After the miracle of feeding thousands of people from only a small lunch, it’s a politically and militarily dangerous situation: The people are forcefully trying to make Jesus king. It’s evening, and Jesus puts the disciples into a boat to get out of there and cross the lake to go back to Capernaum. Meanwhile Jesus heads up into the mountains to pray. There is great temptation and great danger going on.
As they’re making their way across the lake, a ferocious storm blows up. These sudden and severe storms were common on the Sea of Galilee, but nobody liked them. They were not only dangerous, but had claimed many lives through the years. As the winds rose, so did the waves and their anxieties. It should have taken them only 2-3 hours for this trip, but the night was wearing on far beyond that. It was about 3 in the morning, and they were exhausted. They had been rowing for about 9 hours now.
Just as an interjection, we are apt to believe that if Jesus tells us to do something, it’s all going to go smoothly. This story shows the truth. In this case their obedience led them into a great disaster. Jesus doesn’t shield us from the storms, and sometimes lets them go on far beyond our ability to endure (2 Cor. 1.8).
Though the storm is literal, perhaps it was also a metaphor of what was swirling around Jesus: the temptation to seize political power, the temptation to pride, and the misunderstandings of the people and of the disciples. The wind represents all this resistance. And maybe for the disciples the storm is a metaphor of their confusion about Jesus and what role he is playing. Who is he and what does he expect of us? They were no doubt filled with so much doubt and uncertainty.
Eventually it must have become clear to them that they would never make it to the other side without help. We can imagine what they’re thinking and feeling in this moment: He told us to leave without him, and here we are. There’s no possible way he can save us now. We might as well die.
When they had rowed about 3 – 3.5 miles (about half-way across the lake), they saw what could only confuse and scare them: Jesus was approaching them, walking on the water. Obviously, they were terrified. What could it be but a ghost? Notice their fear made them jump to the wrong conclusion about spiritual things. So Jesus spoke up right away: “It is I; don’t be afraid.” (Literally, he is saying “I am,” which is also the name for God in the book of Exodus.) “Don’t be afraid. I AM is here.” There are some Old Testament texts that speak poetically of God walking on the water (Job 9.8; Ps. 77.20). Despite their fear, they seemed assured and convinced enough, so they took him into the boat, and immediately, the text says, they reached the shore of their destination. All I can imagine is them looking at each other and wondering, “What just happened here? Did we all see the same thing? Did what I think just happened just happen?”
Who is this man?