Jesus’ walking on water is more disturbing that you might think

Sometimes the wonder of a miracle obscures the disturbing impact of its message.

Take Jesus’ walking on the water for example. For some reason ‘Day 14’ in the 40 days workbook tells you to stop reading at verse 51, but please don’t! At least read the next verse and you will begin to see, I trust, why this incident is so disturbing.

At an initial level this miracle is as amazing as the feeding of the five thousand which that precedes it. At the end of an emotionally exhausting day both Jesus and the disciples needed some down time. So Jesus sent his men off in a boat to Bethsaida while he went into the hills to escape the crowds and pray. As the evening approached Jesus, presumably from his vantage point up the mountain,  saw the boat in the distance struggling to make progress against a head wind. But here the narrative takes an unexpected turn.

(Mark 6:48) … Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake.

If this sentence seems incredible, the next one is even more bewildering.

He was about to pass by them,

We are left wondering what possible purpose this might serve (and we sometimes have to admit that any explanation is only a best guess). Mark makes it sound pleasantly casual, as if Jesus is going for an afternoon stroll without a care in the world. But this is night time, there is a wind up and he is waking on water. There are a variety of explanations for this comment of which the best fit (for me) is that Jesus is testing their capacity to see if they’ve learned the dominant lesson from the stilling of the storm – that they are safe when He is near. But it seems they hadn’t twigged because of what follows:

49 but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, 50 because they all saw him and were terrified.

All of them without exception. Their panic was a result of not correctly identifying who the visitor was.

Immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’ 51 Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed,

So Jesus’ presence in the boat stills the storm once again; and here we might have left it (as your workbook does). The disciples terrified, Jesus bringing peace and the men left flabbergasted at the grace of the Master. But Mark adds one final comment which (like all good stories) changes its meaning right at the very end:

52 for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.

So what was it about the loaves and fishes miracle they didn’t get? For this we have to delve back into the Old Testament. Whether the disciples were aware of it or not (and it seems they weren’t) the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 sent out some powerful messages. In the Old Testament it was God himself who fed the multitude. The first example of this is when He fed the children of Israel with manna in the desert (Exodus 16). Other incidents confirm that miraculously feeding people was God’s prerogative alone (1 Kings 17:8-16, 2 Kings 4:1-7 and so on). So if Jesus was doing what only God could do, according to their scriptures, who did that make Jesus? Furthermore the Old Testament speaks of God walking on or through the waves  (Job 9:8, 38:16, Isaiah 43:16 and so on) and here is Jesus turning up beside the boat doing exactly that. There’s even a hint of Jesus greater identity in the way he calls to the men. “It is I” is clearly reminiscent of the way God revealed his identity to Moses at the burning bush.

So their ‘hardness of heart’ was their inability to perceive the hints Jesus was constantly sending in their direction. They were failing to recognise who He was (God in human form) and why He came (to rescue fearful and fallen people whom God loves). Here, then, in these incidents are the big picture messages of the gospel. Ignore the presence of Christ and we lay ourselves open to fear. Acknowledge the presence of Christ and we can see who he really is. The difference has to do with the hardness (or otherwise) of our hearts.