My favorite TV show this year is Fringe, and I love the tagline for this past season: “New cases. Endless impossibilities.” There’s something about it that resonates with me. Maybe it reminds me a little of Mark’s account of Jesus’ life. It seems that every day there is a new miracle, a new impossibility that actually happens. Today’s impossibility: Jesus walks on water.
This takes place the night following the miraculous dinner party he threw for 5,000 men, feeding the whole crowd in an afternoon with five loaves of bread and two fish. Afterward, Jesus hurries his disciples away in a boat, telling them to travel across the Sea of Galilee to the town of Bethsaida. He dismisses the crowd and goes up on a mountain to pray. As he spends time with God, he looks out over the lake and sees his disciples’ boat off in the distance. They’re not making good time. The wind against them is strong, they are weary after a long day without rest, and the act of rowing is torture to their exhausted bodies.
The disciples fight on, rowing late into the early morning, until sometime before sunrise they catch sight of something that sends a shiver down their spines. It appears to be a man, walking alongside them on the surface of the lake! All of them feel a horrible sensation in the pit of their stomach—no man can walk across water like that.
No doubt they’ve all heard ghost stories as kids and laughed about them as adults. But now the unimaginable is happening—some sort of spirit is coming closer to them, and there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. They panic, and some of them cry out in terror.
Then the phantom speaks to them, “Take courage! I am. Don’t be afraid.” They know that voice. This is no ghost; it’s Jesus! They’re safe after all. He walks toward them, climbs into the boat, and the wind dies down at once. Their night of torment and terror has ended.
Mark writes that the disciples are “utterly astounded” by the whole situation. My first instinct is to say that’s perfectly reasonable—wouldn’t we all be shocked? But that’s not the conclusion Mark draws. Instead, he tells us that the only reason the disciples are astounded is because they missed an important message when Jesus multiplied the loaves of bread the day before. Instead, “their hearts were hardened.” The last time Mark used that figure of speech, he was talking about the religious leaders who opposed Jesus despite his obvious miracles (3:5). Now he’s using it to describe Jesus’ disciples. They didn’t “get it” when Jesus supernaturally fed the crowd of 5,000 men.
So what did they miss? Why shouldn’t they have been surprised to see Jesus strolling across a lake? Well, there are a couple of clues in this story that tell us why Jesus did this. First, Mark says that “he meant to pass by them.” This seems odd on the face of it, but it should bring to mind a couple of incidents from the Old Testament. On two occasions, when God showed himself to Moses and Elijah, he “passed by” them, revealing his glory and especially his compassion (Exodus 34:6; 1 Kings 19:11). And also in the Old Testament, Job says that God “trampled the waves of the sea…he passes by me, and I see him not” (Job 9:8, 11). The wording is eerily similar to Mark’s, especially in the original languages. The point is that, by “passing by” them on the water, Jesus is offering his disciples a theophany—a glimpse of the glory of God. The second clue is that he assures his disciples, “I am.” It’s an unmistakable echo of Exodus 3:14, where God tells Moses that his name is “I Am.”
When he fed the crowd the day before, Jesus revealed himself to be the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23. And anyone who reads verse 1 of that psalm knows the identity of that Good Shepherd. But the disciples didn’t get it. They don’t understand that Jesus is more than a man. They don’t understand that when they see his compassion and his mighty works, they are seeing the compassion and mighty works of their God. Jesus is Immanuel—God with us (Isaiah 7:14).
Just to hammer the point home, Jesus embarks on a massive healing campaign once they reach the land. People come from the whole region to be healed. It is enough to touch “even the fringe of his garment”! There is no mistaking it: Jesus is telling the truth about who he is.
Here’s what seems to be holding back the disciples from understanding. It’s not that they think that God doesn’t exist. It’s not that they think he doesn’t have authority to do anything. They just don’t think that he has come to dwell with them and that he might actually exercise his authority on their behalf. They don’t understand that the inscrutable and enigmatic God of Job has now come to be with them, to reveal himself to them, and to help them. They’ve already decided that those sorts of things don’t happen. Five loaves of bread aren’t enough to feed five thousand men. Nobody can just walk across a lake.
Jesus absolutely baffles his disciples because he explodes their cynical worldview. He simply hands out five loaves and a whole crowd is fed. He wants to get to the other side of the lake, so he just walks across it. No big deal.
My prayer today is that you and I would consider Jesus and come to know him better. May God give us understanding to end our cynicism, so that we welcome and expect endless impossibilities.