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Jesus Walked on Water...And Almost Went Too Far: Studies in Mark, Pt. 19

Within the short span of two chapters of Mark’s narrative, the reader encounters two sea stories. In the first one, 4.35-41, Jesus is asleep in the stern, is awoken by His disciples and then calms the wind and the sea. I have written on that passage already, you can read that post by clicking the following link: Mark’s Sleepy Jesus.

In this post, I want to take a look at the second sea voyage, which is found in 6.45-53. Many translations and commentators include verses 53-56 within this pericope but because it interrupts a pattern that Mark is using (I will write about this narrative pattern in a future post), it should probably not be included.

It should be pointed out from the beginning that while Mark recounts two sea stories in close proximity and while there are some similarities, the differences between the episodes are greater. Because of this, I am not going to compare the stories as some do; I am going to take them on their own. Of course, because each scene in Mark’s account builds on the previous ones, it may be necessary from time-to-time, to cite the earliest sea story.

As we think about the story of Jesus walking on the water, we should probably begin by connecting it directly to the preceding scene (6.30-44). In fact, Mark himself does this. We can say this because at the end of the story, he says, “Then He (Jesus) climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened” (6.51-2). This is very interesting because Mark, purposefully links the sea story back to the “teaching and feeding story” (I have written more on the “teaching and feeding,” you can read those posts by clicking the following links: study 16, study 17, study 18).

But why does Mark do this? What does the sea story have to do with the teaching and feeding episode? Well, to arrive at an answer, we must understand what Mark was attempting to convey in the previous story. As I have argued in the 3 posts preceding this one, the encounter with the 5,000 was actually an opportunity for Jesus to “teach” and “feed” them. Moreover, these 5,000 men were religio-political zealots who wanted Jesus to be their new leader (a type of religio-political messiah that would overthrow the corrupt empire).

I stress the fact that Jesus not only fed them but also “taught” them, on purpose. In fact, the miraculous feeding has to be seen in light of the “teaching.” What Jesus, presumably, taught the zealots, was that He indeed was a leader, “the” Messiah, but not the type of leader or messiah that they had always imagined or desired! Jesus taught that He was a different kind of Messiah altogether, a Messiah of peace and righteousness, not a violent leader like they were so used to. He was not the type of military leader, who would lead His people into battle and if persons died, raise them or if they got injured heal them. Yes, He could do those things but not for those reasons. After teaching this, He even showed them He could do it: He miraculously fed them! They could only dream of having such a good military leader. As John’s account notes, when they saw this, they came to take Jesus “by force” to make Him their “king.”

Now, when we get to the next story in Mark, which begins at 6.45, we find Jesus making His disciples leave “immediately” and commanding them to go ahead of Him in the boat. The intensity of the terms used here may indicate that Jesus wanted to get His followers away from the dangerous or corrupted situation. Jesus had taught and the people had not understood; He had performed a miracle for them and they misinterpreted it. Jesus didn’t want His disciples to do the same. So, He sent them ahead. But we find out in 6.52 that like the zealots, they did not understand the events surrounding the miraculous feeding.

But their misunderstanding was not their only trouble here, the disciples who had set off towards Bethsaida, also had trouble rowing and in the end, they arrived at a totally different destination than they had aimed for: Gennesaret. Presumably, it was the winds that got the sailors off course; it is these same winds that calm down when Jesus gets into the boat. But what if Jesus had not gotten into the boat and what if He had never intended to do so? Would the winds have died down? Would the rowing have become easier?

I raise this question because the text seems to raise it. In fact, I would venture to say that in the Greek, this is more noticeable. Verse 48 contains a clause that says, “…and He desired to pass by them.” Most English translations remove the term “desired” here (which in the Greek, is ethelen – “desire” or “will”) and replace it with “He was about to.” This, though, is not what the text says. It says that Jesus “desired” or “willed” to pass by them. Which raises the question: Why would Jesus have desired to pass by them? Did Jesus never intend to get into the boat? Was Jesus being elusive? What is going on?

Many scholars have argued that the phrase “pass by” is an Old Testament echo of passages such as Ex. 33.19, 22, 34.6 or 1 Kgs. 19.11. In these stories, when God (or God’s glory) passes by, it is a sign of salvation. While I love uncovering links between the stories of Jesus and their connections to the Hebrew Scriptures, I do not think this is one. Actually, I think Mark is being straightforward in his account; Jesus desired to walk past them on purpose.

Not only does this prevent us from reading too much of the Hebrew Scriptures into this phrase but also from a grammatical or syntactical standpoint, this reading helps us to make the most sense of the statement. In short, when the verse is read this way (e.g. as Jesus desiring to pass by them), the preceding clause makes more sense. That phrase reads, “Shortly before dawn He went out towards them but…” What is important is the word “but.” It implies that while Jesus was waling out towards them He intended for one thing to happen but given the circumstances, something different took place. So, Jesus was wanting to pass by them “but” they noticed Him and He stopped.

Why did He want to pass by them? Well, here is where we find our connection back to the “teaching and feeding” scene, a scene that the disciples did not understand. As we have seen, what they didn’t understand had to do not only with Jesus’ identity but also His desire not to lead this large group of zealots. To repeat, Jesus had to teach them about the type of Messiah He was; the feeding miracle was a confirmation of His teaching. Sadly, the disciples and the zealots misunderstood this.

The reason, then, that Jesus desired to pass by them was because He wanted to show them that indeed, He was the Messiah-God. It is no accident that Mark prefaces this story with Jesus praying or receiving His strength or power from on high. The disciples should have picked up on this too; they knew He was praying. Thus, a reinvigorated and power-filled Jesus passes by their boat. Not only that but He single handedly walks into the wind, the wind that was holding the Twelve of them back (that was “straining” on them). What is this if not power? And herein lies the point: Whoever the disciples perceive themselves to be (e.g. good fishermen, strong men, competent men), must be viewed in reference to Jesus; He is always greater than they are. If they think that they can do ministry by their own strength then they have fooled themselves (6.7-13, 30); if they think that they can row alone or by their own might, they have fooled themselves. Like the zealots, who wanted to overthrow the empire by their own plans or by their own power, the disciples had reached the point where they too thought they could do it on their own. Perhaps the zealots rubbed off on them after all.

So, in its narrative context, this sea story is to be read directly in light of the teaching and feeding story. It was there that the disciples had failed to understand who Jesus was and what His mission was and it was also there that they bought into the religio-political, self-advancing mentality of the zealots. And it is in this sea scene where that line of thinking is exploited. Can they do ministry alone? No! Can they row alone? No! Can they concoct an agenda that veers from Jesus’ agenda and make it successful? No! Neither can the zealots! The disciples, fearing that one of the evil spirits had arisen from the sea or had manifested itself out of the winds (e.g. as one of the gods of the wind), could not even contain their fears; it took Jesus to calm them!

This sea story is a reminder for us today that without God, we are hopeless. We rely on His strength and His might. This, of course, is not the same thing as saying that God is “in control of” or “controlling” everything, I do not take such a fatalistic stance but it is to say that when we rely on God, He is in abiding presence and force “in” our lives. The disciples had not yet grasped this point; they were still seeking God “outside” of them. But make no mistake, Jesus gets “in” the boat and dwells among them; He is in their midst and all they can begin to do is sit in amazement. Praise God for incarnating Himself among us and praise God for the Spirit who incarnates Himself in us.

2 comments

Tim McNinch | January 31, 2010 at 1:14 AM

We're looking at the feeding and the walking on water this week... Here's an additional layer of possible interpretation, for consideration (probably a rabbit trail off of your main topic in this article, but could be interesting enough for another study). I found it interesting, like you, that the disciples got knocked off course and didn't end up in Bethsaida--they ended up in Gennesaret. I wonder if Jesus originally intended for them to go ahead to Bethsaida, where he would meet them, continue on with them to Caesarea Philippi and reveal to them the details of his messianic identity/plan/mission. But because they were hard of heart, didn't understand the loaves, straining at the oars but not getting anywhere, he took them to Gennesaret instead. They go through a whole remedial course in discipleship, repeating several signs, culminating with a second mass feeding (the 4000), and then they FINALLY get to Bethsaida, Caesarea Philippi, and Peter's confession.

I like the concept of the remedial discipleship, especially since the only story between finally getting to Bethsaida and Peter's confession of Jesus as Messiah is the one about the man who had to be healed twice to see clearly. What Mark would be saying to his audience about taking a second look at Jesus... I'm not sure yet.

Thoughts on this?

Michael Halcomb | January 31, 2010 at 11:24 AM

Tim,
Great thoughts about remedial discipleship; I think you may be on to something here!  I would like to think on this connection a bit more, especially as it relates to the blind man.  If indeed, the point is to look twice--and it very well could be--it aligns precisely with what I say above:  The zealots thought Jesus was going to be a different type of Messiah but JC has to constantly prove that this is not who He is trying to be.  So, look twice because He's not who or what you think He is.  I think connecting the blind story to this may indeed work, though, again, I have to think on it more.

In the meantime, look at my more focused article on the walking on water story here:  http://michaelhalcomb.blogspot.com/2007/11/did-disciples-believe-in-ghosts-studies.html

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