Here is, I. Christ’s retirement from the multitude.
1. Observe what induced him to retire; because he perceived that those who acknowledged him to be that prophet that should come into the world would come, and take him by force, to make him a king, John 6:15. Now here we have an instance,
(1.) Of the irregular zeal of some of Christ’s followers; nothing would serve but they would make him a king. Now, [1.] This was an act of zeal for the honour of Christ, and against the contempt which the ruling part of the Jewish church put upon him. They were concerned to see so great a benefactor to the world so little esteemed in it; and therefore, since royal titles are counted the most illustrious, they would make him a king, knowing that the Messiah was to be a king; and if a prophet, like Moses, then a sovereign prince and lawgiver, like him; and, if they cannot set him up upon the holy hill of Zion, a mountain in Galilee shall serve for the present. Those whom Christ has feasted with the royal dainties of heaven should, in return for his favour, make him their king, and set him upon the throne in their souls: let him that has fed us rule us. But, [2.] It was an irregular zeal; for First, It was grounded upon a mistake concerning the nature of Christ’s kingdom, as if it were to be of this world, and he must appear with outward pomp, a crown on his head, and an army at his foot; such a king as this they would make him, which was as great a disparagement to his glory as it would be to lacquer gold or paint a ruby. Right notions of Christ’s kingdom would keep us to right methods for advancing it. Secondly, It was excited by the love of the flesh; they would make him their king who could feed them so plentifully without their toil, and save them from the curse of eating their bread in the sweat of their face. Thirdly, It was intended to carry on a secular design; they hoped this might be a fair opportunity of shaking off the Roman yoke, of which they were weary. If they had one to head them who could victual an army cheaper than another could provide for a family, they were sure of the sinews of the war, and could not fail of success, and the recovery of their ancient liberties. Thus is religion often prostituted to a secular interest, and Christ is served only to serve a turn, Rom. 16:18. Vix quaeritur Jesus propter Jesum, sed propter aliud—Jesus is usually sought after for something else, not for his own sake.—Augustine. Nay, Fourthly, It was a tumultuous, seditious attempt, and a disturbance of the public peace; it would make the country a seat of war, and expose it to the resentments of the Roman power. Fifthly, It was contrary to the mind of our Lord Jesus himself; for they would take him by force, whether he would or no. Note, Those who force honours upon Christ which he has not required at their hands displease him, and do him the greatest dishonour. Those that say I am of Christ, in opposition to those that are of Apollos and Cephas (so making Christ the head of a party), take him by force, to make him a king, contrary to his own mind.
(2.) Here is an instance of the humility and self-denial of the Lord Jesus, that, when they would have made him a king, he departed; so far was he from countenancing the design that he effectually quashed it. Herein he has left a testimony, [1.] Against ambition and affectation of worldly honour, to which he was perfectly mortified, and has taught us to be so. Had they come to take him by force and make him a prisoner, he could not have been more industrious to abscond than he was when they would make him a king. Let us not then covet to be the idols of the crowd, nor be desirous of vainglory. [2.] Against faction and sedition, treason and rebellion, and whatever tends to disturb the peace of kings and provinces. By this it appears that he was no enemy to Caesar, nor would have his followers be so, but the quiet in the land; that he would have his ministers decline every thing that looks like sedition, or looks towards it, and improve their interest only for their work’s sake.
2. Observe whither he retired: He departed again into a mountain, eis to oros—into the mountain, the mountain where he had preached (John 6:3), whence he came down into the plain, to feed the people, and then returned to it alone, to be private. Christ, though so useful in the places of concourse, yet chose sometimes to be alone, to teach us to sequester ourselves from the world now and then, for the more free converse with God and our own souls; and never less alone, says the serious Christian, than when alone. Public services must not jostle out private devotions.
II. Here is the disciples’ distress at sea. They that go down to the sea in ships, these see the works of the Lord, for he raiseth the stormy wind, Ps. 107:23, 24. Apply this to these disciples.
1. Here is their going down to the sea in a ship (John 6:16, 17): When even was come, and they had done their day’s work, it was time to look homeward, and therefore they went aboard, and set sail for Capernaum. This they did by particular direction from their Master, with design (as it should seem) to get them out of the way of the temptation of countenancing those that would have made him a king.
2. Here is the stormy wind arising and fulfilling the word of God. They were Christ’s disciples, and were now in the way of their duty, and Christ was now in the mount praying for them; and yet they were in this distress. The perils and afflictions of this present time may very well consist with our interest in Christ and his intercession. They had lately been feasted at Christ’s table; but after the sun-shine of comfort expect a storm. (1.) It was now dark; this made the storm the more dangerous and uncomfortable. Sometimes the people of God are in trouble, and cannot see their way out; in the dark concerning the cause of their trouble, concerning the design and tendency of it, and what the issue will be. (2.) Jesus was not come to them. When they were in that storm (Matt. 8:23) Jesus was with them; but now their beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone. The absence of Christ is the great aggravation of the troubles of Christians. (3.) The sea arose by reason of a great wind. It was calm and fair when they put to sea (they were not so presumptuous as to launch out in a storm), but it arose when they were at sea. In times of tranquillity we must prepare for trouble, for it may arise when we little think of it. Let it comfort good people, when they happen to be in storms at sea, that the disciples of Christ were so; and let the promises of a gracious God balance the threats of an angry sea. Though in a storm, and in the dark, they are no worse off than Christ’s disciples were. Clouds and darkness sometimes surround the children of the light, and of the day.
3. Here is Christ’s seasonable approach to them when they were in this peril, John 6:19. They had rowed (being forced by the contrary winds to betake themselves to their oars) about twenty-five or thirty furlongs. The Holy Spirit that indicted this could have ascertained the number of furlongs precisely, but this, being only circumstantial, is left to be expressed according to the conjecture of the penman. And, when they were got off a good way at sea, they see Jesus walking on the sea. See here, (1.) The power Christ has over the laws and customs of nature, to control and dispense with them at his pleasure. It is natural for heavy bodies to sink in water, but Christ walked upon the water as upon dry land, which was more than Moses’s dividing the water and walking through the water. (2.) The concern Christ has for his disciples in distress: He drew nigh to the ship; for therefore he walked upon the water, as he rides upon the heavens, for the help of his people, Deut. 33:26. He will not leave them comfortless when they seem to be tossed with tempests and not comforted. When they are banished (as John) into remote places, or shut up (as Paul and Silas) in close places, he will find access to them, and will be nigh them. (3.) The relief Christ gives to his disciples in their fears. They were afraid, more afraid of an apparition (for so they supposed him to be) than of the winds and waves. It is more terrible to wrestle with the rulers of the darkness of this world than with a tempestuous sea. When they thought a demon haunted them, and perhaps was instrumental to raise the storm, they were more terrified than they had been while they saw nothing in it but what was natural. Note, [1.] Our real distresses are often much increased by our imaginary ones, the creatures of our own fancy. [2.] Even the approaches of comfort and deliverance are often so misconstrued as to become the occasions of fear and perplexity. We are often not only worse frightened than hurt, but then most frightened when we are ready to be helped. But, when they were in this fright, how affectionately did Christ silence their fears with that compassionate word (John 6:20), It is I, be not afraid! Nothing is more powerful to convince sinners than that word, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest; nothing more powerful to comfort saints than this, “I am Jesus whom thou lovest; it is I that love thee, and seek thy good; be not afraid of me, nor of the storm.” When trouble is nigh Christ is nigh.
4. Here is their speedy arrival at the port they were bound for, John 6:17. (1.) They welcomed Christ into the ship; they willingly received him. Note, Christ’s absenting himself for a time is but so much the more to endear himself, at his return, to his disciples, who value his presence above any thing; see Song 3:4. (2.) Christ brought them safely to the shore: Immediately the ship was at the land whither they went. Note, [1.] The ship of the church, in which the disciples of Christ have embarked themselves and their all, may be much shattered and distressed, yet it shall come safe to the harbour at last; tossed at sea, but not lost; cast down, but not destroyed; the bush burning, but not consumed. [2.] The power and presence of the church’s King shall expedite and facilitate her deliverance, and conquer the difficulties which have baffled the skill and industry of all her other friends. The disciples had rowed hard, but could not make their point till they had got Christ in the ship, and then the work was done suddenly. If we have received Christ Jesus the Lord, have received him willingly, though the night be dark and the wind high, yet we may comfort ourselves with this, that we shall be at shore shortly, and are nearer to it than we think we are. Many a doubting soul is fetched to heaven by a pleasing surprise, or ever it is aware.