He just asked for their deliverance and the Father told Him what to do in answer to that prayer. We don’t know for sure, but we do know that God answered His prayers. Jesus’ prayers “held a lot of weight” in the eyes of His Father because of the close relationship and deep trust between them.
What’s the value of our prayers to God? How much weight do our believing prayers have in God’s sight? Many years ago Henry Bosch shared the following true story which he entitled “Weighing A Prayer”.
Soon after World War II, a tired-looking woman entered a store and asked the owner for enough food to make a Christmas dinner for her children. When he inquired how much money she could afford, she answered, “My husband was killed in the war. Truthfully, I have nothing to offer but a little prayer.” The man was not very sentimental, for a grocery store cannot be run like a breadline. So he said, “Write your prayer on a paper.” To his surprise she plucked a little folded note out of her pocket and handed it to him, saying, “I already did that during the night while I was watching over my sick baby.” As the manager took the paper, an idea struck him. Without even reading the prayer, he put it on the weigh side of his old-fashioned scales, saying, “We shall see how much food this is worth.” To his surprise, it would not go down when he put a loaf of bread on the other side. To his even greater astonishment, it would not balance though he added many more items. Finally he blurted out, “Well, that’s all the scales will hold anyway. Here’s a bag. You’ll have to put them in yourself. I’m busy.” With a tearful “thank you,” the lady went happily on her way. The grocer later found out that the balance was out of order. As the years passed, however, he wondered if that really was the solution. Why did the woman have the prayer already written to satisfy his premeditated demands? Why did she come in at exactly the time the mechanism was broken? Frequently he looks at that slip of paper upon which the prayer was written, for amazingly enough, it reads, “Please, dear Lord, give us this day our daily bread!”
Has God ever answered your prayers in unusual or unexpected ways? God delights in answering believing prayer for the supply of our needs. The apostle Paul reminds us of this in Philippians 4:19, which says, “And my God shall supply every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Our God is very rich and very generous! Don’t let a need go by without asking Him to supply!
The second lesson comes in answer to the question, “Why didn’t the disciples pray to God when the storm began?” “Pride” is the answer to that question. Two popular sayings probably describe their attitude: “I’ll do it my way”, and “I’d rather do it myself”. I could understand if they kept rowing for 15 minutes in the hope that the storm might die down, but not for eight hours! That’s ridiculous! Are you filled with pride in yourself and would rather be independent of God? Are you drowning in your own sins, but unwilling to lift a hand in prayer to the only One who can reach down and pull you out of the dark waters of separation from God for eternity? I hope and pray that you will reconsider your attitude and your situation, and choose to put your life in His hands and under His control.
The third and last lesson applies to fear. I’m sure that we would all agree that fears come in many different forms, and can affect us in many different ways. Do you find yourself controlled, or hindered by various forms of fear, such as fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of change, or fear of what others may think? Fears can be tied to the past, the present, or the future. Worry is also a form of fear. Worry has been defined as “a small trickle of fear that meanders through the mind until it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.” Worry is like a rocking chair. It will give you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere. The apostle Peter tells us in I Peter 5:7 to “cast all our anxieties on Him (the Lord Jesus Christ), for He cares for you.”
Proverbs 29:25 tells us that “the fear of man will prove to be a snare.” It can drain us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This incident of the storm, in John 6, tells us that we can banish our fears by recognizing and relying upon the faithful presence, power, and providence of God. Let me close by sharing a few other Scripture passages with you that tell us how to respond to fear in our lives. Psalm 16:8 says, “I have set the Lord continually before me; because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” In Psalm 23:4 king David says, “I fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” Psalm 34:4 reads, “I sought the Lord, and He answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. You may also want to read and memorize Isaiah 41:10.
It may also encourage you to know that the Lord Jesus Christ is praying for you right now (Hebrews 7:25). Some day, the Lord Jesus will come for us, take us to His heavenly haven of rest, and the storms of life will be over forever. I hope that I’ll see you there!