Mark 6:45-56 — Divine Presence

The Galilean hills were evangelized through heralding and enacting the kingdom. 5,000 males were fed with five loaves and two fish actualizing table fellowship within the kingdom. And now, apparently, the healded and fed expected something more. Perhaps they intended to crown Jesus king (cf. John 6:14-15) and inaugurate a rebellion against Roman authority.

“Immediately,” signaling the critical nature of the present situation, Jesus put his disciples in a boat and sent them back across the lake…without him. Jesus dismissed the crowd and withdrew to pray alone. These actions reflect a crisis. Previously, the crowds of Capernaum moved Jesus to seek solitude (Mark 1:38-39) as will the looming shadow of the cross in Gethsemane (Mark 14:26-42). Perhaps here Jesus seeks solitude in light of a potential violent uprising. Perhaps Jesus was tempted, as he was in the wilderness, to secure power through violent revolution. But this is not the kind of kingdom Jesus headed; he would give his life as a ransom for many rather than take the life of others in the interest of nationalism (Mark 10:45).

Eventually Jesus notices that his disciples “in the middle of the lake” were struggling to reach the other side because of strong headwinds. It was early in the morning—nearing dawn between 3:00-6:00 AM—when Jesus approached them. The narrative leads us to think that Jesus saw them in distress and decided to go to them to help, but a curious statement appears in the narrative: Jesus “was about to pass by them” (NIV). This seems at odds with Jesus intent to help.

Jesus, the text literally says, “wanted to pass by them.” Jesus intends to “pass by.” The question is what does “pass by” mean. This is highly theological language; it is the language of theophany. At two critical moments in Israel’s history God “passed by” two leaders—leaders who will appear with Jesus in Mark 9 on the mount of transfiguration. God “passed by” Moses (Exodus 33:19, 22) and God “passed by” Elijah (1 Kings 19:11). In both texts God appears to them and reveals his divine presence. This is what Jesus intends to do here. Moreover, the language of Job 9:8, 11 lies in the background: the God who walks upon the seas also passes by his people though he is unrecognized.

Walking on water was not some theatrical stunt. It was not simply to shorten the distance from walking on land around the lake. He was not saving himself time or egotistically displaying his power. Rather, it was a divine appearance for the sake of his disciples; a theophany to assure the disciples of God’s love and care and to relieve their stress in the midst of their struggle. This is a gracious, redemptive moment.

But the disciples don’t recognize it. Their response is fear as they probably expected death. It was common in ancient (including Jewish) lore that the appearance of a “ghost on the sea” was a prelude to imminent death. Instead of being comforted by a divine theophany, they are “troubled,” that is, agitated or distressed.

Jesus clams their fears by identifying himself, and this identification is theologically significant in light of the theophany. He says three things: (1) Be of good courage! (2) I am! (3) Don’t be afraid! Jesus says ego eimi, “I am.” This is the language of Yahweh’s self-revelation in Exodus 3. As William Lane notes in his commentary (p. 237), encouraging good cheer and dispelling fear are part of the formula for divine self-disclosure (cf. Psalm 115:9ff; 118:5; Isaiah 41:4ff, 13ff; 43:1ff; 44:2ff; 51:9ff). Jesus is not simply affirming his own human presence but assuring them of God’s presence.

When he steps into the boat, the winds cease. God reigns over the chaotic waves. Just as the chaos was calmed in Mark 4:35-41, so here the winds were quieted in response to divine presence. Jesus does not even speak; his presence is sufficient in this instance.

But the disciples do not recognize it; they do not understand the identity of Jesus. They did not understand the loaves and fishes. They are missing the point. Jesus enacts the kingdom of God—feeding the hungry in the wilderness and appears on the water to calm the sea. It was as if the disciples were in the wilderness with Israel as they saw God’s sovereignty over the water at the Red Sea and were fed by manna. They don’t “see” what Jesus is teaching by his dramatic acts. The disciples don’t understand because their hearts are “hard.” This is a chilling comment as the hearts of Jesus’ opponents were also hard (Mark 3:5). Our expectations sometimes hinder us from seeing what God is doing because we are looking for the wrong things or in the wrong places.

The disciples are dull; they are slow to see the answer to the question they asked in Mark 4:41. He stills the waves and they don’t see. He heals the sick and they don’t understand. He feeds the multitude and they don’t catch a glimpse. He appears on the waters and they don’t recognize who he is. They fail to see that Yahweh is among them.

As we enter this story, we are invited to see though we often do not. We are often no different from the disciples. We live in fear rather than faith. We don’t embrace who Jesus is; we would rather control our own lives even when they are unmanageable. We see “ghosts” rather than God’s own presence among us.

And yet Jesus continues to enact the kingdom. The sluggish faith of the disciples does not deter him. They land on the Galilean shore near Gennesaret (on the northwest corner of the lake) and soon the people swamp Jesus. They “knew” him, filled the  marketplaces with the sick, and Jesus healed them.

The ministry of the kingdom of God continues. Jesus travelled through villages, cities and the countryside and everywhere he went they brought him the sick and he healed them, even if only by the touch of his garment.

Jesus is not deterred by the weak faith of his disciples and neither does he exclude them. He continues to apprentice them in the ministry of the kingdom of God. And that grace continues among us even now, even when we don’t understand because of the hardness of our own hearts.

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