SESSION TEN: JESUS WALKS ON WATER (JOHN 6:16-24)
INTRO: What was one of your greatest childhood fears? Bugs? Snakes? High places? Darkness? Water?
- How would you have reacted if you saw Jesus on the water? When he climbed aboard the boat?
- What did the disciples fail to see in the feeding of the 5,000 that could have helped them here?
- Has Jesus ever frightened you? How?
- Where in your life do you need Jesus to say, "It is I, don't be afraid"?
TAKEAWAY: What is your greatest takeaway from this story? What specific life changes do you need to make? How will you hold yourself accountable?
COMMENTARY: JESUS WALKS ON WATER (JOHN 6:16-24)
ACT ONE: JESUS WATCHES
After the feeding of the 5000 and the crowd’s attempt to force Jesus to be a king, Jesus slipped away into the hills alone to relax and pray. Remember, he learned his cousin John the Baptist had been beheaded. He has spent several days in exhausting ministry among the crowds, performing miracles, teaching and serving with compassion. After this late afternoon feeding of thousands, Jesus needed some emotional and physical space.
The problem was it's now dark. Jesus hadn’t returned. Mark’s gospel helps us understand. He says Jesus ordered the disciples to head out on the lake so he could dismiss the crowd. Jesus would catch up to them. Perhaps his intention was to walk around the lake with the crowd.
But that’s when things get rough for the disciples.
The wind kicked up and the waters became rough. Galilee is a narrow land-locked lake where storms can manifest fast and prove deadly. It doesn’t take much wind to create problems in the water. Several of Jesus’ disciples fished this lake. They knew its temperaments. The north end of Galilee is six miles across. John says they’ve rowed about “three to four miles,” meaning they’re halfway across the lake. With the wind whipping, the disciples likely tried to drive the boat closer to the shoreline.
John has told us it’s near the Passover time. This gives some help on the time of the year and the lunar sky. It’s a full moon moment. Jesus was off praying and, thanks to bright moonlight, likely could've looked down to see his disciples struggling on the lake. Jesus watched the action which took most of the night. It will be nearly dawn before Jesus acted.
This is a critical detail in our own faith or in the life of this church. We often think God doesn’t care or Jesus isn’t concerned about what we do. Like these disciples, we helplessly row into the dark nights of the soul, struggling against emptiness, loneliness and worthlessness. We lean into the winds of crisis, trouble, pain and loss, praying for God to ease our suffering. Our lives get tossed and swamped by circumstances beyond our control. We go underwater in our finances. We get soaked by a relationship gone sour. We are drenched by an addiction, a doctor’s report that says the cancer is back or forced career change. As a church, we can be doused changes we don’t want, new songs we don’t prefer, new people we don’t like. We want church to be like it WAS. It’s no wonder we hug the shores of security, hoping to survive.
It’s easy to forget in those moments that Jesus is watching. He’s not ambivalent to our need or desperation. God is not apathetic to our fear or anxiety. Remember, Jesus just fed thousands of people with cheap loaves of bread and a couple sardines. These are his disciples. Similarly, YOU are important to Jesus.
ACT TWO: JESUS COMES
Maybe, at this point, it’s best to switch to Matthew’s account. John only skims over this water-walking miracle. Mark fleshes it out a little. Luke doesn’t even mention it. But, for Matthew, it’s a significant event in the life of Christ and the disciples who experienced it.
Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
Imagine being one of the disciples in this boat that night. The full moon is lighting up the dark sea of Galilee. A fierce wind is boiling the waters. It’s just another average Galilean night. Except Jesus isn’t there. He’s off praying or spending time with the people. But the disciples did something rather crazy. These experienced fishermen normally would've avoided a direct line in darkness across Galilee. Perhaps the bright moon gave them some confidence. Regardless Jesus' command to go straight across was heeded. Conventional wisdom would’ve been to hug the shoreline all night long. The text and direction suggests they’re nowhere near shore.
We have no evidence, but human nature suggests that some, maybe all, the disciples would've began to whine about their situation. Jesus will later speak to their fear. Consequently, it's easy to conjecture some of their comments. “This isn’t fair! We shouldn’t be out here in the middle all by ourselves. This is stupid!” “Where’s Jesus at? I thought he was coming too? Lately he seems more compassionate with the crowds than with us...his own disciples.” “I’m soaked and cold. My food supply is drenched. I hate this.”
Let’s be honest. We are all control freaks at heart. We love our power. We enjoy situations where we give the orders and run the agenda, we captain the ship and our destinies.
And then the moment happens when things fall apart. A divorce happens. An addiction sprouts. Our finances fail. A job ends. A house burns to the ground. Someone gets hurt, his health fades or she dies. Basically life changes...and we’re suddenly on deep, rolling waters with whipping winds. We didn’t ask for this. We knew better. We wished it was over. But here we are. Again.
Maybe that’s why we, like those fearful disciples, don’t recognize Jesus when he does show up. It’s a ghost, they thought. A spirit. A figment of imagination. In our fear and angst, it’s easy to miss the obvious. Jesus is COMING. He’s always COMING. He’s looking for us. Seeking us. Hunting us down. And showing up at the most inopportune times in the strangest of places.
Note that Jesus doesn’t play to their fear. Rather he states the TRUTH: “It is I.” It’s Jesus. I’m no ghost. This isn’t a magic trick. It’s really ME. It’s interesting, in Mark’s account, that this gospel writer says Jesus is “passing by” the boat. Jesus is literally walking past his disciples on the water, waiting for the disciples to recognize Him.
How often do do the same? In our fear, anxiety and pain we miss Jesus.
ACT THREE: JESUS INVITES
Let’s return to the story in Matthew (14:28-29).
Whereas we’ve grown accustomed to John filling in the details, revealing fresh facts and fleshing out the characters in the stories about Jesus, in this account it's Matthew who does that work.
He’s the only one of the gospel writers to mention Peter.
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” Jesus said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.
Peter was one of Jesus’ earliest disciples. He was a big, bold and brash man, likely the same age as Jesus (around 30). Peter knew these waters well. He’s not ignorant to their ways. Like the other disciples, he had also seen his share of miracles in Jesus’ first year of ministry. He watched Jesus multiply McFish sandwiches from a slider “Happy Meal” for a mega crowd of people.
Peter made an interesting statement to Jesus: “IF it’s you...tell me to come.” IF it’s you. Peter is wracked with doubt. He doesn’t know if it’s Jesus or not, but if it really IS Jesus, then he presumed Jesus would invite him into the water. That’s some gutsy faith right there. Peter recognized that IF this is Jesus then HE is not in the right spot. He wanted to be WITH Jesus.
ACT FOUR: JESUS SAVES
Matthew 14:30-33 gives us the conclusion.
But when Peter saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
And when Peter and Jesus climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
I love this part of the story. Peter got out of the boat and started to walk TOWARD Jesus. He set his gaze upon Jesus. His direction is forward in the direction of Jesus.
But then it happened, Peter saw the wind and grew afraid. He began to sink. Matthew points out Peter’s fear and lack of faith. I’ve often wondered, however, if there was something else at play FIRST. Can you imagine what’s going through Peter’s mind when he stepped out of that boat? Then he took a step...or two...or ten...all focused on Jesus. He’s literally walking ON water. He’s personally experiencing a miracle.
And the problem with miraculous success is it's easy for PRIDE to sprout. I see it in my life. I suspect you do too. You do something BETTER than you thought you could and there’s a voice that whispers: “Look at what I’m doing!” I wonder if that’s not what’s a play here.
Because PRIDE (“Wow...look at me...look at what I’m doing”) has a way of knocking us down. For Peter it caused him to lose focus on Jesus and see the wind. Which is interesting because we don’t see the wind. We just see the EFFECTS of the wind. For Peter that would be the white-capped waves all around him. He saw the waves and the waves seized him.
Peter then prays the shortest salvation prayer in the Bible: “LORD, SAVE ME!”
A couple more insights from this story. Matthew recorded that when Jesus and Peter got back into the boat, the wind died down and Galilee was calm again. The response was WORSHIP. The disciples literally worshipped Jesus as the Son of God. Mark folds in a different response. Yes, they were amazed, but it was because their “hearts were also hardened.” The disciples had misunderstood the miracle of the bread and fish (Mark 5:52). Did you catch it? They experienced miracle and yet had hard hearts. They had seen so many miracles that perhaps they were now common place. It happens. It took Peter walking on water to wake them up to WHO Jesus really was.
John adds another detail...he says after Jesus and Peter get in the boat that it quickly hit the shoreline. It’s like Jesus then zoomed the whole boat into shore. The miracle is over. Time to get back to work. It’s now morning and the sun is rising on the eastern shoreline.
Discipleship. Fellowship. Prayer. WORSHIP.
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