|John 6:16-21 "Walking on Water"|
Joshua MoonDATE: September 13, 2009
SPEAKER: Joshua Moon
SERIES: Gospel of John
Walking on Water
We are in John’s Gospel, at ch.6. We are in the middle of a section that begins with the sign of feeding 5,000 men with a few loaves of barley bread and two fish, and then ends with the interpretation of that sign at the end of ch.6 with Jesus pronouncing himself the bread of life. It is worth pointing out that the whole episode, beginning with the feeding of the 5,000, comes in John’s Gospel right on the tail of Jesus leaving Jerusalem. But a lot of time could have passed – some think as much as a year or more, though that is just a guess. But just another reminder that John is telling the story of the Gospel by choosing certain things and leaving other things out. It’s a theological way of telling the story, not just a bare recounting of facts and events.
Between Jesus feeding the 5,000 with bread and then explaining to them that he is the bread of life, we have one more sign, a miracle that is performed this time only with the disciples. Having this episode in the middle of the obviously related discussions of bread seems out of place. Some think that John is simply following Mark here, as it seems he does in other places. Mark has this episode in just this place after feeding the 5,000 and John had Mark in front of him and thought it a useful episode even if it interrupts the flow a little.
I think that understates John’s intention in recording it. He does seem to know Mark and even deliberately follow or deliberately depart from Mark at a number of points in the Gospel. But having this episode here will set the stage for a lot that will come. This is a high moment in John’s Gospel, where the claim of John 1:1, that the Word was God, that looms behind much that we’ve already seen in the Gospel becomes even more explicit in the mouth of Jesus himself. What had to be put together or taken as implicit in what he said a chapter ago to those in Jerusalem he now reveals rather bluntly in the privacy of his disciples. This is a key moment in the Gospel and fits within the discussion of feeding and bread precisely because it establishes finally and irrevocably who Jesus is in the minds of his disciples.
So read with me, this next great sign of Jesus the Son of the Living God. John 6:16…
v.20 The translation of the text this way is hard to disagree with in some ways. But you miss the whole punch of what it is that Jesus says. It can be translated like you have it, and outside of John’s Gospel that was the normal way of saying, “It is I.” But the words Jesus uses are εγω ειμι, “I am. Do not be afraid.” The point would not have been missed. That is what Isaiah among others uses to refer to the Lord’s name in the Old Testament: Yhwh, the I AM. Yhwh is some form of the verb “to be”, though exactly what is unclear. In any case, Yhwh is the I am and now Jesus is proclaiming just that. It is one more instance in John where a phrase could be taken in a pedestrian way (“It is I”), but the reader knows John is investing it with greater meaning. To show absolute authority over the winds and waves and pronounce at the same time, “I am,” is a claim of being the Lord, God of Israel.
The claim begins unfolding what is meant by Moses writing of Jesus, which we read a couple of weeks ago. Moses wrote of Yhwh, the I am, Jesus. Jesus will continue making “I am” statements: I am the bread of life; I am the resurrection; I am the way. Here is the first, and it sets the context for the rest.
v.21 Commentators debate whether this is meant to be a second miracle: they were immediately transported to the shore. Maybe. I’m not entirely convinced: the word “immediately” can be used in various ways and doesn’t have to mean the strictest sense of “without any time passing.” It may simply be stating that, the storm being calmed, they were able to go the rest of the way without problems. The lake is not very large – at its widest it is 61 stadia and here they are 25-30 stadia into the lake, and it doesn’t seem that they are near the widest part. They would probably have been at least most of the way to their destination. So it may simply be a way of saying, “they arrived at the shore without further ado.” But then, of course, there is nothing to say it was not a second part of the miracle. In any case, John does not emphasize that aspect of the sign.
The text in front of us has always been among the favorite episodes from the life and ministry of our Lord, and a source of great comfort for Christians. And you can imagine why that is: our Lord walking on the water in the midst of the storm to come to his struggling disciples as they are weary and battered by the winds and waves. Preachers have since the early centuries understood this story to have significance for the Christian life: the storms and winds of life, with the Lord coming up and stilling them.
So, for instance, Augustine:
“And yet so great are the tribulations, that even they who have trusted in Jesus, and who strive to persevere unto the end, greatly fear lest they fail; while Christ is treading the waves, and trampling down the world’s ambitions and heights, the Christian is sorely afraid.” [NPNF 1.7, 162]
Or even more richly, here is the Venerable Bede, a monk and historian born in the 600s:
“The labour of the disciples in rowing against the contrary wind is a type of the various labours of the holy Church, which amid the waves of an opposing world…struggles to attain to the quiet of the heavenly country… But the Lord, though himself stationed on the land, beholds the toilers on the sea; for although He may seem to defer for a season the bestowal of his help on those in tribulation, none the less, that they faint not in their trials, He strengthens them with the thought of his love, and at times even by an open [display] of his aid (treading under, as it were, and allaying the surging waves), he overcomes their adversities and sets them free." [Bede, in Trench, Miracles, 299n]
Often times when I read interpretations of this sort my first reaction is to be a bit skeptical. Our authority is John in his Gospel and what he wrote and meant, so far as we can understand it. Sometimes people can be far too eager to leap to something that sounds good and comforting without paying much heed to the context and purpose of the writer. But in this case I think Augustine and Bede, and countless preachers since, are better guides than some of the commentators.
We have seen the emphasis throughout these chapters of John’s Gospel on your perception of Jesus: who you think him to be, and seeing what he does as pointing us to who he is. He heals the lame, feeds the crowds, clears the temple. And now walks on the water. There is much in the Bible that may have come to mind about the Lord having authority over the waves of the sea, the chaos represented in the untamed ocean. But even without that background we can understand the situation well enough. People do not walk on water and to do so is to have an authority over the things of earth that none of us have. He can command the water to hold him and it obeys.
But John, as is typical, focuses our eyes even more directly. He tells us that Jesus walked right up to the boat and the disciples – weary from all their toil, having rowed through contrary winds over the whole night – saw him and were afraid. The setting is private. No one else stands around, just the disciples. And Jesus comes to them and announces to them, “I Am. Do not be afraid.”
As mentioned above, this is a claim to be the Lord. Isaiah 45:18, for instance, says, “I am Yhwh [the Lord], there is no other.” In the Greek translation that was used in the time of John and Jesus, it reads: “I am, and there is no other.”
Or in Isaiah 48:12 again in the Greek translation: “Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I am. I am the first, and I am the last.”
Jesus walks over across the face of the waves and right into the winds so that his disciples might see him and know that he is the Lord. He could have climbed in the boat with them at the first, or just walked across the water the entire way and waited for them at the other side. But he sent them ahead, then let them struggle through the whole night, so he could walk up and in the midst of the storm pronounce to them in a way they would never forget: “I Am.”
Jesus works this great sign so his disciples might know who Jesus is. And he teaches that lesson in the very midst of the storm and struggles. John would not have included the details of the time and the length if he did not mean for us to picture their weariness and toil. He wants to make himself known to his disciples, coming to them in the midst of their struggles.
You remember the story of Job, that great saint in the Bible. He was a righteous man, a disciple who loved the Lord and followed him. And he suffered under the hand of God in every way imaginable. He lost everything he loved: his children, wealth, home, the love and support of his friends and even his wife. He lost every comfort. And he cried out to God because he could not understand why the Lord would bring such a storm to pass. And finally the Lord meets with him: not to explain anything to him; not to tell him why he is allowing such things to come. But to draw Job’s head upward. And in the end Job is comforted, not because he now knows the reasons for it all; he is not told a single reason for one part of the storms the Lord had brought. He is comforted because he saw God and knew he was not forsaken. The Lord came to him and in strong words said, “Job: do not forget, I Am.”
When my wife and I lost our children this last year we had many people telling us, with the best intentions, that one day we would know why the Lord allowed such a thing to occur. One day, we were assured, we would have that answer. But one of my old professors from seminary corrected us when we repeated that hope. The Scriptures never anywhere promise any such thing. Who are we, anyway, to demand an explanation of God? And who do we think we are that we would be able to understand everything anyway? No. The Scriptures do not promise to disciples that they will know the answer for every struggle or trial or storm that comes their way. What it does say, though, is that God is good and he will not leave us. In the end we do not need to know why God allows great suffering. What we needed to know was that we could trust him. What we needed was Christ to come and say: “My child, I Am. Do not be afraid.”
Samuel Rutherford expresses this truth precisely in one of his great letters:
“Whether God comes to his children with a rod or a crown, if he comes himself with it, it is well. Welcome, welcome Jesus, what way soever thou come, if we can get a sight of thee. And, sure I am, it is better to be sick, providing Christ come to the bedside and draw by the curtains, and say, ‘Courage, I am they salvation,’ than to enjoy health, being lusty and strong, and never to be visited of God.” [Letter 11]
The longing of the heart is not to have great knowledge that finally understands why things happen in the church and in the world. The Christian heart knows it will never understand everything. The longing is simply to have Christ walk up to us and say to his disciples what he says here: “I Am.”
And that has been the testimony of countless saints through countless storms: being battered around, weary and tired of the struggle. And then a moment comes, even in the middle of that storm when you hear Christ saying the same thing again to your heart that he has said to saints time and time again: “My child, I Am. My child, I am the Lord of heaven and earth and I am here. Do not be afraid.” It is the words of a tender-hearted father to children who do not need him to explain himself. They just need him to be present, so they can bury themselves in his kind and powerful arms.
But before he comes to his disciples he watches them toil through the whole of the night until their arms would have ached – arms used to rowing, but on a night like this…. Mark tells us that Jesus told his disciples to go ahead without him. He sent them out right into that storm and watched them toil in it: for whatever reasons he might have had. And only then, after those long hours of wind and waves, did he come to them and make this great pronouncement.
George Matheson was a man who knew these things. He was a student at university in Scotland in the 1800s when he began to go blind. In a very short while the disease in his eyes had taken his sight away completely. He managed to finish his studies and then continue on with seminary work to become a pastor, only because of the constant help of his heroic and otherwise hidden and unknown sister. She is herself one of the great saints of Christendom, though I don’t even know her name.
In 1882, on a summer evening some years into his pastorate, George Matheson sat down and wrote the hymn that we will sing in just a moment, “O Love that Will Not Let Me Go.” He said about writing it, “I was suffering from extreme mental distress, and the hymn was the fruit of pain.”
We don’t know for sure what the pain was, though it may have been that his hopes of marrying a certain young woman had been dashed because of his blindness. But that is somewhat conjecture.
But in the third stanza of the hymn as you’ll find it in our hymnal you will read this:
“O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to Thee; I trace the rainbow through the rain and feel the promise is not vain that morn shall tearless be.”
It’s a beautiful stanza, but not what Matheson first wrote. He first wrote it this way:
“O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to Thee; I climb the rainbow through the rain and feel the promise is not vain that morn shall tearless be.”
A committee putting together the hymnals decided, however, that “climbing a rainbow in the rain” was not suitable for singing in a church – perhaps it would be adventurous, but not for a Sunday. One church historian from our PCA seminary in St. Louis, remarked about the change:
“You see, of course, the great difference. You understand what was lost. It’s one thing to be in a safe and secure place and ‘trace the rainbow through the rain.’ It’s another thing altogether to be out in the storm – as Matheson was. He was not sitting by the window in a cozy house. He was out in the greatest storm of his life…. But he was not overwhelmed because he saw the promises of God. When he could not see anything else, the blind poet saw, as never before, the spiritual and the invisible. He saw the rainbow… not as something interesting and beautiful; he saw it as something real… He was not safely inside tracing the rainbow through the rain. He was in the storm, stumbling on, groping for something to hold. And he felt that his only hope was to touch the rainbow with his fumbling finger – and to take hold of it, and to climb and climb and climb!” [Sermon by David Calhoun]
The hymn is a poem of Christ’s devotion to his saints, even in the midst of the storm: he is the Love that will not let me go; the Light that follow’st all my way; the Joy that seekest me through pain. It is a the presence of Christ, the great I AM, in the midst of the storm that the blind poet saw when he imagined that rainbow stretching out across the grey skies.
Brothers and sisters, if you love the Lord Jesus Christ and believe that he is the Son of God and covers even your sins by his death, then this is great comfort is it not? The Great I AM, the Lord of heaven and earth who made the mountain shake and almost rip into two when Moses asked to see his glory, walks out on the lake in the midst of the storm and says to his friends: “I AM.”
John Duncan, the eccentric Hebrew professor in Scotland around the time of Matheson, is said to have continued his whole life – well into his 70s – to kneel by his bed each night and say the prayer that he learned as a child:
“This night when I lie down to sleep, I give my soul to Christ to keep.” [A. Moody Stuart, Life of John Duncan]
Perhaps as a child Duncan prayed it with simple guesses of what that meant. But by the end of his life he had buried two beloved wives, and two precious daughters. Perhaps that is why he continued to take up those same words. Even then, after all of that the simple unadorned prayer of a child was his refuge and hope: “I give my soul to Christ to keep.”
Duncan knew Christ as the one who walks to his disciples and says to them, “I AM. Do not fear.” He believed in it and so, all his days, gave his soul and his life to Christ to keep. That was the goal of Christ’s walking on the water to his disciples, that they might to just that. And it is our glory to do so. Amen.
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