And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and Jesus was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that the disciples were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. – Mark 6:47-52
In his book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, John Ortberg offers a good question and some insightful observations in regard to Jesus’ water-walking appearance to the disciples:
Why did Jesus want to “pass them by”? Did he decide to race them? Did he want to impress them with a really neat trick? …
God put Moses in the cleft in a rock so Moses could see “‘while my glory passes by.’…The Lord passed before him.”
God told Elijah to stand on the mountain “for the Lord is about to pass by.” …
…when Jesus came to the disciples on the water intending “to pass them by,” he was not just doing a neat magic trick. He was revealing his divine presence and power. Only God can do such a thing: “He alone…treads on the waves of the sea.”
It would be amusing, I suppose, to think of Jesus doing a neat trick: “Hey look, guys! I’m walking on water!” It might be a curious exercise to wonder whether Jesus was just trying to beat the disciples to the other side of the lake. But in the end (and beyond the reality of Jesus’ theophany on this occasion) we must deal with their lack of understanding and their hard hearts.
Why would they wonder about Jesus’ miraculous powers and his divine nature? They had seen him take two fish and five loaves and feed a multitude. They had seen him heal a woman with an issue of blood. A little girl had returned to life in their presence. In Jesus “God was visiting them in the water-walking flesh.” [Ortberg]
I’m not certain I have ever experienced the kinds of miracles and manifestations of glory that the disciples did during Jesus’ earthly lifetime. But I am certain that my heart can be just as hard as theirs. It may not be that they or I are hardhearted in rebellious disobedience. It’s not that we’re out there directly disobeying God’s commands. In fact most Christians struggle with sins of omission rather than sins of commission. But we show how hard our hearts are whenever we doubt God’s goodness, deny God’s power, or simply forget the implications of God’s presence in Jesus Christ.
There may be times when we are legitimately scared by the events swirling around us – storms or theophanies. But Jesus’ presence brings perfect peace…even as it engenders a proper fear in our hearts. Indeed, our calling is to fear, love, and trust in God above all things.