MARK 6:45-52. THE CONTEXT
This story is also found in Matthew 14:22-33 and John 6:15-21. In Matthew’s account, Peter steps out of the boat in an attempt to walk on the water to Jesus. In John’s account, Jesus withdrew from the crowd because he realized that they wanted to impose a kingship on him that was contrary to his Godly mission.
This story follows on the heels of a series of events:
- Jesus healed the woman with a hemorrhage (5:24-34) and the synagogue ruler’s daughter (5:21-23, 35-43).
- Jesus taught on the Sabbath in his hometown synagogue. Some of the people were impressed by his wisdom and his mighty works, but others were offended Jesus was unable to do any mighty works there because of their unbelief (6:1-6).
- Jesus sent the twelve two by two, giving them authority over unclean spirits and telling them to trust the hospitality of strangers for their sustenance. They went out and preached repentance, cast out demons, and healed the sick (6:7-13).
- Hearing these stories, Herod concluded that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead. Herod earlier had John beheaded at the request of his wife’s daughter, and Mark gives a detailed account of that beheading (6:14-29).
- Jesus fed the five thousand, a stupendous miracle (6:30-44).
After Jesus’ disciples involvement in that miracle, it would seem that they would not be surprised by anything––but that turns out not to be the case. While the account of the feeding doesn’t mention any surprise on the part of the disciples, Jesus walking on water surprised and terrified them.
MARK 6:45-46. HE WENT UP THE MOUNTAIN TO PRAY
45Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat, and to go ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he himself sent the multitude away. 46After he had taken leave of them, he went up the mountain to pray.
“Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he himself sent the multitude away” (v. 45). Jesus sends the disciples away, commanding them to get into the boat without delay. The language suggests urgency and portrays Jesus as taking the initiative.
We must ask why Jesus sends his disciples away with such haste. As noted above, John 6:15 says that Jesus wanted to escape a crowd that was bent on imposing kingship on him. Mark tells us that, after dismissing his disciples, Jesus went up the mountain to pray (v. 46)––so perhaps he wanted solitude for his prayers.
Jesus gives the command and the disciples obey it, apparently without question, in spite of the circumstances (it is late and there is a contrary wind) and in spite of their lack of understanding (v. 52). Do we do as well?
The disciples set out in their boat for Bethsaida (v. 45), but eventually land at Gennesaret (v. 53). Both are located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee––Bethsaida being a bit east of Gennesaret. Both are near Capernaum, where Jesus made his home as an adult (Matthew 4:13).
Bethsaida was the home of at least three of Jesus’ disciples––Andrew and Peter (John 1:44) and Philip (John 12:21). Jesus did many of his mighty works there––and reproached the inhabitants of Bethsaida and Capernaum for their lack of response (Matthew 11:20-24). “After he had taken leave of them” (v. 46a) could refer to the disciples or to the crowd. It is most generally understood to refer to the crowd.
“he went up the mountain to pray” (v. 46b). The reference to “the mountain” rather than “a mountain” suggests a special or holy place. In 3:13 he went up “the mountain” where he called and appointed the twelve.
Ascending the mountain reminds the reader of Moses going up the mountain to meet God (Exodus 24: 15-18). Mark’s intent may be to connect the story of Jesus to that of Moses.
Mark shows us Jesus praying alone two other times: at 1:35 after he healed many and cast out many demons and prohibited the demons to speak, “because they knew him.” Again at 14:32 in the Garden of Gethsemane, a time of crisis.
Some commentators see a pattern here that supports the interpretation that Jesus sent the disciples away hurriedly because of a crisis. But other scholars simply say that Jesus sent both the disciples and the crowd away because he was intent on praying.
The communion between God the Father and Jesus the Son is important here. Mark is portraying Jesus as the Son of God. He is showing the closest relationship of Jesus with God, closer than that of Moses with God.
MARK 6:47-48. HE CAME TO THEM, WALKING ON THE SEA
47When evening had come, the boat was in the midst of the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48Seeing them distressed in rowing, for the wind was contrary to them, about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea, and he would have passed by them,
“When evening (Gk. opsios) had come, the boat was in the midst of the sea, and he was alone on the land” (v. 47a). In the previous story (the feeding of the 5000), it was already late before Jesus began to feed the crowd (Mark 6:35). Evening (opsios) means the close of the day. The Jews thought of two evenings, one from 3:00 p.m. to sunset, and the other beyond sunset. Given the previous events of the day, the disciples get a late start on their journey. The next verse will find the disciples rowing during the fourth watch (3:00-6:00 a.m.).
Mark highlights the separation between Jesus and the disciples, “on the sea…on the land.”
“the boat was in the midst of the sea” (v. 47b). To be “in the midst of the sea” is to be subject to wind and wave.
- The Navy Hymn speaks of “the restless wave.”
- Psalm 65:7 says, “Who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of the nations.”
The sea is also the deep, the profound unknown that threatens order and life itself.
- “The horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” says Exodus 15:1.
- To be on the sea is to be in peril, to face uncertainty and to lack control over one’s own fate, or even one’s own destination.
“Seeing them distressed in rowing, for the wind was contrary to them, about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea, and he would have passed by them” (v. 48). But Jesus comes from the land onto the sea in order to save (just as he left the glories of heaven to come into the human condition to save us all). Jesus did not save the disciples from the land, but came to them to do so. He does not save us from outside our situation, but from within our situation.
Whenever, in Mark, the disciples are separated from Jesus, they suffer distress (4:35-38; 6:45; 9:14-18). There is a message here for Mark’s readers, and for the church today, about the need to be close to Jesus. The message is strengthened by what follows: Jesus coming to them in their time of struggle.
“Seeing them distressed (Greek: basanizo) in rowing, for the wind was contrary to them” (v. 48a). Perhaps, in a full moon, Jesus might be able to see them from the hilltop. Perhaps his seeing them is part of the miracle. In either case, he sees, and he responds by coming to them.
Nevertheless it was early in the morning when he did so, literally, “in the fourth watch.” That would be between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. “The fourth watch” indicates use of the Roman rather that Jewish system of marking watches. They were on the sea at evening; Jesus comes to them only after a whole night has passed, during which they struggled against an adverse wind.
The language indicates that the disciples made progress slowly and painfully, because the wind was against them. Modern ships with powerful engines can advance against headwinds, although even they sometimes succumb to a stormy ocean. The disciples almost certainly had only oars and muscle power to propel them, so they would have seen little progress in their journey––but much regress in their energy.
As a result, the disciples were distressed (basanizo) in their rowing. Basanizo is sometimes used for being interrogated by torture. It means tormented or afflicted. While several of Jesus’ disciples were experienced fishermen who had faced dangers of this sort as part of their work, they were nevertheless at the far reaches of their abilities––physically and mentally near collapse. Jesus had made them get in the boat and cross to the other side (v. 45), and they had been working at it nearly all night.
At the time that Mark wrote this Gospel, the church was facing terrible headwinds. Jews were treating Christians as heretics, and Romans were treating them as subversive. As early Christians read this story of disciples fighting the wind in the middle of the night, it would have brought to mind their own struggles as they plied their faith journeys.
“walking on the sea” (v. 48b). Just as the boat had been on the sea and Jesus on the land, now both Jesus and the boat are on the sea––with his disciples. Our Lord enters into his disciples’ situation. This understanding of Christ’s presence in times of trial has always been of great comfort to the Church.
Mark says Jesus is walking on the sea. Some scholars have suggested that he might have been walking in shallow water. However, the text doesn’t support such interpretations. The boat is in the middle of the lake, far from the shore. The idea that Jesus might have been wading in the surf simply doesn’t square with the text.
“he would have passed by them” (v. 48c). Jesus came close enough for his disciples to see him, but didn’t impose himself on them. He waited for their invitation before boarding their boat. In like manner, Jesus makes himself available to us in many ways, but allows us the freedom to choose how we will live our lives. He will come to us and save us, but only if we are willing for him to do so.
MARK 6:49-50. TAKE COURAGE! IT IS I! DON’T BE AFRAID!
49but they, when they saw him walking on the sea, supposed that it was a ghost, and cried out; 50for they all saw him, and were troubled. But he immediately spoke with them, and said to them, “Cheer up! (Greek: tharseo) It is I! Don’t be afraid.”
“but they, when they saw him walking on the sea, supposed that it was a ghost (Gk. phantasma), and cried out” (v. 49). The disciples see Jesus and suppose that he is a phantasma––a specter or illusion. They don’t know what to think, but various possibilities must have come to mind:
- The phantasma could be the spirit of a dead person––a ghost.
- It could be some sort of evil spirit.
- It could be something risen from the sea.
They cried out in alarm.
“for they all saw him, and were troubled” (Gk. tarasso) (v. 50a). They are not troubled by the rough conditions of the sea, but are instead stricken with terror at the apparition they are seeing. They would naturally assume that it poses a danger to them––possibly even a mortal danger.
“Cheer up! (tharseo) It is I! (ego eimi) Don’t be afraid” (v. 50b). While the Greek word tharreo can mean “be of good cheer,” it also has to do with boldness and courage. I prefer “Take heart!” (as in the NRSV) or “Take courage.”
“It is I!” (ego eimi) Ego eimi, “I am,” brings to mind God’s self‑identification to Moses. God said, “I am who I am”—and “You shall tell the children of Israel this: ‘I AM has sent me to you'” (Exodus 3:14). With his ego eimi statements, Jesus uses God’s name for himself.
“Don’t be afraid” (v. 50d). The words “Don’t fear” or “Do not be afraid” appear in the first and last books of the Bible (Genesis 20:20; Revelation 2:10)––and many times in between. God says those words. Jesus says those words. God’s messengers, the angels, say those words. They repeat them over and over again.
Why would that be? They repeat them because we live in a scary world––and because we are so easily frightened, especially in the middle of the night––and because our fears have the potential to overwhelm our faith, driving us toward despair. “Fear infects and corrupts what it touches” (Lillian Hellman). When overwhelmed by fear, we can be neither free nor faithful.
Jesus gives them reason not to fear, saying, “It is I!” He is not some unknown spirit come to threaten them. He is their Lord––and he loves them. Knowing his identity shines light to dispel the disciples’ dark thoughts.
MARK 6:51-52. AND THEY WERE VERY AMAZED
51He got into the boat with them; and the wind ceased, and they were very amazed among themselves, and marveled; 52for they hadn’t understood about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
“He got into the boat with them” (v. 51a). The church would find it reassuring to know that Jesus entered the boat with the disciples. Jesus isn’t a voice on high telling them not to be afraid, but is instead “in the same boat” with them.
That’s the meaning of the incarnation. Christ “didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). He has been in the boat with us. He knows how it feels to be human. He understands us––and loves us.
“and the wind ceased” (v. 51b). The dying down of the wind confirms Jesus’ power over the powers of chaos. The calm he brought into the lives of those disciples in that moment is the same calm that he will bring to us wherever we invite him into our boat.
“and they were very amazed” (v. 51c). Are the disciples amazed because the wind stopped? Or because Jesus got into the boat? Or because he had left them so long without help? Or because they saw the glory of God in his appearance to them? An epiphany is, by its nature, amazing.
“for they hadn’t understood about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (v. 52). The implication is that, had they understood the miracle of the great feeding (6:30-44), they would not now be amazed. In the breaking of the bread Jesus had already revealed himself.
The language about hearts being hardened has normally been reserved for the enemies of Israel, strangers to God. At this point in their journey, the disciples on not yet fully on board. In acknowledging that, Jesus lays groundwork for their failure at the time of the crucifixion––and for their redemption following the resurrection.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, 2019 Richard Niell Donovan