John 6:16-21

John 6:16-21

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. 20  But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.
A few years ago I preached a series of revival sermons at a church in Flagler Beach, Florida. Flagler Beach is a small beach community on the east coast of Florida that has a wonderful, long ocean pier reaching out into the Atlantic Ocean. I was there for three or four days. We kept driving by this pier and I determined that, before I left, I would walk out on it.
One night, after our services and after dinner, I told my host good night and, before going back to my hotel, I decided I would see if the pier was still open. It was near closing time but it was still open so I paid the charge, passed through the gate and walked out onto the pier. It was a strange feeling walking out onto an ocean pier with church clothes and a tie on!
I walked slowly down the pier, further and further out. There were one or two people sitting on the pier near the entrance of it, but nobody further out. I had it all to myself.
When you go out of town and preach revival services, it puts you in a contemplative mood. You’re usually alone and have time to think, so, as I walked further out onto this pier I was lost in thoughts of my own.
After walking out a good ways, as I approached the end of the pier, I stopped and looked over the edge. It was a dark, windy night and the black waves were hitting against the pier pilings. Suddenly, I turned around and noticed something very unnerving…I was very far away from the entrance and the shore, all alone, in the night, in the dark, on the end of an ocean pier surrounded by the black sea.
I do not wish to be overly-dramatic, and it is no good testimony to my own courage, but, honestly, I grew very, very uncomfortable. I was no longer lost in my own thoughts. Whether real or imaginary, I could almost feel the pier swaying beneath me.  I felt the wind whipping my tie back over my shoulder.  The waves seemed very loud all of a sudden. I looked out into the black ocean around me and suddenly thought, “I don’t want to be here.” The wind suddenly seemed stronger and the waves seemed even more aggressive.
I slowly turned around and walked right down the middle of the pier back toward the entrance. I can still feel the sense of relief I had when I got to land. Oddly enough, a few weeks after that I was watching one of those amazing home video shows on TV and saw video of hurricane-whipped waves ripping the final thirty feet off of that exact pier in Flagler Beach some years earlier! No, this is not a “preacher tale.” It was the exact same pier. I could not believe it! When I saw that, I got the heebie-jeebies yet again.
It is a frightening thing to be on scary waters in the night, in the dark! If I felt that way being out on an ocean pier, how much more did the disciples feel afraid on the storm-tossed Sea of Galilee in the night!
The Sea of Galilee is not an ocean mind you. It is a lake. But any of you who have been out in the middle of a large lake know that, for all practical purposes, you might as well be in the middle of an ocean. You can drown just as easily in either, especially in a storm.
After miraculously feeding thousands of people, Jesus’ disciples go on ahead of Him in a boat across the Sea of Galilee. In the midst of their journey, they find themselves in a scary situation on the water.
It is then that Jesus comes to them. It is then that they learn even more about just who this Jesus is.
Christ, the Friend (vv.16-19)
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.
From verses 16-18, we learn a number of important things about the situation the disciples were in:
·         It was evening.
·         They were in a boat.
·         They were out on the Sea of Galilee.
·         It grew dark.
·         Jesus was not with them.
·         The wind was blowing and the sea became rough.
As I mentioned earlier, it is a scary thing to be on a dark, stormy, sea, alone and at night. While I think we should be careful not to spiritualize basic details in the Bible, it is understandable that many in Christian history have seen a spiritual reality in the disciples’ predicament. In other words, many suggest that these physical details also apply to the spiritual condition of those who are not in Christ or who are not walking with Christ as they should. For instance, the church father Cyril of Alexandria, the Patriarch of Alexandria, wrote this in the 5th century about the disciples’ situation:
            “Those who are not with Jesus are in a fierce tempest of a storm. They are cut off from him or at least seem to be absent from him because they have departed from his holy laws. Because of their sin they are separated from the one who is able to save. If then it is overwhelming to be in such spiritual darkness, if it is oppressive to be swamped by the bitter sea of pleasures, let us then receive Jesus. For this is what will deliver us from dangers and from death in sin.”[1]
Again, we need to be very careful spiritualizing the physical details of stories, but it must be admitted that loneliness, darkness, and danger are more than accurate descriptions of a life lived without Christ, aren’t they?
When you look at your own life and think of those times when you were not walking closely with Jesus (or, if you have never trusted in Christ, if you look at your life today), is it not the case that loneliness, darkness, and a sense of danger surround your soul? Do you not feel, at times, as if you are drifting alone on a dark and dangerous sea?
In light of this, verse 19 becomes all the more important:
19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened.
For the moment, I would like to ask that we focus less on the miracle of how Jesus comes to them and more on the miracle that Jesus comes to them. Sometimes in our amazement at the miracle we forget the simple beauty of the wondrous fact that Jesus does in fact come to His disciples.
His walking on the water is a miracle of power and revelation. His coming at all, though, was a miracle of friendship.
Yes, there is a miracle here, but, first, there is friendship here.
I’m not sure how you feel about this, but I suspect you would agree that there is nothing so beautiful, so comforting, so encouraging, and so wonderful as the sight of an approaching friend in a time of danger.
Did you know that Jesus comes to us as a Savior and as a friend?
In John 15, Jesus says:
14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
What a beautiful statement! “I have called you friends.” And do you know what friends do? Friends come to one another in a time of need.
Somebody has defined a friend as the one person who walks in when everybody else has walked out. Is this not what we see in the person of Jesus?
In 1855, Joseph Scriven was in Canada while his mother was in Ireland. She was going through a very difficult time and Joseph, her son, decided to write her a song. So he took pen and paper and wrote these words to help his mother:
What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.
Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.
Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge, take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do your friends despise, forsake you? Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In His arms He’ll take and shield you; you will find a solace there.
Blessed Savior, Thou hast promised Thou wilt all our burdens bear
May we ever, Lord, be bringing all to Thee in earnest prayer.
Soon in glory bright unclouded there will be no need for prayer
Rapture, praise and endless worship will be our sweet portion there.
It is important that we do not think of Jesus as a friend to the exclusion of thinking of Him as our King. But it is also important that we do not think of Jesus as our King to the exclusion of thinking of Him as our friend.
He is both. He is our King and He is our friend. He deserves our praise and honor, yet He draws near to us in companionship.
Let me say something to those of you who find Christianity confusing or difficult. Let me say something to those of you who are struggling to understand what the Christian faith is. In a very simple sense, Christianity is nothing more than a relationship with a friend whose love you cannot imagine. Christianity is a relationship with the One who comes to His struggling, frightened disciples and saves them.
Christ comes to the disciples and Christ comes to us. They are powerless to come to Him, but He comes to them…and He comes as a friend.
Christ, the Conqueror (vv.19-21)
But there is also the matter of how He comes. The friend of struggling humanity comes in a shocking way:
19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened.
He comes “walking on the sea”! This is no small feat, church! Jesus comes walking on the water.
You can imagine the ingenious ways around this miracle that skeptics have devised. I think my favorite was printed in the April 2006 Journal of Paleolimnology (which, as you know, “provides a vehicle for the rapid dissemination of original scientific work dealing with the reconstruction of lake histories.”) The study suggested that portions of the Sea of Galilee could have contained hard-to-see patches of floating ice during one of two cold periods in that region somewhere from 2,500 to 1,500 years ago (obviously, this includes the time of Jesus’ incarnation). It suggests that during these two periods, temperatures in the region of the lake dropped to 25 degrees Farenheit. So, while it stopped short of saying this was definitely the case, the study suggested that Jesus may have been walking on hard-to-see floating ice patches. And, no, I’m not joking![2]
Skeptical human minds may struggle with such a miracle, but those who know the truth of who Jesus Christ is will not struggle at all. On the contrary, we will marvel at the miracle, not only for what it is but, more so, for what it says about the Savior! And what it says is Jesus is the conqueror of all enemies, no matter how powerful.
The Lord Jesus is Master and King and Conqueror. He is strong. The surging, raging waters are unconquerable from a human perspective. I imagine these disciples clinging in terror to the side of the boat. They see beneath themselves the dark watery abyss of death. They are helpless in the face of such an obstacle. They are undone by the power of the deep. There is, quite literally, nothing they can do!
But then they see this Jesus…walking on the sea! He walks on the water! This is no hidden, floating ice patch. This is no trick of the camera. These are not Hollywood special effects. Here is Jesus the Lord walking on the sea.
Their initial reaction is one of even greater terror. Their horror at the stormy waters is eclipsed only by their terror at seeing what they suspect is a ghost walking on the waters. Spirits and night spirits were commonly feared in the ancient world. In fact, the spirits of those who had drowned at sea were considered especially dangerous and frightening.[3]
Jesus acknowledges their fear and, when they hear the voice of their friend, their fear turns to joy:
20  But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.
There is nothing – nothing – as comforting as the presence of a power greater than the power that is threatening to destroy you. The sea is strong, but Jesus is stronger. The waves are great, but Jesus is greater. Somehow, in His voice and in His face, once the fear and shock occasioned by His presence subsides, the disciples find peace in the storm.
The waves can destroy the disciples, but somehow, unbelievably, wondrously, they cannot touch this Jesus. He walks on them! Jesus is the conqueror of the threatening waters!
Let us return for a moment to our spiritual interpretation as well. The seas of sin and death and hell threaten all who are outside of Christ. The sea of destruction rises up to swallow whole those who are condemned by their sins and their guilt. The sea of justice and of wrath condemns the little boat of mankind.
Again, many of you feel this, even this morning. You feel the spray of the foam off the waves of your own wickedness. You hear the crashing waves of death all around you. You know that you are not going to survive by yourself where you are. You are in a destroying sea of your own making. You and you alone have put yourself here. You cling to the side of the boat of your own existence. You cling and weep and fear the certain death that is reaching up to you with its icy fingers. You recoil when you look into the waters. Down there are the sea monsters of death, the serpents and snakes of doom. You cry out but nobody can hear you over the storm of God’s own wrath.
Your little boat is sinking. Some of you feel it this very morning. It’s sinking! The waters of death are in the boat now, rising up to your knees, and they bite at you with bitter cold.
All of a sudden, you look into the distant darkness. Is it a mirage? Is it a ghost? Is it some avenging angel?
Somebody is coming to you…and he’s coming on the waters! It is unbelievable! You fear the sea of wrath and death and judgment and despair, but this one comes walking on the waters! He draws near and you shrink in fear from His presence.
“Who are you?” you scream over the storm.
He pauses and looks into your eyes. Then He steps forward and speaks. “It is I, Jesus. I am the Jesus you have rejected. I am the Jesus you have avoided. I am the Jesus you have made the punch line of your jokes. I am the Jesus you have not accepted. I am Jesus.”
You cry out again, “Jesus! Oh, Jesus! Have you come to destroy me? Have you come to cast me into the sea? Have you come to pour your wrath onto me? You would be right to do so. You would be absolutely right. Have you come to finish me, Jesus?”
Then this Jesus on the waters smiles and extends His hand to you and says, “Child, I love you. I am not here to condemn you. I am not here to destroy you. I am here to save you. It is true: if you reject Me you will sink into the sea of destruction and death and hell. But I have come to save you. I am greater than the sea. I am your friend and I am also the conqueror. I can conquer the sea of yours sins. I am greater than all that threatens you. I have come to you. I love you. Come to Me, and I will give you rest.”
And there He stands on the raging sea and there you sit in your sinking boat. Let me ask you now: what are you going to do? What…are…you…going…to…do?
Will you take His hand or will you die alone in the dark? What will you do?
In the early years of the 20th century, in Saugatuck, Connecticut, James Rowe and Howard Smith wrote and created the music for a hymn that is dearly loved today. Their song speaks of the power of Jesus in saving perishing humanity from drowning in a sea of sin. Listen:
I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore,
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more,
But the Master of the sea, heard my despairing cry,
From the waters lifted me, now safe am I.
Love lifted me! Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help
Love lifted me!
All my heart to Him I give, ever to Him I’ll cling
In His blessèd presence live, ever His praises sing,
Love so mighty and so true, merits my soul’s best songs,
Faithful, loving service too, to Him belongs.
Love lifted me! Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help
Love lifted me!
Souls in danger look above, Jesus completely saves,
He will lift you by His love, out of the angry waves.
He’s the Master of the sea, billows His will obey,
He your Savior wants to be, be saved today.
Love lifted me! Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help
Love lifted me!
Christ Jesus conquers the sea. The sea is death. The sea is separation. Christ walks on it, subdues it, and conquers it. Perhaps this is why Revelation 21:1 says the following about the glories of the new heaven and new earth:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”
There is no more sea. There is no more separation. There is no more threat. Christ is the conqueror of the waters. Christ has subdued the sea.
His walking on the water was an amazing display of His conquering power.
Christ, the Lord
Yet, I wonder if we realize the full implications of this miracle? Do we get all that is being said here? I doubt it.
I daresay that a good Jew would have seen something else in this story, something astounding. I daresay that even the disciples in the midst of crisis likely felt stirrings of a deeper truth when they saw Jesus approaching them on the water.
I say this because a good Jew would have been schooled in the Hebrew scriptures and, as such, a good Jew would have had a number of scriptures come to his mind at the sight of Jesus walking on the water.
For instance, you may remember that we commented last week on the fact that the feeding of the five thousand has shades of the Exodus in it. Just as God miraculously provided manna and sustenance to the children of Israel, so Jesus miraculously provided food to the five thousand. This connection is strengthened by the fact that the beginning of John 6 says that these things happened at the time of the Passover. The Passover was when the Jews remembered their deliverance from bondage in Egypt. So it is not inappropriate to say that, in some sense, John 6 is taking us back to the Exodus.
That is interesting, of course, because God’s miraculous provision of food in the wilderness was not the only miracle in the exodus, or even the greatest miracle, was it? Even greater was God’s miraculous deliverance of Israel from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea. In other words, the Exodus began with God showing dominance over the waters that threatened His children with death.
If John 6 is linking the miracles of Jesus with the Exodus at the time of the Passover, and if the feeding of the five thousand reminds us of manna from Heaven, then what is Jesus walking on the water supposed to remind us of? Right: Jesus walking on the water is meant to remind us and to reveal to us that the God who showed miraculous, life-saving sovereignty over the waters of the Red Sea is the same God who shows miraculous, life-saving sovereignty over the waters of the Sea of Galilee.
In other words, in Jesus a new Exodus has come! Jesus is our new Moses, but He is so much greater than Moses. Moses led the children to earthly deliverance. Jesus leads us to an eternal promised land.
Also, a good Jew would have been well-studied in the book of Job, and he might well remember that in Job 9 Job speaks of the glory of God in this way:
He is wise in heart and mighty in strength
—who has hardened himself against him, and succeeded?—
he who removes mountains, and they know it not,
when he overturns them in his anger,
who shakes the earth out of its place,
and its pillars tremble;
who commands the sun, and it does not rise;
who seals up the stars;
who alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the sea;
Job says that God tramples the waves of the sea. It is God and God alone who walks on the waters.
As a child, a good Jew would have heard the Psalms read. He might well have even sung them himself. And no doubt he would have heard the words of Psalm 29:
The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD, over many waters.

The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
Then verses 10 and 11:
10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
11 May the LORD give strength to his people!
May the LORD bless his people with peace!
So a faithful Jew, like the disciples were, would have known that Yahweh God is Lord over the waters, the Lord over many waters. God is the God of the waters, and He is over them.
A good Jew would have known what the psalmist said of God in Psalm 65:
By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness,
O God of our salvation,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas;
the one who by his strength established the mountains,
being girded with might;
who stills the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,

the tumult of the peoples
Yes, he would have remembered, if not explicitly then subconsciously, this great recurring theme of God as Lord of the waters. He would have remembered Psalm 89:
O LORD God of hosts,
who is mighty as you are, O LORD,
with your faithfulness all around you?
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.
The words of Psalm 107 would have stirred in his heart if not in his waking mind:
23 Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters;
24 they saw the deeds of the LORD,
his wondrous works in the deep.
25 For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
26 They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
27 they reeled and staggered like drunken men
and were at their wits’ end.
28 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.

29 He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.

30 Then they were glad that the waters were quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.

31 Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!
32 Let them extol him in the congregation of the people,
and praise him in the assembly of the elders.
Yes, yes! This sight of Jesus walking on the waters would have agitated deep connections in the minds of the disciples between what they were witnessing in Jesus and who they knew God to be. Amazing, scandalous, shocking, almost unimaginable conclusions and implications would have begun impressing themselves on the minds of these amazed disciples. Do we not see this in the question that Mark records the disciples asking in Mark 4:41 when Jesus rebukes the waves and the sea: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Indeed! Who is this? Who can this be?
For deep in the minds and hearts of these watching, trembling disciples they would have gone even further back into their childhoods, back to when a loving mother or father or grandparent opened up and read the very beginning of the Hebrew scriptures to them. Perhaps as they saw Jesus walking on the water they dared even to remember those first words of holy scripture from Genesis 1:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
The Word of God begins with a declaration that at the beginning of creation “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” At the very beginning of all things, God was over the chaotic waters.
Who can this be? What can this mean?
If God is the God who calms the storm and conquers the waters, what should we conclude about this Jesus doing the very same?
Yes, dear church, there is a miracle here. But as miraculous as it is, the primary miracle here isn’t Jesus walking on the water. That’s a miracle, to be sure. But the bigger miracle, the really jaw-dropping miracle, the truly amazing miracle is Jesus Himself.
He is God among us.
He is God the divine friend.
He is God the amazing conqueror.
And He is calling you today to come to Him.

[1] Joel C. Elowsky, ed., John 1-10. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. vol.Iva. gen. ed., Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006) p.219.
[2] Sara Goudarzi, “Jesus Could Have Walked on Ice, Scientist Says.” (April 4, 2006)
[3] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John. Volume One (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), p.674.

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