John 6:16-21

John 6:16-21     Jesus Works Two Further Signs

Jesus Walks on Water

16 When it became late, his disciples went down to the lake.
17 They got into the boat and were crossing the lake towards Capharnaum.

The narrative had not mentioned how Jesus and the disciples had travelled to the hillside/seaside location. Given that the disciples were those who would row the boat back to Capernaum [verse 19], they presumably had rowed the boat to the location in the first place. The Sea of Tiberias at its widest was about twelve kilometres across. If Jesus’ escape from the crowd had been quick, the disciples may have had little idea where he was. They eventually left him to his own resources.

It was already dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.

Darkness reflected, not simply the time of night, but the inner state of the disciples as well. By its use of not yet, the narrative already hinted at something to follow.

18 A strong wind was blowing and the sea was getting rough.

Strong winds and rough seas were not uncommon on the lake.

19 They had rowed about five or six kilometres ...

Given that they were rowing the boat, they were apparently not just passengers, but crew. Five or six kilometres was about half way across.

 when they saw Jesus walking on the water
and getting close to the boat.  
They were alarmed. 
20 Jesus said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Their alarm was not surprising. As he had done privately to the Samaritan woman [4:26], Jesus now identified himself to the disciples with the name that God had first revealed to Moses at the burning bush [Exodus 3:1-15]. On that occasion, God had commissioned Moses to spearhead the Exodus event that would liberate the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. God, revealed in Jesus, is consistently the God who sets free.

The narrative clearly treated the incident as a theophany, a revelation of divine mystery. Jesus’ walking across the waves reflected the poetic imagery of Psalm 77, referring to God’s protecting the fleeing Israelite slaves as they crossed the Sea [Exodus 14]:

Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen. [Psalm 77:19]

At the same time that Jesus revealed his deeper identity, he reassured the disciples that, despite their spontaneous shock, there was no need for them to be afraid.

The Boat Reaches Land

21 so they wanted to take him into the boat.
Suddenly the boat reached the shore that they had been making for.

The disciples apparently dealt with their fear and with the spontaneous reaction of withdrawal accompanying it, and sought to re-establish their previous closeness and intimacy with Jesus by taking him with them into the boat.

With classic understatement the author reported that they covered the remaining distance across the waters of the lake suddenly – another quiet wonder to add to the previous one. 

The incident had echoes of Psalm 107:

Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he brought them out from their distress….
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven. [Psalm 107:28,30]

There was no mention of Jesus’ stilling the strong wind. 

The God of the Exodus was present and active in the Jesus now experienced by the community of believers. Ostracised by their compatriots and unable to celebrate Passover with them, the narrative assured them that they had no need to remember and liturgically re-connect with God’s original presence to their ancestors: through the risen Jesus, God was actually present with them.

Next >> John 6:22-50