October 22, 2023
When Jesus walked on water, His disciples reacted in fear and disbelief, even despite having just witnessed Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand. Echoing words from the Old Testament, Jesus displays to His followers proof of His deity. Alistair Begg emphasizes how true security only comes from Christ and warns us that proximity to Christ is not the same as being in a personal relationship with Him. When we repent of our sins and trust Jesus for forgiveness, we will know a Savior who not only commands the seas but also rescues us from the storm.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Following on from this morning, I invite you to turn, if you can, to John chapter 6 and to verses 16–21. You may find it helpful, incidentally, to have a finger in Mark’s account of this same event, which you’ll find in Mark’s Gospel and chapter 6. Yeah, Mark 6. And if you have to work your way through the text, let me just tell you where we are. Mark 6:45. That’s where. Mark gives, actually, a fuller account, which is interesting, ’cause he’s often the briefest one. So, because we’re in John’s Gospel, we read the Johannine account, but if you are listening to me and you say, “Well, I don’t see that,” then it’s probably in Mark; and if it isn’t in Mark, then I don’t know where it is. All right?
So, John 6:16:
“When evening came…” That’s the evening on the day that he’s just fed the five thousand plus. “When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. [And] 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. But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.”
Father, we look at these brief verses now, and we pray for the help of the Holy Spirit to understand what they say, what they mean, and why they matter. And we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, I don’t know if you keep a journal. I keep a journal. I don’t know why I do after all these years. No one could possibly read it, and even if they read it, it would be of very little interest, I’m sure. But I was thinking as I came to these particular verses that if any one of these disciples had been a journal person, then for sure this day would have gone in the journal. And whether it was Andrew or Philip themselves writing the journal or one of the others, they would presumably have included many of these details—perhaps someone saying, “You know, Philip was asked by Jesus about this, but I do remember that Andrew was the one who introduced us to the little boy.” Nobody who was present would be able to forget the occasion.
That’s not the same as saying that everybody enjoyed the occasion or that everybody understood the occasion. In fact, the reaction of the crowd was such that Jesus decided to leave almost immediately. In fact, in Mark’s reference there is a very abrupt end to the story of the feeding, and Jesus moves away very quickly. He dispatches his disciples, he dismisses the crowd, and he then goes up into the mountain to pray.
There’s a wonderful picture there of Jesus that we might almost miss, insofar as he is the one who finally brings closure to it all. He says to the disciples, “You can go on now. I’ll wait here and finish things up. And when I finish things up, then I will go and talk with my Father.” And, of course, that’s exactly what happens.
And as a result of that, the scene is then set for another miracle. And what we have here is just that. It is a powerful, visible demonstration of the sovereignty of Jesus over the entire world that he has created. The writer to the Hebrews, in his immediate picture that he gives of Jesus in the opening chapter, refers to him as the one who “upholds the universe by the word of his power.” And the reason he’s able to write that is because the record of the life and ministry of Jesus testifies to the very same thing.
Now, we’re not going to spend long on this, but I want to try and guide us through it. In verse 16, the journey begins: “When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea.” The reason they went down to the sea is because Jesus had told them to do that. They were going in obedience. They were heading now to the northwest of the shore of the Sea of Galilee, because they were now moving back to Capernaum. And John tells us that it was dark. Sometimes darkness in the Bible has a peculiar significance. Sometimes it says it was night. And we’re left wondering, “I wonder if the darkness has more to say to us than simply the physical darkness or the absence of the light of the moon or whatever it might be.” But in the darkness they set out.
And the record is straightforward there. They have begun to cross the sea. They’re moving across the sea in the darkness, and the sea becomes rough. Verse 18: “The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing” against them. Now, that was nothing new to them. That wasn’t something that they had never experienced before. The Sea of Galilee is thirteen miles long. At its widest point it is eight miles wide. At the narrowest point it is a little less than five miles. And so it is that on that sea, with which they were familiar, they are making their attempt at reaching their destination.
And after rowing, we’re told, for “about three or four miles,” around three o’clock in the morning—Mark, again, tells us, “about the fourth watch of the night” (the fourth watch of the night is approximately three o’clock in the morning)—so, pitch dark, on a boat, on a familiar sea, with the wind hitting them straight on in the face, they are ready for just about anything.
And it’s in that context that Jesus appears. Jesus comes “walking on the sea … coming near [to] the boat, and they were frightened.” It’s important for us not just to say, “Well, that makes perfect sense,” because it doesn’t really make perfect sense. It doesn’t. If you think about it, if you had been present at one of the most amazing miracles, one of the greatest displays of God’s power, to the extent that approximately twenty thousand people were fed from a multiplication of a boy’s lunch with five loaves and two fish, don’t you think you would be saying, “Oh, Jesus, how nice to see you; we’ve been hoping you would come”? But no, that’s not what they say—not even for a moment. Mark actually says that they were freaked out. The word that he uses in Greek translates “freaked out” fairly well. And as a result being freaked out, they let out a corporate loud cry. It was as if the whole boat went, “Wait a minute! Whoa!”—a shriek of terror.
You see, it was a popular belief—and it’s not an unpopular belief even in our day—that spirits of the night brought disaster. That’s the kind of philosophical milieu in which they were living. It’s spooky at night. That’s actually what Phantom of the Opera picked up on in the song of the night:
Nighttime sharpens, heightens each sensation,
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination;
Silently the senses abandon their defenses,
… The music of the night.
I won’t sing it for you, you’ll be glad to know. But that notion, that popular belief, in the minds of these individuals, was enough for them to respond as they did.
Now, you realize that the Gospel of John—all the Gospels, actually—are written out of eyewitness accounts. And so, Peter, let’s say, had been describing what had happened on that occasion, and as a result of the description that he gave, John had written it down in this way. Peter may have said, “Well, we were in the boat. We saw this strange figure coming towards us across the water. We thought he was an apparition”—a phántasmá in Greek, which fits, doesn’t it? “We thought that. And it was about to pass by when we cried out.”
Well, you say, “Okay, fair enough. After all, who can walk on water?” Who can walk on water? Moses, they knew, parted the Red Sea. But when he parted the Red Sea, it says that the people went through on dry land. This is something very, very different.
Now, when you read these things—and I know you do read them—we should read them with a spirit not of skepticism but with a spirit of agnosticism. We should be asking questions. We should be saying, “Now, there’s things about this that I don’t fully understand. There’s things about this that I’ve never really thought about at all.” And here’s one: Are we surprised, then, by their reaction? After all, as we’ve just said, they’ve had the most amazing experience in the earlier part of the day. Wouldn’t you think that now they would be almost Teflon, that they would be almost fearless? “We were with Jesus. Jesus did this amazing thing. It was fantastic. Let’s go sailing. So what it’s dark? Yabba-dabba-doo! We’re fine, you know?” No. Here’s what Mark tells us: although they’d been in the middle of a miracle, they didn’t get it. They didn’t get it. Read it in Mark, if you turn to it. This is what he says: the disciples “did not understand about the loaves, … their hearts were hardened.”
So, not only did the crowd get it wrong, but the disciples didn’t even get it right. They were right there to see exactly what was happening. They were participating in the program, if you like. They were in touching distance of the miracle worker himself. But even that miracle did not actually open their eyes to see who he was. They were following him, but they didn’t know who he was.
The journey begins. Jesus appears. Thirdly, Jesus spoke to them. He said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Now, that is a phrase in Greek that you will remember, ego eimi. Ego eimi. If you remember way back to our studies in Genesis, in Joseph, you remember when in that great moment of self-disclosure, when Joseph takes, as it were, the veil from himself, and he says to his brothers who have hated him and pursued him in such a deathly way, he says to them, “You know, I don’t want you to be concerned about these things. It’s me—ego eimi. It’s me. It’s Joseph.”
Now, the significance of that phrase may actually be very much involved in this, and it may not. Because what it actually ties to is the declaration of God himself way back in the book of Exodus. And I think if there’s any reason to believe that this ego eimi here, this “It is I” here, has significance beyond simply self-disclosure—just Jesus saying, “Hey, guys, it’s me!”—if it means anything beyond that, it’s because of the conjunction between what’s going on here in this day and the fact that Moses and manna and the exodus and the wilderness are all swirling around in this experience. And, of course, at the burning bush, “Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” “Tell them, ‘I am.’” They’re freaked out—an apparition walking on the water. Jesus says, “It is I.”
Now, again, it’s helpful to recognize that these men knew the Hebrew Scriptures. Therefore, they were helped in a way that some of us may not be helped, to the extent that we’re not as familiar as they would have been. But what these individuals knew was that only God commands the elements. Right? They knew only God can control things. So, for example, in Psalm 77, this is what the psalmist says: “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid.” It’s an amazing picture, isn’t it? Because, you see, for a Hebrew mind, chaos, darkness, emptiness, and confusion were all marked by the sea. The sea was a tyranny to these people. Even sailors themselves recognized the power that was represented there. But they also recognized,
The clouds poured out water,
the skies gave forth thunder,
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lighted up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
“Wow! I was really freaked out there when I saw that, what I thought was an apparition. Now, as Jesus speaks, it makes me think of Psalm 77. It makes me think of Psalm 107.” Incidentally, I had to learn this whole psalm at school, in a secular primary school in Scotland, because I had a Christian teacher. And Psalm 107 is a long psalm. It has forty-three verses. And it’s got these little stanzas in it: “Some wandered in desert wastes.” “Some sat in darkness.” “Some were fools through their sinful ways.” And then this is the only one that I actually remember:
Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters;
they saw the deeds of the Lord,
his wondrous works in the deep.
Here you go:
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men[;]
[they] were at their wits’ end.
And they shouted out in fear.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He made the storm be still,
… the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad that the waters were quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.
Look down at your text if it’s still there. Verse 21: their fears are addressed—addressed by the presence of Christ. His command to them is one of the most familiar commands, incidentally—we ought to be encouraged by this—it’s one of the most familiar commands in the whole of the Bible. Do you realize how many times in the Bible we’re told not to be afraid? Fear is actually, like, the first cousin of unbelief. The sign—the sign (again, our control verse, 20:31)—these signs have been recorded in order that you might believe: “that you [might] believe that Jesus is the Christ, … and that by believing you [might] have life in his name.” But if you don’t believe, you’ll live with fear, because fear is actually the first cousin of unbelief. And in their heart of hearts, at this point, in the middle of the sea, they were actually unbelieving and fearful. What cancels unbelief? Belief. What cancels fear? The one in whom we believe.
And so, it’s a happy ending in verse 21: “Then they were glad.” They gladly took him into the boat, “and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.” Everybody wants to debate whether this is the third miracle, where the first miracle is the feeding of the five thousand, and the second miracle is that he walks on the water, and the third miracle is he goes, “Whoo!” and the boat goes flying up into the harbor, and that’s the end. You want a third miracle? That’s fine. It’s not a problem for Jesus just to bring the same power that allows him to walk on water into the boat so that they don’t have to row anymore, and they just get there. I don’t think it adds anything to it, nor is anything lost by not considering it. I’m perfectly happy. I’m up for as many miracles as we would like to have. But “they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat” had reached the destination. What a day! What a day!
Again, when it comes to journal time, when you get home and you sit down, I imagine them there, just reflecting on it—just saying, “You know, it was when Jesus said to us, ‘Have them sit down.’ That was the first time the bell rang for me. Because looking back on it now, all those people seated on the grass, all sort of orderly and in their position—isn’t that just the picture that we have of Moses making the distribution of the manna in the wilderness to the people who have been seated, ready to receive?” “Yes,” says one. “And you know what? When you think about the Red Sea thing—you know, Moses was able to take the people through the Red Sea. And Jesus, he’s just brought us through the sea. We were in a real mess out there earlier this evening. But look what he’s done.”
Well, that’s really it. A couple of closing observations.
Number one, a warning—a warning to us all: proximity to Jesus is no guarantee of real faith. Proximity to Jesus is no guarantee of real faith. Real faith is to be found in genuine, repentant, believing trust. And this chapter—this chapter, as we said this morning—ends with people turning their backs on Jesus, a chapter that you might imagine would be filled with a great throng of folks all being converted and joining in. But no, it says that “many of [the] disciples turned back”; they “no longer walked with him.” And Jesus said, “Do you want to go … as well?” And then we have Peter’s amazing answer. So, that’s the warning.
Secondly, maybe a second word of warning, or a “beware,” if you like: beware of coming to passages like this and applying allegory to try and understand them. This particular section of the Bible—any time Jesus is getting on a boat, or the boat is in the water, anything like this—you don’t have to search very far, and you will have people explaining to you that what this is, the way to understand this is, that the boat is a picture of the church.
So, you sometimes see, for example, boats—especially out in Israel or sometimes in Europe—and that boat there is a symbol. And so the way the passage is then taught is: “This is the church. What you see here is to teach us that we are a small handful of people. We’re tossed about on the rough seas of secularism, and we are living in the realm of uncertainty. We’re pulling away at the oars. It’s a dreadful task to be a Christian in these days. We’re trying desperately to get to heaven. We’re making a dreadful hash of it and so on. And furthermore, it is horribly dark.” And that’s the way it’s taught.
I want to suggest to you that people ought not to do that. Because although some of those things are true, you can teach that from anywhere you want, but you can’t teach it from this passage. Because what is this passage about? What is this sign about? What is the miracle about? The sign is pointing to Jesus, and to belief in Jesus, and to a transformed life as a result of that belief.
That said, in the warning against the allegory, we don’t want to miss the fact that it is also true that just as Jesus calmed their fears by making his presence known, so he does in coming to us to provide for us, to protect us, to accompany us, to empower us. “Days of darkness,” the hymn writer says, “still come o’er [us],” and “sorrow’s paths [we] often tread.” Fact! Fact. There’s no question that the pilgrimage of the Christian life is filled with all kinds of challenges that would be similar to hitting it on the high seas, as it were.
And we need to remind ourselves that trials come to prove us and to reprove us. It is in the trials that we learn things. Because God puts his people—puts his people—in situations in order that he might test them, in order that he might stretch them. That is sometimes merely in the routine of everyday life. Sometimes it’s in the whirlwind of illness, bereavement, loss of job, collapsing relationship, whatever it might be. And at that point anybody would say, “Well, I just feel myself out to be in the midst of the sea. I don’t think that there’s a destination to which I’m heading, and there’s no one possibly able to help me unless there is somebody who ‘plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm,’ unless there is someone who can actually step down into this predicament.” And, of course, the Bible says there is.
It’s a reminder, too, that the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the follower of Jesus is not to make us comfortable but is to conform us to the image of Jesus. And if we decide that the only way that we can adjudicate on our spiritual pilgrimage is to be found in the level of comfort that we know or the sense of satisfaction that we enjoy, then we will be in deep trouble routinely. Because so much of life is uncomfortable, and so many aspects do not fully satisfy us. That’s the point of the earlier miracle: we will never find rest until we find rest in Jesus.
Now, with that warning of the allegory, I want to tell you, finally… And this does sound a little allegorical, but that’s okay. As you know, somebody came to me this morning to tell me that he doesn’t like my sermons, but he likes when I quote songs. And so I said, “Well, I understand at least part of that.” But when I was a boy in Glasgow on the river Clyde, a day out with my grandfather was very simple. We would ride public transport to destinations that we arbitrarily chose. But the particularly good day was when we crossed the river Clyde twice. Going out, we crossed it on the car ferry, which was a huge monstrosity of a thing; and coming back, we crossed it on the wee ferry, which was just for a small number of people. And when we crossed the Clyde, which leads out into the ocean, every so often there would be a tiny boat that would be pointed out to me by my grandfather. And he said, “You know what that boat is?” I said, “No, I don’t know what it is.” He said, “Well, that boat there is being moved, captained, by a man who is the pilot.” I said, “Well, what do you mean, a ‘pilot’? I thought pilots flew?” He said, “Yeah, but it’s a different kind of pilot. Just listen to me.” I said, “Okay, okay, okay.”
So he said, “When these huge ocean liners come in, they can’t navigate up the Clyde, because they don’t have the capacity to do so. They need somebody to get on board in order to take that gigantic thing to its destination.”
“Okay, I got it.”
And he says, “Here’s the song…”
Do you want a Pilot? Signal, then, to Jesus@
Do you want a Pilot? [Then] bid him come on board;
[And] he will safely guide across the [ocean] wide
Until at last you reach the heavenly harbor.
Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” “I am the one who controls the tides. I am Lord. I am Savior. I am King. Will you not trust me?”
And the final song goes like this:
With Christ in the vessel
We can smile at the storm
As we go sailing home.
The reason I know that is because it rains so much in Scotland. And my father thought it was always good to cheer us all up by a song. He could sing no better than myself, but it didn’t stop him at all. And if you could imagine as a, you know, seven-, eight-, nine-year-old, ten-year-old boy sitting in the back of the car, with the windscreen washers just going like this, and it’s just beating down on the car, and he’s saying, “Look, aren’t those waves magnificent?” You know, I’m like, “No, they’re horrible. I hate this. I hate every part of it.” And then he says, “Come on, now, let us sing! ‘With Christ in the vessel we can smile at the storm as we go sailing home.’” Well, it didn’t do much for me then, but it’s a good reminder now. Because with Christ in the vessel, we can smile at the storm—smile in our tears, smile through our tears, but still smile.
Let’s just pray:
Father, again we thank you that the Lord Jesus Christ is a wonderful Savior, a precious friend. And we thank you that although there is much in our lives and in our world to alarm us, to make us fearful, that, as the psalmist puts it, “the name of the Lord”—all that the Lord is, all that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are—“the name of the Lord is a strong tower,” and the righteous can run into it and are safe. Thank you that there is safety in the arms of Jesus.
God grant that the testimonies of those who have spoken tonight—who have spoken both verbally and visibly in the symbol of their response to Christ—may so move each of our hearts that if we have never been brave enough to do what they did, yet we do believe in Jesus, that tonight might be the night when we say, “Well, if they can do it, I can do it,” and that some who are on the fringes of belief, that they might come to lay down the arms of their rebellion. Like Andre said, all the notions of the impossibility of this and the difficulty of that and the uncertainty of this—finally his eyes are opened, and he bows down and admits that you’re God. God grant us that safety tonight, we pray, even as we sing, and then as we part. And we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 See Mark 6:45–46.
 Hebrews 1:3 (ESV).
 Mark 6:48 (ESV).
 See Mark 6:50.
 Charles Hart, Richard Stilgoe, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, “The Music of the Night” (1986).
 See Exodus 14:22.
 Mark 6:52 (ESV).
 Genesis 45:3–4 (paraphrased).
 Exodus 3:13–14 (ESV).
 Exodus 3:14 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 77:16 (ESV).
 Psalm 77:17–20 (ESV).
 Psalm 107:4 (ESV).
 Psalm 107:10 (ESV).
 Psalm 107:17 (ESV).
 Psalm 107:23–30 (ESV).
 John 6:10 (paraphrased).
 John 6:66–67 (ESV).
 Francis Harold Rowley, “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story” (1886).
 William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774).
 Eric Hubert Swinstead, “Do You Want a Pilot?”
 John 6:35, 48 (ESV).
 Proverbs 18:10 (ESV). See also Psalm 61:3.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.