Mark 6:45-56. He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.

 1) Why did Jesus send the disciples away and dismiss the crowds? Does it seem a little sudden? And why did Jesus wait so long before helping the disciples? He saw them struggling “when evening came”, but it was “about the fourth watch of the night” before he walked out to them on the sea.

 

2) Is Jesus is walking out in response to his disciples’ distress, to help them? If so, why does he “intend to pass them by”?

 

3) Why does Jesus tell the disciples not to be afraid?

 

4) How is this miracle like the miracle of Ch 4, when Jesus spoke to the wind and sea?

 

 

Discussion:

1) Why did Jesus send the disciples away and dismiss the crowds? Does it seem a little sudden? And then why did Jesus wait so long before helping the disciples? He saw them struggling “when evening came”, but it was “about the fourth watch of the night” before he walked out to them on the sea.

 

Look at what Jesus did with the time, and you see the answer. Jesus wanted to be alone with his Father, and to pray. Having sent the crowd and the disciples away, he went up the mountain to meet with God. He could see the disciples making little progress against a strong wind as evening fell, but it was hours before he walked out to them. Mark is writing for Roman believers, and uses the Roman method of reckoning watches in the night. The Romans had four watches to the night, the Jews had three, so the “fourth watch” here would be 3 o’clock until 6 by our time. We can’t be entirely sure how long Jesus spent on the mountain. The Internet says that daylight time lengths in Jerusalem currently vary from about 10 hours in winter to 14 hrs in summer (sunlight hours in Manchester vary from 7 1/2-17hrs). From dusk until 3 a.m. probably equated to around 8 hours in Galilee. Why would Jesus spend so much time alone in prayer?

 

Consider the events which have just happened. There is Messianic tension in the air. This miracle has been a sign of the kingdom- and we looked last time at how it pointed to the kingdom of God. By feeding these men in the way that he did, Jesus has taken upon himself the role of God’s king. He has shown himself to be the shepherd of the sheep, promised by Ezekiel. He has cast himself in the role of the new David, the shepherd-warrior-king of Israel. He able to feed those who want him as their king from the towns by the lakeside, and there are still 12 baskets left over- enough for all Israel. This crowd are ready to put Jesus at the head of a rebellion (compare John 6:15). Jesus would have had a lot on his mind that evening. Maybe he feared that the disciples would be tempted to join the crowds in adopting him as their leader for an uprising there and then. The Twelve still understand so imperfectly, and could be led astray by the crowds. Maybe Jesus himself also was pulled in that direction- after all, that was one of the temptations from Satan in the wilderness, to forget about the cross, and just to have the kingdoms of the world without going through pain and suffering. It was a realistic option. History tells us that when men see the opportunity to become king and wield power, they often take it, killing those who stand in their way. Jesus here is in a position to become the head of a rebellion. He could easily win any battles ensuing. He could march on Jerusalem, and reign in righteousness and justice. He could be the best king Israel had ever had. Temptations that don’t tug at our hearts aren’t really temptations. Surely this is a real temptation. But Jesus mustn’t be the warrior-Messiah the people want. The cross must come before the crown, and Jesus knows it- even if the disciples don’t.

 

If you look at the times when Jesus withdraws to pray throughout Mark- 1:35-39, 6:45f, 14:26-42- in each case, it is night, and Jesus is facing a crisis of some sort. In response, he feels the need to pray. He wants to speak to his Father, and find the certainty and strength to be obedient. As at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus’ time in the wilderness provoked temptation. Now perhaps he faces temptation in the wilderness again (note the repeated emphasis in v32-35 that this was a deserted place). He needs to spend time in prayer, to gain strength to resist temptation.

 

Bear in mind that Jesus is tired. He has just fed 5000 men late in the evening by the side of the Sea of Galilee. If you remember from last time, Jesus had wanted to get away with the Twelve for a break (6:31). The Twelve had just come back from preaching and teaching and doing signs and wonders, proclaiming the kingdom of God and showing that it had arrived. Perhaps also during this period, John the Baptist, Jesus’ support worker and cousin, was killed by Herod. Jesus wanted to take some time with the disciples, to rest with them for a while. So they got into the boat, and went across the lake to a deserted spot. They never got any time alone though, because men from the nearby towns ran around the lake to meet Jesus and the disciples at the other side, and when Jesus saw them, he had compassion on them as sheep without a shepherd, and he taught them all day long. When it was getting too late for these men to make the journey back home, Jesus fed them. Jesus was trying to get some time away with the disciples, but the crowd followed him- you know what it’s like when you promise yourself some rest, a bit of time to relax, and then the phone rings and you have to deal with some crisis or other, and your quiet afternoon evaporates away. Jesus is weary, but he still gives prayer the priority, rather than sleep.

We hear so many sermons about the importance of prayer, and how we need to spend time laying out our concerns before God. We know that stuff. But do we get on with it and do it?

 

 

2) Is Jesus is walking out in response to his disciples’ distress, to help them? If so, why does he “intend to pass them by”? How might this “intending to pass them by” fit with other elements of the passage?

 

Some argue that the words of 6:48 record the impression the disciples had of Jesus, and not Jesus’ actual intent. That is a well-intentioned cop-out; the passage doesn’t say that.

Others argue that the translations obscure Mark’s meaning. They claim that a more accurate translation would be “for he intended to pass their way”- the whole thing is a subordinate clause which is intended to clarify Jesus’ motivation, and not intended to denote that he wasn’t going out to see them. Perhaps that is true- I don’t have enough Greek to judge.

 

In any case, the language draws our attention to the fact that the event is a theophany. This is a manifestation of God. Jesus is exhibiting his divine power to his disciples. It is likely that when Jesus “intends to pass by” his disciples, this is a re-enactment of those occasions when God “passed by” Elijah at Horeb (I Kg 19:11), and “passed by” Moses at Sinai (Ex 33:19, 22).

 

Jesus doing as his Father did would fit perfectly into the thrust of the passage. The point of the miracles on Galilee is that mastery of the sea is a divine attribute and quieting of the sea is a feature of God’s kingdom. By calming the storm and walking on the waters, Jesus demonstrates that he is God, and he has brought God’s kingdom to earth. In the OT, it is God who walks on the seas. We looked when we studied chapter 4 at the idea of the sea being uncontrollable and chaotic throughout scripture, until we reach the final state of God’s kingdom, where (variously) the sea is as glass, or there is no sea. Jesus brings God’s kingdom with him into the fallen world. At his command, the seas are like glass. He can walk on the waters- they are under his authority. This incident ranks with Ch 4 in showing Jesus as God. The earlier event emphasised Jesus’ authoritative words- he commanded the wind and waves. This time, Jesus walked on the sea, as God is said to do in the OT.

 

Who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8)- note also the reference in v.11 to God’s passing Job by.

 

Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.”  (Psalm 77:19)

 

“The LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters.”  (Isaiah 43:16)

 

The reference in Job seems to be to the creation of the world. The later references are to God’s parting of the Red Sea for Israel to walk through. In both, it is God who walks on or through the waters, and Jesus is doing what only God does. God has power over wind and waves.

 

3) Why does Jesus tell the disciples not to be afraid?

 

Going back to the references to walking on or through the waters; in those references, the supreme power of God is a cause for God’s people to rejoice. He is the LORD, and those who trust him need not fear. He subdues and treads down the waters. Jesus walks on Galilee, proclaiming that the hostility of the sea against man must now cease, for the Lord has come among men. It is a pledge of his aid for those who trust him.  

 

Also, the words Jesus says are a claim to be God. We can see him taking God’s words on his lips. The words of reassurance are significantly the words of God to his people in Isaiah.

“Fear not” can be found in Isaiah 41:10, 13f; 43:1; 44:2. And “It is I” (literally, “I am”)  (v. 50) although it may just be self-identification, is probably also a deliberate echo of Exodus 3:14 and Isaiah 41:4; 43:10; 52:6.

 

If we look at the miracle in context, we see strong similarities to God’s actions towards Israel at the time of the Exodus. The two outstanding miracles of that time- the two which are referred to most often in the psalms and the prophets- were the way God fed the people with manna, and the way he parted the Red Sea to deliver them from the armies of Pharaoh. Jesus has just fed the 5000 with miraculous bread. Now he walks through the sea to reassure his disciples. Like Father, like Son.

 

Perhaps the passage from Isaiah 43 was on Jesus’ mind at the time, given that it contains reference to God’s walking a path in the mighty waves, and also contains reassurances to Israel that Jesus echoes to the disciples- the new Israel.

 

4) How is this miracle like the miracle of Ch 4, when Jesus spoke to the wind and sea?

 

In chapter 4, Jesus slept in the boat as the disciples crossed the sea with him. A storm blew up, and they were afraid, and woke Jesus. Jesus spoke to the elements, and calmed the storm, and the disciples were terrified. We thought at that time about the idea of the Sea in the Bible as being chaotic and uncontrolled. Jesus, God’s king, brings in the kingdom and controls the water. In the kingdom of God, there is no sea, or the sea is smooth as glass- both of those pictures are there in Revelation.

Similarities (apart from the facts that these are both miracles to do with water, and both occur on the Sea of Galilee) include Jesus being absent/asleep, and the Twelve being in trouble because of lack of faith/ hardness of heart. Whenever the disciples are alone, they struggle. And they do so because they lack faith. (4:35; 6:45; 9:14).

Here, the disciples’ physical exhaustion- they’ve been up all night, and rowing (in shifts?) for eight hours solid- is compounded by terror at what they think to be a phantom. In Jewish thought, based on the Old Testament, the sea was a demonic place. The Talmud- the Jewish rabbinic discussion of the Law- talks about water-spirits bringing destruction. The disciples see Jesus coming to them, but don’t recognise him, and are afraid. They think Jesus can’t be real, he’s an apparition, maybe a sea-demon. Then, when he gets into the boat and they see who he is, they are astounded.

 

In both miracles, the disciples fail to understand. In both miracles, they are more terrified than helped by what Jesus does. Jesus is disclosed as divine, commanding the waves or walking over them. In chapter 4, the disciples are terrified, and say to each other, “Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” The disciples ought to see it, but they don’t. In this chapter, the disciples still don’t seem to understand.

Mark says that they hadn’t understood about the loaves, and that is why they don’t understand this either. What is the connection here? What is it that they don’t understand about the loaves, which means they can’t understand the walking on the sea?

 

The disciples knew Jesus had fed 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish, but they didn’t grasp that this pointed to Jesus as God himself, feeding a new people of God as with manna. They saw a marvel, but saw not the shepherd of the sheep. And so also here, they think they see a ghost, and then when they realise that it is a real flesh-and-blood man who is able to make the sea support his weight, they react with fear when they should be reassured.

 

We can close with a hymn which refers to this passage, among many others, speaking of God’s planting his footsteps on the sea. Cowper suffered from mental illness, and agonising doubt about his state before God. He wrote a hymn encouraging trust in God when providences seem dark and incomprehensible to us.

“God moves in a mysterious way/ His wonders to perform/ He plants His footsteps in the sea/ And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines/ Of never failing skill/ He treasures up His bright designs/ And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take/ The clouds ye so much dread/ Are big with mercy and shall break/ In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense/ But trust Him for His grace/ Behind a frowning providence/ He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast/ Unfolding every hour/ The bud may have a bitter taste/ But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err/ And scan His work in vain/ God is His own interpreter/ And He will make it plain.”

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One Comment on “Mark 6:45-56. He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.”

  1. C Gribben Says:

    Very helpful as always – thank-you!


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