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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Jesus Rescues His Disciples on the Sea (6:16-21)
Jesus Rescues His Disciples on the Sea (6:16-21)

The account of the feeding of the five thousand shows Jesus as a new Moses, but Jesus is more than a new prophet like Moses, as is confirmed in what follows. The imagery, language and action in the story of Jesus' walking on water all echo descriptions of God in the Old Testament. In Jesus' rescue of his disciples we see yet another example of the divine glory, God's grace.

In these six verses two miracles are recorded that each reveal Jesus as the master over the natural realm. The first is his walking on the water to reach the disciples. Many have suggested that John does not intend for us to believe Jesus walked upon water but that John is saying Jesus was walking along the shore next to the sea. The Greek allows such an interpretation (epi tes thalasses has this meaning in 21:1), and it is quite possible that they had begun their trip along the coastline, expecting to pick up Jesus. But John says that they were heading across the lake and had rowed several miles, which does not speak of a trip along the coast. Furthermore, if Jesus had merely walked along the coast, then the disciples' fear (v. 19) and the puzzlement of the crowds (vv. 22-25) would not be accounted for.

The second miracle is the way they arrived at Capernaum after taking Jesus into the boat (v. 21). Again, it is possible that this verse does not describe anything miraculous. Some suggest that once the sea had calmed down, the normal travel seemed as though it took no time at all, especially with Jesus present in the boat after his spectacular approach. Thus the immediate arrival would say something about the disciples' perception rather than about physical motion. Such an interpretation is possible, but the text focuses attention on what happened to the boat: immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading. John seems to suggest that Jesus' walk on the water was not the only unnatural mode of transportation that night.

Such stories raise questions regarding the miraculous. Many believe that such things do not happen, so therefore John is making up a story to convey something of Jesus' authority and power. The story certainly does show Jesus' authority and power, but did he really have such authority and power? Was he really able to walk on water? As science is coming to accept views of the universe that are not as mechanistic as views in the past were, it is perhaps easier today to believe that such unusual events are possible.

If we accept that this passage recounts events in history, there are three ways we might view them. An older view of miracle spoke of the suspension of a natural law. Alternatively, it could be that Jesus is drawing upon forces in nature to which most of us do not have access but which are part of the created order. Widespread evidence, both ancient and modern, of "faith healing" that can be explained neither by medicine nor psychology suggests such forces exist. A third possibility is that something unique is happening. That is, there is here neither the suspension of a natural law nor the drawing upon a natural law as yet unobserved by natural science, but rather there is "a new force called into exercise" (Westcott 1908:1:217). Because we do not really know the nature and scope of these unstudied forces and laws of nature, it would seem we cannot say for certain whether this is a "new force" or the operation of natural laws unknown to most people.

In any case, we have here nature miracles that reveal Jesus' identity to us: he is God present in our midst, saving his people. This identity is signaled in part by Jesus' statement, It is I [ego eimi]; don't be afraid (v. 20). The expression ego eimi plays a major role in this Gospel. Rudolf Bultmann (1971:225-26) has identified four uses of this formula: (1) a presentation formula, in which one tells who one is ("I am John"); (2) a qualifying formula, in which one tells what one is ("I am a teacher"); (3) an identification formula, in which one identifies oneself in terms of another person or thing ("I am a servant of Christ"); and (4) a recognition formula, in which one identifies oneself as the one expected, spoken to, seen, and so on ("It is I"). John's uses fall in the latter two categories. These uses in themselves can be either secular or sacred, but in John the usage is most characteristically an expression of Jesus' close relationship with God. For a fifth use, the divine name of God, I AM, overshadows the other uses.

The exact significance of this formula is, however, debated. Rudolf Schnackenburg and George Beasley-Murray believe that the ego eimi formula signifies that Jesus is "God's eschatological revealer in whom God utters himself" (Schnackenburg 1982:88; cf. Beasley-Murray 1987:90) but that it does not signify Jesus' identification with God. This is true in the sense that Jesus is not the Father; the first verse of the Gospel reveals that there is both identity and distinction between the Father and the Son, and the very terms father and son suggest the same. We cannot be certain the use of ego eimi in 6:20 is a divine formula, but nevertheless in John's Gospel this ambiguous formula is made "a leitmotiv of the Gospel as that form of the divine name which the Father has given to Jesus and by which he identifies himself. . . . The majesty of Jesus is that he can bear the divine name" (Brown 1966:252, 254-55, 533-38). This formula seems to be a part of the larger theme of the charge of blasphemy against Jesus (8:58-59; cf. 5:18; 10:33), suggesting the term is understood as Jesus' claim to be more than a human agent of God. So although Jesus' assurance, It is I (ego eimi), could be simply a call for the disciples to recognize that it is Jesus who is standing there in front of them, the Johannine reader, knowing Jesus uses it as the divine name (for example, 8:58), hears an echo of that more weighty use in all this Gospel's references to Jesus.

The story of Jesus' walking on water alludes to several Old Testament passages, which builds the case for Jesus' divine identity. It is said of God, "he alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea" (Job 9:8). Psalm 107 speaks of those who "went out on the sea in ships" (Ps 107:23) and were caught in a great storm. They should "give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love" (Ps 107:31) because "he stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven" (Ps 107:29-30). The poetic imagery of these passages is reenacted on a historical level in the actual event John is describing. The image of walking on the sea mentioned in Job now actually occurs; and though John does not mention the calming of the sea, the deliverance to "their desired haven" is attributed to God in the psalm and, by implication, to Jesus in the Gospel. When Jesus brings his people safely through the sea, he repeats the pattern of God's leading his people through the Red Sea by the hand of Moses and Aaron (Ex 13:17—15:21; Ps 77:16-20). Thus, Jesus' superiority to Moses, seen clearly in the feeding of the five thousand, is implied in this story as well.

So John continues to witness to Jesus' identity and his gracious activity. The feeding shows that Jesus is able to provide even when our resources are very small. The rescue on the sea shows that he can protect and guide in the midst of great adversity, when we have no control over the forces of chaos. In both cases the physical realm reveals his identity and his loving care. In this way, these stories also begin to prepare us for the startling teaching that comes next in the discourse on the bread of life, when he tells his would be followers they are to eat his flesh and drink his blood.

The miracles in this chapter have presented a challenge to a secular view of the physical realm. In the teaching that follows, secular views and even many religious views of the relationship between the material and the spiritual are challenged. We do not expect a small amount of food to feed many people nor the surface of the water to support a human being, and neither do we expect body and blood to bring us eternal life. But, just as Jesus is far superior to Moses, so too the salvation he brings is far more than the provision of physical food and the protection from physical danger. We will now learn of the eternal life he offers and the means of its provision.

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