It is generally believed that one of the sources that Mark used for information in order to compile his Gospel was the apostle Peter. The main reason behind this suggestion is that they were colleagues in the ministry as can be seen by Peter’s comments about Mark in 1 Peter 5:13: ‘She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.’ If that is the case, it is striking that Mark chooses to omit from his account of the miracle of Jesus walking on the water the fact that Peter also walked on the water. Perhaps Peter did not wish to draw attention to his own involvement.
The response of Jesus to the miracle
I think it is possible to see three elements in the response of Jesus to the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. The first is protection, the second is prospect, and the third is prayer. You may say that only the third is mentioned, but I hope we will see the other two are there as well.
With regard to protection, we can see that the priority of Jesus after the miracle was to ensure that the disciples would not be present to interact with the crowd. He decided to dismiss the crowd himself rather than let the disciples do it. It has been suggested that a reason for his decision was to protect the disciples from the growing plans of the crowd to make Jesus into an earthly king, which we can read about in John 6:14-15. We can imagine how easily the disciples could have been influenced by this wrong idea, so Jesus ensured that they would not be there to hear it.
There is at least one important lesson that we can deduce from what Jesus did here and that is we should not place ourselves in a location where we could be influenced by listening to or reading about wrong doctrines. Even if it sounds good, which it would have after the miracle for the disciples, we should not listen to it. I suppose we can also say that the disciples were not yet ready to discern wrong ideas and therefore Jesus ensured that they would not. In fact, we can see that he thought it was better for them to row in a storm than to be on land listening to wrong ideas.
Then there is what we can call prospect, and it is described in the intention of Jesus that the disciples go ahead of him to another location on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus indicated two things to the disciples: one was that they would reach the other side and the other was that he would rejoin them at some stage. We can say that his words should have given them assurance and created anticipation. They gave assurance that they would get to the other side and they were designed to lead them to expect his presence. Of course, the atmosphere when he gave them and the situation in which he fulfilled them were very different. When he gave them, things were calm, but when he fulfilled them they had to go through consternation. Yet if they had taken to heart what he had said they may not have found the storm so difficult to handle. The lesson from this is that we should listen carefully to the words of Jesus and be ready to apply them when unexpected situations arise.
After dismissing the crowds, Jesus engaged in private prayer. He had no desire to stay among those who had wrong plans for him. We are not to imagine that Jesus would have been tempted to go along with their intentions, but we can see from his response here that there are times when it is better not to engage in pointless discussions. Instead of wasting time speaking to a crowd about irrelevant things Jesus used his time to speak to God. And in that he is our example.
We are not told what he prayed about, although we can safely assume that he would have been praying for his disciples. It is possible to work out roughly how long he prayed for. The disciples began to cross the sea as evening began, which was about 6pm. He came to the disciples at the fourth watch of the night, which was 3am. So almost nine hours had passed, during which he was praying and they were rowing. They may have guessed that he would be praying, because that was his practice. We can learn from the incident that when storms arise in our lives we should remember that if we are his people then Jesus is interceding for us.
The response of Jesus to their trouble
Mark tells us that Jesus could see where they were although they could not see him. Probably there would have been a very bright moon (John’s Gospel 6:4 tells us that the Passover was near at hand and it always occurred at a full moon). It would not be difficult for someone standing on the land to see a boat three or four miles away (John 6:19). Others may have also seen the boat, but only Jesus would have known who was in the boat and why they were there (they were there because he had sent them into the situation). His eyes were on them as they struggled against the stormy wind and he knew how difficult it was for them to make progress. Perhaps they needed to learn after their involvement in the miracle of feeding the 5000 that without him they could not do anything, even a task that they had some familiarity with, such as rowing a boat.
The disciples had seen Jesus deal with a storm on the sea previously, but the difference was that he was with them in the boat on that previous occasion (Mark 4:35-41). Now, from the perspective of the disciples he was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they were questioning his wisdom at sending them on this journey. Very likely, they were assuming that he could not get them out of the difficulty they were now in.
Jesus did not have to do what he did, of course. He could have commanded the waves to be still from where he was on the land. If he had done so, then the disciples might have assumed that the calm had nothing to do with his care for them. Instead, when they came to recounting their experience they would say that they kept rowing until the storm was over and listeners would not be informed of the power of Jesus in helping them.
The trouble into which Jesus sent them became an opportunity for them to discover more of his abilities. They needed to know that what was a threat to them (the storm and the waves) was not a threat to him. Instead the waves that were dangerous to them became the path by which he would come to them. And we are being told by Mark that is how we are to view troubles that come our way because we have been obedient to the commandments of Jesus.
The response of Jesus to their mistake
How was Jesus able to walk on the water? We can give two answers. One is that he is divine and the other is that he was enabled to do so by the Holy Spirit who had been given to Jesus in order for him to fulfil his Messianic role.
It is intriguing that Jesus did not walk straight to the boat. Instead he remained a distance from them and gave the impression he would walk past them. The unusual way that he revealed himself led them to assume that it was a ghost – the waves would have prevented them from recognising him. Now they imagined that the unseen kingdom was against them as well and their doom was inevitable. We know why he was a short distance from the boat – Jesus was aware that Peter would ask to come to him on the water. Mark does not mention that encounter in the sea.
Jesus spoke to them across the waves and encouraged them by saying, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ It was then that Peter asked if he could also walk on the water. Is Mark telling his readers that Jesus’ words to the group are as valid as to what he said personally to Peter? After all, Peter was part of the group who received this encouragement. While it is important than we know what happened to Peter, we have also to remember that Jesus wanted all of them to have the comfort of his presence. So even if we don’t have the courage of Peter we can have the consolation of the Saviour.
Jesus then joined them in the boat and everything became calm. Their response was amazement; indeed Matthew tells us that they gained further insight into the fact that Jesus was the Son of God (Matt. 14:33). Mark wants us to know something else, which he connects to their response to the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. It looks as if that miracle had not contributed any insight into their understanding of who Jesus was. As they had participated in it and reacted to it their hearts had become hardened, which is a reminder that spiritual hardening can happen in the most surprising of places. Here is a question to ponder: if they had responded aright to the miracle of the 5000 and recognised the deity of Jesus, would they have had to go through the storm which convinced them again that he was the Son of God? Is there a clue here as to why sometimes difficulties come our way? We did not respond correctly in a comfortable situation about a certain truth and we then discover the same truth through a more difficult trial.
The reaction that Jesus received (vv. 53-56)
As far as I can work out, there were four reactions to Jesus after he reached his destination. First, Mark informs us of the longterm response of the people in the area to Jesus. They knew that he could heal their sick relatives and friends, so they were brought to him and he healed them. But that seems to be all that they did.
Second, John gives us more information about what happened after Jesus and his disciples reached the destination (John 6:22-59). The multitude whom he had fed and who wanted to make him king found him and after listening to his teaching turned against him. Third, the disciples through Peter affirmed that they wanted to receive the benefits of his words (John 6:68-69), so they were receiving benefit.
Fourth, one of the strange things about the feeding of the 5000 and the calming of the stormy sea is that Judas was involved in both. He is a reminder as to how close we can get, even to experiencing grace in some ways, and yet not to love the Saviour who provides it.
Which one of the four responses describes us? Does his word only make us show kindness, which is important in itself, but he wants more in our response? Are we like the crowd whose interest evaporated despite seeing his power? Are we like Judas, remaining hostile through it all? Or are we like Peter, who not only walked on the water, but also had an increasing desire to cling to Jesus?