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!