MARK 6:45-52. OVERVIEW
This story is also found in Matthew 14:22-33 and John 6:15-21. In Matthew’s account, Peter steps out of the boat in an attempt to walk on the water to Jesus. In John’s account, Jesus withdrew from the crowd because he realized that they wanted to impose a kingship on him that was contrary to his Godly mission.
This story follows on the heels of the feeding of the five thousand, a stupendous miracle (6:30-44). After their involvement in that miracle, it would seem that Jesus’ disciples would not be surprised by anything—but that turns out not to be the case. While the account of the feeding doesn’t mention any surprise on the part of the disciples, the account of Jesus walking on water says that the disciples were terrified.
MARK 6:45-46. HE WENT UP THE MOUNTAIN TO PRAY
45Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat, and to go ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he himself sent the multitude away. 46After he had taken leave of them, he went up the mountain to pray.
“Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he himself sent the multitude away” (v. 45). Jesus sends the disciples away, commanding them to get into the boat without delay. The language suggests urgency and portrays Jesus as taking the initiative.
We must ask why Jesus sends his disciples away with such haste. As noted above, John 6:15 says that Jesus wanted to escape a crowd that was bent on imposing kingship on him. Mark tells us that, after dismissing his disciples, Jesus went up the mountain to pray (v. 46)—so perhaps he wanted solitude for his prayers.
Jesus gives the command and the disciples obey it, apparently without question, in spite of the circumstances (it is late and there is a contrary wind) and in spite of their lack of understanding (v. 52). Do we do as well?
The disciples set out in their boat for Bethsaida (v. 45), but eventually land at Gennesaret (v. 53). Both are located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee—Bethsaida being a bit east of Gennesaret. Both are near Capernaum, where Jesus made his home as an adult (Matthew 4:13).
Bethsaida was the home of at least three of Jesus’ disciples—Andrew and Peter (John 1:44) and Philip (John 12:21). Jesus did many of his mighty works there—and reproached the inhabitants of Bethsaida and Capernaum for their lack of response (Matthew 11:20-24).
“After he had taken leave of them” (v. 46a) could refer to the disciples or to the crowd. It is most generally understood to refer to the crowd.
“he went up the mountain to pray” (v. 46b). The reference to “the mountain” rather than “a mountain” suggests a special or holy place. In 3:13 he went up “the mountain” where he called and appointed the twelve.
Ascending the mountain reminds the reader of Moses going up the mountain to meet God (Exodus 24: 15-18). Mark’s intent may be to connect the story of Jesus to that of Moses.
Mark shows us Jesus praying alone two other times: at 1:35 after he healed many and cast out many demons and prohibited the demons to speak, “because they knew him.” Again at 14:32 in the Garden of Gethsemane, a time of crisis.
Some commentators see a pattern here that supports the interpretation that Jesus sent the disciples away hurriedly because of a crisis. But other scholars simply say that Jesus sent both the disciples and the crowd away because he was intent on praying.
The communion between God the Father and Jesus the Son is important here. Mark is portraying Jesus as the Son of God. He is showing the closest relationship of Jesus with God, closer than that of Moses with God.
MARK 6:47-48. HE CAME TO THEM, WALKING ON THE SEA
47When evening had come, the boat was in the midst of the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48Seeing them distressed in rowing, for the wind was contrary to them, about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea, and he would have passed by them,
“When evening had come, the boat was in the midst of the sea, and he was alone on the land” (v. 47). It was already late before Jesus fed the 5000 (Mark 6:35). “Evening” refers to darkness. Mark highlights the separation between Jesus and the disciples, “on the sea…on the land.”
“the boat was in the midst of the sea” (v. 47b). To be “on the sea” is to be subject to wind and wave. The Navy Hymn speaks of “the restless wave.” Psalm 65:7 says, “Who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of the nations.” The sea is also the deep, the profound unknown that threatens order and life itself. “The horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” says Exodus 15:1. To be on the sea is to be in peril, to face uncertainty and to lack control over one’s own fate, or even one’s own destination.
“Seeing them distressed in rowing, for the wind was contrary to them, about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea, and he would have passed by them” (v. 48). But Jesus comes from the land onto the sea in order to save (just as he left the glories of heaven to come into the human condition to save us all). Jesus did not save the disciples from the land, but came to them to do so. He does not save us from outside our situation, but from within our situation.
Whenever, in Mark, the disciples are separated from Jesus, they suffer distress (4:35-38; 6:45; 9:14-18). There is a message here for Mark’s readers, and for the church today, about the need to be close to Jesus. The message is strengthened by what follows: Jesus coming to them in their time of struggle.
“Seeing them distressed in rowing, for the wind was contrary to them” (v. 48a). Perhaps, in a full moon, Jesus might be able to see them from the hilltop. Perhaps his seeing them is part of the miracle. In either case, he sees, and he responds by coming to them.
Nevertheless it was early in the morning when he did so, literally, “in the fourth watch.” That would be between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. “The fourth watch” indicates use of the Roman rather that Jewish system of marking watches. They were on the sea at evening; Jesus comes to them only after a whole night has passed, during which they struggled against an adverse wind.
The language indicates that they made progress slowly and painfully. The words evoke the struggles of the church and perhaps persecution of the church. The story speaks to a church in trouble, a church that strives against great forces to move forward.
In his earlier account of Jesus and his disciples at sea, Mark portrayed them as in great danger from a storm (4:35-41)—but there is none of that here. The disciples are distressed, because the winds are contrary—making it difficult for them to make any progress. That, however, would be nothing unusual for the fishermen among Jesus’ disciples.
“walking on the sea” (v. 48b). Jesus comes to them walking on the sea. Just as earlier the boat was on the sea and Jesus on the land, now both Jesus and the boat are on the sea. Our Lord enters into the situation of his disciples. In the history of interpretation this idea of the presence of Jesus in times of suffering and trial has been of great comfort to the Church.
Mark says Jesus is walking on the sea. There is no other translation for his words, although some have argued it could mean, “walking by the lake.” A number of rationalistic interpretations have been offered, but none of them is supported by the text, and all of them unduly limit the effectiveness of the narrative. The boat is in the middle of the lake, far from the shore. The idea that Jesus was wading in the surf simply doesn’t square with the text.
“he would have passed by them” (v. 48c). Jesus came close enough for his disciples to see him, but didn’t impose himself on them. He waited for their invitation before boarding their boat. In like manner, Jesus makes himself available to us in many ways, but allows us the freedom to choose how we will live our lives. He will come to us and save us, but only if we are willing for him to do so.
MARK 6:49-50. TAKE COURAGE! IT IS I! DON’T BE AFRAID!
49but they, when they saw him walking on the sea, supposed that it was a ghost, and cried out; 50for they all saw him, and were troubled. But he immediately spoke with them, and said to them, “Cheer up! (Greek: tharseo) It is I! Don’t be afraid.”
“but they, when they saw him walking on the sea, supposed that it was a ghost (Greek: phantasma), and cried out” (v. 49). It is unclear what the disciples think they are seeing. The word is phantasma, a specter or an illusion. It is something they do not understand. Perhaps they are drawing on popular lore about sea sprites or other sea creatures. On the other hand, they are familiar with the sea and may not be influenced by those ideas.
“for they all saw him, and were troubled” (v. 50a). They are not in fear due to the rough conditions of the sea. They are struck with terror at what they see. While they think they see something to fear, Jesus says, “Cheer up! It is I! Do not be afraid.” The words, “It is I!” (Greek: ego eimi) serve not only to let the disciples know that it is Jesus whom they see—they also serve to identify him as a divine figure in as much as they echo the words spoken to Moses at the burning bush, often translated “I AM” (Exodus 3:14).
“Cheer up! (tharseo) It is I! (ego eimi) Don’t be afraid” (v. 50b). While the Greek word tharreo can mean “be of good cheer,” it also has to do with boldness and courage. I prefer “Take heart!” (as in the NRSV) or “Take courage.”
“It is I!” (ego eimi) Ego eimi, “I am,” brings to mind God’s self‑identification to Moses. God said, “I am who I am”—and “You shall tell the children of Israel this: ‘I AM has sent me to you'” (Exodus 3:14). With his ego eimi statements, Jesus uses God’s name for himself.
Jesus makes God visible and shows himself as Son of God. Nothing less than the presence of the Lord is sufficient to help the disciples and calm their fears.
In Mark 4:35-41 another tale of Jesus on the sea with the disciples is told. The disciples were, indeed, fearful that a storm would sink them, but Jesus calmed the wind and the sea. The disciples asked, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Although the question, taken rhetorically, is answered by Old Testament texts proclaiming God alone as the One with that kind of power, it is answered more directly here, in Mark 6:50 as Jesus says, ego eimi. He says, “I AM.” The disciples hear, “It is I.”
MARK 6:51-52. AND THEY WERE VERY AMAZED
51He got into the boat with them; and the wind ceased, and they were very amazed among themselves, and marveled; 52for they hadn’t understood about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
“He got into the boat with them; and the wind ceased” (v. 51a). It is a sweet reassurance to the church to know that Jesus entered the boat with the disciples. It is not a remote Jesus who simply tells the church through others that he cares for it, but Jesus who demonstrates his divine nature and his actual presence with his disciples that comforts the church in time of need.
The wind dies down, perhaps because night is over and the sun is rising and natural causes calm the wind. But this is also a metaphor. Jesus came to the disciples when the light was most needed and with his coming and self revelation came the dawn. The dying down of the wind confirms the power of Jesus over the powers of chaos.
“and they were very amazed” (v. 51b). Are the disciples astounded because the wind stopped? Or because Jesus got into the boat? Or because he had left them so long without help? Or because they saw the glory of God in the appearance of Jesus? An epiphany is, by its nature, astounding.
“for they hadn’t understood about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (v. 52). The implication is that, had they understood about the loaves, they would not now be astounded. In the breaking of the bread Jesus had already revealed himself. In the miracle of the walking on water, the reference to “passing by” and the use of the words, “I AM,’ Mark places Jesus not in the role of Moses, but in the role of God.
John quotes Jesus saying, “Most certainly, I tell you, it wasn’t Moses who gave you the bread out of heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread out of heaven” (John 6:32) In John, that bread from heaven is Jesus himself. The disciples, as Mark describes them, did not understand about the bread. They failed to see in the feeding of the five thousand who Jesus is, and they fail again, now that he has saved them, to see who he is.
The language about hearts being hardened has normally been reserved for the enemies of Israel, strangers to God. Mark is describing the disciples at this point in their journey, as like the crowd that was fed and like those outside the fellowship of Jesus. In doing so, he lays groundwork for their failure at the time of the crucifixion.
Faith does not arise from external circumstances, but from internal circumstances. It might be sparked by events, but ultimately is something that wells up within us.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2003, 2015, Richard Niell Donovan