John Wesley had never been on a ship before until he sailed across to America. They’re a week from land and there’s a violent storm. Wesley writes how they were worried that the ship was going to be lost: “The sea spilled over the ship, split the mainsail, and poured between the decks as if the great deep had already swallowed us up.”
The English passengers cringed in terror. Wesley, however, noticed the German Moravians steadily continued singing psalms. He was impressed with their faith in their hour of need. He saw the difference between those who truly knew the Lord and those who didn’t. Even though he’d been a preacher for some time, he didn’t have that faith that the Lord would, as we read the psalm: “Calm the storm to a whisper, still the waves and bring them safely into harbour!” (Ps.107:29-30).
The sea, of course, can be very dangerous. Even a small one, like the Sea of Galilee only 7 miles across at it’s widest point, can be prone to violent storms and big waves, because it lies in a deep valley surrounded by hills where hot air meeting cooler air causes sudden gales which although expected can still be frightening. Even for experienced fishermen.
Now Jesus had taken Himself off to the hills to pray resisting the temptation to allow the people to make Him king. The disciples waited for Him, but as darkness fell, decided to head back home across the lake to Capernaum. Perhaps the weather was changing and they wanted to get back rather than spend a cold night out under the stars (with a few thousand rabble rousers who were trying to make Jesus king!)
So they’re about four miles out by which time the sea is very rough. There’s a gale sweeping down upon them. Now, they probably were able to handle themselves. Unlike Wesley they were used to such conditions. The point being made in the text is they were terrified: “When suddenly they saw Jesus walking on the water approaching the boat.” (6:19). Who wouldn’t be? It’s not something you’d expect to see. Bodies are heavier than water. The waves are pounding. But having already multiplied food to feed thousands of people, Jesus has already shown He can manipulate the laws of nature.
John in his gospel is once again profoundly demonstrating that Jesus is clearly greater than Moses. He’s already been seen as the Prophet, as the King and now the gospel hints at Him acting like God. Moses led his people through the sea, but Jesus was able to walk on the sea! This miracle can’t be explained away by a modernist, scientific mind-set. This abbreviated story is told to demonstrate the assurance that “Everyone who calls on the Lord will be saved.” (Rom.10:13; Acts 2:21).
The disciples’ reaction suggests that here John intends us to understand that Jesus is walking on the water to find them. There’s a storm that could easily capsize the boat. They are in danger. However, they recognise that the Lord brings His comfort and healing to them calling out: “Don’t be afraid. I am here!” (6:20). They trust Him. The wind stops. Jesus gets into the boat beside them.
This is a forceful pledge of the divine presence: “Don’t be afraid I am here”, reflects the great “I Am” of the OT. This is undoubtedly the Most High God. It reminds us of the godly name revealed to Moses. Jesus has already used it when talking to the woman at the well and uses it a lot in this gospel, often with a description like bread or light (the signs), or on its own like here. [C]It is enough to calm their fears and they don’t even row the boat to safe haven for “immediately they arrived at their destination!” (6:21).
We often face spiritual and emotional storms and feel tossed about on the waters of life. In spite of terrifying circumstances, if we trust our lives to Christ for His safekeeping, He will give us peace in any storm. Even Jonah realized that! Also Isaiah’s prophecy: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown” (Is.43:2) has been fulfilled by Christ. One could argue physically with the disciples and spiritually with us. Lastly, remember that God sometimes takes us into troubled waters not to drown us but to cleanse us. And storms don’t last forever.
Back to the text, the next morning the crowd, who were hoping to make Jesus king remember, was still lingering on the far side of the lake where Jesus had blessed the bread. Therefore they had no option but to resume their pursuit of Him. John tells us the type of people they were: (1) the curious: “Rabbi when did you get here?” (v.25). They were inquisitive, as Jesus had mysteriously crossed a lake without a boat! (2) And the sincere seekers: “What does God want us to do?” (v.29).
Jesus wasn’t flattered by their interest in Him. He ignores the first question. He doesn’t waste time discussing how He travelled and gets straight to the point of exactly why they are searching for Him suggesting it has nothing to do with His teaching or His miracles but because they like the prospect of free food! “I tell you the truth, you want to be with me because I fed you [on the hillside]…” – they have no understanding of who He really is and He knows their hearts desire (6:26).
This is the start of one of the Lords greatest sermons. The point we’ve got to grasp is this: that Jesus gives more than bread to satisfy our stomachs; He is the true bread of heaven that will satisfy our souls as it leads to eternal life. The work of God is not something we have to do, but someone we are to believe in. Isaiah symbolically speaks of this invitation to the Lord’s salvation: “Why pay for bread that does you no good? Listen to me, and you will eat what is good. You will enjoy the finest food.” (Is.55:2). Are you eating the bread of life?
The symbolism here is incredible for there is other “bread”, other “foods” which soon perish and sadly people expend much time, energy and money on them: the food of human wisdom; the food of pleasure; the food of great wealth: buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people that don’t matter! How many of you know people who seem to be driven, unable to relax, unable to find satisfaction, who are constantly seeking something, hoping to find in these activities some sense of peace?
Despite all this, people continue to hunger and thirst. None of these provide lasting fulfillment. The only food that lasts is the Word of God by which man truly lives: Bread of heaven, feed me now and evermore! Faith in Christ has satisfied many a person; trust in God has quenched the thirst of many parched souls; belief in the Lord has filled many hungry hearts. I like what this says: Without God our week would be SINDAY, MOURNDAY, TEARSDAY, WASTEDAY, THIRSTDAY, FIGHTDAY, SHATTERDAY – 7 days with God makes ONE WEAK!!
Nevertheless, the crowd found it hard then and people find it hard today. Such is the life of faith. Jesus has come so no one need be lost. He has come to save, He gives food that endures, and abides and remains with those who receive Him. He’s not there for those who only follow Him when it’s beneficial for them. Jesus did not come to fulfill your self-centered desires. He came to change those desires, to transform how you think and how you live.
As the Son of Man, He can do all this, as He is the “one to whom God has given His seal of approval.” All that’s required is to “believe in the one he has sent.” (6:27,29). This is free grace. Yet there is something profound about human nature that spurn’s a free gift. We would much rather achieve something ourselves. When that happens faith becomes too legalistic and tends to just go through the motions of worship and prayer.
So accept that Jesus is who He claims to be and understand God has done all the work and there’s no amount of effort we can possibly make that merits salvation. Although there is effort that merits reward as in not wasting our talents by accomplishing things for God, and not taking our salvation for granted. Grace is free – but it’s certainly not cheap!
Obviously, God can tell the false disciple from the true disciple. So are you striving for that which cannot truly satisfy? Or is your focus in life on that which is everlasting?
“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life.” (Dt.30:19-20)
I’ll let the Word speak for itself. It’s Good News!