Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they 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, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 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.” And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. – Mark 6:45-52
Several things are striking in this passage, not the least of which is that Mark says when Jesus was out walking on the sea, He “meant to pass by them,” but ended up getting spotted. What in the world could that mean! To complicate matters further, after this grand miracle of power and deliverance, Mark indicates that they neither understood this miracle, nor the one just prior in the feeding of the 5,000 men. One might wonder how that could be, and Mark leaves no one in suspense about it: it was because their hearts were hardened!
It would seem that Mark is beginning to tell us things about Jesus that aren’t like what has come before. The story is progressing rapidly. Mark always presents Jesus as a man of action, saying “immediately” Jesus did this and “immediately” He did that. But Mark is a writer of action: he keeps things moving forward. So what is it that Mark is beginning to emphasize?
Many people, including me, have thought of this passage of Jesus walking on the water as evidence of Jesus’ divinity. There are obvious places Jesus’ humanity is exposed: hunger, sadness, thirst, etc. But I’ve come to learn that it’s not as tidy as either/or categories of divinity and humanity suggest.
If we cheat and skip ahead to Mark 8 (in Peter’s confession and following), we find that the conclusion is not that Jesus is divine, but that he is Messiah, the Son of Man. That sheds light on the fact that Mark often employs remarkable things that Jesus does to show that Jesus is the truly human one, Israel’s Lord who will be the world’s Lord. As Jesus rules over wind and waves, over bread and fish, over sick and demonized people, we get insight that this sovereignty fulfills what has been prophesied to be true of Messiah, who is a man. All the NT writers believe Jesus is divine, but that is not something set apart from hunger, thirst, fear, sorrow, and death itself.
What we begin to see now is not that walking on the water and understanding what is going on is a divine thing, but that it is being truly human. We are supposed to have this kind of authority over the natural world and understanding of what God has done and is doing. Sin and death have corrupted both our ability and understanding, so we huddle in the boat with confusion and fear; but, “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says, “Take heart; it is I.” And that’s the gospel!
The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. – Mark 6:30-34
I’ve always found something deeply moving about the line that Jesus “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Mark counts on us having read Matthew and Matthew adds a few more details in his record: “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” We don’t know anything about Jesus that we don’t learn from the bible (which is sometimes a shocking thought to recall!). Here in Matthew and Mark the bible gives us insight into Jesus’ personality. He has compassion on people who are tormented and running about desperately.
The phrase, “sheep without a shepherd,” is not just poetic on the part of the gospel writers. It is a regular biblical way of referring to the people of Israel when they have no godly leader. For example, read over Numbers 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; Ezekiel 35:5; Zechariah 10:2.
The passage copied above is really a continuation of the story of the Twelve being sent out on their first mission. Mark interrupted that story with the story of Herod Antipas and John the Baptizer’s beheading (a sandwich story). A big insight we get from the relationship of the two stories is that of shepherds and sheep.
Herod is in his palace, probably down on the south side of the Sea of Galilee enjoying erotic dances from girls (even family members!), beheading prophets, and partying it up. Yet here are “his” people desperate for a godly leader, a righteous and effective king, running along the shore of the Sea trying to get at Jesus. The text says Jesus “began to teach them many things.” He knew what they needed most of all was good teaching on the law and the prophets and the kingdom that was at hand.
After that, they are going to feast on the loaves and the fish. Feasting has already been established as central to Jesus’ ministry (He eats with tax collectors and sinners!). Herod also feasts—where the saints are on the table. John’s head on a platter is not simply a gruesome detail; it established King Herod as the complete opposite of the greater King David. Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep. For King Herod, his flock is simply livestock to supply his table.
When you come into worship every Lord’s Day, it should shock you that there is a table of sacrifice and you’re not on it. The Great Red Dragon wants to put you on it, but can’t because Jesus is there instead. That’s what the Greater King David does. He lays down His life so that the sheep without a shepherd not only will get the shepherd they need, but will not be devoured by the great enemy. And that’s the gospel!