John 6:16-21 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 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. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.
You may remember that John’s Gospel is often spoken of as consisting of two main parts: the Book of Signs (1-12) and the Book of Glory (13-20). I imagine the reason for the naming of the first part is becoming increasingly clear. While it is generally agreed that there are seven primary signs—turning water into wine (2:1–11), cleansing the Temple (2:12–17), healing the official’s son (4:46–54), healing the paralytic (5:1–15), feeding the five thousand (6:1–15), healing the blind man (9), and raising Lazarus from the dead (11)—there are a number of other “lesser” signs spread throughout the Gospel as well. One of those (“lesser” signs) is found in our passage for this morning. Almost immediately after feeding the five thousand, Jesus (miraculously) took a long walk on the surface of the Sea of Galilee. Even after what they just witnessed (the feeding of the five thousand), the disciples were still “frightened” by this new manifestation of the glory of Jesus.
To help us get the most out of this passage, I’ve divided my sermon into two main sections. In the first, we’ll take a look at the text itself. And in the second section, we’ll consider four staggering biblical-theological themes embedded in these six short verses. The main thrust of the text is that the glory of Jesus is greater than you can ever imagine. And the main takeaway for us is the need to learn to love all of who Jesus is and live entirely in light of it. Let’s pray
After feeding the 5,000, John 6:15 ends with John letting his readers know that “Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” John doesn’t mention any kind of conversation with the disciples before withdrawing. He kind of makes it seem like Jesus just slid away and left the disciples wondering what to do. If we didn’t know any better, v.16 kind of seems like they waited around for a while for Jesus to return, but “When evening came” and Jesus still wasn’t back,” his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum.”
But, John’s account is not all we have to go on. Matthew and Mark’s Gospels both speak of this as well. And Matthew’s (14:22-24) adds an important detail.
22 Immediately [after feeding the 5,000] [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
In other words, far from slipping away silently, Jesus gave clear instructions to the disciples. And far from accidentally missing the appointed departure time, Matthew tells us that sending the disciples off ahead of Him was an intentional act by Jesus to give Himself more time to pray and to perform another miracle (this time for the disciples alone).
Jesus sent the disciples ahead of Him in the boat, indicating that He would catch up with them at a later time. Night came, and darkness with it. “It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them” (17b). We have to imagine that the disciples were used to this by now. It was fairly common for Jesus to operate on a timeline not entirely understood by the disciples. We’re meant to imagine that they just continued to do what Jesus commanded them until Jesus said otherwise—a great lesson and example for us as well. We may want to know more of God’s will than He means us to have; and so we simply continue to obey.
Consistent with that pattern, the disciples simply continued making their way across the sea. As they did, however, v.18 tells us that “The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.” It seems that this continued on for some distance and some time. According to v.19, the disciples rowed through darkness and wind for “about three or four miles.” The Sea of Galilee is around eight miles wide, which mean that the disciples would have been almost exactly in the middle of the lake. Again, Matthew adds a detail that John left out. Not only were they in the middle of the lake, but it was also the darkest hour of the night (somewhere around 3am).
It was at then that “they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat.” From their reaction (which we’ll consider in just a minute), we can tell that this was not at all what they were expecting. Jesus commanded them to get in the boat, head across the sea ahead of Him, and to wait for Him to catch up later. It’s not obvious how the disciples would have understood that (would He walk around the lake, catch another boat, something else?), but it is obvious that this wasn’t it. In all seriousness, who would have expected that? How could anyone have expected that. And so, as we can easily imagine, “they were frightened” (19).
It’s interesting to me that the disciples were not at all afraid (in any Gospel account) of being on rough water, in a windstorm, in the dark, in the middle of the night, but they were afraid when they saw Jesus. Matthew and Mark explain that when they first saw Him, they assumed He was a ghost, but it seems that was only because they had no category for a person walking on water. In other words, their fear was more tied to this fuller revelation of who Jesus was than anything else.
It’s really hard not to think of the famous line about Aslan here. “Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr. Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
In other words, Jesus’ glory is of such a kind that genuine awe and wonder, even a kind of fear, are part of an appropriate response to meeting Him. Having been given no small glimpse of that glory, the disciples were right to tremble. And yet, as is always the case for those who trust in Him, Jesus “said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid’” (v.20).
There are, perhaps, no sweeter words that anyone can hear, Grace. In the midst of our doubt and difficulty, in the midst of our pain and persecution, in the midst of our suffering and sadness, in the midst of our fear and failure, there is nothing more healing and helping than to hear our Savior say, ‘It is I; do not be afraid’ “I am with you; it will be OK.” “I am here; nothing can harm you.” “I love you; you are accepted.”
Certainly, filled with relief at that revelation, John tells us (in v.21) “they were glad to take him into the boat.” Again, it was dark and windy. It was the middle of the night. They were on a boat in obedience to Jesus, but they had to be wondering when He would—even longing for Him to—rejoin them. And here He was; with them again. Everything was going to be OK.
John’s concluding clause is interesting. Read in the most straightforward way, it sounds like Jesus performed yet another miracle. It says, “and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.” Again, on the surface, it sounds like as soon as Jesus stepped in the boat, it teleported to the other side of the lake. While that’s possible, it’s unlikely. None of the other Gospel accounts mention anything like that. More than likely, all John meant was that nothing else of significance happened between the time Jesus joined the disciples and when they reached Bethsaida.
As we’ve seen over and over in John, Jesus continually revealed more and more of His glory. Consequently, each time He did so the crowds (and even the disciples) were more and more confused and amazed. What are we to do we do with this guy?! He’s like no one we’ve ever encountered and yet every time it seems like we’ve found the limit of His wonder, He reveals yet another layer of glory. It’s like there’s no end to the fact that He’s different and more than we’ve realized.
Before we move on to the second part of the sermon, let me suggest a few areas of application in light of this newest miraculous encounter with Jesus.
- Be careful of believing you have Jesus all figured out. It will be our highest pleasure to spend all eternity exploring the infinite glories of Jesus. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the same trap that those who encountered Jesus in John’s Gospel fell into—the trap of thinking they had Jesus pegged. We have the Word and the Spirit, so we certainly don’t need to pretend we know nothing, but we must also humbly acknowledge how easy it is for us to remake God in our image, as His first followers often did.
- The best way to be careful is to read and study and pray God’s Word consistently. The primary place Jesus reveals Himself to the Church today—including you and me—is in His Word. We have the OT promises of Jesus which reveal a great deal about Him. Additionally, of course, we have the NT revelation of Jesus in the Gospels. And we have 23 more NT books interpreting and explaining the nature and significance of Jesus’ person, life, death, and resurrection. If you want to really know Jesus—all He means us to know about Him—you have to be a person of the Bible.
- Where you find descriptions and teaching of Jesus that don’t fit with your prevailing understanding, change your understanding, not Jesus. Grace, we need to be eager to come across passages like this one and allow them to expand and correct our understanding of the power and glory of Jesus. We simply cannot hold on to lies. Tragically, I’ve encountered way too many people (as I’m sure many of you have as well) who, when confronted with the Jesus of the Bible, say things like “I’m just too old to change” or “That’s not the Jesus I believe in” or “Science has helped us to see that’s just not possible” or “My Jesus is much more accepting and loving than that” or “We can’t take everything the Bible says about Jesus seriously, that’s childish.” If there is a Jesus worth trusting in (and there is!), then He is the Jesus of the Bible, not our own concoction.
- Worship Jesus! Even though we will never exhaustively (or fully) know the glories of Jesus, that does not mean we cannot or should not praise Him for the ones we do know. Though we cannot fully know Jesus, we can truly know Him and one awesome aspect of the gospel is that when we faithfully offer praise to God in light of the truth we do know, God is pleased with our worship.
- Obey Jesus. Our lives will begin to take on the fullness God created us for (John 10:10) when we see Jesus’ commands like we’d see the instructions on a treasure map. When we believe the treasure to be sufficiently valuable, no instruction will be burdensome. Traveling 500 miles on foot will be a joyful trial if we truly treasure the treasure. Selling all we have to finance our treasure hunt will be joyful if we truly treasure the treasure. Let’s learn from this passage that even when Jesus’ commands seem particularly odd or difficult, they are nevertheless the straightest path to the greatest joy.
- Walk in peace. The heart of the good news of Jesus Christ is that He is always with those who trust in Him. Unlike when He was on earth and He truly would come and go from the presence of His followers, He is now with us always even to the very end of the age. He never leaves and certainly never forsakes His people. And for that reason, His words that were situationally true for the disciples, are now universally true for all who call on His name, ” It is I; do not be afraid.” Grace, hear this, believe this, and then walk in the peace that surpasses understanding.
All of that, then, leads us to the second part of the sermon.
All too briefly, I’d like to close by pointing out four spectacular biblical themes embedded in this already spectacular passage: darkness/light, water, the fear of the Lord, and human choice.
In the very beginning of John’s Gospel we read, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:4-5). The theme of light and darkness continues on throughout the Gospel. Even more significantly, though, it continues throughout the entire Bible. In the very first words of the Bible we read, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep…And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:1-4). Unsurprisingly, among the very last words in the Bible are, “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).
The main point is that God made physical light and darkness to help us understand spiritual light and darkness; to understand spiritual battle between good and evil that has been raging since the Garden and will continue to rage until the new and final Garden. Indeed, there are few themes more prominent in the Bible than that of light/darkness.
This shows up in our passage for this morning in the simple fact that Jesus’ absence is the essence of darkness. The scene happened at night as a way of helping us see the true significance of the disciples being without Jesus. Where Jesus is absent, darkness is present, even as where Jesus is present, there is light. Every other understanding of light/darkness finds its origin here. That is why my favorite description of heaven is that of a place without shadows, for in heaven we are always in the full presence of Christ, such that the true light of Christ completely encompasses everything, always.
The second key biblical-theological theme we see in this passage is that of water. Water plays a spectacularly important role in the Bible. Like light, the creation of water is found within the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible (Genesis 1:6-10). We quickly find out that water is necessary, by God’s design, for life to begin and thrive. But God’s Word helps us to see that this physical reality, once again, is meant to point to a much greater spiritual reality. By the sixth chapter of the Bible the spiritual significance of water is already upon us.
Peter helps us to see the importance of water in the connection between Noah’s physical deliverance and the greater spiritual deliverance God promises in Jesus. Thus, in 1 Peter 3:20-21 we read, “in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”.
Likewise, just a few chapters earlier in John (4:10-14), we read of the significance of water in Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water…14 whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Again, quickly, the main thing for us to focus in on is the fact that God made physical water to teach vital spiritual truths. Water is necessary for physical life to begin and thrive. But that is primarily a metaphor for its necessity for spiritual birth and sustenance. We see this in our passage in the simple fact that Jesus brought a type of deliverance (from darkness, storm, and lingering disbelief) to the disciples “through water”.
Fear of God
To have any idea at all of the holy nature of God is to fear the LORD. Few have understood this better than Jonathan Edwards. And fewer still have captured it as well as he did in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
In one such example, we read, “The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.”
To know the LORD is to fear the LORD. That is why God praised Abraham for willingly offering his son as a sacrifice by saying, ” now I know that you fear God” (Genesis 22:12). That is why Jethro instructed Moses to “look for able men from all the people, men who fear God” (Exodus 18:21) when he needed men to help govern the Israelites. That is why David regularly described his enemies and God’s enemies as those who “do not fear God” (Psalm 55:19). That is why Solomon, in all his wisdom, acknowledged that the fundamental difference between the righteous and wicked is the fear of God, “a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God” (Ecclesiastes 8:12-13). And this is why some of the final words ever spoken on the old earth will be “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” ( Revelation 14:7).
As I noted earlier, there is no mention of the disciples being afraid of being in a storm on the water at night (granted, several of them were seasoned fishermen). Their fear was tied to seeing Jesus on the water. Grace, may we never forget that He is the one in whom we live and move and have our being, even as He is the one who will come back to judge and make war (Revelation 19:11), and the One whose “eyes are like a flame of fire” (19:12), and who will be “clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (19:13), and from whose “mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (19:15).
Grace Church, settle now on the fact that any true understanding of Jesus includes a holy reverence. If your understanding of Jesus is entirely tame and containable, you’re not really thinking of Jesus. Indeed, if any of us remains in our sin and rebellion against God, Jesus will be the instrument of our eternal destruction.
But let us also settle on the fact now that Jesus came that all who fear God might never need to fear God. Jesus’ command is one that echoes throughout the Bible. Fear God so you need not fear Him! To trust in Jesus, to come to Him in the light, and to drink of His living waters, is to hear the words He spoke to His disciples in this passage, “It is I; do not be afraid.”
All of that, then, leads to the final theme—the reality and significance of our choices. The simple fact is that God created all mankind with the ability to make real choices. He also made us responsible for the choices we make.
We see this in most dramatic fashion when Adam and Eve chose to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree and the consequences of doing so—death!
Consistently, throughout the rest of the Bible, people make choices and God holds them accountable for them.
To the Israelites, Joshua said, “Joshua 24:15 choose this day whom you will serve” and they did. They chose the LORD and He blessed them.
On the other hand, Isaiah prophesied that God would “destine [His people] to the sword, and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter…” and He would do so “because, when I called, you did not answer; when I spoke, you did not listen, but you did what was evil in my eyes and chose what I did not delight in” (Isaiah 65:12).
And most importantly of all, when the Philippian jailer witnessed the power of God and wondered, “What must I do to be saved?” the simple and immediate answer the disciples gave him was, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…” (Acts 16:30-31). Salvation comes to those who chose to believe in Jesus.
All of this is captured in our passage in the simple phrase, “21 Then they were glad to take him into the boat”. John’s Gospel is filled with accounts of those who were not “glad to take Jesus into their boat,” even as was the case in all of our hearts at one time and is still the case for many in the world around us.
There is some mystery in how our choices and responsibility works out in light of certain aspects of God’s sovereignty and providence, but there is no mystery in the fact that they do.
And so I leave you with this: Jesus is greater than you ever have or will imagine. We’re given yet another glimpse of that in this passage. One of the main reasons for this kind of revelation, in this kind of passage is to help us choose to believe in and follow Jesus. And the main reason for that is because it is the means by which God has determined to unite us with the saving, reconciling, death-defeating, fellowship-restoring work of Jesus on the cross. We don’t gain God’s favor by making enough right choices, but by choosing to trust in the One person who did. Choose, then, right now, to believe in Jesus, to gladly “take Him into your boat” and find the fullness of life and eternal life you were made for. Amen.