45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.
47 When evening came, the boat was out on the lake, and he was alone on the land. 48When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. 49But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 50for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ 51Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
The story of the feeding of the 5000 is a story of Jesus’ power; in John’s gospel it is one of the “signs” given – (This miracle is included in all 4 gospels: Matthew 14, Luke 9, John 6). But the disciples do not understand – this also is characteristic of Mark’s gospel; the disciples consistently fail in their understanding! Their failure to comprehend the nature of the miracle in the feeding story moves us into the following story.
Jesus “immediately” had them get into the boats and leave that place to go across to Bethsaida. But Jesus stayed behind; he dismissed the crowd, and went up on the mountain to pray. In the late evening, a storm arose – we already talked about Jesus calming a storm when he was in the boat in chapter 4 – but, this time, Jesus was not in the boat with them; he was on shore. He saw them struggling with the oars, against an adverse wind, and early in the morning – towards the break of day – he came towards them, walking on the water. Mark says “He intended to pass them by.” There has been much debate about why Jesus would want to “pass them by”. It doesn’t make sense if we are thinking only of him rescuing them from danger. But the disciples have failed to understand the full nature of Jesus, to see the divinity – or power of the Holy Spirit – with which he fed the multitude. Thinking of this story in connection with the previous one, and their need to come to a recognition of Jesus as Messiah (or Christ), this makes perfectly good sense.
When God revealed his merciful presence to Moses in Exodus 33:19 & 22, it is said that he “passed by”. When Elijah on Mount Horeb met with God, the scripture says “and behold the Lord passed by.” The verb “pass by” is used for a revelation of God, a Theophany. Jesus intended to show the disciples that God was with them, that he was God’s presence among them, a divine, saving presence.
But the disciples, quite frankly, are rather dense (This is, after all, something completely outside their experience). Their hearts are hard, just as the hearts of the Pharisees were hard – and they are frightened, thinking that they are seeing a ghost.
But Jesus said, “Take heart, it is I, do not fear.” And Jesus got into the boat, and the winds and the storm subsided. Jesus had power, not only over the demons, whom he cast out, and illnesses, which he healed; but he had power also over the natural world – the wind and the sea. These “signs” were not meant to be available for all time; they were manifestations meant to show who Jesus was. But the disciples still did not get it. The remarkable thing about Jesus is that he didn’t give up on them! He kept leading, and teaching, and trying to show them who he was.
We can look at the disciples and think – “Why were they so dense?” But we often miss the point ourselves. We become unbelieving disciples, asking where we are supposed to get the bread to feed the people, or how in the world we are going to reach the other side of the storm, when Jesus is there all along. Or we become Pharisees, insisting that everyone follow our rules, and not seeing the love of Christ for all people. Let us keep our hearts open, and follow the Christ – the one who can be trusted to provide what is needed, and will be with us in the midst of the storm.