45 Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
47 Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. 48 He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, 50 because they all saw him and were terrified.
Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 51 Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, 52 for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.
(Mark 6:45-52 NIV)
Jesus had just finished feeding the five thousand in our previous passage. The disciples were not bystanders in the miracle – they were active participants, serving the crowd and gathering the remaining food – just enough for each of the Twelve to have a meal.
As soon as the last bits of food were in the disciples’ lunch pails, Jesus forced His disciples off to a boat and ordered them to head to Bethsaida. Our first thought might be that Jesus was concerned about their health (His original intent, after all, was to bring them to a remote place where they could rest – v. 31). In this scenario, Jesus was simply being the good and gracious host, sending His disciples off to a well-deserved rest while He blessed the crowds and sent them back to their homes.
When we read the parallel passage in John’s Gospel (John 6:14-15), we see a much different view of the situation. John tells us that Jesus sensed that the crowd wanted to force Jesus to be their earthly king. In reality, Jesus likely sent His disciples off before they caught wind of this poisonous and highly contagious idea. Jesus then quickly disbursed the crowds to their homes before heading for the mountains by Himself.
The evening is late when all this transpires; Jesus heads off to the mountains to pray, while His disciples are in a boat headed for Bethsaida. Mark records that sometime between 3 AM and 6 AM, the disciples have still not made the Bethsaida shore. From His vantage point on the mountain, Jesus can see that the disciples are still struggling against the wind that is pushing against them in the middle of the lake.
Jesus leaves His mountain perch and walks out to meet His disciples, walking across the windy waves. The disciples, likely bone tired from the day and still without sleep trying to get to Bethsaida, think they are seeing a ghost as Jesus approaches the boat. The disciples’ natural reaction is that of fear.
Jesus speaks to His disciples and comforts them with His words, then climbs in the boat with them. The wind dies down, and the disciples are completely amazed. Mark records (from Peter’s perspective, no doubt) that the disciples still did not comprehend who Jesus was. They still saw Jesus as a prophet with miraculous powers, an incredible man of God. But even though the disciples had just experienced Jesus performing an indescribable miracle in which they had actively participated, they still did not see Jesus as God’s Son, the Messiah.
Before we discredit the disciples for not seeing what is going on, we have to look in the mirror. Have you ever had the same experience as the disciples as you look back over your life and see God’s hand of Providence working on your behalf? From your current perspective now, God’s intervention in your life back then is as plain as day, but yet you completely missed it at the time it was happening. I am raising my hand and nodding in agreement with you.
And now we understand how Peter could have told Mark that the disciples’ hearts (including his own) were hardened, and they completely missed Jesus’ revealing His glory and power through the unmiraculous miracle of feeding the multitude.
And what about now? What are we struggling against under our own power? What contrarian wind are we trying to row the “boat” of our life against, making no progress, and exhausting ourselves in the process?
Like the disciples, when will we remember and relate our prior experiences of Jesus calming the storms and headwinds in our life, and in faith, ask for His help?
May we start with Jesus and our humble submission to Him in faith, rather than going in circles and landing at the foot of the cross in utter exhaustion.