There are times for all of us when we feel bruised and battered by the relentlessness of life. We long for respite, a chance to catch our breath before the next project or crisis consumes us. But often, life’s challenges are unremitting. They just keep on coming!
Jesus’s disciples faced such a situation in Mark 6. In verses 6-13, Jesus sends the twelve out to preach, cast out demons, and heal. When they return, they gather together with Jesus to debrief, sharing all they had done and taught. Jesus in turn encourages them to come away to a quiet place to rest, for so many people had been coming and going that they hadn’t even had time to eat (verses 30-32). But when they get to that quiet place, the crowd is already there. Out of compassion for the people, Jesus begins to teach them and eventually ends up miraculously feeding all five thousand of them with only five loaves and two fishes (verses 33-40). Certainly this was an exciting and significant event, but likely not a restful one.
Jesus then sends the disciples off to cross the sea in a boat while he dismisses the crowd. This sounds promising as an opportunity to get that much-needed breather. Maybe this will be a leisurely and relaxing excursion. But this journey on which Jesus sends his disciples becomes a rather harrowing ordeal, as they struggle mightily against the fierce wind and high waves. When Jesus sees their struggle, he goes to them, walking on the sea (verses 45-48). Verse 48 says that as he walked toward the disciples, he “wanted to pass by them.” At first glance, this is a rather disconcerting verse. After he sent them into this distressing situation and walks all the way out to them on the water, he is just going to walk right by? That seems uncaring and callous—not at all what one would expect from Jesus.
A closer study of the verse and its context, however, reveals a connection with passages such as Exodus 33:19-34:8 and 1 Kings 19:11-12. When Exodus 33-34 talks about the Lord passing by Moses, Moses experiences the presence of the Lord, along with a revelation from the Lord. In 1 Kings 19, the Lord passing by indicates an experience by Elijah of the presence of the Lord, along with reassurance from the Lord. Jesus’s passing by the disciples, then, seems likely to be an expression of his deity, through which he intends to reveal who he is and to reassure the disciples of his presence.
The disciples, though, do not find Jesus’s appearance reassuring; rather they think he is a ghost and are terrified. Jesus was present with them in their struggle, but not in a way they might have expected. Surely someone who could turn five loaves and two fishes into food for five thousand would not have a problem walking on water. But this possibility doesn’t seem to have occurred to the disciples. Instead of opening their hearts to who Jesus was, they allowed their fears to blind them to his true identity and presence.
In light of the disciples’ fear, Jesus speaks to them saying, “Take courage; it is I. Do not fear.” His statement that “it is I” is again reminiscent of events in Exodus, specifically Exodus 3 when the Lord identifies himself to Moses as “I am” (Exodus 3:13-14). Jesus then climbs into the boat with them and the wind ceases. The disciples were amazed at what Jesus did, but they missed its incredible significance. In fact, Mark 6:52 notes that “their hearts were hardened” (another allusion to Exodus and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart), causing them to fail to see the significance of the loaves and the walking on the water.
The disciples were caught up in the unrelenting stream of life—their own needs for rest, the mechanics of feeding the five thousand, the struggle against the wind and the waves. They were focused on the people’s needs, the wind and the waves, and their own fears. Their hardness of heart allowed them to become preoccupied with these circumstances and events and to miss the fact that the only one who has mastery over nature—is able to feed five thousand from five loaves and fishes, to walk on water, and to still the waves and the wind—is God. Jesus was showing them who he was and his commitment to be with them, watch over them, and enable them to meet whatever challenges he brings their way.
When events seem to flow inexorably over us, we need to tear our gaze from the waves of life that threaten to crush us and refocus on our omnipotent God, who never leaves us or forsakes us. We need to open our eyes and our hearts to the truth that when Jesus leads us from one challenge to another, he is present with us, though sometimes in unexpected ways, waiting to show us who he is and how he will act on our behalf. When we long for rest from the relentlessness of life, we need to remember that ultimately, rest is not found in coming away to a quiet place, but in the one who is waiting for us in that place, if we will just open our eyes and hearts to who he truly is.